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SDS After Obama: Campus Radicals and the ’08 Elections

Doug Viehmeyer
Date Published: 
June 01, 2008

The nation stands at a crossroads; the struggle between the reactionary right and progressive movements is intensifying. Heading into the home stretch of the 2008 presidential elections, what role do students, specifically campus based SDS activists, have to play in relationship to the Obama campaign?

Over the past three years, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) has emerged as the most influential and growth-oriented radical youth and student organization in the US. Its growth is directly linked to an increasing realization among sectors of the young people, that something is deeply flawed with the system.

This election year, with the likelihood of an Obama nomination coming out of the summer conventions, SDSers face a key strategic question. Do we totally avoid and opt out of the effort to elect Barack Obama and focus mainly on direct action and resistance, such as the efforts to disrupt the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer? Can we find a way to expand the base of a revolutionary, democratic, egalitarian movement on campus by engaging with the many newly politicized youth in the Obama camp? Opinions about this will differ within SDS, from the national level to the chapter level and even between individuals within chapters themselves. This is only natural for a healthy student movement coming to grips with the major issues of the day.Engaging a new generation

SDS would be seriously missing out on a historic base-building moment if it collectively disengages from the 2008 elections. An organization seeking the growth of a revolutionary youth and student movement can not ignore the huge numbers of enthusiastic “millennials” that have embraced Obama as the candidate of “change.” The potential for increasing our mass base on campuses and in high schools across the country is right in front of our eyes-—Obama’s supporters represent something new for this generation. With the communications revolution and the broad appeal of online social networking, young people have brought a new dynamic to the Obama campaign, which is very participatory.

Now six years into the US occupation of Iraq, the war remains a key issue for voters heading into the fall election. John McCain has promised endless occupation of Iraq and can be seen as the flag bearer of the neoconservative movement that has driven US foreign policy for the last eight years. The inability of the US military to establish decisive control over Iraq, while simultaneously losing hegemony in the political and economic spheres, has caused the rebirth of what the elites fear most: the Vietnam Syndrome. The majority of the US population has come to the realization that the war in Iraq is a quagmire, an unwinnable tragedy that is costing the lives of their children.

Many in the antiwar movement, and especially those within the radical, anti-imperialist pole of the movement such as SDS, may feel that our actions have been ineffectual. Still, we should not fool ourselves or be so dispirited. Many people who are against the war, but who have not yet actively participated within the movement to end it, view this war as a Republican war—not a Democratic war, much less a US imperialist war. For most voters, this war has been a tragic mistake and the electoral process remains the primary channel for citizens to intervene.

The elite, or ruling class, is divided over what to do in Iraq. The imperialist consensus has split, but not yet decisively. How anti-imperialists can move to widen and exploit that fissure should be our primary strategic goal. The Obama shift

For the sector of the ruling circles that have concluded that our current level of involvement in Iraq is not worth the risk to larger US hegemony, Obama is seen as a “safe” candidate. He will not challenge the overarching interests of capital that have driven US foreign - and domestic - policy for the last century. Obama’s imperialism will be a “soft-imperialism” - it wont be as extreme as Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s but it will maintain the basic framework of US hegemony in the world system. In the Middle East and Muslim world, we can expect Obama to basically continue the relationship between the US and the despotic client regimes of the region.

In terms of the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinian movement for freedom and self-determination, we have witnessed Obama drift slowly but surely into the pro-Israel camp. This move has increased progressively as he has gained legitimacy as the front-runner for the Democratic Party due in no small part to the influence of the Israeli lobby in electoral politics and the vetting of suitable candidates.

US imperialism will be a major factor in determining the general direction of Obama’s foreign policy. At the same time, it appears that an Obama victory may represent the shift toward a new “multi-polar” neo-liberal consensus. A McCain victory, of course, represents another decade of naked imperialism and barbarism by the US war machine.

I would suggest that we look at the Obama campaign as a historic opportunity for the student movement rather than the “great beast” that we must disrupt. We should see this election through a lens of radical pragmatism. We must honestly look at our movement and realize that the mass base for the type of change and transformation of society that we desire is not there yet. For the first time in many of our lives, we are seeing our peers, our fellow US youth, the residents of the empire, becoming politicized in a way that hasn’t been seen since Robert F. Kennedy. The conclusions we should draw are self-evident. We need to energetically work to engage and dialogue with these young people, many of whom will be likely to join our ranks once they too run up against the limitations of the Democratic Party and the contradictions of the US electoral system.

