Obama has let Clinton characterize the 1990s as a nirvana, rather than a time that sowed the seeds of our current troubles. He barely criticizes the Clinton administration for championing job-killing trade agreements. He does not question that same administration's role in deregulating the financial industry and thereby intensifying today's boom-bust catastrophes. And he rarely points out what McClatchy Newspapers reported this week: that Clinton spent most of her career at a law firm "where she represented big companies and served on corporate boards," including Wal-Mart's. Obama hasn't touched any of this for two reasons. First, his campaign relies on corporate donations. Though Obama certainly is less industry-owned than Clinton, the Washington Post noted last spring that he was the top recipient of Wall Street contributions. That cash is hush money, contingent on candidates silencing their populist rhetoric. But while this pressure to keep quiet affects all politicians, it is especially intense against black leaders. "If Obama started talking like John Edwards and tapped into working-class, blue-collar proletarian rage, suddenly all of those white voters who are viewing him within the lens of transcendence would start seeing him differently," says Charles Ellison of the University of Denver's Center for African American Policy. That's because once Obama parroted Edwards' attacks on greed and inequality, he would "be stigmatized as a candidate mobilizing race," says Manning Marable, a Columbia University history professor. That is, the media would immediately portray him as another Jesse Jackson -- a figure whose progressivism has been (unfairly) depicted as racial politics anathema to white swing voters. Remember, this is always how power-challenging African-Americans are marginalized. The establishment cites a black leader's race- and class-unifying populism as supposed proof of his or her radical, race-centric views. An extreme example of this came from the FBI, which labeled Martin Luther King Jr. "the most dangerous man in America" for talking about poverty. More typical is the attitude exemplified by Joe Klein's 2006 Time magazine column. He called progressive Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., "an African American of a certain age and ideology, easily stereotyped" and "one of the ancient band of left-liberals who grew up in the angry hothouse of inner-city, racial-preference politics."
But at the same time, I even think Sirota is kind of minimizing Obama's own orientation in all this; it almost sounds like he's saying "Obama wants to be a real lefty, he really does, but he's gotta be all stealth about it!" How do I know, then, what he really wants? In Obama's defense (sort of) I have heard him say "even though I'm a progressive, I will reach across the aisles," which seems to suggest just that: he's a progressive willing to compromise with centrists and conservatives. That would be much more of a coherent statement, though, if he were not so materially reliant on corporations, and didn't have some very troubling folks advising him on economics (thanks for the citation, Renegade Eye!).
If the response is that reliance on corporate support is the ONLY way for a candidate to be viable, that sounds equal parts defensive and a symptom of the disease. In light of all the conversation around here lately about the long-term implications of reform versus revolutionary politics, and their permutability, what I am beginning to see is the necessity of constantly keeping this conversation alive at every stage of the political process. Keep reminding ourselves, reminding the public, that the reason--the actual cause--of our political ideals being dashed time and again, the reason we have to "settle for less," is the corporate colonization of politics. Those whose political priorities favor fighting against corporatism specifically needn't be in conflict with those whose priorities favor getting the most progressive candidates elected in any given election. But for those two forces to work together, the critique, the conversation, must be kept alive.
Remember, too, that within the current system, the ability to deliver on progressive promises like health care is always contingent on capitalism's continued growth and expansion. To sign onto a progressive health plan is to sign onto the ship sailing smooth waters. When waters get rough, the owners will take away those extras, and if and when the ship goes down, so will progressive politics, so will the educational system, so will academic debate and the ability to reason through these dilemmas, so will the network of current institutions dedicated to fairly distributing those scraps...at the very least, again, a reason to keep talking about the unpleasantries of capital. The economic overwhelms the political, and will until we decide not to let it anymore.