Tuesday, May 15, 2012

You're right DFH's, Obama's just not that into you

For those who don't know, DFH stands for "dirty fucking hippy," a title many of the poutragers claim for themselves.

I use it here because I was struck by something David Maraniss said about a young Barack Obama in the excerpt from his book that was published in Vanity Fair.
He had turned away from the rhetoric of the left, dubious of its practicality and turned off by radical remnants of the 1960s, but was also leery of succumbing to the allure of the business world.
Of course this would come as no surprise to folks who'd read Obama's book The Audacity of Hope. It seemed to me that the premise of that book was to lay out the failures of both the conservatives and the 1960's radical liberals.

It would take more of a historian than I've ever been to outline in detail why a young Obama would find the 1960's liberal approach lacking. But from a big picture standpoint, I'd say its because the left went too hard too fast. Not only did they alienate a lot of the country with their approach - leading to the election and re-election of Richard Nixon - they created a backlash that we are still living with today.  The easiest way to grasp how damaging that legacy was is to look at how the left felt the need to abandon the label "liberal" (because it had become so toxic) and re-brand themselves as "progressives."

The heart of the problem was the backlash to change created by liberals. Some of the younger poutragers might not be aware of how frightened much of America became in the late 60's and early 70's. The chaos scared a lot of people. Republicans like Nixon came along and promised to be the "Daddy Party" and take control of the situation. And Americans bought it.

I'm not saying any of this to support the racist, misogynist, classist responses of the Republican Party to all of that. But when a society is scared (ie, post 9/11), they tend to reject the openness of liberalism and cling to the comfort of conservatism.

So while President Obama agreed with most of the goals of the left, he recognized early on that when it comes to electoral politics, change would have to come in a way and at a pace that most Americans could embrace in order to avoid that kind of backlash.

Think about what Andrew Sullivan said about President Obama's approach to marriage equality.
But when you step back a little and assess the record of Obama on gay rights, you see, in fact, that this [his announcement on Wednesday] was not an aberration. It was an inevitable culmination of three years of work. He did this the way he always does: leading from behind and playing the long game. He learned from Clinton that tackling this issue up front would only backfire, especially in a recession. So he bided his time.
"Leading from behind and playing the long game" means that you don't get too far out ahead of the American people and create the backlash that destroys your progress. Other than the 60's, Clinton's experience with getting out too soon on this issue is what led to DADT - and eventually DOMA - in the first place.

Whether you agree with President Obama's approach or not - that's what it is. And its why many of his most progressive accomplishments are actually hiding in plain sight. While DFH's are pinning for the "old days" of how liberals were defeated, he's showing us a new way to actually get change done...and make it last.


  1. I would imagine that Obama's distaste for the 1960's left is precisely that of Alinsky's which is that its primary accomplishment was antagonizing the right. It's primary result was Reagan.

    I used to have long hair and wore sandals to work. My wife at the time, who was and continues to be Black, expressed her disappointment: do you realize, she asked, that there is no way I can dress down like you, white guy, and be taken seriously? This applies to DFHs politically. There is no way that people of color can cop the same attitude and make any headway.

    Nor, I would stress, there is no way actual working class people can pull anything remotely like DFH behavior and improve their lives. I am very convinced that Obama sees the class struggle as the fundamental issue. He actually wants to make life better for actual working class people. This means he needs to work to create conditions for actual working people to make life better for themselves.

    The big problem in the 20th century left, with major exceptions, was the tendency toward vanguardism. At its worst, we had Stalinism, but it can be as banal as someone telling a working class person that they don't really understand their own situation. That just pisses people off, and then the white ones go vote for Reagan, or Bush.

  2. PBO is redefining what it means to be a liberal: one who allows for compromise, and doesn't see it as something to sneer at as being 'centrist', rather as a way to keep the ball rolling foward. The left in general is way overdue for a total makeover, and it needs to eschew the idea that screaming louder and being condescending to folks that are not true believers is the way toward success, since they have no real accomplishments to tout.


  3. It is such a relief to see this insight presented without said sneering condescension by hardcore Progressives. I've been making some of these arguments, and some folks have said, "You know, I'm very Progressive, but what you say makes a lot of sense." And, then, there are the hard-cores who are almost childish in their fierce pride at being Cenk Uygur-ish. Thank you -- this was shared to me on FB and am sharing onward.

  4. Anon I think that some conservatives need a makeover way more than the liberals or DFH's.

  5. Wow. Absolutely no actual policy context here. Here's the problem with "leading from behind:" you actually can't achieve meaningful change.

    It's great that Obama is slowing, mildly, the great rightward swing of the country. However, he is actually facilitating the massive concentration of wealth in a few hands, and the dramatic decline of living standards of the middle three quintiles of the population. Ultimately, those are the most fundamental threats to our way of life and democracy. How does he change that in any way by leading from behind?

    The lack of substance in this discussion should be a clue to all that read it.

    1. If you don't want to find substance, I'm sure you'll be convinced it isn't there.


      If you're really interested, the specific example I used was about GLBT rights. And if you checked my last link, there's a few more there for you.

    2. What has the vanguard Left done to change anything since the election of Reagan? They've had quite a few more years to get points on the board and to stop the concentration of wealth than President Obama has.

