“President Obama is a Screen Onto Which We Project our Most Intimate Affinities and Intense Anxieties”: Harvard’s Tim McCarthy on the Cult of Consensus, President Obama’s Cognitive Dissonance, and How American Can Avoid Ending Up Like the Roman Empire

by Matt B. on May 24, 2012

Timothy Patrick McCarthy is core faculty and director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He also served as a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council.

This interview took place in March, when Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were still in the Republican presidential race.

MATT BIEBER: You wrote recently that you were “disgusted” with the GOP candidates. Two questions: first, do the things that disgust you surprise you? And second, do you think that expressing that disgust is useful strategically?

TIM MCCARTHY: Great questions. This is what happens when you’re someone like me who posts aggressively on Facebook as a way to vent my spleen!

My principal source of disgust stems from the fact that I don’t believe for one second that any of these men have the nation’s best interest at heart during a very difficult trial in our nation’s history. Now, as a longstanding member of the “democratic wing” of the Democratic Party, I will fully acknowledge that I am biased when I look at them and listen to them and try to interpret what they’re saying and gauge what they’re doing. I’m just not in their camp—never have been and never will be.

That said, when I look at the current crop of Republican candidates, I don’t see a lot of positive, proactive—to say nothing of progressive—kinds of policy solutions being laid on the table that a broad sector of the American people can actually entertain as legitimate alternatives and suggestions to move us forward. I think that they are motivated in different ways by a kind of ideological purism (which I think Santorum represents), a kind of egotistical megalomania (which I think Gingrich represents), and a kind of elite entitlement (which is what I think drives Romney). I just don’t see them offering up a set of policy proposals and alternatives that can be seriously debated and considered by reasonable people.

MB: What kind of issues are you thinking about in particular?

TM: Certainly on social issues, they’re so far outside where the country has moved on women’s reproductive rights, birth control, gay rights, immigration, and these kinds of things. They even want to get rid of the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency—which, by the way, are never going to be abolished!  So let’s stop all this ridiculous pandering to the worst kind of anti-government hysteria.

We can talk about education reform and immigration reform; we can talk about different approaches to climate change, global warming. But let’s talk about the research and science that’s on the table, let’s debate it, rather than just reject academics and scientists because they teach at so-called “elite universities.” Let’s talk about their research, and if you don’t agree with it, then tell me why you don’t agree with it. What research have you done? What are your hypotheses and methodologies?  Who on your team has done serious research that arrives at different kinds of findings? Let’s have that conversation. Likewise, if you don’t like teachers’ unions, let’s talk about different models for education reform, rather than simply call for the abolition of the Department of Education, which is doing really important work in a whole range of areas.  We need to replace this silly scapegoating with serious debate.  There’s too much at stake.

And when it comes to foreign policy, I don’t think they can beat Obama.  Now, I have a longstanding critique of Obama’s foreign policy agenda—his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, the slow pace of withdrawal in Afghanistan, the reprehensible use of drone attacks, among other things—but I am nonetheless relieved that he seems to be less of a knee-jerk “hawk” than his Republican predecessors and even many of his fellow Democrats. But the GOP strategy is to ignore the things that President Obama has done well to advance an indiscriminate war cry for endless engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now, another hasty, preemptive military strike against Iran. Politically, financially, morally, that’s an untenable set of positions. It’s warmongering at its worst, ideologically driven, an attempt to say that everything President Obama does is wrong.

So that’s why I’m disgusted from a policy standpoint. The second piece of the disgust for me is that in the process of running for president, these folks have reinvigorated a pernicious kind of “dog-whistle” politics around race and class that I find to be absolutely insidious, and frankly ancient. Most of us, many of us, have gotten beyond the point where a candidate can invoke the claim that Barack Obama is “the best food stamp President in American history” and think that reasonable citizens are not going to see that for what it is. It’s the classic racialization of poverty, which had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, now being projected onto America’s first black President.  It’s a deliberate strategy of trying to denigrate poor people and black people, equating poverty with blackness and blackness with poverty (which are two different, if interrelated things).

To me, this smacks of a kind of ancient race-baiting that this country needs to move beyond. If you are going to make a legitimate claim to the presidency of the United States in the 21st century, when we have just elected the first African-American president, then you have to put an end to this. You have to do as John McCain tried to do during the 2008 campaign, to his credit, and dismiss this kind of race-baiting. I mean, McCain had surrogates, including Sarah Palin, who sometimes did it for him. But he himself did not engage in this kind of petty “dog whistle” race-baiting.

But these guys—especially Gingrich and Santorum—are going right to the heart of this, I mean, right to the heart of this.  And it’s not just them; it’s all these other people running on the GOP ticket in all sorts of state-level races and congressional races and so forth.  It’s got to stop.

MB: You used the word “pandering” a minute ago. What’s interesting to me about some of these candidates is that I don’t actually get the sense that they are aware of themselves or think of themselves as pandering. Deep down, I think Rick Santorum believes the stuff that he’s saying on class and race and economic inequality. I think Romney’s sense of entitlement and relative ignorance of what it’s like to be poor in America actually shines through pretty clearly. Same with Gingrich, and he’s the one who’s been doing the worst of this race-baiting stuff. 

I agree that they’re pandering on some issues, but on this one, it doesn’t actually feel that way to me. Which in a way is worse, but in a way is, well, hopeful.

