Past, Present and Future: The Politics of Reform in the Era of Obama


I don't remember what the world was like before Ronald Reagan. My first political memory is of the day John Hinkley shot him. That was March 30, 1981. I was eight.

Reagan recovered. Just about five months later, he fired his own shots in what would be the opening of an almost 30-year war on the US and global working class by firing some 17,000 air traffic controllers in the late summer of 1981. Ironically, PATCO, the union he had broken with this action, had endorsed Reagan in the 1980 campaign – a symptom of the backward nature of much of the US labor movement at the time. With these actions, Reagan led the ultra right to an ascendancy that transformed the social landscape in this country for decades.

We have come a long way since those days. The election of Barack Obama marked a watershed in American history. We are now on the threshold of some major social, political and economic changes that could finally bring the Reagan-Bush era to a much-needed end.

But such a claim will have to await history's judgment. I think we all agree that this election, as important and barrier-shattering as it was, and the united struggle we waged for the outcome itself was not enough to ensure anything like a final victory for a pro-labor or democratic agenda. But it gave us hope.

We also knew, because of the very nature of the broad multi-class alliance that brought President Obama into office and powered a huge landslide for the Democrats in Congress, that winning passage of that agenda would be fraught with contradictions, setbacks and missed opportunities. But before we allow the reality of the process to get us down or become cynical about our participation in that election struggle, let's remember a few of the victories already won in the past few months.

For example:

• the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
• a massive land conservation law
• a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq
• the stimulus package
• children's health insurance program expansion (which added 3 million kids to the health care rolls and prevented the recession from worsening the number of uninsured - so far)
• the administration's commitment to regulating global warming-causing carbon pollution
• new big investments in education and the green economy
• new investments in aid for college students
• the opening of new fronts in protecting the environment from corporate greed
• landmark rulings, appointments and rules regarding workers rights and civil rights
• Obama's decision to halt missile defense
• re-opening of dialogue with Bush's "axis of evil": Cuba, North Korea, Iran and others

– to name a few.

In addition to these partial victories, we can be optimistic about some other potential advances:

• health reform with a public insurance program
• a renewed push for jobs and economic revival
• marriage equality
• the Employee Free Choice Act
• a deescalation in Afghanistan
• Wall Street reform
• a hate crimes bill that includes protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,
• credit card reform
• student loan reform
• an employment non-discrimination bill
• education reforms
• an end to the unfair "don't ask, don't tell" exclusion of gay people from the military
• a meaningful peace process in the Middle East

Each of these things is now on the agenda.

I have no doubt that these victories, even the imperfect ones and potential future ones, signal new possibilities for the labor-led democratic movement and its allies in the struggles for a just economy, environmental protections, civil rights and especially for peace.

Why do I say this is a watershed moment? In the Reagan years, labor creaked along, hobbled by disunity and the social conservatism that infected its leadership. Both on domestic and foreign policy issues, labor's leadership too often stood behind Reagan's anti-communism and the anti-working-class cultural values he pushed, i.e., the values of unrestrained “free-market” capitalism.

In the international arena, Reagan's support for extremist thugs in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere is well-known. At home, his tax policies shifted the burden of the federal debt and overseas military interventions onto the backs of workers.

Reagan opened an era in which he both with his words and his policies brutalized workers, the poor, the mentally ill, women and African American people other minorities and the environment. His administration declared open warfare on 'government' as the cause of people's problems, shifting the focus from corporate greed and intense exploitation. Indeed, the 1988 movie Wall Street captured much of the ethos of the Reagan era when Michael Douglas, playing the Wall Street wolf Gordon Gekko said, 'Greed is good.' The maxim that what is good for business is good for everyone ruled the day.

In the intervening period, the size of the organized working class shrank from close to 30 percent of the work force in 1980 to about 10 percent today. While profits and productivity steadily climbed upward over the course of that time, wage growth for working families slowed, and in the past eight years it has gone into reverse. The vaunted myth of social mobility in America became little more than a pipe dream for most people.

Meanwhile, Reagan and his followers slashed anti-poverty programs. They downsized programs that provide educational opportunities, health care, food and shelter for the poor and unemployed. They promoted trade and economic policies that dismantled the manufacturing sector of the economy and opened the modern era of globalized exploitation.

The threat of nuclear war intensified. The Reaganites funneled more and more of the country's resources to military contractors who reaped bigger and bigger profits at the expense of peace and a humane economy.

War itself became a mainstay. Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Iraq II, Afghanistan, a global war on terror and a war on drugs became intimate parts of our lives. Thousands of working-class Americans and many hundreds of thousands in other countries were sacrificed to the right-wing agenda.

Right-wing extremism grew. Fanatical anti-government groups crawled out of the woodwork to set fire to parts of the country when the Clinton administration tried to march the country in another direction.

But in 1995 a new movement began to take shape.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War mentality, trade-union conservatism and anti-communism no longer seemed meaningful for most working-class Americans. A new class-struggle orientation emerged in the labor movement with the election of the John Sweeney group to the leadership of the AFL-CIO that year, as Scott Marshall, the Communist Party's labor commission chair describes in our latest podcast.

