Because my wife and I gave rather freely in the 2008 election cycle, we are apparently on every shared-donor list in existence, at least the ones that are to the left of, say, the average tea-party fundraising list. Today, there was yet another one, from “OFA” – which, I note, is no longer “Organizing For America,” and has gone back to being what it initially was: “Obama For America.” Here’s the whole thing, but this gives you a flavor of it:
No matter what our opponents do, and however many people end up becoming a part of this campaign — this first million will always be the group that put this movement in the best position possible for the fights ahead.
Today, I’m asking you to make a donation and be one of them.
When you give, you’re not just becoming one of the first million to help fund this campaign — you’re representing millions more across the country who are counting on us.
And here was my response (somewhat edited):
Dear Mr. President,
Please stop calling it a “movement.” The Democratic party hasn’t even faintly resembled a movement in decades, and I’m not sure your own campaign has EVER been one, even when so many of us back in 2008 were convinced it WAS one.
What you and OFA are actually engaged in right now is indeed a campaign, yes. But one of the lessons of 2008 is that a campaign is NOT the same as a movement, and it never will be. What you’re engage in is the RE-election campaign of an entrenched politician who is – if anything – even more cozy with the banksters who wrecked our economy in the 2000s than the previous President. These same banksters show no signs of either remorse or indeed of having learned anything at all from the experience. It’s not even really their fault, either: no one compelled them to learn anything from the experience. Instead, WE, the other, er, 99% (to quote a phrase) were told we MUST bail out these riverboat casino gamblers with our tax dollars, NOWNOWNOW, or else life as we knew it would end. We believed it. And we trusted our leaders; first George W. Bush and then you.
And you let us down.
After the triumphant Hyde Park acceptance speech, you went quietly about the business of filling the financial slots in your cabinet with pro-bankster retreads from the dusty back corner of Bob Rubin’s closet-of-horrors. You didn’t pursue the banksters in any significant way. The closest you got was a couple of speeches in which you called them “fat cats,” which they apparently could stomach since it came attached to nothing of substance in terms of actual policy proscriptions on their riskier actions.
In point of fact, these banksters went straight back to hoarding cash, buying each other out, trading in risky derivatives, and paying both enormous bonuses to themselves AND huge retainers to a veritable army of lobbyists whose job it is to weaken even the tepid Dodd-Frank bill which purports to put a few limits on some of their excesses. You failed to support Elizabeth Warren, the strongest and clearest pro-consumer voice in a generation on fiscal matters, for the job she clearly should have been a shoo-in for, head of the CFPB, when you could easily have recess-appointed her and dared the Republicans to do anything about it. You also…ahh, what’s the point? We both know your record, and my guess is you’re too smart for much of that to have been simple miscalculation or ineptitude. I’m guessing things are the way they are because that’s either the way you actually WANT them to be, or because you didn’t think you could get anything more for the people out of the owner class on Wall Street. I’m honestly not sure which would be worse: the possibility that you didn’t think the ordinary citizens, the 99%, didn’t deserve anything more back from the banksters, or the possibility that you thought you couldn’t achieve any more than you did. Both choices are very, very disappointing and disheartening.
I also realize it’s been quite some time since your community organizer days. Frankly, by the time you arrived on that scene in Chicago, Saul Alinsky lived on only in spirit, and the great union-busting of the Reagan era was not just well underway, but was already a normalized part of American civic life. The air traffic controllers had already been fired by then, and few batted an eye. I say this not to denigrate your experience or your work back then, but because the fact that you’re calling your re-election campaign a “movement” suggests that it may have been quite some time since you saw what an authentic, non-party apparatus-driven movement actually LOOKS like.
Would you LIKE to see what such a movement looks like in real life? Then head down to Zucotti Park in New York. Or to any of the literally dozens of other locations throughout the country (and in fact the world) where real people who simply cannot take any more have, out of both necessity and a sense that NO politician is willing OR able to do what must be done, finally taken to the streets in what is surely the first and most powerful form of political self-expression: the protest march.
