When Politics Becomes Professional: From the Obamanauts to the New Deal

The historian Josh Freeman has an excellent review of Michael Walzer’s Political Action, which came out in 1971 but has been reissued by NYRB Books. Freeman compares Walzer’s short pamphlet to the Manual of Practical Political Action, another how-to political guide, prepared in 1946 by the labor movement’s National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC), one of the first modern PACs. Both texts were written at moments of political deceleration, when the velocities of change were about to alter dramatically or already had.

But here’s what Josh says about that earlier moment that’s relevant for today:

For NCPAC…organizing requires strategies that are not inherently progressive. Somewhat apologetically, the Manual suggests borrowing techniques from commercial advertising, presenting detailed guidance, much of it derived from standard business practices, about newspaper advertising, radio spots, and direct mail. The Popular Front from which it had emerged well understood the mechanics of persuasion, with one foot in working-class movements and another in the creative professions, from theater to cinema to advertising and the graphic arts. The idea of organizing as a politically neutral enterprise requiring specialized knowledge has had a long afterlife. Perhaps its most influential reincarnation was through Saul Alinsky and his many followers. Glimpses of it can be seen in Barack Obama’s account of his community organizing days in Dreams from My Father.

But, of course, technique goes only so far. For all its meticulous cataloging of knowledge needed for effective organizing, from billboard advertising rates in thirty different cities to how to use skits to enliven meetings (include ones written by Arthur Miller about inflation and civil rights), NCPAC got creamed in the 1946 congressional elections. The Republicans, campaigning against the New Deal, organized labor, prices increases, and the ineptitude of the Truman administration, won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1930. Among other things, the Democratic defeat opened the door to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, the beginning of a rollback of labor power that has continued ever since.

How quickly and easily a Popular Front-inspired left-wing cultural politics got turned into, and ultimately reduced to, a Madison Avenue-style campaign of political advertising!

Radical organizers always know that the work they’re doing is not simply political; it’s also ideological and ultimately cultural. They really are transforming people in fundamental ways. (This fall, I’m teaching Plato’s Republic for the first time in many years, and it’s hard to think of a more concrete instance of the kind of soulcraft that Plato describes there than the labor movement in its heyday.) In the case of the left wing of the New Deal, that cultural politics had an additional side to it: left-wing cultural producers in Hollywood, on the radio and TV, and on Madison Avenue (of which there were more than a few) saw themselves engaged in a task of radical transformation, changing souls through the popular arts.

(For a wonderful look back on this moment from a different vantage, read this interview Josh Cohen just did with the economist Samuel Bowles, whose father, Chester Bowles, was in the Roosevelt Administration. After the war, Bowles wrote an economic pamphlet that sought to popularize and explain Keynesianism to a mass audience. Bowles, too, had his origins in Madison Avenue, and he sought to use all the skills of persuasion he learned there on behalf of a consumer’s republic.)

But like all politics, cultural politics has its ebbs and flows. The entire left got creamed in and after 1946—not just the Democrats in Congress but also the hundreds of thousands of strikers who launched one of the most massive strike waves in American history that year, only to see their efforts ultimately met by Taft-Hartley and the general repression of the McCarthy era. But in the case of cultural politics, we see demolition and winnowing, an efflorescence turned inward, the sprawling movements that connected labor to Hollywood to Madison Avenue reduced to professionalized advertising.

I’ve just finished a lengthy piece on the memoirs of the Obama administration, and one of the most striking elements of those reminiscences is how fluidly and fluently the Obamanauts channel the activist traditions of the 1960s into the professional (neo)liberal politics of the Democratic Party since the 1980s. That translation had already begun in the 1970s, with the election of black mayors and other black officials. Back then, however, there was more awareness that the electoral turn was a diminution (perhaps necessary but nonetheless a diminution) of the mass movement in the streets. As one representative publication of black activists put it: “The marching has stopped.” Professional politics was what replaced it. By the time of Obama’s election, that awareness of diminution had been completely lost. His election was viewed as simply another step forward.

If you read the Obamanauts too quickly, theirs can seem to be a story exclusively about race and the civil rights movement and politics since the 1960s: how the motifs of the black freedom struggle are translated into the election of the first black president. But read against the arc of the New Deal, the Obama neoliberal story comes to seem part of something larger and longer. The labor movement, the Popular Front, the left—they all had a similar moment of professionalization.

To be clear: all movements need leaders, elected officials, bureaucrats, and, yes, professionals. While bureaucracies and leadership get a lot of shit from the left for shutting down radicalism, there’s a strong argument to be made (and that I largely agree with) that bureaucracies and leadership help sustain radical activism at its most powerful moments and that they help preserve the fruits of that activism long after it has died down.

