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Monday, June 29th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me] Or, In Quasi-Defense of Waiting

From The Colbert Report:

JIM FOURATT: I’m very troubled by Barack Obama because I think most gay and lesbian people in this country voted for Barack Obama and expected him to talk about our issues and he’s playing a classic liberal role. It’s always about just, “Wait, wait, wait…” We’re waiting and waiting and waiting and I’m quite frankly, as most people are, sick and tired of it. We expected Barack Obama to step up to the plate and do what is principled, to do what is right.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Why don’t you do the smart thing: If you’re tired of liberals saying one thing and then saying, “Wait, wait, wait,” when they get into office – why don’t you come over to the conservatives because we’re honest. We say, “No, no, no,” from the very beginning. Isn’t there something to be said for honesty?

JIM FOURATT: Actually, there is something to be said for that because [then] we know who our enemies are…It’s deeply troubling and I asked Cornell West about this…

STEPHEN COLBERT [Interrupting]: Brother West, he’s a friend of the show.

JIM FOURATT: He said that, “Barack Obama is wrong but he will come along.” I don’t know if Martin Luther King, what he would have said if someone said to him, “We’ll come along on your rights.” I don’t know about Rosa Parks, if she would have got off the bus and not sat down.

Frank Rich approvingly cites a gay activist who met with Obama in the White House this past week:

Chrisler seized the moment to appeal to the president on behalf of her boys. “The worst thing you can experience as parents is to feel your children are discriminated against,” she told him. “Imagine if you have to explain every day who your parents are and that they’re as real as every family is.” Chrisler said that she and her children “want a president who will make that go away,” adding, “I believe in his heart he wants that to happen, his political mistakes notwithstanding.” [my emphasis]

Jennifer Chrisler and Jim Fouratt clearly express the growing feeling of anger and even betrayal directed at Barack Obama from the LGBT community. They remember that Bill Clinton led them on, took their money and votes, and then created the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and passed the Defense of Marriage act which Obama’s Justice Department is now defending. Similarly, many opponents of the War on Drugs have become angry and disappointed that Obama has barely advanced their issues. Civil libertarians have been likewise disappointed by Obama’s use of the State Secrets Privilege, withholding of documents and photographs related to Bush administration torture, and other defenses and continuations of Bush-era executive aggrandizement.

I count myself as a supporter of the goals of all three groups. But I see the feelings of anger and betrayal directed against Barack Obama as nothing less than the result of naivete. As if electing Barack Obama president would solve any of these problems! As if a president is morally responsible for all things status quo! As if history and change were passed down from above – rather than bubbling up from below.

These feelings of betrayal are based on profound misunderstandings of the presidency and how change happens.

The President of the United States is not The Leader. He is merely a leader. George Will has quoted Calvin Coolidge on this general theme a few times recently:

It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who many did consider a great man, had his own way of telling his constituencies the same message:

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.

The “cult of the presidency” is a source of moral rot in this nation. If you belive in an issue, fight for it! Don’t whine about being betrayed. There are better uses of your energy. More important, it reflects a misunderstanding of what the role of the president is.

As to citing figures from the Civil Rights era: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King did wait – and wait, and wait for a president to act. And as they waited, they fought for what they believed in – without undue anger or inappropriate feelings to betrayal. They put pressure on Congress, on the White House, on state legislatures, on governors, on courts. And in each of these skirmishes they gained something. Until eventually their movement had achieved a momentum that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The fact is, the role of the activist and the role of the president are very different. To confuse the two as Fouratt does, and as many other activists do, doesn’t help anybody. The president, in having so much power, must have on goal above all – to protect the status quo. He or she can push reforms and changes and improvements – but their dreams must be constrained. The activist can dream of a new world – in which all things are vastly improved – and fight for it and demand it – and be right in doing so. But the president can say no, and be just as justified. For these are their roles. The goal of the activist must be to make the president do what he or she wants – to force them to make a decision which, taking into account political factors, is still an easy one. Abraham Lincoln was a great example of this – as abolitionists pressed for him to emancipate the slaves and go to war with the South but he firmly took an incrementalist position, only making such decisions as he was forced to.

There is a natural tension between the activist and the president because of their roles – but this tension can be productive if both sides understand how change happens. The presidency is an essentially reactive job, with the best presidents reacting with an eye towards achieving larger goals. The activist must provoke these reactions – and create favorable circumstances to shape all political actors’ responses to these actions. And while a president can force an issue or two through given the powers he or she exercises, this “forcing” creates problems and backlash. No president can make prejudice “go away” as Chrisler seems to be counting on. But the president can be expected to make a decision when it is thrust upon him or her. This is why it is important to have a president sympathetic to your aims.

As Matt Yglesias smartly observed:

Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has become a majoritarian position, but the Obama administration would still prefer to avoid the headaches involved in working to repeal it. At the same time, if a court case were toorder the administration to end this policy, it’s abundantly clear that there would be no critical mass of political support for trying to put it back in place.

In other words, for the activist, it never makes sense to wait; for the president, it almost always does. And both sides – even if they share the same goals – will conflict on strategy. That’s the way things are – and it is by understanding this dynamic that successful movements are built.

The gay rights movement does seem to understand this – Ted Olsen’s and David Boies’s lawsuit notwithstanding. This has been the source of it’s outstanding success – from a time within living memory when psychologists would diagnose “homosexuality” as a disease to today as six states recognize gay marriage. (David Sedaris was especially moving as he spoke of the progress in the past forty years on The Leonard Lopate Show.)  This is no time to abandon a successful strategy.

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