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Under Obama, Social Justice Campaigners Have Better Chances

Many of those who supported Barack Obama four years ago have been disappointed by his presidency. But recent history shows that campaigns for social justice do better under centrist presidents than under conservative ones.
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This article originally appeared in the New Internationalist.

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At summer’s end, Barack Obama’s campaign has already aired tens of millions of dollars worth of advertisements. You don’t have to believe their promises to think that his re-election would be preferable from a social movement standpoint to the coronation of Mitt Romney, one of Wall Street’s own. In fact, you don’t need to believe that the president will be a friend to social justice causes at all.

You can hope for Obama’s re-election for a more counter-intuitive reason: namely, that he will make a better adversary.

While this proposition may sound strange, the crux of the argument is simple. Progressive movements are stronger when they can take on centrists or liberals than when pitted against elected conservatives.

Let’s review the recent history. In 2008, after suffering two successive Bush administrations, it was easy to feel that some fresh air could do wonders for politics in the United States. Expectations soared. People could have felt good just knowing that their votes kept Sarah Palin from being one cardiac failure away from command of 5,100 nuclear warheads. But instead, they began to see something more in the youthful Senator Obama. They started to look to him as someone who would do the work of social movements for them.

This delusion was not merely domestic. How foolishly premature was the Norwegian Committee’s move to award Obama the Nobel Peace Prize? The 2009 citation praised Obama’s ‘extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples’ at a time when the new president had barely finished decorating his Oval Office desk. Its predictions for US leadership in arms control felt touchingly naïve, even before Obama distinguished himself as the world’s leading drone strike enthusiast. Perhaps to keep Rosa Luxemburg spinning in her grave, Fox News pundits insistently paint Democrats like Obama and Hillary Clinton as radical socialists. This is fantasy. Given the US’s constrained two-party system, there’s no true progressive contending in this election. So the real question is, under which administration will social justice activists do better?

When Republicans have taken office at the state level in recent years, eager to deliver on vows to decimate unions, slash the social safety net, or curtail reproductive freedoms, it has forced labour, feminist and community organizations into overwhelmingly reactive campaigns. Win or lose, these groups end up drained from having to defend basic rights and social benefits.

In contrast, when Democrats become the powerbrokers who need to be pressured, the imagination of social movements expands. It was under Obama, not Bush, that tents appeared on Wall Street and the itch to Occupy spread. The major Civil Rights battles of the 1960s were fought, and landmark gains won, when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were targets of activist demands. Mass uprisings in Seattle and beyond took aim at Bill Clinton’s affinity for corporate globalization.

Could mobilizations like these have happened under Republicans? The Reagan era witnessed solidarity to end Central American death squads, ACT UP bridge blockades highlighting the emerging AIDS epidemic, and demonstrations against nuclear arms that filled New York’s Central Park. But these efforts—like protests against the Bush doctrine of “preventative war”—often carried a sense of doomsday and desperation. They were defined by the horrors they opposed.

The global justice protests of the late Clinton era and the Occupy uprisings under Obama were different, notable for their unabashed confidence that the victims of “free market” avarice might dare transform our political and economic system. There was, to borrow a book title, an ‘audacity of hope’. But it was not based on wishes for what an electoral candidate might do. It was based in the living power of collective action.

With Republicans in the White House, the temptation is to look to Democrats as saviors. With Democrats in office, we learn a different lesson—and an important one. We learn to save ourselves.


Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com.

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