TM: Well, you know, with all due respect, I think that’s a generational thing. You’re young and God bless you for that; I wish I were young again!  But you know, for me, listening to Newt Gingrich takes me back to a place. I came of age politically when he was becoming famous politically—or infamous, depending on one’s perspective. When he was rising through the ranks of the Republican Party and then, in 1994, with the Republican takeover of Congress during the Clinton administration, all of this race baiting—on crime, welfare, rap music, multiculturalism, affirmative action—was almost routine. It was such a core part of the Republican strategy to dismantle the Great Society programs of the 1960s and 1970s, when we actually did tackle poverty – not in a way that was completely successful, but there were policies committed to economic redistribution and the broad general social welfare that helped the least among us, that actually had enormous success in doing some of the things that they set out to do.

And Gingrich was a part of a concerted effort driven by these so-called “Christian” conservatives (who are hard to call Christian when it comes to how they treat the poor!) and these so-called “small government” conservatives (who do love their wars!), all of whom are hell-bent on dismantling the welfare state that was originally created during the New Deal and then expanded during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations. Don’t forget that Nixon put in place the first federal affirmative action programs for minority-owned businesses. But that’s not a conversation these people want to have. Richard Nixon would never have a shot at the nomination in today’s Republican Party. He’s too liberal, which just shows you how far to the right we’ve moved in this country. Reagan couldn’t even get the GOP nomination today.

So, for me, much of the current discourse around race and class issues within Republican circles smacks of a kind of 1980s and 1990s conservatism. I see this as a return to a kind of insidious politics rather than a watered-down version of what has happened in the past. Perhaps that’s because my ears are very well trained to hear the dog whistle, having lived through that time and having fought on the Left in those culture war battles when I was a young graduate student living in New York City, during Giuliani’s reign and Clinton’s retreat. You know the kinds of things that we were fighting against: the dismantling of the welfare state, the racialization of poverty, police brutality, these kinds of things, which are really arenas in which I earned my chops and sharpened my social and political analysis. This, to me, seems like a return to all that—only this time, we have a real black President who has become a target for these irrational fears.

MB: But pandering suggests insincerity, doesn’t it? That’s what I’m trying to get at. One of the troubling things about Gingrich’s rhetoric is that it actually feels sincere, even if it’s misguided.

TM: I think it’s absolutely not the case with Gingrich, because Gingrich panders to those kinds of elements, and then the next day accuses both Romney and President Obama of being divisive. You can’t say in the same week—to virtually all-white audiences—that “Spanish is the language of the ghetto,” that Barack Obama is “the best food stamp president in American history,” and that he needs to “stop singing and start governing” (after an appearance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem), and then—the very next day after a primary where he got hammered—step up to the podium and say that Barack Obama and others are responsible for dividing America.  You can’t do that and expect to be considered sincere, can you?  Perhaps we have different definitions of “sincerity.”

MB: It’s a tricky word to use in this case. I get the sense that he thinks of himself as a gadfly figure, a prophet whose statements represent hard truths. Not so much about Obama singing, but I definitely have that sense about his description of Spanish as the “language of the ghetto.” Sure, much of his analysis is rooted in false premises, but I get the sense that he’s so love with his own intellect that he doesn’t work too hard at being consistent.

TM: See, I think there’s a difference here, because I think that Newt Gingrich is a man whose entire political career (and personal life) is built on a series of lies and betrayals. In my mind, he’s not someone who can be taken seriously as someone who’s bringing a hard truth that we’re not ready to hear, particularly when the people he’s talking about—black people and brown people, immigrants and other minorities—are precisely the people who have historically been used in this way to score political advantage. We can go back even further than the 1980s and 1990s to find examples of these groups being scapegoated to advance conservative policies that actually made their lives, already tough, more miserable.

But let’s think about Mitt Romney. Romney is a man who is running away from his only political record. He’s running for the presidency and away from his governorship. This seems incredible to me, but then again, Romney has a long history of shifting the terrain once he sets his sights on the Next Big Thing. I have a very personal connection to this. In the last year he was governor, he ended up slashing a whole bunch of programs that disproportionately benefited poor people in Massachusetts, including a program that I run in Dorchester, which had been supported, in part, with some state funding.

This is a program that runs on a $117,000 annual budget. Much of that we get from Mass Humanities and private donors, but we also have a line item in the education section of the governor’s budget. Romney cut this line item as a part of a larger effort to slash so-called “welfare” programs. The problem is that the program I directed—the Clemente Course in the Humanities—is not a welfare program; it’s a community-based, college-level adult education program run out of a remarkable community health center located in one of Boston’s most resilient neighborhoods. The program is excellent, one of the flagship programs of its kind in the nation, and the community health center is a remarkable, award-winning organization that provides a host of services to thousands of community residents. And yet in his last year as governor, Romney cut the funding for this and other programs to shore up his conservative credentials just as he was preparing to run for the presidency the first time.  Perhaps this is what he meant when he said he was “severely conservative.”  Indeed.

But to me, there’s nothing at all sincere about shoring up your conservative “street cred” by screwing people on the street. That’s what too many Republicans do, and that’s what he did.  Perhaps it’s the curse of the Irish, but I’ll never forget that.  And I’ll work like hell to make sure he never gets to punish America the way he punished those of us in Massachusetts.

