Back from the Abyss

Re-election will embolden Barack Obama only if his voters demand that. | MICHAEL SHIREY

ANALYSIS BY DOUG IRELAND | This election has saved the soul of Ameican democracy from one of the greatest threats it has experienced since the anti-Communist hysteria of McCarthyism and the domestic Cold War in the 1950s. America teetered on the brink in Tuesday’s election, stared into an abyss of reaction, and took a half-step back.

Despite his solid Electoral College victory, the narrowness of Barack Obama’s oh-so slim popular vote majority shows how close we came to disaster. White America rejected the first black president, who got only 40 percent of its votes. But this election reminded us all that the United States is no longer a majority white country — and this is a lesson the institutional gay movement, which has for so long slighted the needs and concerns of people of color, urgently needs to learn.

We were saved from the worst by non-white voters, who awarded Obama 80 percent of their votes. And if there was one single group we have to thank for Obama’s victory, it is Latino voters, among whom Obama over-performed by comparison to 2008 — this year they gave him seven out of ten of their votes. The attractive young mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro — who was the Democratic National Convention’s keynote speaker — symbolizes the new political reality.

One of the most important lessons I learned as a lad from Bayard Rustin, the great black civil rights organizer who was also queer, was — as I often heard him say — that all successful political coalitions are based on mutual self-interest. The institutional gay movement must now embrace this lesson and recognize that justice and human rights are indivisible. It must cease its narrow, single-issue focus and unequivocally link arms with America’s new non-white majority on the issues that brought them to the polls, including immigration and economic justice for the left-outs.

The institutional gay movement’s agenda has for far too long been driven by fund-raising and skewed almost exclusively toward the white middle class by decisions made in secret, closed-door meetings by its wealthy gay funders. This must now cease.

The most heartening victory of the night was that of Tammy Baldwin, who shattered the lavender ceiling and won her Senate campaign in Wisconsin by her full-throated alignment with economic populism and the working classes. The electoral power of this brand of populism was underscored by the re-election of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, an unapologetic labor Democrat, who survived a vicious $31 million campaign against him funded by corporate America. And economic populism also allowed consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren to become the first female senator from Massachusetts and take back the late Teddy Kennedy’s old seat from Republican incumbent Scott Brown.

It’s time for the access-oriented politics of the Human Rights Campaign’s gaycrats and their ilk to stop sucking up to corporate America and devote their money and resources to organize, organize, organize.

Despite the fact that Republicans retained control of the House, organizing prowess and economic populism allowed openly gay first-term Congressman David Cicilline to handily survive the ugliest campaign in Rhode Island’s recent history and the tons of corporate money thrown against him, just as it assured that Baldwin’s vacated seat in the House was won by Mark Pocan, an out gay state representative. Those efforts also added openly gay Sean Patrick Maloney to Congress from New York’s 18th district — in Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, and Putnam Counties — where he won a close upset victory against Republican incumbent Nan Hayworth. California elected Congress’ first out gay person of color, Mark Takano, in a contest for an open seat in the 41st district.

These victories, together with the comfortable re-election of Colorado’s excellent openly gay Congressman Jared Polis, whose victory was never in doubt, means that queers now have at least five House members (with one race still to be decided) to speak for them, one more than in the previous Congress — and all of whom won their seats after, not before, coming out.

But make no mistake: the political center of gravity in Congress took troubling steps further to the right this year. The chief of the Senate’s Republicans, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, is today sitting in his gilded closet and staring at the mirror on its door to tell himself that, for the second election cycle in a row, he has failed to become majority leader thanks to the extremism of the Tea Party and its homophobic Christers, That crowd won primary after primary in both houses of Congress and dragged their party even further to the right, costing the GOP Senate seats they should have won in Indiana and Missouri and helping to further tarnish the Republican brand with their war on a woman’s right to control her own body.

But McConnell’s dyspeptic, no-compromise Election Night statement after the results rolled in showed how terrified he himself is of a primary challenge from the Tea Party — he’s already hired extremist Senator Rand Paul’s political team to help him try to avoid one in 2014 — and of a challenge to his leadership by hard-right Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the undisputed chief of the reactionaries in the Senate. DeMint’s corporate-funded PAC helped scare the living daylights out of notorious arch-conservatives like Orrin Hatch and drive them even further to the far right.

As to Mitt Romney, a finger-in-the-wind political panderer to the forces of darkness in the primaries who led one of the most base, racist, and hate-mongering Republican general election campaigns ever, one may paraphrase Shakespeare and say that nothing so became his political life like his leaving of it. But the carefully calibrated graciousness of his concession speech will not erase the memory of him as a man who consistently appealed to the worst in America, including winks and nods to the obscene, nativist birther movement and his embrace of its new leader, the stomach-turning Donald Trump.

Obama won only because Romney — a gazillionaire vulture capitalist whose only knowledge of foreign policy was the tax dodges available in the Cayman Islands and the fortune-building opportunities presented by his own outsourcing of jobs to China and other low-wage countries — was a stereotype of rapacious economic elitism.

What will Obama do in his second term, now that he can no longer seek re-election? His spineless first term, with its betrayal of so many of his campaign promises, handed economic policy over to the very same creatures of Wall Street who, in the Clinton administration, orchestrated the repeal of Glass-Steagall and thus caused the economic crisis from which we have still not recovered. In his first four years, Obama failed to lift a finger to pass ENDA — the single most important piece of gay rights legislation ever — when the Democrats still controlled both Houses of Congress, temporized on the Defense of Marriage Act, and was furious when Joe Biden’s big mouth forced him to take a public position in favor of gay marriage he didn’t want to take for fear of jeopardizing his second term. His preference would have been to rely on throwing a few jobs to same-sexers and thereby cover his ass with the big gay donors who filled his campaign coffers.

Only if the institutional gay movement insists on holding Obama accountable in his second term, backs it up with a renewed commitment to organizing and activism — for which black-tie dinners are no substitute — and joins in a progressive coalition with labor and people of color will we find ourselves moving forward. AIDS has disappeared from the gay movement’s agenda, and it’s time we put it back — including an insistence that Obama replace the politically supine bureaucrats from AIDS Inc. on the President’s Advisory Committee on HIV and AIDS with HIV-positive activists who’ll take on the tough issues, like the horrific criminalization of HIV transmission that is ruining so many lives.

Moreover, a good measure of whether Obama will show some cojones in his second term will be whether he takes the vote to legalize personal marijuana use in Washington and Colorado and the victory for medical marijuana in Massachusetts as a sign that it’s time to end the failed, expensive War on Drugs and stop threatening doctors and vendors of medipot with prosecution, as Obama’s attorney general and his Drug Enforcement Agency have done — to the detriment of the HIV-positive and people with kidney failure and a host of other maladies.

And the gay movement simply must expand its agenda to include the kind of transformative economic and social justice issues for all who demand the same sort of future for people of color that gay people wish for themselves. Only a return to an activist, organizing-based strategy within a progressive coalition can build on the marriage equality victories this week in Maryland, Maine and, likely, Washington and take advantage of the generational change on sexual orientation of which those victories are a harbinger. Will the institutional gay movement do so? Only if you insist upon it!