Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Politics of Race, Class, Gender and the U.S. Presidency in the Age of Obama

"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke, but you and I we've been through that, and that is not our fate. Let us stop talking falsely now, the hour's getting late..."

--Bob Dylan, "All Along the Watchtower," 1967
(famous cover version by Jimi Hendrix, 1968)

"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." 
--James Baldwin


I cannot emphasize enough just how crucially important and absolutely pivotal the current world-historical moment is.  If we stupidly take it all for granted and are foolish and  myopic enough to simply allow cynical resignation, solipsistic posturing, smug indifference, or braindead nihilism to consume us at this point in our collective history we will not only be brutally and soundly defeated by our ignorance, fear, alienation, and hatred(s) in collusion with our enemies but we as well as future generations will not survive the horrific consequences of that passively suicidal decision. What we should be seriously and soberly reminding ourselves at this moment of the presidential election is NOT who or what we think President Obama is or isn't at this point but far more importantly who WE are and what WE ARE PREPARED TO DO.  The raging zeitgeist is telling us all quite clearly (it's shouting at us actually) that it's "do or die" time once again in our lives whether we "like" or fully "understand" it all yet or not.  This is not the time certainly for any self serving and infantile speculations about "the future" but it is the time to take conscious hold and control of our real responsibility and obligations in the present ("nostalgia for the present" anyone?) and to ACT on the human agency that we do possess if we don't forget to exercise it.  If we fail in confronting and honestly addressing these stark economic, social, and cultural contradictions, problems, and crises on a mass scale by demanding real alternatives to the present quagmire we find ourselves in it won't matter who the next President is.  But in the meantime if we don't somehow tactically buy ourselves some admittedly very limited "free time" between now and at least 2014 (when the next midterm congressional elections take place) by keeping Romney and Ryan out of the Presidency, it will be even more difficult to fight for the major economic and political reforms that we collectively MUST immediately start fighting for when this national election is over on November 7...Meanwhile as the following article makes ominously clear an American historical replay of the "Weimar syndrome" surely awaits us all as these global crises intensify no matter what. So be prepared for real political and ideological combat no matter who's President...


History's Magic Mirror: America’s Economic Crisis and the Weimar Republic of Pre-Nazi Germany 
01 November 2012
By Charles Derber and Yale Magrass,
Truthout | Op-Ed
Workers set up a digital screen for a Mitt Romney campaign event in Lancaster, Ohio, October 11, 2012. (Photo: Ty Wright / The New York Times)

Germany's economic crisis of the 1930s led to the rise of far-right populism and the Nazi Party,  fueled by the corporate and military establishment.  An American version of this "Weimar Syndrome" could emerge as the far Right closes its grip on the Republican Party.

Contrary to common wisdom, the ascendancy of the Tea Party, Christian fundamentalist, militarist, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant and other racially-coded right-wing elements in the Republican Party - that could gain preponderant influence over the nation in a Romney/Ryan Administration - is not new. It is the most recent example of the "Weimar Syndrome," where liberal and Left parties fail to solve serious economic crises, helping right-wing movements and policies - that lack major public support, but are groomed and funded by the corporate and military establishment - to take power.

These movements have sometimes created perilous right-wing systemic change. In the 1920s and early 1930s German Weimar Republic, the world witnessed the rise to power of far-right groups, supported by only a minority of the population, but aided by the conservative establishment. An American Weimar could emerge as far-right elements gain increasing dominance in the Republican Party. The corporate establishment, represented by Mitt Romney, feels dependent on their support and is willing to implement most of their agenda, despite Romney's sprouting strands of moderate rhetoric since the first debate to reach beyond the hard core.

The Weimar Syndrome involves the following elements:
1. A severe and intensifying economic crisis

2. A failure by majoritarian liberal or Left groups to resolve the crisis

3. The rise of right-wing populist groups feeling economically threatened and politically unrepresented

4. The decision of the conservative political establishment to ally with and empower these right-wing elements, as their best way to stabilize capitalism and prevent the rise of progressive movements against corporations or capitalism itself

The most dangerous Weimar right-wing populist movements in Germany were not anti-statist, a distinctively American approach, and were brutally violent. Moreover, they would never support a candidate offering conciliatory rhetoric to appeal to the unconverted. While thus different than US ultra-conservative elements in the Republican Party today, who do not pose now the same type of danger, they nonetheless offer alarming lessons for America today.