Let’s get real:  Romney is the king of insincerity, and I do think you’re right insofar as he is oblivious to the kind of experiences that ordinary people have, those of us who are poor, working or middle class. He can’t even begin to understand what this kind of life would be like, what our lives are like, so he can’t have any empathy, and he comes across as being completely tone-deaf to these kinds of experiences. That will continue to be the case because he’s just not someone who is ever going to connect or empathize with—to say nothing of support or care for—ordinary folks. He’s no Franklin Roosevelt, that’s for sure!

MB: You can see Romney trying to squeeze himself into these new clothes, including when talks about having had “a severely conservative record as governor.” 

TM: No, he didn’t, until the very end.

MB: Right. He can’t possibly believe that. With Gingrich, it’s easier for me to imagine that he thinks what he’s saying is true at the moment he’s saying it. 

TM: Look, let’s be honest: If you’re going to be in politics at the national level, you’re going to have to pander. You’re going to do things that are inconsistent with the record that you may have had in the past.  And you are going to have to account for that. There are very few politicians at the national level who have had fully consistent careers. Barack Obama doesn’t have a fully consistent career politically. He’s gone back on things that he promised. He’s done things that his past wouldn’t have predicted. He’s been more conservative than his record might suggest in some arenas and he’s been more progressive than his record would suggest in others—that’s part of politics.

Getting back to your original question about what disgusts me about these guys, it’s the abject pandering and intentional dishonesty that disgusts me.  I’m not saying that Barack Obama’s perfect, far from it, but these guys are chronically and constitutionally imperfect in a way that I think will prevent the nation from moving forward from this crucible we’re experiencing right now.

The other question you asked me, which I want to get back to, is this question of whether expressing disgust is strategically advantageous. Are you asking whether it’s strategically advantageous for someone like me, specifically, to be doing this, or whether it’s strategically advantageous for the Left, generally, to be doing this?

MB: Let’s talk about you in the context of your Facebook posts. Are these venting moments, or are your posts meant to animate your readers in a certain way?

TM: I think both. Personally and politically, we all need places to vent, and I know that when I go on Facebook and vent my frustrations with Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney or any one of the other candidates, I know that I’m going to get some kind of instant gratification from my friends who are equally or even more frustrated.

I also use Facebook in other ways that are more strategic. I often post provocative articles—not necessarily articles I agree with but articles that have provoked me in some way—because I want to provoke others and try to generate the kind of discussion across identity, experience, and ideology I think we need (I have a pretty diverse range of “friends” on Facebook).

I’m also from the political school – maybe I’m a “Saul Alinsky radical,” as Newt Gingrich claims the President is, or maybe I’ve just studied too much Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx, and the like – that sees conflict as the principal engine for social change. There’s never been a moment in history where broad consensus without conflict has resulted in a great leap forward. The moments of profound change in this country—whether you’re talking about the American Revolution or the Civil War or the New Deal or the 1960s or even now—were not moments of universal consensus, where we all hold hands as a nation and talk to one another, quietly and respectfully, about how cool it would be to pass the Civil Rights Act, or how great it would be to abolish slavery, or how amazing it would be if women got the right to vote, or how wonderful it would be if gay people could get married, or how awesome it would be if we declared our independence from Britain. Progress is forged in the crucible of conflict, not the cult of consensus. Creating a kind of division in or break with this cult of consensus is the way that we foment the kind of contentious politics that has always produced the possibility for great change, in this country as elsewhere.

But I think there’s a difference between being provocative and contentious for the sake of a broader vision for social change or justice, and being intentionally divisive for the sake of one’s political livelihood. I think Newt Gingrich does the latter. Divisive is what the CPAC Conference was in February. Divisive is separating people into two sorts of realities and two existences for the purpose of raising one up and diminishing the other. And when I think about what it means to be divisive, I’m talking about divisiveness in terms of groups of people who are defined by things that are beyond their choice or control in some ways – like the idea of dividing white people and black people, straight people and gay people, rich people and poor people, men and women – for the purpose of making sure that one of these groups is somehow diminished, denigrated or discriminated against.

We can think about the Occupy Movement in this context, too. Though I support much of what Occupy is trying to do in terms of transforming our public debate about war, wealth, and our collective well-being, I’m not one of those people who wants the 99% to rule so that we can put the 1% in Guantanamo Bay. I don’t believe in just flipping the proverbial script. We can acknowledge that there are good rich people and bad poor people—and vice versa—and still also acknowledge that our economic system is in many ways rotten to the core, and that a system that produces such gross disparities between rich and poor is acting against the interests of the common good. In other words, we can have a contentious political conversation about the realities of economic inequality in America, how we might resolve these problems, without reproducing the hierarchies and stereotypes that have no place in a truly just world.

MB: I’m thinking about Alinsky’s quote about how you have to polarize to mobilize but depolarize to settle. In that moment, there is a division going on, isn’t there? It’s just a more legitimate division, one that isn’t based on things like skin color or whatever. It’s perhaps a momentary political division in the name of progress.

TM: Yeah. When I’m talking about divisiveness, I’m talking about divisiveness that functions as a way to produce discrimination and perpetuate disparities between one social group and another. I don’t see restoring tax rates to Clinton-era levels as discriminating against my friends who make over a million dollars a year, and I don’t know many of them who think that, either. But when Mitt Romney gets up at CPAC and says, “I will support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman,” he is voicing a division that serves explicitly to disenfranchise and discriminate against my husband and me, and countless other queer couples.  That’s personal, and unjust.

