Manning Marable Talks About the Future

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I first encountered the work of the radical intellectual Manning Marable in the mid-1970s when he was sending out his self-syndicated newspaper column (for free) to alternative newspaper editors and publishers. Those columns were always deep, thought-provoking and erudite. Marable is now Professor of Public Affairs, History and African-American Studies at Columbia University, is writing a book about Malcolm X and is chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society, the non-profit arm of the revivified Students for a Democratic Society, having always combined activism with his prolific scholarship. I’ve always admired him for his calm but principled approach to progressive politics, an approach that analyzes without blinders. My favorite book of his is W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat.

He endorsed Barack Obama in January. Like many of us left-progressives, he is glad of Obama’s victory and cautiously optimistic about the chances that his administration will truly transform politics in America. But he is clear-eyed about it and knows full well the many pitfalls that lie ahead. Today he was a guest on Democracy Now. Here are some excerpts from his interview:  

AMY GOODMAN: That might have been, although people in the polls coming out yesterday said it was the economy, what propelled him to this point, because he had to win the primary, was that issue.

MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. I think that the real challenge now is not so much what Obama does, but what do progressives do? Because we have-we’re now in an uncomfortable and unusual situation, where, for many people left of center, we actually have a friend in the White House. You know, I can’t remember, during my lifetime-and I’m fifty-eight years old-where I can actually say that, that someone who understands clearly the positions of the left. Now, we had a lot of silly talk about Obama being a socialist during the last two weeks of the campaign. He’s not. He’s a progressive liberal. But for those of us who are indeed democratic socialists, those of us who are on the left, how do we relate to the government, where someone who ideologically is not an enemy, someone who understands the agenda and the issues that are of concern of the truly disadvantaged? How do we relate to that government? How do we relate to the politics of that administration? This is a real challenge for progressives. …

AMY GOODMAN: Voices of Harlem on Malcolm X Boulevard. Manning Marable, how will Barack Obama’s victory, how will Barack Obama being the forty-fourth president of the United States change race relations in America?

MANNING MARABLE: Well, some of us would say that we’ve been waiting for this victory since 1619. It’s been about 400 years for African Americans to really feel a part of American democracy. It’s been-forty years ago-I mean, I think about this-the majority of black people did not vote in a presidential election. The first time they did was in 1968. That black people, for 250 years, were defined as property in this country. For another hundred years, we were relegated to the margins of democracy because of Jim Crow segregation. Black people were denied access to the ballot across the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And for us to move in forty years’ time to the point of having a black chief executive is almost unbelievable for the vast majority of black people.

But now the great challenge occurs, and it occurs in two ways. There are expectations that African Americans have that I believe can’t be realized by one person, by this one man, entering a political structure and an apparatus that is not designed to liberate black people. We have to be soberly cautious about what Obama can achieve, can accomplish, even as the nation’s president. But a second problem that I want to reiterate is, what does the left do as we approach a liberal administration that has won an unprecedented victory in our own lifetimes? This is equivalent to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But what do we do? How do we put forward an agenda of-that raises issues of class inequality, of gender inequality in this society? The Democratic Party is not a vehicle that’s designed to advocate the issues of poor folk and working people.

AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s a very serious issue of what does it mean when you have almost these very big majorities in the House and the Senate, not clear it will be filibuster-proof, doesn’t look like it will be, but very, very close, when Democrats can no longer say, “Well, you know, we wish we could, but there are the Republicans.”

MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. Well, now they have to assume responsibility for governing. And they are going to-you know, I think that we have to be frank. I mean, Obama is not a person of the left. He’s a pragmatic liberal. He’s going to govern largely from the center. I think that probably the big exception will be his Supreme Court choices, which will probably be-which will probably be very liberal, I hope. But the real question is, how do-what do progressive do now?

That, obviously, is a question we all have to ask ourselves. As well as another. In a campaign during which “progressives” seem to encompass everybody from some socialists to some libertarians, what exactly is a progressive nowadays? One version is Bold Progressives, whose pledge I have signed, and that I hope other Kossacks will sign as well.

At OpenLeft today, Paul Rosenberg provides another look – like Manable’s, a first look – at what we should be thinking about and doing in this matter, particularly how to fight, both defensively and offensively, the “‘center-right nation’ meme that’s exploded post-election, just like 2006, but on steroids.” An excerpt:

…the essential argument is relatively simple:  The American people never moved to the right along with the political elites after Reagan’s election in 1980.  However, the Democrats failed to craft an effective new counter-narrative to consolidate their allegiance.  At long last, that may have begun to change.

In the interim, however, neither party created an effective political program.  Although Reagan was an inspirational orator for the intellectually disengaged, Reaganism never worked in any fundamental sense.  Its economic promises never paid off, as the economy basically stagnated, while income inequality skyrocketed.  Its foreign policy looked to be more successful, as the Soviet Union crumbled, and the Cold War ended, but that really owed more to the Soviet Union’s senescence, and the continual redefinition of what Reagan’s foreign policy was.  Worse, it had nothing lasting to say about what should come next, but instead inadvertently planted the seeds that would eventually yield 9/11.