The disastrous defeat in World War I and the ensuing hyperinflation and collapse of the German economy spawned hundreds of far-right populist groups. The most famous Weimar populists were the Nazis, but in 1920s Weimar they were just one of many hyper-nationalist, militarist and "family value" fringe groups not taken seriously by either the conservative or social democratic German Establishment.

The Weimar populists were "Red State" rural and small town Germans, rooted in small business, a demographic much like the Tea Party. Their leaders expressed the insecurity and rage of these conservative traditional classes.

Rural and small town Germans felt threatened by the humiliating defeat in the Great War and Weimar's crushing economic crises. Using racist demagoguery, the Weimar populists blamed both the military defeat and the economic crisis on Jews, the leading "traitors" concentrated in Berlin and other great cities. Under Weimar, big cities had become a cauldron of new movements for unionism, socialism and Communism, feminism and artistic experimentation.

The leading German liberal and conservative parties dismissed the Weimar right-wing populists as extremists and lunatics. By the early 1930s, though, the conservative corporate establishment viewed Hitler as the only alternative to a liberal or Communist takeover as the economy collapsed. German conservative elites correctly believed he would dispose of the Communists but erroneously calculated that they could contain Hitler himself. So they put him in power despite his electoral weakness and funded his militaristic solutions for the German crisis, which they thought would also save German capitalism.

Right-wing populists in the US also emerged in the Weimar era of the 1920s, involving Christian evangelicals such as Billy Sunday, as well as the Ku Klux Klan. They expressed anti-establishment religious revivalism and racist calls for restoring the traditional order and honor of the South. In the 1930s, the American Liberty League formed a Tea Party ancestor that opposed the entire New Deal as unconstitutional statism.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States underwent even greater division between a counterculture tied to a Left that saw the Vietnam War as emblematic of a flawed militaristic empire against a "silent majority" - a term coined by President Nixon to suggest a majoritarian right-wing America backed by the GOP establishment - committed to American glory, free market capitalism, traditional families, the virtues of hard work, and for some, white rights and Christian values.

By the late 1970s, the Silent Majority morphed - with aid from the Republican corporate establishment - into the populist "New Right." The New Right groups embraced unrestrained capitalism as "Christian," something which evangelical movements had seldom previously done. The American corporate elite found this version of populism - which they helped shape - palatable, especially when, like the German establishment during Weimar, it confronted a threat from the Left.

The 1970s New Right was a new generation of Christian fundamentalist populists emphasizing traditional values and free markets. In 1980, the New Right helped elect President Ronald Reagan and helped consolidate the Republican establishment's hold on power, based on the odd marriage of big corporations and Southern right-wing populism.

For all the talk about how polarized the United States is now - with polarization between a minority conservative rural populace and a progressive urban demographic - a feature of the Weimar Syndrome - it was far more so from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Then, there was a real Left that was undermining the latitude of the American military. Many within the younger generation were rejecting the capitalist consumerist society that they were supposed to inherit. Japan and Europe were showing signs of surpassing the United States economically. Some within the corporate elite, like David Rockefeller, felt it was essential to re-establish respect for traditional authority.

A few years before the rift of the late 1970s, much of the American corporate establishment would have seen the Christian Right as a "loony fringe," but like the German elite of the early 1930s, they felt a need to find someone to return order and stability. Although many were previously suspicious of Ronald Reagan, they allowed him to become president. Hitler promised German honor would be restored and Germany would never again lose a war. Reagan made the same promise to America. The German business community thought they could contain Hitler. They were wrong. The American business community hoped they could control Reagan and it turns out they were correct. Reagan built a coalition between the corporate elite and the evangelical Right. He did not enact the programs of the fundamentalists, but he gave them lip-service as their perspective gained respectability. He re-centered the political spectrum as the real Left fell beyond the edge and liberalism, which previously had been the mainstream, became the "L-word."

Reagan dissipated the crisis that he was brought into office to resolve, but his fiscal and military policies laid the seeds for the present economic catastrophe, the structural heart of a Weimar era. He doubled the government deficit as jobs and infrastructures were exported. Despite underlying instability, reflecting the beginning of the a long American decline, there appeared to be a surface return to normalcy, prosperity and patriotism and today, even some liberals remember his tenure nostalgically.