You’re an intelligent and literate man, Mr. President, so you’ll probably recognize the following quote. However, if it’s unfamiliar to you, then you need to hear it even more than if you knew it already:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
Know who said that? That was Mario Savio, on the steps of Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, right before the first Free Speech Movement sit-in. THAT’S what a real movement sounds like, Mr. President. It sure doesn’t sound like the tepid, focus-grouped, Six Sigma horsepuckey like “Winning The Future” that’s seemed to dominate your administration’s strategy since inauguration, that’s for sure. Those people down in Liberty Square and other cities throughout the country (and the world), they know what time it is, and they know what the score is. They know it’s become literally the ultra-rich against everyone else, and that – lately, anyway – the ultra-rich have been running the table. They know that if the unofficial motto of the United States is to be in Latin, that “E Pluribus Unum” is less accurate these days than would be “Vae Victis.” They understand that nothing except, in Mario Savio’s words, “putting their own bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers,” has a chance of putting things to right.
Those Occupy Wall Street protesters understand that if a disaster like the financial crisis of 2008 had to come, it was a blessing that it came during an election year, when the failures and venality of the previous administration’s political philosophy was laid bare by the simple march of events. They understand that we had a once-in-a-century chance to re-jigger not just the dialogue of what’s acceptable to discuss in modern America, but the very structure of how people think about some of the bullroar propaganda we’ve been fed by forty years of concerted conservative framing. They understood (and still understand) that words like “ownership society” and “self-sufficiency” and many more were open to re-definition in the spectacular flame-out of Lehman and Bear Stearns and the entire concept of corporate-state capitalism. They knew that we all were ready to hear a robust articulation of how government is NOT the problem, as Ronald Reagan famously said, but is in fact the highest expression of how we wish to think of ourselves and conduct ourselves as a society.
For the last forty years, “liberal” has been considered something of a dirty word, nowhere more so than in the corridors of power in Washington. But all of these terms were open for re-definition in 2008, as was most of what it means to be America in the 21st century. But to lead the conversation that would re-define those terms, it would take a leader who both understood the moment, and who could articulate what could – indeed HAD TO – be said in order to effect needed change. And that’s when we found you, Mr. President. And you were so good at articulating some things that sounded like what we all had a vague sense needed to be said that we either neglected or just didn’t see that maybe you didn’t understand the moment or, worse, didn’t agree with it.
People flocked to you because of your charisma, your even-keeled nature and your obvious intelligence. You also got a significant tail-wind simply because you weren’t George W. Bush nor did you hail from the party which spawned him. In the end, a big part of what put you over the top in the primary race may have been the instinctive sense of the voters that even Mrs. Clinton, as smart and well-qualified as she was, felt like too much a part of the old way of doing things; the way that had led to this crisis. You were different. You didn’t come with decades of political baggage, and that alone made you more attractive at a time when disappointment with the status quo was at historic lows.
Not only that, but, perhaps sensing that zeitgeist, you and your handlers made an explicit campaign theme out of the notion of CHANGE. That one word sounded to millions of voters like the word “water” sounds to a man dying of thirst in the desert. We assumed you meant what we meant when we thought about change from the ruinous policies of the Bush years. And that idea was reinforced in us when you went even further and spoke not just of change, but of “fundamental transformation.” Most people don’t dabble in political psychology or even understand what motivates people to turn out on election day versus what makes them shrug and stay home. But even the least-examined political life in this country in 2008 knew that the transactional, everyday, status quo way of doing things had failed, badly. We needed to have – and were ready in 2008, after the collapse, to have – a real discussion of what needed to be changed. You came along and you spoke to us like we were grown-ups. More music to our ears. We assumed, from phrases of yours like “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for” and “the fierce urgency of now,” that you understood both the gravity and the promise of the moment. It was THAT movement you tapped into – though it appears you assumed it was a movement for YOU – that put a black man named “Hussein” into the White House in America in 2008, while we were still nominally at war with a country most-recently led by another man named “Hussein.” You succeeded because we thought you understood both the stakes and the moment, and were offering to lead a REAL movement.
But the misgivings, for those of us who were paying attention, began almost immediately, and eventually, even for the rest of the people who perhaps weren’t quite so tuned-in, there was a sense of “wait, WHAT? We thought you UNDERSTOOD this, Mr. President!” I’ll spare both of us the laundry-list of disappointments, mostly because there’s no real point to reiterating them now…but you and I both know the tally. Beyond any individual disappointment, though, was the gradual dawning of realization that perhaps we, the people who elected you because we assumed you not only MEANT all that stuff about change and resolve and leadership but were capable of carrying it out, had been wrong. That perhaps, after all, you weren’t the tip of the spear we’d been looking for; that instead, maybe you were just another politician, with above-average gifts when it came to oratory and self-promoting powers of persuasion, but who ultimately either didn’t understand the moment, or who was more interested in having a successful traditional political career than in truly leading a movement for those powerful words you spoke so often on the campaign trail in 2008: “hope,” “change,” and above all, “fundamental transformation.”