Thus, we had two failed wings of insider politics as the Reagan era came to a close, but it took the inevitable post-Reagan recession that dogged Bush I to make that dual failure particularly salient, and propel Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential bid.  Clinton, too, ran against this dual failure, but he failed to assimilate Perot’s support, when he chose to embrace the Reaganite free trade path.

The Republicans, in turn, made a counter-play, embodied in the reformist agenda of the “Contract With America,” but this was much more PR than substance, as the power gained by Congressional Republicans went increasingly toward social conservative agendas that held little interest for Perotista reformers.  9/11 deferred the day of reckoning, but it has finally come, ushered in by Obama’s compelling–if somewhat ambiguous–call to reform.

The “center-right nation” narrative seeks to frame Obama–and the reform ideology–in opposition to ideological liberalism.  But if there’s anything the reform ideology stands opposed to, it’s the very people peddling this narrative, and their dogmatic insistence that nothing fundamental should be changed.

While the final results of Tuesday’s election have yet to be tallied, we have finally reached that stage of progressive activism that many of us have hankered for ever since Ronald Reagan stepped into the Oval Office so many years ago: moving forward again instead of fighting rearguard actions. This will require both intellectual work, lobbying of our new leaders, and “street” work. In that light, I’d like to repeat something I wrote last night that was probably missed by a lot of people who were drinking or finally getting some sleep after months in the trenches:

This morning, November 5, 2008, President-Elect Barack Obama marked the stunning victory of a seemingly impossible campaign with a short but characteristically inspiring speech. A pep rally for a nation in sore need of one. A nation, as he said, facing multiple perils. Unlike 34 years ago when Nixon left town, the joy of the crowds – who gathered to hear Obama in Grant Park in Chicago, in Times Square, at the White House, and in other public places and private homes – comes both because we can see the end of a reign of terrible leadership and because we will soon have a leader who has vowed, with our help, to lay the groundwork for a new day in America. We were happy with Nixon gone. But our happiness was momentary because we had nobody encouraging us to press forward with a “bottom-up politics” to transform our communities, our nation and our nation’s relationship with other nations.

Now we do. As he said this morning, and has said before, there will be setbacks, false starts, and disagreements. But, if we pull together, as one people, “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled,” we can do what America has always done when it’s at its very best, live up to its ideals.

Barack Obama’s promises of a broad bipartisan focus on solving our country’s problems may prove as wise as the similar message of the Civil War president whose words echoed in the Grant Park speech. But that healing cannot occur, not wholly, unless the crimes that have brought our nation to such a ruinous condition – morally, economically and politically – are investigated thoroughly and a proper penalty imposed. Most importantly, the bent machinery that allowed, nay encouraged, those crimes must be rebuilt with safeguards so that they never occur again. That’s not vengeance. It’s justice. And true healing and progress cannot come about without it.


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  1. First, I’ll be very interested in seeing who Obama picks as his AG.

    Second, I wonder if we need citizens bringing lawsuits against the criminals in Bush’s misAdminisration in order to keep these crimes front and center.  The American people deserve to know what happened in these past eight years and I don’t have full confidence in that happening.  Perhaps if lawsuits were brought from outside, there’d be no choice but to provide that information.

    It seems very daunting to switch from “disloyal opposition” mode to full engagement with our government.  The left was united against Bush, but now that Bush is leaving, it won’t be such a unified movement, imo.  So it’s a big challenge.

    Going to check out your Bold Progressive link now.

    • Edger on November 6, 2008 at 4:15 am

    Marable is I think the first person I’ve ever heard call Obama a progressive liberal. He’s been called a centrist by many, right of center by many including me, and far right in some of his positions and policy statements, and farther right than McCain in foreign policy leanings. But I’ve never heard him called a progressive liberal before.

    I admit I’m writing this comment before reading your entire essay here, MB. Just that one statement by Marable kind of caught me off guard….

    • pfiore8 on November 6, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    see us… as one people, “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled

    we citizens are obligated to be part of healing the divide, imo. it’d be nice if we progressives, champions of polar bears and wood morels, could reach out to those McCain voters and Bush-in-2004 voters who were looking/begging to find a better way. and voted just by default. not commitment.

    cause these times will require most of us, rowing in the same direction, to jump start this restorative work ahead of us.

  2. the most promising part of Obama’s pragmatism is it’s ability to bring together coalitions. Coalitions that will break the myths of ‘right center’. The op eds today are filled with pundits and experts all marveling at the demographics of who voted for this change. As he bills himself as inclusive progressives need to be part of the coalition. I think his base has a place for us. His governance is going to have to be pragmatic as politically speaking he has to start where we are and rebuild the definitions of what and who we are. He also has to deal with the Congress that even on the Democratic side is pretty sketchy when it comes to being liberal or even center.        

  3. we have the time between now and the inauguration to push for justice.

    Let’s use it well.

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