The Tea Party and the right-wing groups in the Republican Party and House, led by Paul Ryan, are the step-children of Reagan, the New Right and the latest incarnation of right-wing populism. They pose new challenges for the corporate establishment in the GOP. How they deal with the Tea Party and Ryan Republicans will shape a possible Romney administration.

Long-term decline increases the radicalism of right-wing populists and the political volatility of the population. The corporate and GOP establishment, represented by Mr. Romney, are betting the ranch that they can again contain the new Far Right populists. But they are increasingly dependent on them, as evidenced by the pick of Ryan as Romney's running mate.

Romney insists that he, not Ryan, is the head of the Republican Party, and he is shape-shifting back to the image of moderation during his Massachusetts governorship. But a look at Romney's endorsement of the Ryan budget, his electoral-season new marriage with the southern Evangelical, militarist and racist elements in the party, and his own "severely conservative" budget and policy suggest the real Romney, in characteristic Weimar fashion, has embraced the right-wing Ryan factions and chosen to empower them.

Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist said, "We just need a president to sign this stuff.... Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen." Romney is willing. He has said would sign the Ryan budget, the document crystallizing all the Tea Party dreams of drowning the social welfare government in the bathtub.

He has spoken for a new hegemonic American militarism and proclaimed, "This century must be an American Century ... [Obama] has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation's military capacity ... This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest." He has joined anti-immigrant forces by opposing the Dream Act, while attacking Obama as a "food stamp" president and thereby appealing to all the racially coded elements in the party. This is a corporate presidential candidate adopting through most of the campaign the Weimar strategy of embracing the most Rightist elements in the GOP, and only muting his "severe" conservative tone very late in the campaign to expand his base beyond true believers.

President Obama's inability to lead the country, in FDR fashion, toward a New Deal that might solve the economic crisis, opens the door to a Weimar outcome. The corporate establishment fears even the weak populist tone that Obama has embraced during this election season, and sees both the long economic crisis and an Obama victory as eroding their power and potentially subverting capitalism itself.

The obvious lesson is that in periods of severe crisis and long-term decline, all bets are off. The establishment is risking not only the Republic, but its own survival. Only the progressive popular movements - mobilized by righteous anger at the plutocratic globalizing elites disinvesting from the nation itself as they embrace far-right nationalism and populism - can ward off a potentially disastrous repeat of the 1920s Weimar march into decay and barbarism.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.


Charles Derber, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and Yale Magrass, Chancellor Professor of Sociology at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, are co-authors of The Surplus American (Paradigm 2012) and Morality Wars (Paradigm 2010).

We Need More than a New President
by Saket Soni
October 2, 2012  

This article appeared in the October 22, 2012 edition of The Nation.
Supporters react to seeing President Barack Obama stake the stage during a campaign event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In Mitt Romney’s America, 47 percent of the people live on government handouts, incapable of taking responsibility for their lives. In the real America, ordinary people are working harder than ever for less and less. Work once held a promise: it would allow workers to sustain their families, contribute to a community, and realize their full potential as human beings. In today’s economy, this promise no longer holds.

Workers know something about the economy that neither party has faced up to: work in America has changed, fundamentally and forever. First, the nature of employment has changed. Millions of people don’t work for the ultimate beneficiary of their labor, but for subcontractors or suppliers. Millions more are temporary, part-time or “self-employed.” A third of the US workforce—42.6 million workers—is now contingent. Tens of millions of workers no longer know who their real boss is.

Second, the nature of unemployment has shifted. Workers used to be employed for long periods; unemployment was short-term. Workers now face long-term unemployment interrupted by intermittent employment. Forty percent of the unemployed have been jobless for twenty-seven weeks. Unemployment is twice as high for African-Americans as for whites, and one and a half times as high for Latinos.

Third, the US workforce itself has changed. Today’s workforce isn’t just middle-aged white men: it’s women (49 percent), people of color, undocumented immigrants, young workers, baby boomers forced to delay retirement and guest workers. US companies now source workers from all over the globe, importing cheap labor for local jobs. And where there is prospective job growth, it’s overwhelmingly in low-wage sectors like service and retail.

