Thursday, February 9, 2023

Opinion | A Lost Manuscript Shows the Fire Barack Obama Couldn’t Reveal on the Campaign Trail

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The fruits of that education were on display in “Transformative Politics.” Written during Mr. Obama’s final semester, the manuscript updated Bayard Rustin for the age of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher’s plan hinged on recruiting blue-collar whites back into a reborn version of the March on Washington coalition. According to Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher, these votes could be won over with a platform that appealed to both the values and the material interests of working people. That meant shifting away from race-based initiatives toward universal economic policies whose benefits would, in practice, tilt toward African Americans — in short, “use class as a proxy for race.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher didn’t pretend that racism had been expunged from American life. “Precisely because America is a racist society,” they wrote, “we cannot realistically expect white America to make special concessions towards blacks over the long haul.” Demanding that white Americans grapple with four centuries of racial oppression might be a morally respectable position, but it was terrible politics. “Those blacks who most fervently insist on the pervasiveness of white racism have adopted a strategy that depends on white guilt for its effectiveness,” they wrote, ridiculing the idea that whites would “one day wake up, realize the error of their ways, and provide blacks with wholesale reparations in order to expiate white demons.”

Economics were a safer bet. Blue-collar workers of all races, Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher wrote, “understood in concrete ways the fact that America’s individualist mythology covers up a game that is fixed against them.” But this pragmatic streak also could also be a trap for reformers hoping to bridge the racial divide. “If it has been working-class whites who have been most vociferous in their opposition to affirmative action,” Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher wrote, “this at least in part arises out of an accurate assessment [that] they are the most likely to lose in any redistributionist game.”

Mr. Obama rejected the idea that appealing to Reagan Democrats required giving in to white grievance. Chiding centrists at the Democratic Leadership Council — headed at the time by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas — he warned against retreating in the battle for civil rights. Moderates scrambling for the middle ground were just as misguided, he argued, as antiracists implicitly pinning their hopes on a collective racial epiphany. Neither understood that bringing the conversation back to economics was the best way to beat the right. Instead of trimming their ambitions to court affluent suburbanites, Democrats had to embrace “long-term, structural change, change that might break the zero-sum equation that pits powerless blacks [against] only slightly less powerless whites.”

You might think it’s strange to hear Mr. Obama sounding like he’d just come from a meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America. But even though his days as a GQ Marxist were in the past, he brought an appreciation for class politics with deep roots on the left into the next phase of his career.

All the pieces of Mr. Obama’s plan fit together: an electoral strategy designed to make Democrats the party of working people; a policy agenda oriented around comprehensive economic reform; and a faith that American democracy could deliver real change. By mixing political calculation with moral vision, Democrats could resurrect the March on Washington coalition and — finally — transform politics.

Holding the different elements of this program together was easier on the page than in real life. By the time of Mr. Obama’s star-making turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his policy ambitions had narrowed considerably. But he continued to follow key elements of the game plan outlined in “Transformative Politics.” When Mr. Obama scolded pundits for slicing America into red states and blue states, it wasn’t a dopey celebration of national harmony. It was a strategic attempt to drain the venom out of the culture wars, allowing Democrats to win back working-class voters who had been polarized into the G.O.P. And it elected him president, twice.

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Disclaimer: This story is generated from RSS Feed and has not been created or edited by Waba News. Publisher: The New York Times


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