The Road Ahead for Progressives: Back to Basics
Editor's Note: Deepak Bhargava and Gara LaMarche will be part of a forum, "Working Toward Progressive Reform and Social Justice," moderated by Bill Moyers and sponsored by Philanthropy New York, on October 13 in New York City.
Twenty-one months after Barack Obama was inaugurated on a wave of hope for change in America's politics and policies, at least two important and seemingly contradictory things can be said.
First, there has been a series of significant progressive reforms: an economic stimulus bill that contained far-reaching antipoverty, infrastructure, green jobs and conservation measures, and that is widely credited with pulling the economy from the brink; comprehensive healthcare reform that has eluded presidents of both parties for a century; and financial regulatory reform.
For progressives, each of these accomplishments are flawed—the stimulus could have been bigger, there could have been a public option in healthcare and more teeth in financial regulation—but they are long strides in the right direction, and given the near-total opposition of Republicans and the conservatism of key Democrats, this is an impressive substantive record that has made and will make a big difference in people's lives.
Second, the nation's politics are more toxic than ever. The president's approval ratings have fallen steadily, even if they may have bottomed out. Independents are said to be disillusioned, many Democrats are demoralized and Republicans are in the grip of an increasingly—there is no other way to say it but—crazy "base," ousting very conservative officeholders in favor of extremist Tea Party candidates who oppose virtually every role government plays.
That's where things stand today.
Two Possible Scenarios
It seems likely, even beyond the usual midterm swings, that the Republicans will make significant electoral gains, perhaps retaking the House of Representatives and even the Senate. The only bulwarks against that could be a newly feisty president, a resurgent progressive movement energizing voters or the scary wackiness of many Republican candidates that simply renders them unelectable. But the latter point is not something to be sanguine about, given the election of waves of similarly "unelectable" candidates in 1980 and 1994—many of whom—like Orrin Hatch (R-UT)—now seem like virtual statesmen in the present political environment.
Under the best scenario we can imagine, with retained but narrower Democratic majorities, it is likely that the 2009–10 period of legislative reform, which progressives fought for vigorously, is over. It is possible that comprehensive immigration reform, which some see in the long-term interests of Republicans as well as Democrats, can be resurrected in a Congressional "lame duck" session or in 2011. But the Tea Party movement taking over the Republican Party has a strongly nativist flavor that makes this challenging, to say the least. The need to energize his core constituencies in the run up to the 2012 elections may make the president more open to dramatic uses of executive power to address issues that matter to progressives, but there is no question that it will be very difficult to enact sweeping legislation in a more closely divided Congress.
Under the worst scenario, Republican majorities, newly seeded with zealots, would take control of both houses of Congress, forcing the president and progressive advocates into a completely defensive posture in which the key tool available would be a veto pen. Republicans would likely unleash a tsunami of recrimination and investigation that, given the current state of political discourse, would make the post-1994 Congressional attacks on the Clinton administration look like the Era of Good Feelings.
In either scenario, how this country might address frightening and urgent national problems like climate change, growing inequality and worsening poverty is increasingly hard to imagine.
What Is the Story?
The rapid change in political climate has left us, like many advocates who have been involved in human rights and social justice issues for our entire careers, wondering what hit us. We have lost the story line.
We felt we knew it in the Bush years. America was in the grip of ideological warriors who wanted to roll back the social safety net, gutting the country's ability to meet basic human needs. They were assaulting science and academic freedom, dominating the deregulated media, squandering the country's moral standing by countenancing torture and detention without charges, and waging bloody, unnecessary wars for political gain.
We felt we knew the story line in 2008 and 2009. Though structural racism remained pervasive, it was possible to believe that we were making progress, as America was about to elect a black president. The economic crisis that was the consequence of tax and regulatory policies allowing banks to prey on the poor, coupled with the stark demonstration of antigovernment ideology in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, created a climate for fundamental change, maybe even a paradigm shift. With Obama's inauguration, what many called a "Rooseveltian" moment was at hand, ending a forty-year interruption in the country's long march to a humane society. Now, perhaps, universal healthcare could be added to New Deal and Great Society achievements like Social Security and Medicare, and progressive taxation and regulation restored.
We are trying to find the story line now, and indeed it is hard because, as we suggest in the opening paragraphs above, it remains to be fully written, like one of those "choose-your-own-ending" books for kids. What we are seeing may be the last desperate gasps of a dying order or a reassertion of the fundamental conservative nature of American politics, despite periodic moderate Democratic presidents (treated as if they were dangerous radicals) over the last two generations.
We got some of what we expected since that extraordinary morning in November 2008, and indeed a checklist approach to the accomplishments of the last twenty months would look pretty good. But it sure doesn't feel that way. The question is why?
In a strange way, given our own political leanings, we embrace some of the right-wing views of this moment while rejecting some liberal perspectives. The change represented by the election of a black president and the restoration, however modest, of a different approach to government, is threatening to powerful interests. They are rightly concerned. A recent New York Times article about the closeness of lobbyists to the possible House Speaker, John Boehner (R-OH), noted that they had relied on him for help in "combating fee increases for the oil industry, fighting a proposed cap on debit card fees, protecting tax breaks for hedge-fund executives and opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions." Polluters and gougers have a pretty good idea of what is at stake.
As for the left, we need to be less dependent on the president—who has no magic wand—and move past the language of betrayal in which we are too often mired. For all the supposed preparation progressives did for a return to political power, we haven't figured out how to relate constructively to an actual government, with all its responsibilities and broader constituent obligations. If progressives cannot "own" landmark achievements like healthcare and financial reform, how on earth can we expect anyone else to?
For its part, it is also true that the Obama administration made serious mistakes: demobilizing its base for an insider style of governance, allowing the healthcare debate to go on too long without projecting a coherent narrative and, perhaps above all, failing to sufficiently address the jobs crisis that has created the conditions for a toxic culture of war politics to take root. Nonetheless, placing blame on tactical decisions misses the larger, deeper dynamics.