Obama’s leftist (as opposed to liberal) supporters argued during the primaries and the campaign that voting for Obama would not only represent a better alternative to supporting conservative John McCain or wasting one’s vote on Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney, but would also help to create the conditions for a resurgence of the social movements and activism. A vote for Obama, they argued, would be a vote cast not only against conservative economic policies (neoliberalism) and against the war, but also against racism and homophobia, and more important would encourage movements for economic and social justice to begin to act. This was the politics put forth by Progressives for Obama.
Clearly, it is difficult to separate the response to the Obama administration from the reaction to the crisis. Historically, a new administration generally enjoys a honeymoon period and a crisis often leads, at least initially, to a period of quietism as labor, the social movements, and the population at large takes stock of the situation, and acts to protect their own personal positions first––meaning their jobs, housing, and family welfare––before acting as a class. While a crisis creates high unemployment, usually the first reaction of U.S. workers is caution, not militancy.
At this point, it would seem to be that Obama’s presidency has not led to significantly greater activism by any movement in any sphere of the society. While there does seem to be a more open and optimistic attitude toward race issues, there has not been an upsurge in activism or radicalism. One might even argue that, quite the contrary, the fact that Obama now occupies the Oval Office has led many activists to believe that they now have a friend in the White House who will deal with the economic crisis, end the wars in the Middle East, handle the problems of the environment, and tackle the oppression of racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians. For those who begin to see that their trust has been betrayed, a kind of social-psychological depression may set in before people return to action.
While the liberal establishment organizations—the AFL-CIO, NAACP, NOW, MoveOn.org, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, the Sierra Club, and others—do continue to monitor and to pressure the Obama administration, they generally now operate through friendly channels of communication as allies of the President and the Congress, rather than as critics or opponents. Consequently the initial result of Obama’s presidency is a honeymoon period for him and a mood of hopeful expectation of change among the Liberal establishment and the voters who supported him. The result of this then has been a demobilization of former activists and with that a decline in the liberal public’s attention to Obama’s behavior.
Similarly with second level national organizations and with regional and local groups, activism has generally declined. While there are notable exceptions—the Steelworkers campaign in labor, ACORN in housing, and a few others—what is clear is that there has been no upsurge. We remain in a downturn in activism that has existed since about 2005.
The current situation is exacerbated by the deep divisions within the labor movement, particularly the internecine warfare among the SEIU, NHWU, CNA, the former UNITE-HERE. The SEIU’s top-down organizing model and its labor-management partnership approach to contract negotiation, combined with its hubris, particularly it imperial ambitions to dominate the labor movement, not only in the U.S. but also in Puerto Rico and even abroad, have led to the current deep crisis which particularly affects health care workers.
Most important is the struggle taking place in California. There SEIU members in United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), a 150,000-member California local led by Sal Roselli, complained that the SEIU had “silenced workers’ voice in bargaining with the California Home Alliance by directing International Union representatives to meet with employers behind our backs.” After SEIU trusteed (that is, took over) the local union, members resisted by seceding and creating their own organization, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). SEIU has been fighting NUHW for control of contracts both in the courts and through union representation elections.
The fight by NUHW members, first to control their own local union and negotiate their own contracts and subsequently to create an independent union, has inspired many SEIU members throughout California and around the country. Many see this as one of the most important fights taking place in the contemporary labor movement, a fight between the SEIU top-down approach and an approach where members have a greater voice in the union
The balance of forces at the moment is extremely adverse to the social movements, labor and the left, and it is extremely favorable to capital and government. While we may expect that a continuing and deepening crisis will produce some movement, and while the Obama administration’s charm will wear off, we remain in a period of low levels of social and labor activism. We will need to continue to build grassroots community and rank-and-file labor organizations, to work to unite the small and weak U.S. left, and to try to strengthen our own organization while doing so.
The Republican Party and the Right
Meanwhile, the right-wing has not been idle. Supported by FOX News, Republicans and other conservatives organized “Tea Parties” around the country in March and April, bringing thousands out in many cities to protest Obama’s stimulus package and other policies. In many places these demonstrations—comprised of almost exclusively white middle class suburbanites—had a very right-wing character, and among the ordinary Republicans who participated, extreme right-wingers provided more radical t-shirts, signs, and slogans. The demonstrations indicate that while the Republican Party has been defeated and is in disarray, there are conservative and ultra-conservative activists prepared to offer an alternative to Obama’s social liberalism. These demonstrations represent not only a conservative political alternative but also the breeding ground for more rightwing movements.
The Republican Party, having suffered a disastrous defeat in the 2008 elections, has been severely weakened. Today it is also deeply divided between, on the one hand, the Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney rightwing faction, and on the other the more moderate Colin Powell faction. Yet no one should believe that the Republicans will not make a come back. The capitalist class has historically understood the necessity of both a Democratic Party capable of Keynesian spending and promoting social welfare, and of a Republican Party advocating free enterprise and cutting taxes and budgets. When the current crisis has passed, and the economy has revived, the corporations and banks may well turn their attention, and their money, once again to the Republicans.