One month after President Biden’s inauguration, a crushing sense of déjà vu is settling in, an unsettling feeling that we have seen this all before.
Key campaign issues that Biden stood by are now diluted, postponed, or simply neglected. The fate of once urgent issues like the minimum wage, student loan debt, immigrant rights, health care reform, etc. now seem less pressing, more subject to study, deliberation, bipartisanship, or revision.
Democratic Party politicians are taking their priorities from the headlines: squeezing the last bit of Trump-distraction from a trial with no prospect of victory and scrutinizing a silly stock market prank billed as a rebellion against the rich and powerful.
Without Trump, the media is returning to the old, trusted practices of celebrity fetish and ‘gotcha’ politics-- Lady GaGa’s stolen dogs.
Meanwhile, intense Democratic Party fundraising shamelessly continues with the last election barely settled.
While the Trump administration policies remain largely intact, there seems to be less outrage boiling. Things take time, we are told (except for bombing, killing, and maiming in Syria). The patronizing rebuke of impatience issues from Biden supporters.
Where have we seen this before?
Recall the euphoria that sprung forth a little over twelve years ago with the defeat of John McCain and the election of Barack Obama. Liberals and the soft-headed left took the event as singular. One lefty famously wrote in a fit of gross exaggeration:
"...hundreds of millions-Black, Latino, Asian, Native-American and white, men and women, young and old, literally danced in the streets and wept with joy, celebrating an achievement of a dramatic milestone in a 400-year struggle, and anticipating a new period of hope and possibility."
In this space, I responded incredulously: “Hundreds of millions? Literally? A dramatic milestone? Of course, there were not hundreds of millions even voting, nearly half of which voted against Obama! And ‘dramatic milestones’ should be reserved for truly world shaking events like the Civil War, The Great Depression, and possibly the economic catastrophe now looming. This dramatic overstatement is precisely the kind of puffery that contributes to isolating the left from working people.”
But this unhinged faith in “a new period of hope and possibility” was not uncommon, though seldom so wildly exuberant. Zealotry for Obama ranged across the Democratic Party, infecting the “progressive” left even more deeply.
A month before Obama’s inauguration, disenchantment began to set in, as his cabinet and staff took shape and some policy positions became clear.
I reminded readers of a statement once made by popular liberal columnist, Walter Lippmann, in response to a similar idolatry of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "Franklin D. Roosevelt is an amiable man with many philanthropic impulses, but he is not the dangerous enemy of anything. He is too eager to please.... Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege.” And what was attributed to him-- historically progressive and significant New Deal legislation-- was largely the result of pressure from mass movements of workers, farmers, the unemployed, African Americans (who got little), and small business people.
And that proved to make all the difference.
After the election, instead of holding Obama to the meager “progressive” agenda on which he campaigned and demanding even more, “the leadership of the broad left - much of the peace movement, liberals, environmental social justice activists, etc. - surrendered their critical judgment, independence, and influence to a blind trust in a fictitious movement for change. In the history of social change in the US, every real advance was spurred by independent organization and struggle unhampered by the niceties of bourgeois politics. From the Abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights movement, from the Populist movement to the Great Society, from the Anti-imperialist League to the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the initiative for change sprung from committed, independent activists who defied the caution and inertia of elected officials.”
Even with a supermajority in the Senate and a majority in the House, Obama showed the “caution and inertia of elected officials.” And the euphoric left went to sleep, the antiwar movement waned, and labor leaders delighted in their access to White House social events. The fiction that social change can come from dangling the carrot of support and trust in front of Democratic Party elected officials failed the left once again.
After two years, and the loss of the Senate supermajority and the House majority, Obama’s administration lost the initiative with little accomplished.
Writing in December of 2010, I recalled an article that I posted in the fall of 2008 suggesting that Obama’s presidency might “reprise” the disappointing Carter term. I then asked the pertinent question: “The promise of 1976 was squandered by the Carter Administration. Will the opportunities for change afforded by Republican failure be wasted again in 2008?”
With the honeymoon over, the truth about the Obama administration became clear, and is even more clear today, that the answer is a resounding “yes!” -- another lost opportunity.
Will the opportunities afforded by the defeat of the odious Trump administration be wasted also? Will the Biden administration turn liberals and those tied umbilically to the Democrats against advocating for any real change? Will the “responsible, practical” left entrust change to a Party with a history of betrayal? Will Biden follow Obama, Clinton, and Carter-- 20 of the last 46 years of presidential administrations-- down the rat hole of unfulfilled promises?
Today, with the left shackled to foundation grants, NGOs, and think tanks, as well as lacking the will to escape the gravity of the Democratic Party, the prospect of a truly independent political movement grows dimmer.
Yet the need for independence has never been greater!
As the crises of US capitalism mount, the argument for moderation and compromise becomes the argument for surrender. If it seems daunting to build a militant, independent left, surely it is even more frustrating to invest time and energy into an immovable instrument of capital, an institution that has shown, for most of our lifetimes, to be capable of only serving the interests of ruling elites, unless prodded by a determined, independent, militant movement.
Trump is gone, but Trumpism will return, if we fail to overcome the inertia of a lifetime of Democratic Party betrayal of meaningful reform.