Progressives Should Stop Criticizing Obama

by Randy Shaw on September 10, 2012

According to longtime progressive activist Tom Hayden, “when African American voters favor Obama 94%-6% and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.” Hayden’s claim that Obama’s achievements “are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left,” reflects a troubling reality: unlike their forebears from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, many white progressives ignore the priorities of working class communities of color yet still claim to speak for a progressive “movement.” While Obama draws overwhelming support among African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, single women and organized labor, some progressives continue to attack him. But with Romney-Ryan posing a dire threat to progressive interests, this criticism should stop until after Election Day.

From his Port Huron Statement in 1962 through today, Tom Hayden remains a visionary political strategist of the left. He has been there and done that. His claims about the disconnect between the white liberal-left and communities of color were reaffirmed as we watched African-Americans wildly cheering and even crying during Barack Obama’s speech while many white progressives were talking online about Obama’s ongoing failures.

As someone who began criticizing activists in 2009 for giving Obama a “pass,” I do not believe Hayden is urging progressives to remain forever silent as the President betrays the progressive movement. I think his deeper point is that too many white progressives see their views and policy opinions as defining and constituting “the progressive movement,” irrespective of the attitudes of working class communities of color they claim to represent. As a result, such progressives continue to criticize the President despite deep concern in these communities about the prospect of Republicans winning the White House.

The Progressive “Movement”

A true progressive movement considers how low-income African American and Latino communities feel about policies and politicians. There is no progressive movement without these constituencies, and when the Green Party tried to build a primarily white national base it quickly failed. Despite this failure, many whites on the left continue to act as if they have the power to define “progressive,” charging communities of color that do not share their positions with betraying the cause.

In the 1930’s through the 1960’s, progressives routinely backed Democratic Presidents and nominees who had strong labor and minority support. Progressives enthusiastically backed FDR in each of his races despite questioning many of his actions, and similarly backed a very moderate John Kennedy in his race against Richard Nixon.

Progressives never trusted Lyndon Johnson but went all out for him during his 1964 race against Barry Goldwater. And while some on the left backed third party progressive Henry Wallace over Democrat Harry Truman in 1948, unlike Obama Truman was never elected by voters and never had progressive support. Even then, so many progressives went along with Truman for the good of the broader liberal coalition that he prevailed over Republican Dewey in a three-way race (and Dewey was a New York Republican in an era when such politicians were far, far to the left of the current GOP)

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, white progressives joined multi-racial political coalitions that elected activist black mayors and congresspersons, transforming urban politics in the United States. But today, some on the left view black and Latino allegiance to the Democratic Party as an obstacle to progressive change. These critics, described by some as O’bummers, have become estranged from what now constitutes the national progressive electoral coalition.

In reading progressive criticism of Obama during the convention, I was struck how many of the issues upon which Obama is denounced–his positions on whistleblowing, drones, domestic surveillance and excessive U.S. militarism—do not resonate with the working people and/or people of color who see Obama’s re-election as vital for their futures.

While some progressive criticism is directed at Obama’s handling of health care and the economy, the purpose of these attacks at this moment in history is unclear. Pre-election pressure last spring moved Obama on gay marriage and the DREAM Act, but we are now at a stage when it’s a choice between two starkly different visions for America. I understand that some are angry that Obama’s past betrayals of progressives are being overlooked amidst the rallying around his re-election, but attacking the President in the two months before Election Day is a counter-productive way to express such bitterness.

With the stakes so high, progressives continuing to criticize Obama should not make believe that they are acting on behalf of a “movement. ” Rather, such criticism reflects their disconnection from the young people, single women, gays and lesbians, union members and multi-racial constituencies that provide the groundwork for a winning national progressive electoral base.

It’s Republicans not progressives who highlight taking care of their own needs rather than working with others for a common goal. For progressives, that common goal must be re-electing President Obama, which means stopping criticism of the President until after he is re-elected.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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