With the Netroots Nation 2011 convention having taken place in Minneapolis last month, media coverage was filled with stories about how liberal and progressive activists have been disappointed with the Obama administration. LGBT activists have been at the center of many of these stories, as they have had much to criticize the president for – his slow action on repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and his vague and shifting stance on same-sex marriage.
These issues have forced a debate within the progressive base as to the degree to which he should be supported in his upcoming bid for reelection. In some circles, there is talk about the need to stand with the president so as to not cost him political capital. This is based on the idea that any attempt to challenge the president will weaken his image and may cost him a second term, leading to a Republican win and a more conservative regime that would be an active opponent of gay rights.
But while these fears are understandable, activists need to remember how much historical precedent there is for using the pressure of the grassroots to remind politicians that they are expected to do the right thing.
LGBT activists should look back to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an example of how a grassroots organization can play an adversarial role in the reelection of a president with productive results. In 1964, voting rights activists in Mississippi were facing a local Democratic Party that was determined to bar African Americans from voting. Activists formed the MFDP to protest the seating of delegates who had been elected through a system of legal and physical intimidation that had shut black voters out of the system, and they took their protest to the Democratic National Convention that year.
The MFDP captured the attention of the media and the impassioned address of sharecropper-turned-activist Fannie Lou Hamer to the Convention’s Credentials Committee was seen as such a threat to Johnson’s campaign that his staff called for an emergency press conference in an attempt to divert news cameras away. The activists knew that the alternative to a President Johnson was a President Goldwater, but this did not stop them from increasing their pressure. Their goal was not to destroy the Democratic Party, but to make it stronger.
Ultimately, the MFDP delegates were denied official recognition by the national party, but the attention given to the issue and the pressure placed on Johnson from the voting rights activists altered the course of his presidency. President Johnson did not sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 out of charity. He did it out of pressure from an activist base that knew to be adversarial toward the former Senate Majority Leader from the State of Texas, a base that was never in love with him. He was a better president for it.
Perhaps due to the fact candidate Obama was such a brilliant and charismatic speaker, progressive activists came to believe that they were electing one of their own. Being African American, and having worked as a community organizer, he does indeed have a background previously unseen in the politics of the American presidency. But Barack Obama is the president of the United States and, like any politician, it is wrong to assume that he will make all of the right moves without the pressure of his constituents, particularly when such actions run against the status quo.
So indeed, the “love affair” between the president and the ‘netroots’ is over, and has been for some time. Knowing where things stand between LGBT activists and the president is a good thing, because it means that now we can look back at the work of our predecessors in the Civil Rights Movement and take the struggle right up to the conventions if need be.
Sean Cotter is a New York-based author who studied LGBT history and literature. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.