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Notes on Getting Out of the Partisan Trap

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This post was co-written by Michael Hardy

A pitched debate in Black political and academic circles about President Barack Obama's commitment to fighting for a Black Agenda has broken into the mainstream media with a bang. The Washington Post, MSNBC, 60 Minutes, and The Amsterdam News have each noted aspects of the story over the last two weeks.

Leading the criticism is Dr. Cornel West, who supported the president throughout the 2008 campaign, but who now calls Obama a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs." His sentiments have been echoed by the respected talk show host Tavis Smiley.

The high-intensity language aside, critics feel that Obama has been unwilling or unable to push an economic agenda that deals directly with pervasive poverty and joblessness in the Black community, a problem that cries out for aggressive leadership.

Whether that kind of leadership can actually come from the president (not just this president, but any president) is an open question. Governing requires consensus building among institutional players. Leading movements for social transformation means bringing outsiders into positions of power. They are not the same thing.

Rev. Al Sharpton, a long time movement builder himself, has greater sympathy for Obama's constraints. He argues that Obama is not the president of Black America, but the president of all Americans, and his efforts to blunt the full force of the economic downturn -- if successful -- will benefit Black people. Meanwhile, Sharpton argues, Obama must avoid the trap of advocating too vigorously for African-Americans because the right wing will cast it as special interest (racial) politics and use it to isolate Obama from mainstream white America, whose support he needs to govern and be re-elected.

West is not alone in questioning the extent to which the president's inner circle of economic advisors and policy makers have placated the financial markets at the expense of the poor. Sharpton might even have such questions himself. At the same time, Sharpton notes the realities of politics and governing. And that is why we think it's time to push the envelope on the nature of the political process itself and the ways in which, in its current form, it reinforces pre-existing economic, racial and social divisions and competition, all of which foster partisanship. Put another way, how do we express a national interest of, by, and for the people (including Black people!) rather than merely balancing (or disempowering) particular interests.

For us, this raises the issue of getting past, or outside of, the institutions that organize special interest politics. Chief among these, of course, are the political parties, which control the Congress and, notably, dictate the terms of the political game. Obama has tried to rise above this, only to be sucked back into a partisan grid. How do we get out of that trap? That is a complicated, long term proposition. But there are steps that could be taken now.

Take the issue of job creation, something that Obama, West, Sharpton, and most everyone in the United States cares about. Right now, that question is considered by the Congress along entirely partisan lines. Policies are adopted or rejected on the basis of how they serve partisan interests. Democrats want to do something about unemployment through government action. Republicans want the private sector and the markets to take care of the problem. Every question is framed in these terms. Should we spend money on public works? If so, what about the deficit? Will these jobs replace union workers? What about cutbacks in public employees? Should we spend federal dollars to shore up state and municipal budgets? Is that the best way to keep minority employment stable? And so it goes, with every question and answer framed in terms of how it appeals to the parties core constituencies.

Here is a step outside the box. Have America empower a committee of independents, of non-partisans, from industry, from the communities, from academia and think tanks, from citizenry of all walks of life, to collectively consider these issues. Have this committee selected through an online, transparent, democratic process. This is not a forum to hammer out a "bi-partisan compromise." Its mission is to formulate an approach from outside the standard political alignments, one that gives support to the President to govern outside the partisan grid. That way, the process of dealing with such a problem notably chips away at the institutional arrangements which sustain special interest control of policy making. One final note: it would give Obama a freer hand to advocate for his most important constituency, the American people.


MICHAEL HARDY is counsel to the National Action Network and Reverend Al Sharpton.

HARRY KRESKY is general counsel to and the country's leading legal advocate on behalf of independent voters.