When folks get up and say, “We’re going to abolish the Department of Education” or “We’re going to turn these kids into janitors,” that creates a certain kind of division between people who have easy access to education and people who struggle to gain that access, people who can choose their employment and people who can’t.

We can have a conversation about what our educational landscape would look like if the Department of Education were abolished, but one thing’s for sure: public school kids—meaning the vast majority of kids from poor, working, and middle class families—would be totally screwed.  Frankly, it would be a much bigger crisis than any of these GOP candidates knows or acknowledges, assuming that they’ve actually thought about the consequences of their policy positions. I’m not convinced they have.

You know, there are people on the Right, or people who oppose the Occupy Movement, who think that making the rich pay more in taxes is a form of discrimination against the rich. I don’t happen to agree with that argument. I think that argument is selfish, and I think that argument has nothing to do with the pursuit of a fair or just society. But we can have that debate, and the Occupy folks saying “Tax the rich!” is one way to create that kind of debate.

If I were the White House press secretary, or working intimately with the Obama campaign, which I’m not, this obviously wouldn’t be the tone or tenor that I would lead with in public life. But that’s not my role. My goal is to help do whatever I can to get people to critically examine the reality in which we live and to help move us towards a reality that is more fair and just, more equitable and free, for more people than is presently the case. My goal is very simple in that regard, but I also understand the profound limitations of my own place in this society. I mean, who am I?

MB: It’s interesting you brought up Alinsky, and it’s perhaps ironic that Gingrich is calling Obama an “Alinsky radical.” After all, Alinsky thought in terms of power analysis, of how contention is sometimes necessary for victory. And a lot of the left’s critique of Obama is precisely that he hasn’t been contentious enough! 

Of course, one might respond by saying that Obama’s done a very subtle kind of power analysis by counting votes in Congress and squeezing through a health care bill, for example. 

But it’s clear that he’s not a president who’s been all that fiery at the rostrum, banging the table or giving Four Freedoms-style speeches. So it feels especially ironic that he’s getting tagged with this label. 

What are your thoughts on that? And why do you think Gingrich has been bringing Alinsky up in the first place? After all, he’s not someone most people know about. 

TM: I think Gingrich is doing a couple of things here. First, he’s trying to position himself as a credible historian; he always talks about being a historian, which I find very funny for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m a historian, too. My ears always perk up whenever he says, “As a historian, blah, blah, blah,” because I’m interested in what’s going to happen next once he says that. He often says things after he invokes the ethos of the historian that probably wouldn’t pass muster in most graduate programs that I know of in American history or any other kind of history.

I also think he’s trying to demonstrate that he has some kind of knowledge that’s privileged, that other people don’t have. He often does that, and there’s a good article to be written, if it hasn’t been written already, about Newt Gingrich as “historian-at-large.” He is in desperate need of a peer review!

You know, Alinsky was a Chicago community organizer. He’s trying to link Obama to that, to the glorious radicalism that is part of Chicago’s modern history. But as you say, Obama demonstrates none of the political temperament of a Saul Alinsky-type community organizer, despite the fact that he was a community organizer in Chicago where Saul Alinsky made his fame.

But the irony is even deeper in that Obama is a former community organizer. Alinsky was always a community organizer, and he didn’t write Rules for Radicals for the President of the United States. He wrote Rules for Radicals for people engaged in contentious political work and community organizing at the grassroots level. Not that there aren’t lessons that we can all learn from it, but Alinsky’s work was not written with Congressional and Presidential candidates as the intended audience, so we need to keep that in perspective.

I was joking with somebody the other day. I said, “You know, the invocation of Saul Alinsky is probably going to hurt Elizabeth Warren more than it’s going to hurt Barack Obama.” I’m sure you’ve seen the ad linking Elizabeth Warren to Occupy Wall Street and the intellectual “theories” of radicalism that they purport to represent. So, you know, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

That said, I am actually thrilled by the Alinsky invocation, precisely because most people think about their lives in local and immediate and short-term ways. They think about how they’re going to pay the bills, whether or not their kids are going to go to a good school, how this is going to affect their small business. Even when you think about the healthcare reform bill, small business owners are thinking, “How is this going to affect me in running my business? How will this drive costs up or down? What’s that going to mean in terms of me wanting to hire or retain X number of employees?” You know, people think of things in local or personal terms, particularly people who are parents, people who are responsible for other people in their lives, whether it’s in a business or a family or a broader community.

But if people take the next step to actually read Alinsky, they will understand that his political framework was about trying to wrestle power from elites for the benefit of the majority of people living their lives at the local level. If people actually read Alinsky, they might realize that we’re all more radical than we think we are.

Whether or not that’s going to happen is another question, because we do live in a world of sound bites and Swift Boat mythologies where we’re able to invoke Alinsky as a kind of radical, tar and feather Obama with that kind of claim, link it to Chicago, and then move on. I’m not sure if Rules for Radicals has experienced a spike on Amazon.com in the aftermath of Gingrich mentioning him. Perhaps it has. Who knows? If that’s the case, it’s a welcome thing.

As for Obama, one of the most striking things about his presidency is that he has very humble, unorthodox roots in the sense of being raised in Hawaii, being a biracial kid in Indonesia, all these different pieces, and he also has these roots as both a community organizer and constitutional lawyer. I mean, he has all these very interesting elements to his background, all of which have shaped him in different ways. This is one of the reasons why he’s so hard to figure out – most of us don’t have that combination of local and global, personal and professional influences. And so, he seems foreign to us in some ways, but then really familiar to us other ways, and so we project onto him what we will, which has always been the case since he’s been in the national spotlight. In a way, I feel badly for him; he’s a screen onto which we project our most intimate affinities and intense anxieties.

