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The New Republic's Sean Wilentz Greatly Misunderstands Movement Politics

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"Hell Yes We Can" What? Let a bunch of Democrats allow the Tea Party to pull this country in a more corporate direction? by Kevin Gosztola

Sean Wilentz, writer for The New Republic, thinks he understands why the Obama Administration has floundered: movement politics has undone and unraveled his presidency. To a point, Wilentz would be right, but the conclusion that Wilentz comes to is to utterly disregard movements and engage in "'status quo' politics" to save his presidency and ensure re-election in 2012.

A look at recent columns on "movements" and "activism" in the country would likely reveal that there is nothing all that exceptional about Wilentz's view. It's conventional wisdom in professional journalism. All the more reason to dissect his viewpoint.

His article titled, "Live By the Movement, Die by the Movement," characterizes social movement politics as "Obama's doomed theory." The outline of history on how a veteran union organizer and lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School, Marshall Ganz, was "hired as an Obama campaign official and charged with training volunteers" may be interesting to some who are unaware with how Obama developed his campaign.

Peter Dreier, a member of Progressives for Obama and a politics professor at Occidental College, also receives some attention as a publicist who posted articles to The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Dissent. Dreier apparently channeled "memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movement, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes," to help develop a campaign that could "transform the very sum and substance of the political system."

Readers are reminded that President Obama, as president, would be "organizer-in-chief" tapping into movements that elected him to "reform health care, end global warming, and restore economic prosperity." The movements would provide President Obama with the opening to bring change the people believed in. But, unfortunately, as progressives or liberals know, things didn't go as planned.

After the midterm election, Ganz, according to Wilentz, charged that President Obama "lost his organizer's fire and neglected to deliver the wonderful speeches that would frame the political course for the movement." He "lamely sought reform"inside the system structured to resist change" and ignored, in fact, scorned "liberal and leftist advocacy groups." Networks on were demobilized and he became "transactional" instead of "transformational." (President Obama acknowledged this reality in his post-midterm election press conference saying he had hoped to change processes but in the end his Administration had been in such a hurry to get things done that they didn't change how it was done.)

Wilentz argues that Ganz does not understand is that bringing movement politics into the presidency "may have been a dead end" and that it may have "helped foster an inevitable disillusionment." Here is where Wilentz starts to misunderstand and craft a false understanding of movements and politics in America.

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If Ganz is right that President Obama and his administration ignored and scorned advocacy groups--which they did---Wilentz is proceeding a premise that doesn't exist. In order to criticize movement politics in the White House as a failure, movement politics would have had to be employed by its members. Say one entertains the idea that movement politics were tried, what about Wilentz's concepts on movement politics?

Wilentz's suggests "fundamental to the social movement model is a conception of American political history in which movements, and not presidents, are the true instigators for change. Presidents are merely reactive. They are not the main protagonists." He says Obama "endorsed" this idea when he proclaimed, "Real change comes from the bottom up." He adds an example: people who believe this model claim President Abraham Lincoln would "never have been the Great Emancipator had the abolitionists not pushed him to do so."

Interwoven in this article is the deep-seated contempt Wilentz had and still has for the late Howard Zinn. He was asked by the Los Angeles Times to provide his opinion on Zinn's work as a historian. Wilentz told the newspaper, "To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great."

Wilentz also told the newspaper, Zinn "saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That's what he said he did. It's fine as a form of agitation -- agitprop -- but it's not particularly good history."

If one knows that Wilentz utterly rejects the notion history has been determined by people at the bottom, it becomes obvious that his essay will likely be one designed to disparage the idea that political leaders allow movement politics to influence their governance.

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He argues that "Abraham Lincoln did not have to be awoken to the evils of slavery; he hated slavery all his life" so "the idea of change coming from below, of course, is simplistic." If one ignores the recent history books published (which are featured in this article from US News & World Report), Wilentz is correct. But, President Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution granted states and territories the freedom to abolish slavery. He thought he had to avoid the issue of slavery as president to preserve the Union. Black abolitionist and "radical" Republicans helped shift the political climate and create the opening that led President Lincoln to propose the idea of emancipation.

After providing his version of history on President Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, Wilentz shoots down Ganz and Dreier's idea that what had been liberal or Democratic politics had been suffering a "values" problem. There's reason to criticize Ganz and Dreier, who were likely responding to conventional wisdom promoted by the corporate media in 2004 that "moral values" influenced people's votes. But, Ganz and Dreier were smart to try and ignite a movement based on "feelings and values." If the Bush Administration had done anything to citizens, it had made them feel powerless and wary of government. The people desired a leader to campaign and contend they could put this country back on the right course and ensure government returned to upholding the values and principles it should uphold.

Wilentz correctly brings out a paradox: that the movement leader, President Obama, would now push politicians to create change when he was in the White House. Such a paradox compels one to ask, did his position in the White House effectively mean whatever "movement" built up prior to his election was destined to splinter and dissipate completely? Possibly.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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