When Cornel West blasted President Obama May 16 in an interview with the website Truthdig, it set off a pretty wild debate on the left. For the most part, it’s been more heat than light (imagine that happening on the left!), but it raises a crucial question about the role progressives play in the Democratic Party — particularly in the 2012 election season.
The best analysis so far comes from Robert Cruikshank, who writes for the blog Calitics. In a May 23 piece, he noted that the right keeps winning battles because the conservatives know how to play coalition politics:
“Conservative communication discipline is enabled only by the fact that everyone in the coalition knows they will get something for their participation…. Everyone knows they will get their turn. Why would someone who is primarily motivated by a desire to outlaw abortion support an oil company that wants to drill offshore? Because the anti-choicers know that in a few weeks, the rest of the coalition will unite to defund Planned Parenthood. And a few weeks after that, everyone will come together to appease Wall Street and the billionaires by fighting Elizabeth Warren. And then they’ll all appease the U.S. Chamber by fighting to break a union.”
Not so with the Democratic Party under Obama. The Wall Street Democrats (the neoliberals, the DLC types, and the power-at-any-price folks) get their way all the time. And those us of who consider ourselves part of the economic left (also known as progressives) not only get thrown under the bus — we see our existing gains rolled back, in exchange for nothing.
Sure, we all agree on a lot of social issues. The neolibs and the progressives support abortion rights and gays in the military and, for the most part, same-sex marriage. We agree that evolution is science and creation is religion.
But on basic economic issues — who pays the taxes, who gets the money, military spending vs. education spending, radical inequality, concentration of wealth, corporate power — we might as well be on different political planets. And while we’re the most active, hard-working members of the Democratic coalition, we get completely ignored on national policy.
Obama ought to be worried — not just by West’s criticism (any president ought to expect some allies to be pissed off) but by the fact that he has created an unsustainable coalition. And some of the San Francisco politicians who call themselves progressives ought to be paying attention too: When your political partners get nothing, they eventually walk.