Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tough, Pragmatic: It's Good for the Left, Too

Photo: Katrina vanden Heuvel


By Katrina vanden Heuvel
The Nation

November 25, 2008 - A There are some heated conversations under way in the progressive blogosphere, including some at, in which our own writers as well as people like Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher, David Sirota and Digby are debating why Barack Obama has so far appointed few progressives to his cabinet. It's worth checking them out.

I think that we progressives need to be as clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he is about us.

President-elect Obama is a centrist at a time when centrism means energy independence and green jobs and universal healthcare and massive economic stimulus programs and government intervention in the economy. He is a pragmatist at a moment when pragmatism and the scale of our financial crisis compel him to adopt bold policies. He is a cautious leader at a time when, to paraphrase New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, cautious is the new risky. The great traumas of our day do not allow for cautious steps or responses.

At 143 years old (that's the The Nation's age, not mine), we like a little bit of history with our politics. And while Lincoln's way of picking a cabinet has seized the public imagination during this transition, it's worth remembering another president's template for governing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to become a bolder and, yes, more progressive president (if progressive means ensuring that the actual conditions of people's lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategic mobilization and pressure of organized movements.

That history makes me think that progressives must avoid falling into either of two extremes--reflexively defensive or reflexively critical. We'll be wiser and more effective if we follow the advice of a Nation editorial board member, who shared these thoughts at our recent meeting:

1. It will take large-scale organized movements to win transformative change. There would have been no civil rights legislation without the movement, no New Deal without the unions and the unemployed councils, no end to slavery without the abolitionists. In our era, this will have to play out in two ways: organizing district by district and state by state to get us to the 218 (House) and sixty (Senate) votes necessary to pass major legislation; and harnessing the movement energy that can create a new narrative and thus move the elites in Washington to shift away from failed free-market orthodoxies.

2. We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. This will be challenging for those of us schooled in the habits of pure opposition and protest. We need to make an effort to engage the new administration and Congress constructively, even as we push without apology for solutions on a scale necessary to deliver. This is in the interest of the Democratic Party--which rode the wave of a new coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, young people, women and others. But the party has been beaten down by conservative attacks, so the natural impulse will be caution.

3. Progressives must stick up especially forcefully for the most vulnerable members of the coalition--poor people, immigrants, etc.--those who got almost no mention during the campaign and who are most likely to be left off the bus.

As a former community organizer, Obama has spoken of how "real change comes from the bottom up." It comes about by "imagining and then fighting for and then working for--struggling for--what did not seem possible before." That is the charge we should embrace. Let's mobilize to achieve what "did not seem possible before."

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[Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is the co-editor of Taking Back America--And Taking Down The Radical Right (NationBooks, 2004). She is also co-editor (with Stephen F. Cohen) of Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev's Reformers (Norton, 1989) and editor of The Nation: 1865-1990, and the collection A Just Response: The Nation on Terrorism, Democracy and September 11, 2001.]


Anonymous said...

Well, that didn't take long, did it? Things appear to be worsening by the hour for the outside/inside strategy embraced by PDA and others.

So much for a new hegemonic bloc emerging within the ruling class that progressives can unite with to isolate and defeat the 'main enemy". (apologies to Gramsci may be in order here, Carl)

For more on the heated debates occurring within the progressive blogosphere, visit, AfterDowning Street, and Alternet. And stay tuned to The Nation.

Carl Davidson said...

Worsening? Are you kidding? Getting him elected was only the first step in our new 'long march through the institutions.' Now we're in a better position the ever and waging far more interesting battles than we've seen in decades. That is, if you ever decide to get out of the bleachers and on to the main battlegrounds. A lotta continua...

Anonymous said...

Just in case you missed it:

Barack Obama plans 20,000 troop surge to boost Afghan effort
Alex Spillius, (UK)

[ ]

Barack Obama is preparing to send at least 20,000 more US soldiers into Afghanistan in a "surge" similar to the deployment that contributed to security improvements in Iraq.

The President-Elect's intention to shift the focus of the fight against terrorism to Afghanistan has been bolstered by Robert Gates agreement to stay on as Defence Secretary.

Mr Gates is a strong believer in an Afghan surge, which would not only put thousands more boots on the ground but involve negotiations with malleable branches of the Taliban.

It would also aim to boost co-operation with Iran and Pakistan where some elements have supported the anti-Western insurgency.

The need for more US troops in addition to the 32,000 already serving, has been accelerated by the Afghan presidential election in September 2009, and the voter registration process that begins in the New Year, Mr Gates said.

"The most important objective for us for 2009 in Afghanistan is a successful election," he said at a meeting of defence ministers from the eight countries fighting in southern Afghanistan. "One of the things we talked about was trying to surge as many forces as we can prior to the election, to try and provide a secure environment for the election."

The Pentagon chief, who has been in the position for two years, added that he wanted to send another three brigades of combat ground forces and an aviation brigade, beginning as early as next spring.

A Pentagon official said the plans are likely to be drawn up before Mr Obama takes office on Jan 20. Most will be sent to the poppy-growing South, where the need for more Western forces is greatest, and where 8,000 British troops are currently fighting.

A spokesman said the final number was likely to be "well north of 20,000", and indicated that countries such as Britain already fighting in the south would not face strong US demands to provide more troops.

Those would be placed on Nato participants not yet involved at the sharp end.

Defence department staff members are privately delighted Mr Obama has chosen to retain a popular boss in the interests of stability. Mr Gates is expected to be officially introduced as part of an experience and centrist national security team on Monday.

"The president-elect has already indicated that he wants to put additional troops in Afghanistan," said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Over the weekend Mr Obama reiterated that he wanted to begin drawing down the 146,000 US troops in Iraq as soon as he takes office, saying he wanted to "shore up efforts" in Afghanistan.

During the election campaign, Obama said his administration would dispatch two or three additional brigades to Afghanistan in 2009, on top of the brigade President George W Bush decided to send this January.

Each brigade contains between 3,500 and 4,000 soldiers.

Some estimates for the numbers needed to fight the Taliban are however now running much higher than the initial 20,000 foreseen by Mr Gates.

Current and former US officials have warned that a surge of forces into Afghanistan will not necessarily meet with the same success as the troop build-up in Iraq.

"Additional troops in Afghanistan may be necessary but they will not, by themselves, be sufficient to lead to the results we saw in Iraq. A similar confluence of events that contributed to success in Iraq does not appear to exist in Afghanistan," former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a recent newspaper opinion piece.

Some analysts believe Washington ultimately will need more than 100,000 troops to stabilise Afghanistan before the Afghan army is ready to take over security.

"I suspect that to succeed in Afghanistan, we're eventually going to have to swing a sizeable fraction of what we now have in Iraq into Afghanistan," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The scale of the shift will be large, and the time needed to pull it off will be long," he said.

Carl Davidson said...

Nothing new here. If you go back, you'll find a few pieces posted by us criticizing this policy months ago.

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