Hey, hey LBJ - why have you come back today?

When faced with the possibility of a reactionary conservative White House, radicals may vote for a 'less bad' liberal.

    Hey, hey LBJ - why have you come back today?
    Many activists voted for Johnson (right), believing his liberalism 'less bad' than his opponent's conservatism [AP]

    New York, NY -
    Back in 1964, I was a student activist, a sympathiser of Students for a Democratic Society, and a full time civil rights movement organiser. We were "movement people", just as Occupy Wall Street is today, suspicious of, and hostile to, the Democratic Party - which was then dominated by pro-segregationist Dixiecrats from the south and the new president from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

    Some of us were still mourning for JFK, but we knew in our heart of hearts that even he operated more on political calculation than conscience and compassion. He had deepened our involvement in Vietnam, although there is evidence that he was looking for a way out.

    We all suspected his killing in Dallas was more than it appeared to be, and that a cover-up was assassinating the truth of what happened, just as he had been assassinated. I later directed a film, Beyond JFK, based on Oliver Stone's movie, laying out all the conspiracy theories.

    President Lyndon Johnson is back in the spotlight, thanks to the publication of the fourth volume of Robert Caro's masterful and massive biography covering LBJ's Passage of Power. There's no detail left unexamined.

    Caro is more partial to studying the power of political personalities than to examining the structures of power in our society that C Wright Mills wrote about in The Power Elite or that William Donhoff examines in his Who Rules America, now in its eighth printing.

    He is also dismissive of any suggestion that LBJ was involved in killing JFK, as Hilel Italie's Huffington Post review explains:

    "Believers in Oliver Stone's 'JFK' and other conspiracy theorists who hoped that Caro, the most hard-working of historians, would finally nail Johnson will have to look elsewhere. In 'The Passage of Power', the fourth of five planned volumes on Johnson, Caro devotes more than 100 pages to the events immediately before, during and after November 22, 1963. Nothing in his many years of research made him suspect Johnson.

    "'I never came across a single hint, in anything I did - in interviews or all the documents - that would lead you to make such a conclusion,' he says."

    Caro is too much the conventional "official" historian to probe the still unanswered questions and suspicions about what happened in Dallas, questions that, in poll after poll, a majority of US citizens seem to share.

    The lesser evil?

    Today, Johnson is credited with many legislative achievements, but back then, the movement watched him deftly destroy the aspirations of the Mississippi Freedom Party at the Atlantic City convention (that I also attended). It was that rejection of a civil rights initiative, compounded by his support for the war in Vietnam that led to the 1968 protests in Chicago that played a role in electing Richard Nixon.

    Back then, some in our movements opted for a "a part of the way with LBJ" strategy. In 1964, he was running against Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a godfather of the Tea Party that Barack Obama faces today. We criticised the war and racism, but thought that Johnson's neo-populist liberalism was preferable to Goldwater's far-right conservatism.

    "Mitt Romney is a private equity guy. He's not a politician, he's a private equity guy looking to do a deal. And Barack Obama is looking to get a job at JP Morgan, once he brushes up his resume as president of the United States."

    - Max Keiser, journalist

    Johnson then, like Obama today, tried to sway liberals with domestic reforms such as the War On Poverty, while pursuing hawkish policies abroad that ultimately killed it. I remember his many speeches about Vietnam, including one projecting victory there after a visit to Saigon. Obama was equally upbeat after his trip to Kabul.

    LBJ's agenda, like Obama's, was rejected by activists because of its many compromises and aggressive foreign policy. That animus led to the country turning against him and his decision not to run again.

    Many of those who backed Obama in the last election are now disappointed, if not disgusted, by his centrist politics, but, like our generation, seem trapped in "all or nothing" revolutionary rhetoric that inflates its support with terms such as "insurrection" that they can't possibly achieve.

    The attitude of many critics towards electoral politics is powered by contempt. My colleague, the financial journalist Max Keiser, thinks the Democrats and Republicans are the same - and equally support the system and the status quo.

    "I wouldn't even describe Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as politicians," he said. "Mitt Romney is a private equity guy. He's not a politician, he's a private equity guy looking to do a deal. And Barack Obama is looking to get a job at JP Morgan, once he brushes up his resume as president of the United States. Look at Tony Blair, he was prime minister of Britain, on his way to becoming a partner at JP Morgan. The prime ministership was just like something you did in college - it's a nice thing to put on your resume - it's not an actively impressive role."

    To many, this may sound preposterous, given the right-wing takeover of the Republican party, and its attacks on all social programmes, health care, women's rights etc.

    Obama is supported by unions and minorities because they see him, pragmatically, as a bulwark against an even more racially charged and pro-privilege political shift. Many blacks still see them as one of their own, even if he has not made serving the black community one of his priorities.

    Radical individualism

    While Democrat politicians are hardly the voice of the 99 per cent, they are not as blatantly upholders of the .0001 per cent as the GOP.  Many Obama backers back a vote and march strategy, clinging to the hopium of 2008. The activists and anarchists of Occupy denounce this as co-option and worse, fearing it will demobilise their movement.

    "There's something about the American character, this individualism that trickles down to the progressive activist community... they don't know how to be a 'we', and a lot of it is because they're doing too much of this... blogging, freaking blackberry emailing."

    - Veteran staffer, Congressional Office

    Ironically, Occupy's focus on confrontation may not win over or even educate mainstream Democrats who are sympathetic to their stance. On the positive side, OWS now has five working groups committed to outreach with labour organisations, but there is still lots of internal strife between factions and ideologies.

    I sat in a Congressional office the other day with a veteran staffer - who is totally supportive of Occupy's ideas - but not its practice. He believes there is "a real problem in the American culture with radical individualism".

    "Progressives talk about - people are selfish and the one per cent. I'd say look in the mirror, at yourself," he said. "I've been working with the activists in Bahrain and Egypt - they asked me to help them with stuff, they're unified, they have dinner with each other. These Occupy people, this group is fighting with that group. There's something about the American character, this individualism that trickles down to the progressive activist community, where they're not that much different. They don't know how to be a 'we', and a lot of it is because they're doing too much of this s**t ... blogging, freaking blackberry emailing…"

    What happened in the mid-term elections? A chunk of the electorate didn't even vote. So what happened? What happens when a teeny-tiny group of US voters turn out in the mid-term elections? You have a progressive African American president, who has to go against a Tea Party Congress, so what's going to be able to get done? Not too much. That's an abdication of democracy. We basically said: "We voted for President Barack Obama, but it's ok if corporate interests rule us. 'Cause we're not gonna go vote because we don't care enough to vote."

    And the crisis we have is a crisis not just with the corporate special interests, we have a crisis with democracy. That is the question we're not examining - why don't people vote?

    That's part of the debate underway today. It sounds to me, in part, like deja vu all over again.

    'News Dissector' Danny Schechter blogs at NewsDissector.net. His latest book, Blogothon, is a collection of his writings, published by Cosimo Books. He hosts a weekly radio show on the Progressive Radio Network, and can be contacted at dissector@mediachannel.org

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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