Class Unconsciousness

President Obama has gotten a lot of free advice since Nov 6 from progressives who think he should refocus his attentions on their priorities. But why should he? Since, when it appeared he needed them, they volunteered their support for his reelection without demanding anything in return, why should he now feel obligated to take their wishes seriously?

When he was first running for president, then Sen. Obama repeated the famous story about a delegation of progressives, led by the great labor organizer A. Philip Randolph of the railroad porters' union, meeting with another newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The delegation described the things they believed FDR needed to do to help fix the economy and improve the situation of ordinary citizens. As the story is told, FDR listened intently, then replied: 'I agree with everything you have said. Now, make me do it.'

Making Obama "do it" is going to take a lot more than op-ed pieces, open letters and online petitions. To move this administration in a more progressive direction, to overcome its leader's native caution and to beat back the relentless pressure it is under from the corporate class and the military-security state apparatus will require an equal or greater pressure from a national movement demanding economic justice and a restoration of the middle class. Such a movement can only be built if the identification that currently exists between the 99% and their oppressors can be broken. In other words, until Americans become class conscious there will never be a reason for Obama, or any politician, to do anything other than carry on with business as usual.

Building class consciousness won't happen -- can't happen -- by recruiting people to join the Peace and Freedom Party or the Greens (although third party mechanisms will be necessary in the future as the country continues its decline under the Democratic-Republican duopoly, so it's to be hoped that Jill Stein's paltry 396,684 tally is enough to keep the Green Party on state ballots). But class consciousness can be built by engaging in practical political work in our communities.

There are a number of local issues that are looming (or that are chronic, is more like it) -- repairing the public schools; providing universal access to public institutions of higher learning; keeping hospital emergency rooms and clinics open and accessible; raising local minimum wages to livable levels; restraining public transportation costs and assuring availability; resisting hand-outs to developers; opposing the crushing of local businesses by big-box stores and malls; increasing infrastructure spending; making state and local taxes more progressive; supporting labor actions by janitors, hotel workers, grocery clerks, teachers, factory workers -- that offer opportunities for common-sense, real-world discussions about capitalism and economic and social justice.

Also, reforms that would make our political system more democratic and thus more responsive to the majority -- weekend voting; instant run-offs; proportional representation; public financing of elections -- will only gain traction if they are tested and proven effective on the local level. And that won't happen, either, unless that majority begins to understand whose interests are served by the creaky, calcified, undemocratic political mechanism we use now.

This is not to say that we should give up attempting to affect national issues -- the security state; the war machine; our murderous and counter-productive foreign policy; the immoral drone campaign; climate change; free trade; protecting and expanding Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security; the private health care insurance gravy train; control of the government by oligarchs; the kleptocracy -- but these are matters for discussion and op-ed pages; organizing around them will only make sense when people active locally begin to connect the dots between community concerns and macro issues, and local organizations join together to demand change on these national issues.

The Democratic Party as a whole has moved steadily to the right for four decades. But many people within the party who share our goals are potential allies in local fights; these engaged people also need and deserve support when they resist the pro-business, anti-labor forces that dominate the party. After the "change" election in 2008, many on the left suffered buyer's remorse when Obama adopted a business-as-usual attitude toward governing (and doubled-down on many of Bush's worst security-state policies); yet four-years later they found themselves with seemingly no choice but to push once again for the lesser-of-two-evils option. If we're going to use our limited personal energies in electoral politics going forward, it should be in local races and political institutions where we can build trust with our communities and demonstrate concrete results. If this country is going to begin down a new road, the journey will start at Neighborhood Watch and the PTA, in community organizations, planning commissions and city councils. Not only is it possible to make concrete changes in our lives at the micro-political level, but local successes will demonstrate the practical worth of our ideas.

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