Obama, Lee, Avalos, and the arc of history

Pub date August 9, 2011
SectionPolitics Blog

People need to hear compelling stories, particularly from those who aspire to lead them, a point that author and psychologist Drew Westen nailed in his incisive think-piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “What Happened to Obama?” His conclusions also apply in San Francisco, where progressives have lost control of the narrative to the tax-cutting centrists, who are telling stories that serve mainly to enfeeble the people and prop up powerful interests.

“The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to ‘expect’ stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought,” Westen writes.

Contrast that with the guiding narrative in San Francisco politics right now, put forth by Mayor Ed Lee, his supporters, and the crew of mostly bland centrists who aspire to replace him, all of whom cast conflict itself as the villain. Much like Obama, they all style themselves as the administrators-in-chief, conflict-averse protagonists content to compromise away what little wealth and power the average citizen still possesses. Not only does that narrative guarantee that Lee will be elected, but it’s a false and short-sighted narrative that does a profound disservice to this city.

The one candidate in the mayor’s race who understands that class matters, that conflict is a necessary part of politics, and that we’re all getting screwed over by the rich and powerful is John Avalos. But despite some flashes of progressive populism on the stump, he hasn’t really been consistently and boldly telling San Francisco the story of itself that it really needs to hear right now, which is the same story that Obama should be telling the American people.

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out,” begins the story that Westen said Obama should have told during his inaugural address.

And that’s the story that Avalos should be telling right now, combating the myths that have been put out there by Lee, David Chiu, Bevan Dufty, Dennis Herrera, and the other centrists in the race, that if we just give Twitter, Zynga, Oracle, Sutter Health, Willie Brown’s clients, and every other corporation and developer who promises to create jobs everything they want, then we’ll all be okay.

But on some level, we all know that just isn’t true, and it hasn’t been true for a long time. Only a fool would trust them to take care of us at this point. The greed and self-interest of rich individuals and corporations – which has gone unchecked for far too long, at least partly because of the political corruption they’ve sponsored – is reaching epidemic proportions. It is the villain that needs to be fought, it is the hill that needs to be climbed.

“When faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far,” Westen wrote.

He was riffing off Obama’s penchant for quoting the MLK line, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” which he returned to again with his devastating conclusion: “But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.”

That is the moment we find ourselves in, both as a country and as a city. And it is a story that we’re still waiting for a future leader to tell us with enough power and passion that we all begin to believe it.