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Live By the Movement, Die By the Movement

Obama’s doomed theory of politics.

More than candidates are defeated in elections. So are ideas. The Democrats’ heavy losses in the midterm elections may now force a reassessment and overhaul of the Barack Obama political experiment. Whether the president has the dexterity and fortitude to navigate through the harsher Washington political environment of the next two years will determine his survival. Clearly, the hopes and dreams that propelled Obama to the White House are in disarray. The social movement politics that some of his most fervent followers ascribed to him—the idea of electing a “post-partisan” president as the leader not of a nation or even of a political party but of a personalized social movement—has failed.

The dream of the Obama presidency based on a movement model of politics was devised by Marshall Ganz, a veteran union organizer and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, hired as an Obama campaign official and charged with training Obama volunteers—and articulated by Ganz’s ally, Peter Dreier, also an Obama adviser, a member of Progressives for Obama, and a politics professor at Occidental College. Ganz was both the theorist and practitioner of the Obama-as-movement-leader notion while Dreier played the role of publicist, heralding the new age in articles in The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Dissent. Ganz’s projection of the Obama presidency gained its prestige from the hallowed memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movements, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes. He posed it against the threadbare, craven horse-trading and maneuvering of parties and all previous presidential politics, which Ganz believes were “practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.” The Obama experiment, a movement that arose from the grassroots apart from the Democratic Party, would usher in a purer moral and more effective leadership to the White House. Obama would not merely alter government policy but also transform the very sum and substance of the political system.

As its advocates were thrilled to point out in the aftermath of the 2008 election, their own work had ensured that Obama and his presidential campaign embodied the social movement model—and they insisted that the model was what elected him. The “real key” to Obama’s victory, Dreier wrote, was not the meltdown of the financial system in 2008, the military stalemate in Iraq, George W. Bush’s unpopularity, or even Obama’s then much celebrated charisma. The victory was owed, Dreier wrote, to “grassroots organizing.” For the first time ever, Dreier exulted, Americans had “elected a former community organizer as their President.” And just as the insurgent campaign had been transformative, so would the Obama presidency. As organizer-in-chief, President Obama would rely upon the movement that had elected him in order to reform health care, end global warming, and restore economic prosperity. Freed from the constraints of the status quo by this new political idea, the White House would be able to orchestrate through the movement and inspired through Obama’s oratory the much vaunted “change we can believe in.”

What went wrong?

Two years after touting the movement model of politics, its advocates now have found a culprit for its failure—not the Republican Party, not the filibuster, and certainly not their own notion of “post-partisan” Nirvana, but the once worshipped Barack Obama. Immediately after the midterm elections, Ganz leaped forward to charge that in office the president had lost his organizer’s fire and neglected to deliver the wonderful speeches that would frame the political discourse for the movement. Instead, Obama lamely sought reform, in Ganz’s words, “inside a system structured to resist change,” ignoring and even scorning liberal and leftist advocacy groups. He demobilized the networks generated by that Ganz and Dreier claimed had helped win the Democratic nomination and then the White House. He became “transactional” instead of “transformational.” Now, to salvage his presidency, Ganz contends, Obama must contritely “acknowledge responsibility for his mistakes” and become the community organizer president that the movement advocates want him to be, speaking boldly “for the anxious and marginalized” and leading “in the task of putting Americans to work rebuilding our future.”

But is the social movement model adequate to democratic governing, especially as the basis of a presidency? What Ganz does not consider is that his own theory and practice of the Obama 2008 mobilization, explicitly based on values, emotions, and feelings, disdaining any particular policies or political goals, may have been a dead end once Obama took office—and that it even helped foster an inevitable disillusionment.

Fundamental to the social movement model is a conception of American political history in which movements, and not presidents, are the true instigators for change. Presidents are merely reactive. They are not the main protagonists. Obama himself endorsed this conception constantly on the campaign trail, and has repeated it often as president, proclaiming that “real change comes from the bottom up.” Supposedly, all of our progressive presidents have been preternaturally cautious, self-interested men who originated nothing themselves. Only forceful pressure from outside movements led them to undertake the audacious efforts for which history has wrongly given them credit. Hence, Abraham Lincoln would never have become the Great Emancipator had the abolitionists not pushed him to do so. Hence, pressure from the radical left and organized labor forced FDR into launching the New Deal.

A good example of this way of thinking arose during the 2008 Democratic primaries, when Obama, campaigning in social movement mode, sought to claim the mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by celebrating oratorical force over grubby politics. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, noted that it took a president, Lyndon B. Johnson, to push through Congress the civil rights reforms for which Dr. King had fought, as well as the programs of the Great Society, and she pointed out that the job being contested for was president of the United States, not head of a social movement. For this, she got called a racist. But her deeper transgression was to run afoul of the movement conception of politics, in which the agitators are the true instigators of reform and officeholders the grudging instruments of pressure from worthy masses.