The tragedy of the stories Freeman tells and I’ve read in the Obamanaut memoirs is how easy it is to forget the radical origins and roots of those bureaucracies and leaderships, how once the work of repression (and other political factors) is done (often with the help of those leaders and bureaucracies, as we saw during the McCarthy era), all we’re left with is a professionalized political class, who can’t even mix memory and desire, who have not even the wish, much less capacity, to stir dull roots with spring rain.


  1. bill barnes July 31, 2019 at 2:34 pm | #

    Circa 1964-67, Ann Arbor SDS put forward the idea/project of a “radical professionalism,” led by Dick Flacks, if I remember correctly. When SDS dissolved in crazyness over the following years, many of us withdrew into not an a-political professionalism, but one that was mostly intellectual/cultural/academic, largely giving up radical activism, with episodic exceptions. Are you familiar with the 1977 Radical America articles by Barbara and John Ehrenreich on “The Professional-Managerial Class” ? There’s a subsequent anthology of comments.

    When/where will your piece on the Obama admin memoirs appear?

    Bill Barnes

  2. WLGR August 1, 2019 at 10:14 am | #

    As far as how the old working-class militancy deteriorated into today’s “left”-neoliberal managerialism, I’d say the embrace of a politics reducible to elite-produced propaganda (recalling the title of Bernays’ book that launched the PR industry as we know it) is more a symptom of an underlying disease that has much more directly to do with the effects of early Cold War US foreign policy, specifically the deliberate efforts by the State Department and the CIA to nurture a whole ideological universe of “left” politics categorically closed off from any notion of international solidarity with the Soviet Union, forging an enduring affinity between this noncommunist-left intelligentsia and the managers of US empire. Other than the straightforwardly elite/intellectual currents covered under the rubric of the so-called Cultural Cold War, one of the main “working-class” institutional jewels in this Cold War crown was the venerable old big-tent Socialist Party of America, which from its high-water mark as the labor-driven mass party of anti-WWI stalwarts like Eugene Debs, ended up as a miserable little elite feeder group for neocon foreign policy flunkies into the Reagan administration — and tellingly, this transformation was well underway long before most of the figures involved finally shed their vestigial connections to organized labor, and abandoned their nominal commitment to some vague notion of left-wing or even socialist economic policy.

    Of course there are many other angles from which to tell the story of the pro-imperialist First World left and its cooption by the interests of capital, but specifically in the context of 20th century US labor politics, the open collaboration with the US security state starting in the ’40s and ’50s is just about the clearest possible elevator-pitch argument for why anybody concerned about the roots of capitalist opportunism in left-wing social movements should focus on the role of imperialist foreign policy first and foremost.

  3. Roger Gathman August 6, 2019 at 5:40 am | #

    I like this theme.I do think that there is a sort of broad brush being applied to the defeat of the labor movement, here. One of the key moments, I think, in the neoliberal turn that occurred in the U.S., UK, France, Sweden, Italy, etc., etc. was that the post-68 generation that came from the upper middle class, and went through all the educational institutionsi, nfiltrated (too sinister a word – perhaps better is networked their way into) positions in the political establishment on the Left, and proceeded to cut the left off from Labour. These apparatchik thought they’d won the social/civil rights war, and looked at their fellows in the establishment on the Right as sharers of a certain ethos. After all, the Democratic activist had probably gone to school with the Republican activist, the SPD member had probably served on some commission with the CDP member, and there was a fundamental agreement about certain things. In this way, class conflict, and indeed the conflict of the political establishment on the Left with its traditional members, was wished away. Eventually that wishing away would wash away the Left – the PS in France, the SPD in Germany, the Olive Tree in Italy – or Democratic Party. They all died, and their establishment – political activists and wheeler dealers – have happily jumped ship. The huge misjudgment that made, after a while, the state doing things for the working class a form of “pandering” and the notion that, after all, our colleagues on the Right accept our “enlightenment” premises has left a ruin. Which is how, absurdly, Le Pen’s party runs to the left, economically, of Macron’s – and how a Macron enforcing Bush’s economic policies arose from, of all things, the Socialist Party.

  4. Chris Morlock August 23, 2019 at 1:53 am | #

    I can’t help feel conflicted about some of the conclusions Corey arrives at. Obama seems to me to be the exemplification of “professional” politics in the sense that his presidency relied heavily on a single track mindset of activism- electing an African American. Gone was any deep analysis of policy, and it’s ironic because most Obama supporters didn’t seem to read either of this books well. When it came time to pursue actual progressive legislation, the “base” he had mobilized through his network of 2+ million supporters seemed to be dismantled during the first few months of his administration. Micah Sifry’s excellent article in the New Republic a few years back explained this phenomenon, “Obama’s Lost Army”. .

    My point is market demographics, focus groups, and all kinds of sophisticated media apparatuses knew what American’s wanted and the Democrats provided that image very efficiently and skillfully. After a hard swing to the right in terms of almost all policies within the Obama admin in the first year, Neo-Liberals then shielded any criticism using the same ID politics. Another skillful maneuver no doubt fully realized in a “professional” political sense.

Leave a Reply