But the deeper irony here, I think, is that the very set of forces that conspired to produce this historical moment, when the United States was ready to elect its first black President, were actually put in motion by people like Saul Alinsky and the political activists who fomented the various rebellions throughout our history that produced the great social changes that made it possible for Barack Obama to go to Harvard Law School, do the kind of successful community organizing work that he did, and run and win the presidency. Without the Saul Alinskys of the world, there would be no President Obama.

Obama pledged to change the way that we do politics, right? If I were him, I’d say this, over and over: “We need to keep doing the kind of contentious politics that got people like Hillary Clinton and me where we are today. Let’s keep practicing that kind of politics! Let’s keep fomenting rebellions to create opportunities for more people to be part of our political democracy.” Now, that’s some change I could believe in!

MB: It feels like there’s some tension between what you said earlier – about how Alinsky’s methodologies are the sorts of things that work in a certain community context but they’re not the sorts of things that work if you’re president. 

TM: Right, exactly. But the other piece of that is this: how does the President govern with a divided Congress, or even with a united Congress (which he had for the first two years)? Obviously, the sort of contentious politics that exists at the level of grassroots organizing, in social movements, that causes change – that doesn’t always work in Congress. That same contention perhaps forestalls or prevents the compromise or consensus that would lead to the passage of certain types of legislation.

Maybe Barack Obama’s right. Maybe most of us are thinking in the here and now, in the short term, and we don’t really recognize the long-term picture. I think it was Joe Klein or one of the pundits who said at one point after the healthcare debate that “Obama’s playing chess and the rest of us are playing checkers.” I think there may be a case to be made for that – and we could all be wrong.

On the other hand, one could make the case that he shouldn’t want to change politics as it currently exists, because contention at the grassroots actually made it possible for him to get to a place where he could govern in the first place. But perhaps there’s a whole different set of governing strategies to think about once he gets there. Maybe this is the difference between “politics” and governing or legislating. Maybe the political processes that take place outside of formal political institutions must be contentious in order to create the conditions that would elect news kinds of people, who then have to engage in a politics of compromise and consensus within these political institutions.

And maybe that’s what is at the root of our political problem in this country, which is that there are two fundamentally different kinds of politics located in two fundamentally different kinds of contexts, and that “the people” exist at the crossroads. The people on the outside who are in these communities, where they’re suffering and they’re experiencing inequality in real time and they’re struggling to make ends meet, are the very people who elect the folks in Congress to pass legislation—ostensibly to make their lives a bit easier. The legislation is going to be watered down because Congress has to compromise to get anything done, which means that things never trickle down (or perhaps that’s all we get, a trickle) to the people living in those communities. That only then reinforces the divisions and inequalities that constitute “reality” for most Americans.

Maybe we’re always going to be stuck like this. Maybe that’s what Marx was talking about with the “dialectics of history,” what DuBois and Alinsky talked about in their own ways. And maybe these two political realms – where ordinary people live in their everyday lives, and where a select group of elites gathers to govern on a daily basis – maybe those two locations require two completely different kinds of politics, strategies that are actually—and inherently—at odds with one another.

MB: Obama is certainly temperamentally more compromising and conciliatory and civil discourse-oriented than Saul Alinsky, there’s no doubt about that. But he has also talked about other things that jam up the political process – like the campaign finance system.

So it does feel like there’s a tension between those two locations and these two types of politics. But on another level, it seems like there’s an additional set of problems that has nothing do with the contention-versus-conciliation dynamic.

TM: Perhaps, perhaps. But with respect to campaign finance reform, what happens at the national level has a huge impact on the way that we experience local party politics. The choices we have around certain kinds of candidates are now significantly influenced by Super PACs, Citizens United, and so forth. Obviously, there’s a deep connection between the two. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that there’s a productive tension between those two types of politics.

You know, when I’m being generous, there’s a part of me that feels badly for Barack Obama on some level, because he is someone who really seems to understand the community organizing, Saul Alinsky, civil rights model. He came from it, he’s a beneficiary of it, he was in it. But now, he’s in this other realm, which is completely different, and he has to navigate it as the most powerful person in the world. He’s become “The Man”! And if I have a hard time wrestling with these “insider-outsider,” “people vs. power” tensions here at the Kennedy School, I can hardly imagine what his life is like. He must be experiencing cognitive dissonance all the time!

MB: I spoke with Marshall Ganz about this in early 2010. Ganz had been the architect of the organizing effort during Obama’s 2008 campaign, but by August of 2009, he’d become critical of the way that the White House hadn’t put their supporters to much use. Ganz seemed to be suggesting that the White House had forgotten where its power came from and had started playing a kind of inside baseball. 

Sometimes I still feel that way. You know, the president might occasionally ask us to call our congressmen about such-and-such a bill, but that’s not the same thing as helping to animate a broad-based citizen movement.

TM: A couple of things here. One, our electoral system is on a two/four-year cycle. Social movements don’t move on a two/four-year cycle – they gather steam and they’re ongoing and, at best, sustained for many years.

Second, political campaigns are not social movements. I think that one of the mistakes many of us who were involved in the Obama campaign made is that we saw the campaign as a kind of social movement. Because it sort of felt like a duck, and quacked like a duck, it had to be a duck. There was a fair amount of Kool-Aid being served, and so many of us were really quite desperate for something new and fresh and hopeful. So we drank it.