The movement advocates’ idea of change coming from below, of course, is simplistic. It also blinds its followers to the true problems of democratic politics. No one doubts, for example, that the abolitionists were important and some courageous. But Abraham Lincoln did not have to be awoken to the evils of slavery; he hated slavery all his life. Years before he became president, he declared his expectation and hope that, one day, the nation would be entirely rid of human bondage. And had the consummate party man Lincoln—derided by the more radical abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips as a hack and worse, “the slave hound of Illinois”—not helped to form the first explicitly anti-slavery political party in world history; had his democratic election to the presidency not provoked Southern secession; and had he not managed a careful balancing of military and political exigencies, over the furious objection of the more fractious anti-slavery forces, that led to the Emancipation Proclamation, the abolitionists’ agitation would have remained at the margins of American politics. Indeed, in preparing the way for emancipation, Lincoln manipulated the Left of his day far more than he was manipulated, distancing himself from them publicly, while crushing the slaveholders’ rebellion and, finally, issuing the proclamation that spelled slavery’s doom. So it has gone, from the Civil War era through the end of the twentieth century, as presidents who understood the subtleties and intricacies of constitutional government as well as the art of the possible, achieve what social movements can only demand.

Even if movements carried the weight that Ganz and Dreier ascribe to them, it’s hard to see the campaign apparatus Obama mobilized in 2008 having much more force today than it has had. According to Ganz’s theory and practice of the Obama movement, policies and politics were slighted in favor of feelings and values. Supposedly, these emotive spurs would bind participants in a new activist community, devoted to the collective good and not personal gratification, and dedicated to advancing the uniquely inspiring political leader who had sprung from the reliable ranks of community organizing, and not from the precincts of compromised “transactional” politics.

The crucible of the Ganz strategy in 2008 was the numerous “Camp Obamas,” which trained thousands of campaign volunteers. Participants were instructed not to discuss politics and policies in favor of, as the Sacramento Bee reported, “telling potential voters personal stories of political conversion.” The problems facing liberals, by this reckoning, had nothing to do with their ideas or programs, or with the longstanding political divisions in the Democratic Party stemming back to the 1960s. They had to do with a deficit of “values,” which, according to Ganz, the Republicans had in surplus.

As further developed through a labyrinthine analysis that drew on social psychology, brain chemistry, and human transaction theory, Ganz’s model posited that the root of the “values” problem was essentially emotional. “Values are not just concepts, they’re feelings,” Ganz explained knowingly. “That’s what dropped out of Democratic politics sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s.” Thus, the Obama campaign presented itself as a social movement that was more sentimental than political, pushing gauzy “values,” like “hope” and “change,” while leaving policy concerns to the wonks. Yet the successful movements of the past had more than values; they had specific goals. The civil rights movement’s eyes were on the prizes of desegregation and voting rights. Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, where Ganz learned so much about political organizing, also had its emotive side—summed up in its slogan, “Si, Se Puede,” which the Obama campaign directly appropriated in translation, “Yes, We Can”—but it also had in mind the recognition of organized fieldhands and the negotiation of fair contracts involving wages. The point of the Obama campaign-as-movement was conceived differently: exciting people with the thrill of empowerment, and collective self-empowerment, by electing to the White House a community organizer who believed in “hope” and “change.” Why electing Obama was imperative required no explanation among the faithful; it was enough to get the spirit, share the spirit, and revel in the candidate’s essence, which, by definition, no other candidate possessed. The leader was the program.

Sketchy on specifics, such a movement would have been practically useless after Obama’s election, except as a cult-of-personality mass cheerleading squad to back the president over any decision that he chose to endorse. But then, it was always difficult to imagine exactly how the newly defined role of organizer-in-chief would play out. Even according to the social movement model, movements push reluctant leaders who are skilled in the intricacies of lawmaking, especially the president. How was this supposed to work when the chief executive was the movement leader, though vastly inexperienced in the ways of the White House, let alone of the hazards of Washington? Where was the crafty president who needed to be pushed, the president who would know how and when to use a movement to his advantage?

Obama in office upheld the community organizers’ post-partisan credo, trying to bring together opposing forces and finding common ground, in part under the pressure of the organizer’s own reasonableness. But that was not how it worked in Washington during the past two years; nor had it worked that way for 20 years. A ruthless and right-wing Republican Party spurned talk of common ground as a sign of weakness, and did everything it could to ensure that Obama’s presidency would fail. But oblivious to the long-standing internal dynamics of the Republican Party, Obama continued to vaunt his brand of “post-partisanship.” Now, after the ruins of the midterms, the president must readjust. He can, if he wishes, draw on recent historical experience. After his rocky first two years brought on the Republican tidal wave of 1994, President Clinton, with no illusions about “post-partisanship,” entered a state of day-to-day political trench warfare, co-opting Republican rhetoric about family values to give them Democratic content, winning targeted but crucial legislation on matter such as health care, and risking political capital by endorsing welfare reform that the left wing of his own party lambasted—dogmatically and short-sightedly, it turned out—as the death-knell of liberal reform.

Presidential oratory about beliefs was an important part of the mix—recall Clinton’s effective speech on government and patriotic values following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995—but the grind of political infighting and compromise must always have priority. It could well be that Obama’s survival as an effective political force for the next two years and his prospect for reelection—and any viable future for social movements—will require engaging cleverly and doggedly in what his movement theorists derided as “status quo” politics.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday). 

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