What Progressives Can Learn from Obama

Ken Brociner

One of the trademarks of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has been his commitment to a new style of politics. Last year, in answering a question about negative campaigning and ad hominem attacks on opponents, he said: My preference going forward is that we have to be careful not to slip into playing the game as it is customarily played.”

I am often downright embarrassed by how one-dimensional and superficial our "analysis" of the world is. We progressives like to think of ourselves as "truth tellers" committed to depicting the world as it really is. Yet we too often present a cartoonish version of reality, rather than an accurate account of what is happening – and why.

Obviously Obama’s pledge to take the high road is nothing new or original. In fact, it has become standard fare – even if only a small percentage of politicians come close to making good on these promises.

Yet despite the intensity of his drawn-out battle with Hillary Clinton and his current showdown with John McCain, the consensus view among longtime politicos is that Obama has, for the most part, run an unusually fair-minded and positive campaign.

Obama’s commitment to a different brand of politics represents more than a mere preference for taking the high road in the rough-and-tumble world of political combat. The Illinois senator has, in fact, developed what amounts to an alternative philosophical outlook toward politics. And it is a perspective that, I believe, too many progressives have been ignoring at their own peril.

One of the most striking features of Obama’s approach has been his near refusal to attack the motives of his political opponents. As he made clear in The Audacity of Hope, Obama doesn’t just believe this policy to be tactically sound; he also feels that most of his opponents are truly well-intentioned.

Even when talking to those colleagues [in the Senate] with whom I most deeply disagreed,” he wrote, I was usually struck by their basic sincerity – their desire to get things right and leave the country better and stronger; their desire to represent their constituents and their values as faithfully as circumstances would allow.”

Obama bemoans the fact that politics has become ” …a contest not just between competing policy visions, but between good and evil… In this Manichean struggle, compromise came to look like weakness, to be punished or purged.” 

Of course, this kind of talk has raised some legitimate concerns within progressive circles. At what point, some wonder, might Obama’s attitude become overly bipartisan or too prone towards compromise? Clearly, should he be elected president, progressives will need to closely monitor these potential pitfalls.

But rather than cynically dismiss Obama’s statements as being naïve or just another form of political gamesmanship, progressives ought to seriously ponder what he is saying. 

Compare Obama’s approach with the predominant tone and rhetorical style of much of the progressive media. Glance at the most popular progressive websites, magazines and blogs on any given day and notice how we consistently characterize those with whom we disagree – be they liberal Democrats who lack courage,” Democratic Leadership Council-types who we routinely refer to as being, in effect, corporate lackeys,” or neocons who we describe as warmongers.”

Instead of vigorously critiquing ideologies, policies, priorities and values that we disagree with, we routinely assign consciously malevolent motives to our political adversaries. It’s as if we progressives cannot even fathom the possibility that politically engaged people who have sharply different views than ours might also sincerely believe they are working to make the world a better place.

The most prominent recent example of this tendency was the full-page ad that MoveOn placed in the New York Times last fall, in which General David Petraeus, then commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq, was mockingly referred to as General Betray US.” 

Whatever MoveOn’s intent, the extraordinarily unfortunate choice of the word betray” was widely – and understandably – interpreted as accusing Petraeus of consciously and deliberately betraying” the United States. 

Not only did the ad put a serious dent in MoveOn’s image, it backfired by undermining congressional efforts to set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

While the Betray US” ad was an extreme example, the sad reality is that the progressive media is now rife with writers who seem to demonize practically anyone who dares to see things differently than they do. 

These days, no one fits this description better than David Sirota.

In the world according to Sirota, there is no such thing as having an honest difference of opinion. For instance, instead of allowing for the fact that Barack Obama might actually believe what he has been saying in regard to his economic policies, Sirota proclaimed in a column earlier this year that though Obama is certainly less industry-owned than Clinton,” he nonetheless does accept hush money” from Wall Street that is contingent on candidates silencing their populist rhetoric.”

As for Clinton’s true motives, Sirota had this to say earlier this month, in a Campaign For America’s Future blog post: Clintonism [is] a brand of politics that is about trying to appease Big Money while pretending to serve ordinary people.”

Unfortunately Sirota’s dogmatic style is more the rule than the exception within many media oulets on the left. In fact, if you only read or tuned into progressive media, you would likely come away believing the world is made up of good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats who delight in bringing misery and oppression to the entire world.

Although I have strongly identified with the progressive movement’s political agenda throughout my nearly forty years of activism, I am often downright embarrassed by how one-dimensional and superficial our analysis” of the world is. We progressives like to think of ourselves as truth tellers” committed to depicting the world as it really is. Yet we too often present a cartoonish version of reality, rather than an accurate account of what is happening and – more to the point – why it is happening.

In September 2005, Obama issued a direct appeal to progressives urging a more fair-minded approach to political criticism and analysis. He sent an essay to Daily Kos titled Tone, Truth and the Democratic Party,” in which he voiced frustration with the over-the-top criticism and attacks many progressives were directing toward those Democrats who, at times, deviated from the standard progressive position on one issue or another.

In his essay, Obama wrote: “… I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.”

We need not be uncritical admirers of Barack Obama to realize that his desire to transcend old political habits has profound meaning not only for American politics as a whole, but for progressives who are committed to fundamentally changing our country’s policies and priorities.

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Ken Brociners essays and book reviews have appeared in Dissent, In These Times and Israel Horizons. He also has a biweekly column in the Somerville (Mass.) Journal.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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