To be honest, this was the very first time in my life where I was really, genuinely optimistic about a presidential candidate. Many of us were intoxicated by that spirit and wanted deeply to believe that it was a movement, as opposed to a moment. Now, the campaign did have lots of movement elements, not least of which was Marshall’s work, which was based on a social movement-organizing model. This was one source of the confusion, I think. In many respects, it looked like a duck.

That said, there were a lot of us – especially those of us who would consider ourselves on the Left – who were genuinely thrilled to see that this was a campaign willing to adopt social movement strategies for the purposes of political campaigning. You had many young people involved, it was a multiracial cast of characters, and it was multi-generational – I was always working with people who were different from me, people who were 30 years older or 20 years younger than me, and it was thrilling to be part of that. I mean, you couldn’t walk into an Obama campaign office anywhere in America, even in the richest or whitest parts of America, where everyone in the office looked the same. And that was really exciting for those of us who were part of it.

I think we wanted to believe that it was a movement and we mistook it for one; in the end, we realized it was really just a moment – a fascinating moment, an important moment, a fabulous moment, a historic moment – but a moment nonetheless. And I think many of us are now left wondering, worrying whether it’s going to be a fleeting moment. I have been buoyed by some of the things that he’s done recently in the gear-up to the re-election campaign, but I share Marshall’s and others’ deep frustration over the fact that we have been put on the shelf for three years and now we’re being mobilized again for the purposes of getting him re-elected. If the Obama campaign thinks for a second that we are going to be as eager to do this this time around as we were the last time, they’re really fooling themselves.

One of the key elements to Obama’s victory – over a course of fourteen to sixteen months, from 2007 to the November election – was that he was able to successfully generate enough positive energy among enough of the electorate to vote for him, rather than just relying on a vote against the Bush era. Obama was able to get us to want to vote for him. It was the first time in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton in 1992, where a lot of Democrats and liberal-Left types I knew were excited to go into the voting booth and vote for this man.

That was really important in terms of energizing people, keeping folks together, building the coalition that ultimately got him elected. I don’t know if it’s possible for him to do that now. Right now, he’s banking (no pun intended) on the fact that people are so disgusted with the Republicans in Congress that they are going to map their disgust onto these presidential candidates—Romney et al.—and that people will be so disgusted that they’ll either tune out and stay at home or come out and vote for him, simple because he’s not nearly as bad as they are. If that happens, we’ll be back to a “lesser-of-two-evils” political system, which would be a great, great tragedy.

Ultimately, Barack Obama is too good to rely on that kind of strategy. He has to develop the ability again to move us enough to want to vote for him, because I truly believe that he represents something positive for the nation. I think that’s going to be a hard sell, frankly. He’s starting to work on it and we can see parts of that developing. Certainly, he has a very strong record of success to build on in some areas.

I think he has the opportunity to actually get us to want to vote for him for very specific policy reasons. This is different from last time where we wanted to vote for him because he gave us “hope” and there was going to be “change” and here’s the first black president. He was young; he was our JFK. He was all these things rolled up into one. But a lot of that stuff was kind of ethereal. It was real, but it was still symbolic and abstract at times, undefined.

He has to do something else now, something more substantive. If his people had sustained the energy from the first campaign, found a way to not just turn that tremendous grassroots support into the biggest email list in American history, he wouldn’t be fighting such an uphill battle. In that sense, as Marshall knows better than anyone, they really dropped the ball.

MB: You said that he’s hoping folks will map their distaste for the Republicans in Congress onto the Republican candidates. It seems like he’s got an advantage in that there’s no really popular candidate among the four remaining Republicans. He’s got to be happy with what he’s facing.

TM: No question. I don’t know if he’s quite popping champagne bottles yet, but he certainly is smiling widely. As someone said recently: the more Mitt Romney talks, the longer the feedback reel is for David Axelrod. You know, “Corporations are people too, my friend” or “I don’t care about poor people.” I mean, it’s an endless string of gaffes that only plays into and reinforces the perception that he’s not only the poster child for the 1%, but the Sports Illustrated swimsuit centerfold for the 1%. I mean, let’s be honest, Romney is the 1% on steroids! I can’t remember a candidate for President of the United States in recent history that has been more emblematic of all of the problems with capitalism that have created the current misery that so many people in this country are living with and suffering under.

MB: I felt myself tense up when you used the word “capitalism” – not because I don’t think there are problems with it, but because I’m not sure you even need to bring a theoretical critique of capitalism to bear in criticizing Romney. In other words, all sorts of indifference and entitlement and privilege and obliviousness are on display in his candidacy – things that should make everyone, even defenders of capitalism, very uncomfortable. And I suppose I worry about the political effects of calling capitalism, full stop, into question. 

TM: This gets back to where we’re all positioned in the political culture. I think we always need to be having a critical conversation about capitalism if we’re ever going to have any hope of attacking and uprooting precisely those forms of entitlement and indifference and inequality that you’re saying exist. Capitalism produces all of these things, reinforces them, literally banks on them.

One of the things that I’m really excited about with the Occupy Movement is that they’re bringing a wholesale critique of capitalism to bear on our political economy, at a time when there’s widespread suffering and anxiety and insecurity, to say nothing of inequality. It’s the first time we’ve had this kind of aggressive critique of the inner workings and outer effects of capitalism in a long time. America’s radical tradition is animated by many things, and certainly there have been times in the past where we’ve seen a vigorous critique of the privilege, power, profit, and greed that are produced by capitalism.