Ana Rosa Diaz can tell you what the US workplace will look like at the end of this road. Jobless in Mexico, Ana was recruited to come to the United States as a guest worker. She peeled crawfish for a Walmart supplier in Louisiana that subjected her and her fellow workers to forced labor: they were compelled to work up to twenty-four-hour shifts with no overtime pay and were also locked in the plant to prevent breaks. When the workers spoke up, the boss threatened violence against their families.

On our current path, we all end up as guest workers: trapped in an economy of temporary, intermittent work, subcontracted, migratory, struggling with debt rather than building wealth, sourced into labor supply chains rather than climbing career ladders.

We need to use a second Obama term to create the conditions for winning a new social contract for a new economy. That means creating new forms of collective bargaining that let contingent workers and service workers bargain directly with the corporate actors that set the conditions of their jobs and their lives. It also means winning a vastly expanded role for the state in protecting all workers, including a new social safety net that addresses the rise of contingent work and long-term unemployment.

That will take more than a president; it’ll take a social movement. Because what’s really at stake isn’t the next four years—it’s the next forty.


Though far too many Americans and especially African Americans erroneously think or feel that this kind of incisive critical analysis of and aggressive civic engagement with the President should not be taking place because they/we fear that doing so "in public" somehow "weakens" or "undermines" Obama's image and/or political status among his many enemies and detractors, the far bigger and more important truth is that it is precisely these kind of mature critical assessments and diagnoses that not only should but MUST be made if we are to fully and maturely exercise our fundamental rights and responsibilities as citizens and human beings no matter who is in the White House or what political party is seeking to 'represent us' and our interests in any capacity in government.  Whether we support the President's bid for re-election or not it makes no sense and can only harm us in both the short and the long run if we simply attempt to petulantly censor ourselves or others who desire and need to make our demands and aspirations known to our chosen "leaders" whether they are in or out of government.  One of the biggest and most costly errors, mistakes, and inexcusable flaws of the past four years in U.S. political life--and this is especially true generally of both the national African American population and the broader multiracial, multiethnic radical/progressive American Left--is that far too often we paid a passive and even lazy deference to the President and his administration out of an "understandable" but ultimately egregious and irresponsible desire to merely protect and shield him from his many fierce enemies on the right at the expense of our own direct engagement, and as a result we too often wound up giving Obama and his adminstration a pass on his various public policy initiatives and positions (or lack thereof) when we should have been vigorously critically questioning, challenging, and even when the situation and circumstances required or called for it, actively opposing what he was doing and putting forth viable alternatives.  Given the incredible racial and philosophical siege/assault that this President has been relentlessly subjected to by the savage and psychotic Republican/Tea Party right it hasn't always been either easy or pleasant for fellow African Americans like Dr. Harris in this article or individuals like myself among others in the "national black community" (sic) to cpnfront or take on Obama in a critical or rational analytical context because we fully realize and deeply appreciate what Barack is up against and how truly difficult his task is but just as this bedrock reality doesn't mean that he as President can simply dismiss or evade his own deeper responsibilities and obligations to serve ALL of his many constituencies and support groups in a just, fair, and equitable manner, we as independent citizens and an integral part of these larger communities must also be willing and able to fully strive in a serious and disciplined manner for justice, freedom, and equality no matter who is in power, what they look like, or where they come from.  Thus I strongly applaud Dr. Harris and many other mature and serious critics of this President-- no matter what their nationality or "ethnicity" happens to be-- who while fundamentally sympathetic to and even in many cases largely supportive of him and his agenda are determined at ALL TIMES to speak truth to power and to call for, advocate, struggle for, and defend positions and critiques that may greatly diverge from or even be in direct opposition to the President and his agenda at any given time or place.  It's not only the right thing to do but it's the only way we can responsibly assert our own political and ideological agency and sense of independence and sovereignty as citizens and truly engaged members of the larger body politic...Stay tuned...


The Price of a Black President
Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Young men joined the march from the Selma to Montgomery, Ala., organized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in March 1965.

October 27, 2012
New York Times

WHEN African-Americans go to the polls next week, they are likely to support Barack Obama at a level approaching the 95 percent share of the black vote he received in 2008. As well they should, given the symbolic exceptionalism of his presidency and the modern Republican Party’s utter disregard for economic justice, civil rights and the social safety net.