While disunity of the people's movement in the 2000 election coupled with the well-financed Bush campaign and the thievery that took place in Florida blocked a victory for the working class in that election, the need for unity and a comprehensive progressive agenda became even more urgent and necessary.

That struggle for unity centered on the anti-people policies of the Bush administration. Although it did not achieve its goals in 2004, ultimately this proved to be a winning tactic, culminating in the victories of 2008. Labor leaders and activists, this time, refused to embrace Bush's wars. The head of the Michigan State Federation of Labor, for example, in 2003 linked opposition to the war in Iraq with defeating Bush, calling it a necessary step toward electing a labor ally to the White House. As a result of coalescing around a progressive and pro-peace agenda, today labor is more unified, more militant and ready to fight for democratic rights, peace and equality than ever before.

Before he left office disgraced, George W. Bush presided over the collapse of the Reagan-Bush economy. I characterize the economy this way not only because Reagan-Bush policies caused its collapse, but also because both ultra-right ideology and the structure of the economy as it developed over the past 30 years was essentially the handiwork of Reagan and his Republican disciples.

The crisis not only exposed the bankruptcy of right-wing ideology and policies, it also signaled a deep crisis in capitalism. Most Americans now no longer accept the Republican dogma that the government, public programs and taxes are inefficient and wasteful and the main cause of America's problems. No longer do we blindly accept their slogans that private enterprise alone can achieve the common good, or that unregulated capitalism promotes a better society.

Republican ideology, in fact, made us laugh (and cry) during the 2008 election campaign as comedic representations of it propelled shows like Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report to new heights in viewer ratings.

Today, capitalism itself is on the ropes. Discussions of socialism have appeared in several major media outlets. Other alternatives to the inhumane and greedy logic of capitalism dominated by ultra-right policies circulate widely. Michael Moore's movie Capitalism: A Love Story opened as a major box office success, even if pro-capitalist media critics failed to appreciate his scathing critique of Wall Street and the system they dominate.

A majority of people now also demand a 'public option' in health care that provides 'real' competition for the private insurers. This fact reveals a profound rejection of the Reaganite theory of the beneficent private market.

Soon we could hear demands for a public option in auto and transportation, a public option in housing, a public option in banking and credit, a public option in energy and all of those other areas of our economy in which corporate greed and corruption have stolen the people's resources or exploit workers.

This new moment also signals a shift in the political priorities of the labor and democratic movement. From fighting to defend ourselves against Reagan-Bush policies, we have begun to take the offense in the effort to build a more just and democratic society.

Here I would like to get a little theoretical. I think we have to view the working-class struggle as operating on two planes. First, we are involved in the day-to-day struggle for limited reforms as represented in the legislative and electoral arenas. It is a fight that requires a common commitment to unity with the centrist political forces on many issues. But this level of struggle isn't the horizon of our larger push for a democratic society.

It is on that second plane that we fight for the long-term health of our movement – the unity, strategic militancy and global alliances of our class. The era of Bush and Reagan taught us valuable lessons about this dimension of the fight. We often failed to accomplish the immediate goals of our struggles in those days, but in the process we scored some victories on a higher plane: the development of an increasingly broader unity of labor and democratic forces, the coalition that swept Barack Obama into office in 2008.

This united movement alone, composed of a majority of American workers together with their democratic, multi-class allies, can win in the political struggle for immediate reforms and in the ideological struggle against the brutality of capitalism and for a just and democratic society. Maintaining and building this unity is our constant task.

We can accomplish this both in the realm of ideas and in the political movement itself.

First, we can promote and deepen a nationwide community of shared values that links the quality of our individual lives to a shared understanding of the common good. Here, we can take this idea far beyond the basic notion that government can beneficially provide basic services and resources, or that it should be the ally of working families rather than big business. We can start to argue that we, the working-class people of this country, have the right and the responsibility to claim control of our everyday existence in our workplaces and our communities to make the changes we need.

Second, rather than promoting cynicism and division, we can adopt a practical but visionary stance that finds opportunities for social progress through unity and movement building in each of the struggles we face.

Third, we can and should view the struggle for immediate reform as inseparably linked – rather than a barrier – to the longer fight that for more fundamental, systemic change upon which true democracy, equality and liberty depend.

Finally, with his words and deeds, President Obama has consistently shown himself to be the strongest ally of the labor and democratic movement. He is not our enemy. And in the fight for reforms and deeper social change, let us save our strongest rhetorical jabs and critical barbs for the slaveholder mentality that still dominates among Reagan's ideological heirs, whether they be leaders of the Republican Party, bankers and big business lobbyists or military generals.

Those are the people who eagerly wait in the wings, yearning for the opportunity to return to power and restore Reagan's eroded legacy, the legacy of a pro-big-business, anti-people Republican president who started us on the path to economic devastation. Those are the ones our movement must continue to isolate, expose and discredit, that is if we're to have a future.