The Road Ahead for Progressives: Back to Basics
Five Realities to Consider
In thinking about how we went from the high of January 2009 to the low of the current moment, there are five interconnected realities that deserve deeper attention if we are to move beyond a discussion that is not simply about the supposed mistakes of Obama and the Democrats and the perfidy of their opponents.
If we are right, those of us who are working together to advance social justice will need to do a better job at moving past campaigns, or rather buttressing them, with initiatives that address these deeper factors.
Attitudes Toward Government
It is astonishing in a period of the manifest failure of free-market dogma that the principal target of populist ire has been overreaching by government. Looking at the current situation in historical perspective, the current backlash and the efforts of the Bush administration should be seen as just the most recent chapters in a sustained assault on government that goes back over forty years. Presidents Carter and Clinton operated within the antigovernment frame, Clinton going so far as to say that "the era of big government is over," and President Obama has done more, but not nearly enough, to challenge it. In retrospect, we were naïve to think that the damage done by forty years of delegitimization could be reversed even by the dramas of Hurricane Katrina and the market collapse. After the initial financial crisis seemed to have passed, President Obama found himself without a clear public mandate for a more robust government role, and containing and curbing government lies at the heart of the Tea Party movement, with no coherent counternarrative.
Hendrik Hertzberg, a staff writer at The New Yorker, summed this up well: "The prospects look pretty bleak just now and will probably look considerably bleaker after the midterm elections. The Obama experience, in my view, has highlighted the immensity of the structural barriers to reform—the ‘separation of powers,' the filibuster and other Senate horrors, federalism, the electoral system at all levels, the power of money. This is the sort of thing that is catching up with us, big time. Not a pretty picture."
Not too long into the stimulus and healthcare battles, once Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) had switched parties, it began to dawn on progressive advocates that the so-called filibuster-proof sixty-seat majority might be more imprisoning than liberating, converting the most conservative Democratic Caucus member—at times Ben Nelson of Nebraska, at times Joe Lieberman of Connecticut—into a virtual one-man government. The arcane Senate rules, including secret "holds" on bills and nominees, in the hands of a minority determined to block every administration initiative, began to loom larger as an obstacle to progressive reform. It was not enough to win elections: the very undemocratic nature of Congress needs to be fixed. Yet the prospects of doing this successfully remain daunting.
The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling earlier this year, invalidating restrictions on corporate funding of elections, turned a bright spotlight on the pervasive power of money in politics. It seemed in 2008 that perhaps small-donor "people power" could carry the day. But we saw in the big legislative battles of the past year—and we're seeing now in the 2010 elections—that the outpouring of special-interest money hasn't stopped. The floodgates opened by Citizens United suggest that any further progressive reform that involves economic interests may be stymied.
The Polarized Media
The 24-7 cable news environment, the proliferation of political blogs plying every angle of who's up and who's down, the increasingly polarized and personalized media bubbles that have made folk heroes of Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow to their vastly different, non-overlapping constituencies—all of these developments have made it significantly harder to govern, sustain an intelligent public discourse and address serious national problems.
The Tea Party itself grew out of the infamous town hall meetings of the summer of 2009, covered by the press as if a vast insurgency was taking off, though in fact supporters of healthcare often outnumbered opponents at those meetings. The ugly fight over the supposed Ground Zero mosque (though it is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero) was greatly amplified by disproportionate media coverage, and the pathetic Florida preacher who announced plans to burn a Koran commanded the airwaves for days on end prior to September 11 before some journalists began to question their own standards for coverage.
The trends exemplified by these incidents have been a longtime building, and will not be easily, if ever, reversed. In our view, insufficient attention has been given to the structural character of our media crisis. In other words, it is more than a question of whether, say, progressives have a perch on MSNBC that can counter the conservative domination of Fox. It is that, as in the broader economic realm, the deregulation of a community resource—the publicly allocated spectrum—has relieved broadcasters of any residual obligation for fairness, community service or balance.
If ever there was a moment to restore some measure of accountability—consistent with the First Amendment, of course—it would be at the dawn of a progressive administration, but no such efforts were ever seriously made, and no campaign seems to be in sight. Indeed, the relatively progressive head of the Federal Communications Commission has his hands full, in the face of adverse court rulings and intense corporate pressure, just to keep the Internet from becoming fully privatized.
In the face of this situation, it is all the more necessary that we step up discussion and consideration of means of information, education and persuasion that go around the traditional media, that utilize ethnic media, and social and organizing networks.
When Obama was elected, while most progressive organizers were pleased, they reminded one another that having an impressive, progressive president was not enough, that organizing needed to continue to keep the administration true to its principles. Along with the oft-cited Rahm Emanuel quote that a crisis is a "terrible thing to waste," the most recycled story was one from the New Deal in which President Roosevelt is said to have told a group of labor leaders who came to pressure him on some measure: "You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it."
And yet it soon became clear that too many did not appreciate how important the role of an engaged outside progressive movement would be. The triumphant Obama election campaign squandered weeks deciding what to do with the millions of supporters in its activist base—no other president took office with such a rich potential resource for governing—before deciding, fatefully, to lodge it in the Democratic Party and sap it of much of its energy. The entire early and critical debate on the economic stimulus, for example, took place with little effort to mobilize outside supporters.
At the same time, while the unprecedented organizing campaign on healthcare is seen as having made a critical difference, it was not sufficient to achieve the highest progressive goals like a public option. While we often cite the immigrant rights movement as one of the most sophisticated on the progressive side, with dynamic grassroots leadership, growing alliances, remarkable mobilization capacity and favorable political demographics—we seem further away at this moment from comprehensive reform than we were at the beginning of the year. Labor helped put Democrats in office, but is nowhere near its most sought-after objective, the Employee Free Choice Act. The same is true on climate change and gay rights—where the big, high-impact goals like cap-and-trade or repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" remain elusive, despite the relative money and numbers of the environmental and LGBT movements—and dramatically so on civil liberties issues like closing Guantanamo. In the last few areas, public interest litigation has been the engine of what victories we have managed. Our side simply does not have enough power.