But for those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.

These are not easy words to write. Mr. Obama’s expansion of health insurance coverage was the most significant social legislation since the Great Society, his stimulus package blunted much of the devastation of the Great Recession, and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul added major new protections for consumers. His politics would seem to vindicate the position of civil rights-era leaders like Bayard Rustin, who argued that blacks should form coalitions with other Democratic constituencies in support of universal, race-neutral policies — in opposition to activists like Malcolm X, who distrusted party politics and believed that blacks would be better positioned to advance their interests as an independent voting bloc, beholden to neither party.

But the triumph of “post-racial” Democratic politics has not been a triumph for African-Americans in the aggregate. It has failed to arrest the growing chasm of income and wealth inequality; to improve prospects for social and economic mobility; to halt the re-segregation of public schools and narrow the black-white achievement gap; and to prevent the Supreme Court from eroding the last vestiges of affirmative action. The once unimaginable successes of black diplomats like Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Susan E. Rice and of black chief executives like Ursula M. Burns, Kenneth I. Chenault and Roger W. Ferguson Jr. cannot distract us from facts like these: 28 percent of African-Americans, and 37 percent of black children, are poor (compared with 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children); 13 percent of blacks are unemployed (compared with 7 percent of whites); more than 900,000 black men are in prison; blacks experienced a sharper drop in income since 2007 than any other racial group; black household wealth, which had been disproportionately concentrated in housing, has hit its lowest level in decades; blacks accounted, in 2009, for 44 percent of new H.I.V. infections.

Mr. Obama cannot, of course, be blamed for any of these facts. It’s no secret that Republican obstruction has limited his options at every turn. But it’s disturbing that so few black elites have aggressively advocated for those whom the legal scholar Derrick A. Bell called the “faces at the bottom of the well.”

The prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power, regardless of political winds or social pressures, has a long history. Ida B. Wells risked her life to publicize the atrocity of lynching; W. E. B. Du Bois linked the struggle against racial injustice to anticolonial movements around the world; Cornel West continues to warn of the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism” that King identified a year before his death.

But that prophetic tradition is on the wane. Changes in black religious practice have played a role. Great preachers of social justice and liberation theology, like Gardner C. Taylor, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, John Hurst Adams, Wyatt Tee Walker and Joseph E. Lowery, have retired or passed away. Taking their place are megachurch preachers of a “gospel of prosperity” — like Creflo A. Dollar Jr., T. D. Jakes, Eddie L. Long and Frederick K. C. Price — who emphasize individual enrichment rather than collective uplift. “There’s more facing us than social justice,” Bishop Jakes has said. “There’s personal responsibility.”

Mr. Obama hasn’t embraced this new gospel, but as a candidate he did invoke the politics of respectability once associated with Booker T. Washington. He urged blacks to exhibit the “discipline and fortitude” of their forebears. He lamented that “too many fathers are M.I.A.” He chided some parents for “feeding our children junk all day long, giving them no exercise.” He distanced himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose incendiary remarks about racism’s legacy caused a maelstrom.

But as president, Mr. Obama has had little to say on concerns specific to blacks. His State of the Union address in 2011 was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor. The political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion found that Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting.

Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama weighed in after the prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass. The president said the police had “acted stupidly,” was criticized for rushing to judgment, and was mocked when he invited Dr. Gates and the arresting officer to chat over beers at the White House. It wasn’t until earlier this year that Mr. Obama spoke as forcefully on a civil rights matter — the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida — saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

INSTEAD of urging Mr. Obama to be more outspoken on black issues, black elites parrot campaign talking points. They dutifully praise important but minor accomplishments — the settlement of a longstanding class-action lawsuit by black farmers; increased funds for black colleges; the reduction (but not elimination) of the disparities in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine — while setting aside their critical acumen.

For some, criticism of Mr. Obama is disloyal. “Stick together, black people,” the radio host Tom Joyner has warned. (Another talk show host, Tavis Smiley, joined Dr. West on a “poverty tour” last year, but has been less critical of the president than Dr. West has.)

