10/04/2010 09:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Best of Demonstrations, But...

The "One Nation Working Together" demonstration on the national mall October 2 was remarkable in many ways; not least because it was largely a union affair. Union workers were there en masse, along with peace, civil rights and gay activists, among many others; young and old, black and white, Asian and latino. Would that this had been the case in countless demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere over the past fifty years! Of course, unions today are not as mighty as they used to be and, even back in the day, such unity might not have stopped the Vietnam War in its tracks. But it would have placed a significant obstacle in its way, and in the way of the other wars the US went on to wage, encourage and subsidize.

Still, there was something not right about the event; something that made the best demonstration in decades one of the most problematic. The problem has to do with what the demonstration was for and what it was against. Though care was taken not to make the point too obvious, it was for getting people out to vote next month for Democrats, and against the Tea Party and, more generally, against all that is hateful on the political scene. This is a worthy project, but also a borderline incoherent one -- because what the demonstration was for is a kinder, gentler version of what it was against.

It is telling that there were few visible or audible displays of pro-Obama or pro-Democratic fervor. How could there be when there is so little in the Democratic record of the past twenty months that opponents of Tea Party reactionaries could support?

The problem is not, as per the conventional wisdom (echoed by several speakers at the demonstration) that progressives are too impatient or that those who fault the Obama administration are "whiners" who should get with the program. It is that the good Obama. et. al. have done came at too great a cost to the "change" people thought they had voted for. For example, the health care legislation that finally passed includes worthwhile insurance reforms. But it does little to control costs and it entrenches the power of the profiteers who make reform necessary. Like the botched Clinton effort of 1993, it will put off the question of genuine reform for years, perhaps for another generation.

Much the same holds for Obama's other purported accomplishments like his rebranding of the Iraq occupation or his milquetoast Wall Street reforms. And then there is Afghanistan. There were many signs on the mall demanding the end of war and the return of troops. But the word "Afghanistan" was seldom seen or heard. That would have created too much cognitive dissidence for organizers still intent on boosting the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who, knowing better, cynically escalated that lost and pointless war.

And then there are the issues affecting the constituencies who turned out in such numbers. Even in 2008, they didn't ask for much: the Employee Free Choice Act, ending Clinton's "don't ask don't tell" policy, reasonable immigration reform, and countless other measures, like political representation for the District of Columbia - all of which Obama supports nominally but not really. And need I mention Obama's all but total inaction on averting impending environmental catastrophes! On these and other matters of concern to the people on the mall, Obama will still sometimes say good things. But what has he done?

For all this, the appropriate response is rebellious anger. There used to be a lot of that on the left; nowadays, the Tea Party has a near monopoly on it. Tea Party thinking is nutty, but their attitude is right on. And, last Saturday, they, not Obama and the Democrats, were the enemy.

Part of the reason for this sorry state of affairs is the longstanding habit of progressive constituencies - labor, above all, but the others too - of giving time and money generously to Democratic politicians while asking for little and demanding even less in return. Why should Obama et. al. not pander to corporate interests and nefarious pressure groups when they know that their much too loyal "base" will let them get away with anything, no questions asked!

But there is also a deeper, structural problem. With the Democratic-Republican duopoly all but institutionalized and with legislative institutions, the Senate especially, mired in undemocratic rules and procedures, there is usually no way to oppose Democrats, the lesser evil, without supporting Republicans; and there is no way for even substantial majorities to get their way so long as the minority holds fast. In 2008, it seemed to many that this apparently intractable difficulty could finally be evaded because the Democrats were, for once, on the right track. Could anyone be so deluded as to think that still?

On the surface, Saturday's demonstration on the national mall was a kumbaya moment, a massive rejection of the craziness and hate stirred up a few weeks earlier by Glen Beck and his corporate paymasters. But the "vote Democratic" subtext was never far from the surface and so, beneath all the niceness, disingenuousness reigned. For, in truth, there is really only one reason to turn out for Democrats: that the alternative is worse - that Obama is better than Bush, that Democrats are better than Republicans, and that anything is better than Sarah Palin. As a case for closing the so-called "enthusiasm gap," this argument is pathetic. But it is true and compelling, and it is the only honest argument there is.

Almost everyone on Saturday understood this at some level, but few said it outright. This is a mistake. Republicans, these days, are good for something; they can do what Democrats cannot - motivate the Democratic base. A clear recognition of the fact that Democrats have nothing else going for them is urgent because Democrats now are part of the problem, not the solution; and whatever happens in November, the chances are excellent that they will feel even more emboldened than they do now to ignore the interests of the folks who turned out on Saturday to support them.

Of course, where there are still opportunities to organize there is a chance to turn things around. But, for the next few months, the immediate task will be to keep a bad situation from getting even worse by quashing efforts Democrats are likely to abet - such as "reforming" social security and medicare or unleashing a war with Iran.

With or without Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the forces that gathered on the mall will have a fight on their hands after November 2 - not just with benighted Tea Partiers and Republican obstructionists but with Obama and the Democratic Party too. It is disheartening, to say the least, that so many of those who participated in that wonderful display of unity and solidarity and (partially misdirected) defiance aren't yet ready to admit that this is so. For it is urgent now to fight back in ways that don't implicitly accept the awful situation the organizers of Saturday's demonstration found themselves, yet again, trying to make the best of.

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