Obama’s Potential Progressivism

June 4, 2008 | By | Reply More

Barack Obama has, for all intents and purposes, clinched the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Hillary will jocky for position in before the upcoming convention. Much speculation has been thrown about as to whether or not she’ll be a vice presidential nominee. I am dubious of that. Dubious that Obama will risk bringing her perceived “baggage” on board, dubious that she would accept. I think it would be a hell of a slate, though, one that has only a single precedent (yes, there is a precedent) but with the roles reversed.

In 1872, Victoria Woodhull—a feminist, a suffragist, a newspaper publisher, a Wall Street player, a spiritualist, and free lover—declared her candidacy for president of the United States. It was a serious bid, make no mistake, and one which virtually split the Women’s Suffrage movement in two. Those who ought to have been her natural allies—Susan B. Anthony chief among them—couldn’t stand her. They attempted to bar her from conventions, they denounced her in their own press, they threw obstructions in her path. Why? She was…immodest.

But the Women’s Suffrage movement was torn. They needed Woodhull because she understood how to work the system. She was popular, with men and women. She understood how money worked. She brought a lot with her, so they were forced to include her in their January 1872 convention as a principle speaker and as one of the “leaders” of the Equal Rights Movement. As Anthony told the convention “Now bless your soulds she was not dragged to the front. She came to Washington from Wall Street with powerful argument and with lots of cash behind her, and I bet you cash is a big thing with Congress.”

Woodhull was one of six women who appeared before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 12. Their purpose was to push forward a Declaratory Act which would grant Woman Suffrage by vote of congress. They had twenty thousand signatures. That evening, suffragist and spiritualist Ada Ballou put Woodhull’s name forward as a candidate for president, leading the Equal Rights Party. In May, the Party was officially chartered and Woodhull named as its candidate at Apollo Hall in New York City.

It was a progressive party by any stretch of the imagination. Twenty-three planks formed the Party platform—covering education, suffrage, social and industrial reforms, several of which resonate down to the present: graduated direct taxation, regulation of monopolies, labor laws, and a merit-based civil service to replace cronyism.

Because the Suffrage Movement has always been joined at the hip to Abolition (among other movements), Victoria Woodhull chose Frederick Douglass to be her running mate.

However, it was a publicity choice, one unfortunately not backed by the candidate in question. Douglass did not accept. He was committed to U.S. Grant and the Republicans and had been present at none of the Equal Rights Party events. Woodhull chose to ignore this little problem and ran with Douglass the presumed vice presidential candidate.

By June the Party was deep in debt with donors bailing out. By September it was over.

The Declaratory Act to grant suffrage failed. Anthony and Stanton blamed Woodhull and her “precipitate” bid for the presidency. Not to mention that Woodhull’s “free love” and spiritualist philosophies were unwelcome by the serious-minded and abstemious main line suffragists, who saw sex and booze as the twin shackles binding women to a second-class status (the Temperance Movement, founded the following year, joined suffrage and temperance and led ultimately not only to the 19th Amendment granting women the vote in 1921 but also to the 18th Amendment—Prohibition—which is the only amendment to the Constitution ever to be repealed).

Short-lived as it was, the Woodhull-Douglass ticket has become part of our national folklore, more for what it represented than for anything that it actually accomplished. But a closer look shows that the ideas fueling this ill-fated bid were as progressive as anything one might imagine today. It was, after all, the Equal Rights Party—and Victoria Woodhull was deadly earnest about that. She sought to unchain everyone from the bonds of the past—materially and spiritually.

I have noted in the last several months the word “Progressive” coming to the fore, replacing Liberal. McCain uses Liberal—expectedly, as a cudgel—but Obama, when he says anything like that at all, says Progressive. For a long time, the Right has held a rhetorical high ground and dominated the discourse by controlling the language. It has taken the Left all this time to realize that people react in often Pavlovian thoughtlessness to language and labels and to start using some of those strategies. Most people on the Left tend to believe people are not so simplistic, but time and again we are shown that our expectations of other peoples’ intellectual capactiy are in error. That and the fact that neuro-linguistics tells us this response is anything but simple.

Bush has damaged the country. Badly. To some extent, this is because he has blindly followed his Party line—something conservatives are supposed to be above. Mostly, this is due to his shortcomings as a leader. He doesn’t Get It.

And of course he was handed a raw deal with 9/11. Make no mistake, any president would have had problems dealing with that. We were unfortunate enough to have a mediocre intellect in the White House at the time, but the fall out from that was daunting.

McCain is not a Bush clone—not on any kind of one-to-one basis. But he is bound to a Party that has evolved into what it is under the influence of ideological positions which are untenable. To become the Republican Party of, say, Eisenhower, they must divest themselves of a cumbersome element of what they perceive as their power base. They cannot do this if they win.

In order for the Democrats to become a new kind of Party, one capable of dealing with the coming 90 years, they must have a focus. Progressivism may be it. Different from doctrinaire Liberalism, Progressivism is potentially a causal-based, reality-centered mind-set that could be flexible enough to utilize liberalism and conservatism as need be, something doctrinaire Liberalism could never do.

Obama has rhetorically held himself to be above the usual fray. The minefield of race was a proving ground for him. It is possible that he may be the locus for a resurgent progressivism which could free us from the left-overs of both the Cold War and the Fundamentalist crusades and catalyze the creation of a new American ethos.

But he’d better be damned careful who he picks as his running mate and how he manages his cabinet. Because that’s where the difference will be made.

Would Hillary Clinton be a good choice? She understands the nature of national politics in a way that maybe Obama, in his youth, does not. She could be a powerful resource—Obama’s version of LBJ. But she could also be a weight, binding him to 20th Century Politics As Usual.

Stay tuned.

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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, History, Noteworthy, Politics

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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