Well, Barack, it’s 2011. You’ve put some points on the board in the last three years, true, but…well, you tell me: has it seemed to YOU as if they’ve either brought about the “fundamental transformation” you spoke of so glowingly on the campaign trail, OR had the kind of motivating effect upon the citizenry you were perhaps expecting? Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you look at those accomplishments and wonder why so few consider them truly transformational, well…then we’re on the same page – at least that far.
In 2010, I think you and Joe could feel the heat from the disappointed masses of your formerly-enthused base. I suspect this because it was hard not to notice that your campaign’s considered reaction in 2010 was to embark upon a campaign to support vulnerable congressional Democrats which quite literally consisted of nothing more than “hey, consider the alternatives. We’re still better than the GOP.” Let me be the first to reassure you, Mr. President, that yes, you in fact ARE in fact still better than the GOP. And millions of Americans know it. Even most of the people who’ve been down in Zucotti Park for weeks now would agree with that statement, even if they’re mad at you.
The problem is that neither you nor anyone else can build a true movement on “we suck less than the competition” as your linchpin strategy. Those protesters no longer believe you’re actually on their side. They just know it could get worse with someone else. That means you’ll probably enjoy a not-inconsiderable fundraising run this election. And a lot of people will probably show up to pull the lever for you in November next year – especially if the alternative is Perry or Bachmann or Herman Cain. But my point for this letter is: don’t make the mistake of thinking that most of that support, whether financial or votes, is support for what you’re still trying to pretend is a grassroots upsurge of a movement all (coincidentally, of course) supporting YOU for President! Most of the people who’ve donated (again) to your campaign are doing so less because they think you’re going to make forward progress than they are grimly trying to stave off an even-worse outcome.
Because that’s what you’ve become, Barack, when you could and should have been so much more: you’ve become the guy people donate to and vote for because they want to make sure things don’t get even WORSE, not the guy whose campaign they throw their hearts, minds and bodies into because they think you’re the guy who can truly lead the fight for those fundamental transformations you talked about in 2008 – the ones that actually make things BETTER. In four short years, this is what’s happened: you’ve gone from FDR to Mike Dukakis. Those people down in Zucotti Park? You’d be right to think they’re a genuine “movement.” But although they may have been in 2008, they’re no longer a “Barack Obama movement.” The reason they’re taking to the streets is because they know now that not only is no one else going to do it for them, no one else can even be counted on when the chips are down. That’s why Democrats got walloped in 2010, Mr. President: because a lot of those people who contributed to your campaign and volunteered for it, thinking they’d finally found a champion in the halls of power, now realize they didn’t after all.
Mr. President, the final irony of it all is that in the last analysis, you were right: WE ARE the ones we’ve been waiting for. The only thing different is that we realize you’re NOT the one we were waiting for. We still want to be friends, Mr. President, we just can’t continue this kind of relationship with you any more. We know now that you aren’t going to lead us; WE have to do it. We’re finally starting to wake up to the unpleasant morning-after of crumbling infrastructure, flagging schools, insurgent corporatism, a looted treasury, and a political system which remains (three years into the “hope and change” administration) hopelessly tilted in favor of the already-privileged. We’re beginning to realize that even if you either didn’t understand or didn’t really mean all that stuff about hope and change that you’re apparently just dusting off once again in the hope that if it worked before, it’ll work again, WE bought it last time…and we’re only now beginning to realize both that it was true and that no one – not even you – is capable of leading us toward it. WE have to do it.
So, expect (most of) our votes in 2012, because we really do know how bad it could get – and has gotten. But don’t expect nearly as much of our energy or our time or our money for YOUR campaign this time around, because those things are reserved for the people and causes we truly BELIEVE IN. Back in 2008, we – perhaps mistakenly – thought that was you. Today, in 2011, we understand that if we want to have the kind of conversations about what it means to be America in 2012, we will have to start them ourselves. And that’s what we’re doing, all across this country. It may have taken us a while…but we see what needs to be done now, and we know you either can’t or won’t do it, so we will. I wish you sincere good luck this time around; it’d be nice to have your participation in the people’s conversation for the next four years. Heck, even if you don’t win, I’d like to have your participation. Hope you’ll join us.
Lars Olsson, ordinary citizen