“The People Have Been Able to Find Their Own Voice"
Reflections on Obama’s Conservatism and the Real Force Behind the Great Midwestern Labor Rebellion of February-March 2011
The delusional and paranoid, super-Republican Tea Party right has predictably charged that their great, supposedly socialist nemesis Barack Obama – the corporate-friendly savior of Wall Street – has supported and even sparked the historic progressive public worker rebellion that has emerged in Madison, Wisconsin and rolled across other Midwestern states. The “charge” (I use quote marks because most Americans would have no problem with the president having backed and encouraged the great state-level labor uprising) is completely false. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman observed in the second week of the remarkable Wisconsin protests, in an article titled “Obama Sits Out State Fights,” Obama stepped back from the state-level battles after initially seeming to support labor in Wisconsin. Top Democratic officials told Weisman that this was because Obama “is eager to occupy the political center…to forge a bipartisan deal on the nation’s long-term finances that could strengthen his position heading into the 2012 election.” 1
“Sitting out” may not do full justice to the depth of Obama’s conservatism in relation to the ongoing public worker struggle. Yesterday (I am writing on Friday, March 4, 2011), national New York Times correspondent Jackie Calmes learned that the White House actually intervened in anger against the national Democratic Party’s initial efforts to support the Wisconsin labor protests, which administration officials saw as contrary to their happy and neoliberal message:
“…the White House mostly has sought to stay out of the fray in Madison, Wis., and other state capitals where Republican governors are battling public employee unions and Democratic lawmakers over collective bargaining rights. When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama’s national network to support the protests, they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters…Administration officials said they saw the events beyond Washington as distractions from the optimistic ‘win the future’ message that Mr. Obama introduced in his State of the Union address, in which he exhorted the country to increase spending for some programs even as it cuts others so that America can ‘out-innovate and out-educate’ its global rivals.”2
So the purportedly left Obama has responded to the remarkable rank-and-file labor rebellion in the American heartland in much the same way as he responded to the right-wing coup in Honduras in June of 2009 and to the rise of the Egyptian revolution in January and February 2011: with initial statements of seeming support for popular-democratic forces followed by conservative equivocation and caution meant to identify himself with democratic change without severing his accommodation to dominant hierarchies and elites. 3
Nobody should be surprised. The “deeply conservative”4 Obama’s failure to align himself strongly with the public workers and their fight within and beyond Madison is consistent with his centrist campaign pledge to be a “post-partisan leader” ready to take on his own party’s union base. It matches: his support (over the opposition of teachers’ unions) of charter schools and “performance-based” teacher pay; his recent advance of corporate neoliberal free trade deals opposed by labor; his recent public strengthening of ties with business leaders; his refusal to move in any meaningful way on campaign promises to reform the nation’s management-friendly labor laws, and his federal workers salary freeze (a move that angered public sector union members).5 Before the progressive labor rebellion broke out, Obama had already gone far down the path of joining business and the right in advancing the narrative that American prosperity was being undone by overpaid public workers and excessive government regulation, not by the real culprits on Wall Street, who recklessly crashed the global economy in 2008.6
The real energy in the Wisconsin public worker rebellion and its state-level offshoots came from the bottom up. It arose from the grassroots, not from the top down. As Wisconsin State Democratic Senate Leader Mark Miller rightly noted when the Wall Street Journal queried him on Obama’s role: “Really the people of our state, and the people of our country, have been able to find their voice in this battle. The voices of the people are the voices the governor needs to listen to.”7
Consistent with Miller’s sentiments, a USA Today-Gallup poll conducted at the height of the union rights battle in Madison found that “Americans strongly oppose laws taking away the collective bargaining power of public employee unions.” The poll found that 61 percent of Americans would oppose a law in their state similar to the law proposed by Walker in Wisconsin, compared with just a 33 percent who would favor such legislation.8
Unlike the Obama-obsessed Tea Partiers, the union and pro-labor crowds in and around the Capitol Rotunda seem uninterested in the question of who sat atop the national media-politics extravaganza. They have been focused, laser-like on the real and relevant policy issues at hand and above all on basic labor, human, and civil rights and social justice within and beyond the workplace. With tens of thousands of them circling the Capitol and thousands occupying the structure itself, they seem to have been channeling the wisdom of the late great radical American historian Howard Zinn in 2009:
“There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency, that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.”9
It’s nice to see North American progressives and activists show some new awareness of something their South American counterparts have long understood: it isn’t about politicians and elected officials at the end of the day; it’s about the people joining together in solidaristic social movements to discipline and educate the politicians and policymakers from the bottom up.10 The people have found their own voice and understand that it’s not about Obama or who’s sitting in the White House.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at email@example.com
1. Jonathan Weisman, “Obama Sits Out State Fights,” Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2011, A4.
2. Jackie Calmes, “Less Drama in White House After Staff Changes,” New York Times, March 3, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/
3. For details and sources, see Paul Street. “Cold-Blooded Calibration: Reflections on Egypt, Honduras, and the Art of Imperial Re-branding,” ZNet (February 11, 2011) athttp://www.zcommunications.
4. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007); Paul Street, “Statehouse Days: the Myth of Obama’s ‘True Progressive’ Past,” ZNet (July 20, 2008), read atwww.zcommunications.org/
5. Weisman, “Obama Sits Out.”
6. Robert Reich, “Obama’s Republican Narrative of Our Economic Woes,” The Berkeley Blog, December 2, 2010 at http://blogs.berkeley.edu/
7. Miller quoted in Weisman, “Obama Sits Out.”
8 Dennis Cauchon, “Poll: Americans Favor Union Bargaining Rights,” USA Today, February 22, 2011 at http://www.usatoday.com/news/
9 The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” Socialist Worker, November 2, 2010, http://socialistworker.org/
10 For example, mid-February of 2011 brought a nationwide general strike during a popular rebellion against food price hikes in Bolivia. All of Bolivia’s major cities—La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Oruro—were paralyzed three Fridays ago, as “workers marched in city centers and blockaded roads and highways to demand that the government increase wages and take measures to combat rising prices and food shortages….” As the World Socialist Web Site reported, “Long lines of workers marched through Cochabamba in a steady downpour, while thousands of factory workers, teachers, health care workers, other public employees and students took over the center of the capital of La Paz, punctuating their chanting of demands with explosions of dynamite.” So what if Bolivia’s president Evo Morales is left-leaning and indigenous? The nation’s popular forces expect him to respect the power of their social movements and their determination to resist the drastically increased cost of food and fuel imposed by capitalist elites. See Bill Van Auken, “Bolivia’s Morales Faces General Strike Over Food Prices,” World Socialist Web Site (February 22, 2011) athttp://www.wsws.org/