    3. Just like the lack of any meaningful solutions other than the usual blame game/poutrage toward the president. The concentration of wealth has been going on for more than 40+ years now, ever read the book 'Global Reach'? What about the role of Congress? State and local governments? Should PBO just stamp his feet and engage in the type of sloganeering that the 'left' is so in favor of? He NEVER said that change was gonna just come from him, how many damn times has he said 'he would need EVERYONES HELP?'

      But all he gets is the usual 'he didn't do it FAST ENOUGH to suit me'


    4. Commenters who disagree with the original post nearly always comment anonymously.


    5. And, to follow up on my last comment, idiots like me nearly always jump the gun. Dollared did indeed use a name in the comment. It was ebogan63 whose comment is under anonymous, with a name in the comment itself.

      I'm really striking out on all pitches here. Apologies.

    6. Good grief Bill...you're so damn human and all. Can you do something about that please?


  6. Let me see, for most of the sixties, the President (Obama) was a child. His mother's picture of the sixties would be a more interesting point of view. Many of us during the sixties were interested in the more liberal causes; however, couldn't bring ourselves to be DFH's, even though I have always maintained they were on the right side of everything important--you know, free love, no wars, treat all races with respect--that kind of thing. This was in addition to the fact that many of us were enslaved in the military, and not willing to be called "traitor" for deserting the service.

    1. I'm not sure what your point is in saying that Obama was a child in the 60's. It sounds like you're suggesting that unless someone was an adult during a historical period, its impossible to form an opinion about what happened or what you can learn from it.

      It that is your point, then I strongly disagree. It would make the study of history a pretty pointless enterprise.

      But on your other point, I'd agree, there were myriad different opinions in this country about what was going on in the 60's. The point I'm trying to focus on is why Obama rejected the left's approach to electoral politics during that time.

    2. I was a kid in the sixties -- didn't get politically involved til late 70s in middle school, when I began volunteering for ERA-Illinois. So my perspective is as someone whose first introduction to grassroots activism was (and continues to be) in women's rights and reproductive health (with a lot of other things tossed in the mix over the years). But I do feel frustrated when I talk to people who were very active in the peace movement, etc. in the 1960s and who bemoan that "nothing" has happened with progressive causes since then. Why? Because it's a slap in the face to people in the gay rights movement, women's movement, environmental movement, disability rights movement, and a host of other areas where there has been real progress -- if slow, and always in danger of backsliding, esp. in reproductive rights.

      But it's there, and it has been transformative. Just because those weren't necessarily the first issues on the laundry list of grievances for SDS and other vanguard lefties (I guess I'll substitute that for the "professional left" of today) doesn't mean that they weren't vital. They didn't dismantle capitalism -- but they helped get a seat at the table for a lot of voices that had been shut out. One thing that Alinsky stresses over and over in Rules for Radicals is that you have to keep celebrating the small victories -- and then keep working for more of them. It was -- what? -- 100 years from the end of slavery to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. At least 70 between Seneca Falls and women getting the right to vote (which, it should be noted, not all the Seneca Falls participants endorsed at the time).

      So I'm skeptical of people who think change should happen quickly, on their timetable, and in precisely the manner and utilizing the rhetoric and means they deem proper. I'm not sure they're really ready for the dirty, messy, and often flat-out frustrating and boring work that movements require.

  7. The poutragers are more interested in theoretical constructs that they think are "the ideal," rather than such pragmatic considerations like "will it work," "how are you going to do it," and most importantly, "can you get it passed by Congress?"

    I saw that during the health care debates, where they kept screaming about "single payer" - never mind there weren't any votes for it - or "the public option!" - again, no details about what they meant, or how they were going to pass it. Which is why they can't stand it that the most progressive President we've had in very long time actually takes things like that into consideration. They'd rather cling to their wonderful theories rather than accomplishing something.

    1. Norbrook, I noticed that, too. My god -- one of the signature progressive agenda items of the last fifty years was FINALLY going to pass, and people on the left were seriously screaming "KILL THE BILL!" because it didn't, in their view, spank the healthcare insurance industry hard enough. (Though as it turns out, most of them only learned "public option" -- apparently "medical loss ratio" was one word too many for them to memorize as a talking point.)

      When I asked "Okay, can you tell me what the whip count would have been for single payer or public option and where those votes were supposed to come from?," I got the usual lamebrain litany of "bully pulpit! Leadership! Twist arms! Polls show people want this!" Because in their bizarro-world view of civics, "public opinion poll" equals "voting seating in the Senate."

  8. I cannot tell you how much I love this post! I would add from my experience as an organizer that I recognize the President's approach as it is exactly the way community organizers work.

    This approach, when worked strategically and methodically, is very difficult to defeat because you don't try and do all the things at once rather have a long goal that you achieve through a series of measurable and attainable goals. It also requires that you know who all and I mean all the constituencies are.

    The problem with the 60s radicals model is that it is a lot of protesting (activism) but not much organizing. Protesting by itself doesn't accomplish anything except to make people feel good in that moment. After a while and when nothing is accomplished--people lose faith, feel dejected, fade away.

    It seems to me that the loudest critics of the President usually fall into the activist/protester category. They sign a few online petitions and wonder why they didn't get single payer healthcare right away.

    "If there is not struggle, there is no progress" Frederick Douglass

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