The beginnings of the base that we need for a strong student and youth movement in this country lies within the ranks of the newly energized Obama supporters. Some are disillusioned with the status quo and seek a progressive outlet to solve the problems of society. Some are idealistic and see in Obama a vehicle to reform a society and culture they understand as increasingly bankrupt, similar to the way that young SDSers—whose ideas formed the synthesis of the Port Huron Statement—saw the promise of the JFK administration. Additionally, and perhaps most crucially, many young Obama supporters include people of color, specifically black students, who have historically played a leading role in the fight for economic and social justice.Summer conventions

How exactly would SDS chapters engage with the Obama supporters in a meaningful way? It is mostly an issue of reconciling our “outside” orientation as an organization and sector of the Left with the “inside” orientation of these young Obama supporters. This will not be an easy task, given our near total distrust and repudiation of the Democratic Party and the corporate hacks that run the show. I, myself, spoke on a panel at the 2008 Left Forum conference, calling the Democratic Party the “graveyard of popular movements.” In a sense, I still believe that, but I have recently found a glimmer of hope within the mass youth support for Obama. In the campaign, if not the politician, I see a vast sea of support for a movement of youth and students, in solidarity with a growing populace that demands and expects change, even if couched in the most vague terms.

SDS could take a path in which we actively and directly engage with the young volunteers for Obama; not just the people who will undoubtedly vote for Obama, but more closely with the kids who have dedicated time, blood, sweat, and tears for Barack. They are already mobilized and moving; they need our active encouragement and critical support. This doesn’t mean that we tone down our anti-systemic message or pretend to be who we are not—it means that we actively attempt to relate to these folks where they are now, not where they could be in the years following the election.

The most productive thing SDS could do in relation to the elections might be to have select members of local chapters actually volunteer with campus Obama supporters, whether as College Democrats or independent organizers. This should not be seen as a passive endorsement of Obama, but an opportunity to engage with and share ideas with these students. Obama campaign offices should be littered with SDS literature, highlighting our principled stances on everything from the war, to the occupation of Palestine, to the need for a deeper anti-racist and anti-imperialist analysis.

Many organizers within SDS are gearing up for the dual convention protests in both Denver and Minneapolis this coming summer. An interesting development is the evolution of a nationwide network of anti-authoritarian groups devoted to disrupting the conventions, named Unconventional Action. The network has been forming for the last half year and is intent upon coordinating a wide range of actions during both conventions, embracing a “diversity of tactics.” I support this endeavor, having been very influenced by veterans of the direct action movement during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. I also question the effectiveness of such an undertaking on another level.

If our main goal, as an organization and a part of a broader movement, is to build a mass base, how can we evaluate the contribution of descending upon the Twin Cities and Denver this summer? How will the events be framed and interpreted by the public viewing the spectacle?

To draw a historical parallel, the main network planning for protests at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) is calling itself “Recreate 68.” I’m certain their choice of a name has nothing to do with a masochistic desire to recreate what was in effect a police riot in Chicago in 1968. I give them lots of credit for trying to recapture a spirit of resistance that resonates with many people, but many have forgotten the context of Chicago, and we ca not forget that, in hindsight, the “Battle of Chicago” also led in part to Nixon’s election—based partially on his dual promises of a “peace with honor” and “law and order” at home. What will be the general public’s interpretation of radical direct action against the DNC especially? Will they really be convinced that the whole system is rotten and that the candidate is some bloodthirsty imperialist because we block some intersections and harass some delegates? Wouldn’t we be better served by making an effort to just hang with these folks inside and outside the arena, share ideas, talk politics, and party?

A few years ago there was a great idea launched by called “Camp Democracy.” It was to be a grassroots tent city for progressive causes and organizations, a fairly large undertaking that had a hard time garnering significant media attention at the time. I would suggest that SDS, in cooperation with various youth organizations, create some form of “festival of democracy” at the DNC this summer, including a special youth and student camp. We want to draw the kids and delegates inside the convention to hook up with us and interact on the outside. I am afraid that we will lose the political moment if we view the convention as a siege of some kind. Although it remains true that their ballot boxes can not hold our dreams, the young people that are going to vote for Obama believe in those ballot boxes and right now we need to engage with them.— Doug Viehmeyer is an antiwar and Palestine solidarity activist, who has been organizing with SDS since its inception in 2006.