It wasn’t always so. Though Bill Clinton was wildly popular among blacks, black intellectuals fiercely debated affirmative action, mass incarceration, welfare reform and racial reconciliation during his presidency. In 2001, the Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree called the surge in the inmate population “shocking and regrettable” and found it “shameful” that Mr. Clinton “didn’t come out and take a more positive and symbolic approach to the issue of reparations for slavery.” But Mr. Ogletree, a mentor of Mr. Obama’s, now finds “puzzling the idea that a president who happens to be black has to focus on black issues.”

Melissa V. Harris-Perry, a political scientist at Tulane who hosts a talk show for MSNBC, warned in 2005 that African-Americans “who felt most warmly toward Clinton and most trusting of his party’s commitment to African-Americans” were in danger of underestimating “the continued economic inequality of African-Americans relative to whites.” But she has become all but an apologist for Mr. Obama. “No matter what policies he pursues, the president’s racialized embodiment stands as a symbol of triumphant black achievement,” she wrote in The Nation this month.

Black politicians, too, have held their fire. “With 14 percent unemployment if we had a white president we’d be marching around the White House,” Representative Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Root last month. “The president knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn’t to someone white.”

Some of the reticence stems from fear. “If we go after the president too hard, you’re going after us,” Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, told a largely black audience in Detroit last year.

But caution explains only so much. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, one of King’s last living disciples, has not used his moral stature to criticize the president’s silence about the poor. Neither have leaders of the biggest civil rights organizations, like Benjamin Todd Jealous of the N.A.A.C.P., Marc H. Morial of the National Urban League or Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, whether because of emotional allegiance or pragmatic accommodation.

The two black governors elected since Reconstruction — L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Deval L. Patrick of Massachusetts — have also de-emphasized race. So, too, have the new cadre of black politicians who serve largely black constituencies, like Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark, Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia and Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama — all of whom, like Mr. Obama, have Ivy League degrees and rarely discuss the impact of racism on contemporary black life.

Some argue that de-emphasizing race — and moving to a “colorblind” politics — is an inevitable and beneficial byproduct of societal change. But this ideal is a myth, even if it’s nice to hear. As Frederick Douglass observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The political scientist E. E. Schattschneider noted that conflict was essential to agenda-setting. Other interest groups — Tea Party activists, environmentalists, advocates for gay and lesbian rights, supporters of Israel and, most of all, rich and large corporations — grasp this insight. Have African-Americans forgotten it?

IN making this case, I have avoided speculation about Mr. Obama’s psychology and background — his biracial heritage, his transnational childhood, his community organizing, his aversion to being seen as “angry,” his canny ability to navigate multiple worlds, his talent at engaging with politics while appearing detached from it. As a social scientist I keep returning to the question: What is the best strategy for black communities to pursue their political interests as a whole?

Were Harold Cruse, the author of the unsparing 1967 book “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” still alive, he would despair at the state of black intellectual life. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton, told me: “Too many black intellectuals have given up the hard work of thinking carefully in public about the crisis facing black America. We have either become cheerleaders for President Obama or self-serving pundits.”

There are exceptions. Writing in the journal Daedalus last year, the Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby called Mr. Obama’s approach “a pragmatic strategy for navigating hazardous racial waters” that might improve lives for poor minorities. But he added: “Judged alongside King’s transformative vision of racial equality and integration, Obama’s philosophy is morally deficient and uninspiring.”

Mr. Obama deserves the electoral support — but not the uncritical adulation — of African-Americans. If re-elected he might surprise us by explicitly emphasizing economic and racial justice and advocating “targeted universalism” — job-training and housing programs that are open to all, but are concentrated in low-income, minority communities. He would have to do this in the face of fiscal crisis and poisonous partisanship.

Amid such rancor, African-Americans might come to realize that the idea of having any politician as a role model is incompatible with accountability, the central tenet of representative democracy. By definition, role models are placed on pedestals and emulated, not criticized or held accountable.

To place policy above rhetoric is not to ask what the first black president is doing for blacks; rather, it is to ask what a Democratic president is doing for the most loyal Democratic constituency — who happen to be African-Americans, and who happen to be in dire need of help. Sadly, when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America, symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.   

Dr. Fredrick Harris is a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, and the author of “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics (Oxford University Press,  2012)