Reading Eric Alterman’s comprehensive anatomy of the conservative conquest of America did much to reinforce my sense of dread. His account helps clarify the enormity of the challenges facing those working toward building a society more concerned with social justice than with the bottom line. He is particularly deft in outlining the corrupting power of money and lobbyists and how ossified political and media structures stand in the way of progressive change.
What seems to be missing in Alterman’s historical summary, however, is the centrality of the "Southern Strategy" and the Republicans’ canny exploitation of racial resentment. I can understand his reluctance to address this issue; disentangling strands of racial bias from the libertarian tradition of American populism can be a thankless task, as illustrated by current debates about depictions of the Tea Party movement. But by glossing over the antiblack aspects of the right’s rise, Alterman seems to have fallen victim to the same "working the refs" strategy he accuses conservatives of deploying to restrain the so-called liberal bias of the mainstream media. This race-averse analysis is troubling enough when it comes from mainstream pundits paralyzed by the faux symmetry of on-the-other-hand "objectivity." But when a progressive pundit adopts the same frame, it is more distressing still. Indeed, it is yet another example of how a black presidency has scrambled our cultural and political syntax: a usually astute intellectual from the dwindling ranks of America’s left pens an essay assessing the prospects of progressive policy from a black president and fails to incorporate any racial analysis in his assessment.
Many have focused on Alterman’s statement that progressives are deeply disappointed with the Obama administration as a way to reinforce their own positions, but few seem ready to address his overall, and rather grudging, point: that Obama may well be the most progressive alternative possible in our current reality. Alterman is throwing down the gauntlet to his fellow travelers, urging us to more carefully assess the context in which we find ourselves and devote more energy to organizing than complaining—to get in where we fit in, so to speak. While reading his advice, I couldn’t help but think of the late Jimmy Weinstein, founder and longtime editor of In These Times, the magazine for which I toil. Jimmy would often find himself at odds with left sectarians for urging more robust engagement with the Democratic Party. Overtly left politics were a hard sell in America, he would argue, but true progressive ideas were inherently popular. If the left organized on specific issues and developed active coalitions around those issues, we could forge a more progressive electorate—despite ourselves.
This advice seems almost elementary, but Alterman used almost 17,000 words to make a case for it. He has joined the chorus urging the intellectual left to rethink its devotion to marginality. Aside from his curious myopia around issues of race, Alterman makes a sound argument for a more nuanced assessment of Obama’s tenure and a more mature engagement with a decrepit political system in dire need of serious reforms.