But in recent times, we’ve been much more motivated by a kind of rights-based radicalism—one that seeks inclusion and equality for disfranchised groups—than a justice-based radicalism. The latter would require, as a pre-condition, the radical redistribution of wealth and the radical restructuring of consumers and producers, those who profit and those who labor. It may sound ancient to talk like this, but I think it’s really important that we do.

Frankly, one thing I worry about with your generation—if I may be patronizing for a second—is that you have been raised in a rights-obsessed political world. I’m not saying that’s bad, necessarily, but I do think sometimes your generation thinks that as long as gay people have all the rights that straight people have, black people have all the rights that white people have, immigrants have all the rights that native-born folks have, and women have all the rights that men have, that’s enough. But it’s not enough.

Running through all these groups of people whose rights we want to uplift, uphold, or ensure is an economic system that reinforces and compounds the inequalities that already exist, legally and politically. If we do not transform the economic system that perpetuates the brutal class inequalities of our society, our so-called “civil” rights will mean very little.

So, yeah, I guess I’m calling for an old-school conversation about the relationship between race and class, gender and class, sexuality and class, nationality and class that our rights-based conversations sometimes avoid too conveniently.

MB: To me, it’s just a strategy question. I absolutely think that the discussion that you just described is necessary. I’m just concerned that that word is so explosive – I wonder whether there’s a way to talk about all those things without the conversation getting sidetracked into accusations and counter-accusations about whether you’re “anti-capitalist.” 

TM: Well, I am who I am, and I’m owning that. I mean, certainly, I’m in favor of capitalism if slavery is the alternative, or if feudalism is the alternative. And frankly, I’m not sure how optimistic I am about our capacity or willingness to eradicate capitalism or imagine and put in place an economic system that is more just and equitable than what we have now. On some level, I suppose we’re all capitalists now in the United States. I don’t say this with any degree of glee or gratification. Our failure to imagine an alternative to capitalism is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our tragic age. But for Christ’s sake, at the very least, let’s have an open, critical conversation about the system of capitalism that so many people take for granted and assume will always condition or structure our economic lives and relationships. Let’s at least be honest about what this system is doing to all of us on a daily basis. It’s really destroying us—materially, socially, politically, morally, and spiritually.

For instance, let’s be honest about the folks who are doing the work that produces so many of the goods and services that other people profit from, and let’s be honest about why the same people who profit from their labor are working to deport them because they’re “illegal.” Let’s have that conversation.

And let’s talk about the fact that I will pay more in taxes this year because my marriage in Massachusetts – where it’s legal for my husband and me to be married – is not recognized at the federal level because of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act.” And let me connect that to the fact that my husband and I are going to have to shoulder a greater tax burden this year than Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who opposed marriage equality and who now supports a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as “the union of one man and one woman.” So not only is he paying less than me because he’s a multi-millionaire who makes his money off capital gains, but I’m going to pay an extra tax burden on top of that because I happen to be married in a state that supports my right to marry that he once opposed in a nation that denies my right to marry that he now wants to run. It’s enough to make your head explode.

So I want to have these conversations, which are conversations about capitalism, conversations about government, conversations about greed, conversations about rights, conversations about second-class citizenship, privilege and inequality. I would love to sit down with Mitt Romney and have these conversations with him. Of course, he’s never going to have these conversation because in one place he’ll want to talk about gay marriage and in another place he’ll want to talk about taxes, but never the two at once. We live in an age of compartmentalized politics, which only facilitates discrimination and fosters inequality.

MB: In a certain way, it seems like Occupy has been trying to bring many of those disparate elements together – to decompartmentalize our discourse and politics. 

But with the demise of the encampments, I think we’re seeing a diminishment of Occupy’s role in public life. Will Occupy continue to play a meaningful role, or has its main contribution already taken place?

TM: That’s a really complicated question. I think it’s tough to figure out for a number of reasons, not least of which because it’s hard to figure out exactly who’s a member of the Occupy Movement. There are a lot of people who took part in the camps, people who are participating in the discourse, people who are sympathetic to the cause but opposed to the encampments, people who are sympathetic to the movement but who don’t understand or are confused about its aims. There are lots of different ways to relate to the Occupy Movement, so it’s hard to pin down who, what, and where it is.

I think that is an intentional thing on Occupy’s part – to make the movement project a kind of omnipresence, physical and otherwise, such that the movement seems bigger than it is, or could be bigger than it is, in terms of sheer number of people participating at any given time. In this sense, the 99% framing is brilliant—perhaps the first time in American history when a social movement consciously presented itself as a majoritarian rather than a minoritarian threat.

That said, I do think that we’re going to begin to see kind of Occupy 2.0, as the Occupy Harvard people have branded it. I love that – the need to brand these things, never being able to fully able to escape the discourses that we’re critiquing!

But I think it remains to be seen what’s next. Clearly, there has been a deliberate attempt to dismantle the encampments and to tear down the physical manifestations of Occupy. And then in some places—Oakland, most dramatically—there have been attempts to continue the kind of ongoing public spirit of Occupy by having regular protests and marches and physical occupations and so forth that have been met with increasingly violent resistance from the state.

As the movement becomes perhaps more oriented around violence, both in terms of the state’s willingness to engage in violent forms of repression against the protestors as well as the movement’s own willingness to engage in acts of violent resistance, it’s hard to know what this will bring. I’m not going to lie – I’m nervous about that. There are a lot of people debating whether an “eye for an eye” strategy is a good turn, myself included.

So far, I’ve always maintained that the movement should continue to rely on strategies of civil disobedience as a way to create a stark division between the violent repression of the state – tear gas and batons, cracking people’s heads, and so forth – and the non-violent orientation of the Occupy folks. The sympathy for the movement has increased in the public arena, in the court of public opinion, when the Occupiers themselves are seen as non-violent protesters, subjected to the physical violence of the state, vis-à-vis the police and other forces. I think it would be a mistake for the movement to turn to a more violent kind of strategy, however justified, in some places, at this early phase.

That said, it’s important to acknowledge that the Occupy Movement has clearly had a huge impact on the political discourse of the country – we’re finally talking about economic inequality, the excesses of capitalism, corporate greed, the unfairness of the tax code, federal regulation, all these kinds of things. That’s very necessary and I think that’s because the Occupy Movement has opened up this discourse and brought a critique of capitalism to bear on a larger public debate.

Whether or not he’ll admit it, I think many elements of President Obama’s last “State of the Union” address were shaped by the Occupy Movement and its critiques. I think Romney’s difficulty in getting out from under the perception that he’s the poster child for the 1% can be directly attributed to the Occupy Movement’s success. I mean, he ran for president four years ago and he did not have these troubles. Mitt Romney’s difficulties have been amplified, supersized by Occupy.

I also think we’ve seen President Obama’s turn to a more populist politics, starting with that speech in Kansas and moving into the launch of his re-election campaign. I wouldn’t say it’s a Leftist politics, per se, but it’s certainly a more populist politics, and increasingly so. That, too, is because of Occupy. So the movement has done its job – Obama is changing his tune, Romney is stuck in the mud, and many more people are having these conversations. I think that’s a really good thing for the country.

I also think it’s probably a good thing that the movement is in a process of reorienting itself. I’m trying to figure out whether or not Occupy can be brought into the fold of the Obama campaign. I mean, I have always maintained that I’d like the Obama campaign to move in the direction of the Occupy Movement rather than the Occupy Movement incorporating itself into the Obama campaign, because I think we’re at a moment in our history where we need a strong and unapologetic Left critique of the ways our politics and economics conspire to create conditions of great suffering and inequality. And the Occupy Movement represents that critique.

For the last forty years, we’ve had a consistent Right critique of government and a Right critique of our political economy. Grover Norquist, Ron Paul – whether it’s libertarian or some other brand of conservatism, we’ve had that critique pretty consistently for more than a generation.

During that time, the Left has not been as strong in sustaining its critique. There are many reasons for this. Part of this gets back to the argument I was making before – the rights-based legal and political discourse has overtaken the Left in some ways, and the older, more structural critiques of capitalism and our political economy have lost their luster, have in some ways been drowned out by this emphasis on rights, stemming, in part, from identity-based social movements. So I really like the fact that we are once again engaging in a serious class analysis that connects to discourses around racial, gender, and sexual inequality. It’s long overdue, and I welcome that. We need a more sophisticated analysis of our collective misery.

I think it’s pretty clear that the Occupy Movement has had a profound impact in a relatively short period of time. Whether or not it becomes the kind of movement that defines a generation remains to be seen. I would like to believe in its power to be that, but I think the transition from Occupy 1.0 to Occupy 2.0 will be an uncertain journey. It will be interesting to see where all of this shakes out.

That said, we need to think more deeply about this historical moment and why it produced both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement simultaneously. To me, it’s no surprise that we have this kind of Right-wing, conservative political formation at the same time that we have this Left-wing, progressive political formation vying for the soul of the nation, both seriously influencing our politics.

Clearly, the Tea Party has had more of an impact on the way the Republican Party operates than the Occupy Movement has had on the Democratic Party. But I think it’s no surprise that these two very aggressive political formations, which occupy opposing places on the political spectrum, have emerged at this particular moment. And we need to take them both seriously and think about how they’re both renewing and reinvigorating a politics of contention, in the spirit of Saul Alinsky (in an ironic twist, both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party activists have read Rules for Radicals!)

What does the future of all this look like? Will these two movements merely be co-opted by the two-party political system? That would not be a good thing for the nation, because anyone who knows anything about U.S. history knows that political parties are where radicalism goes to die. If that’s all that happens—if the Tea Party becomes the Right wing of the GOP and Occupy becomes the Left wing of the Democratic Party—then we’re back at square one. And that’s what I’m worried about.

I would much rather live in a nation where we’re all part of a vigorous debate about the future of the country that encompasses the Occupy Movement and the Democrats, the Tea Party and the Republicans, the Libertarians and the Marxists and the capitalists. We could all play different roles in this long overdue debate, but at least we’d all be included in the debate. I am much more interested in this kind of politics—wherever it takes us—than I am in a politics where nine Supreme Court justices decide that “corporations are people” and that “money is speech,” so that a few dozen billionaires can buy one-minute ads that decimate political opponents, using all sorts of smoke and mirrors and lies, while the rest of us are forced to the sidelines, making our political decisions after passively watching a set of circus acts. That’s not democracy, it’s the Roman Forum. And we all know what happened to Rome.

Previous post:

Next post: