The Road Ahead for Progressives: Back to Basics
The State of Ideas
FDR was famous for his fireside chats, which helped the public understand the causes and remedies for the economic crisis of that era. President Obama, so good and steady at governing and managing, has fallen short in his use of the public platform that once seemed his greatest strength.
Not just on the stimulus, but on the leading economic issue of the day, the stubborn persistence of joblessness, the president and the Democrats have no consistent voice or policy, even allowing for the obstructionist, idea-less nature of their opposition. There is an almost complete absence of any overarching narrative from the progressive side to drive individual policy debates and to shape the national dialogue. We wonder if part of the reason is that progressive advocates have too little to say on the core economic justice issues of the moment. We have good policy proposals that would materially reduce suffering in the country—from state and local fiscal relief, to public job creation, to strengthening safety nets. But we lack a persuasive long-term vision for how to create good jobs that would address the fundamental moral and political questions that will grip the country for the next few years.
The resulting vacuum is not good for the administration, not good for the adequacy of progressive response to the major crisis of the time, not good for the people whose lives are being turned upside down and not good for the political fortunes of those who are expected to have something coherent to offer in response to the free-market, antitax dogma of the right. The fear and anxiety brought about by persistently high unemployment are devastating to all progressive advocacy efforts, even those unrelated to economic justice.
One area of real need for progressives is the ongoing necessity of an effective, progressive framework for national security. Though our organisations (Atlantic Philanthropies and Center for Community Change) are focused most intensely on domestic policy issues, many of our progressive allies have been demoralized by the lack of progress the Obama administration has made on civil liberties.
Developing a realistic and effective framework for progressives around national security is not just good politics—eliminating a popular cudgel ("the left is soft on national security") relied on by the right for generations—it is also essential, as we have largely ceded this ground and are offering few ideas that are included in the national security debate. It may be that with a far more polarized Congress at home, President Obama's next two years could be increasingly focused on foreign affairs. This presents an opportunity for the left to claim a seat at the table in unexpected ways.
The Road Ahead
So what might we do in the period ahead of us? There is much good in the social justice infrastructure that should be preserved and strengthened, and there is much that needs to be reinvented or created. A few directional thoughts:
First, the key strategic task in this era is movement building. Without a far stronger constituency for policy change, we will make no progress and perhaps suffer serious losses. This will involve building stronger capacity in key states and with key constituencies, and also experimenting with new approaches to movement building. The Obama campaign, the immigrant rights movement and the Tea Party—arguably the three biggest national movements of recent years—have several things in common: a clear national program and vision, deep investment in local organizing and especially on recruiting new people to the cause, and the use of new media and technology to keep people connected and active. We will need to dramatically strengthen organizing efforts to build public will in the years ahead.
Second, the issue of race is obviously central both to conservative backlash and to any prospect of progressive resurgence. The Obama administration has been unwilling and perhaps unable to speak cogently about the persistent racial divide in the country or to propose targeted measures to address structural disadvantage. The need for a strong and effective racial justice movement and agenda is arguably greater now than before Obama became president.
This will probably require several linked strategies: dramatically strengthening movement capacity in communities of color and relationships among communities of color; thinking seriously about how to engage white working-class communities; and developing new initiatives (perhaps centered on the jobs crisis) that, in John Powell's framing, keep both universalism and targeting to disadvantaged communities at the forefront. At the same time we pursue such deeper strategies, it seems essential that all of us see responding to backlash politics—whether the targets are Shirley Sherrod, immigrants, Muslims or whoever is next—as our responsibility.
Third, we will need to focus more on medium- to long-term efforts rather than solely on short-term campaigns. In social change efforts, there is a classic divide between those focused on the art of the possible and those devoted to changing what is possible. In the last two years, there has been a necessary and worthy concentration of effort on seizing the moment to secure critical policy changes in a narrow window of possibility. In the period ahead, there will be critical national policy debates that require our attention—on jobs, the deficit, social security and possibly immigration reform. But more attention will need to be devoted to changing hearts and minds, recruiting more supporters and developing intellectual capital.
Finally, a recalibration in the movement's relationship to the Obama administration seems in order. The bipolar tendencies of reflexive criticism or uncritical support will need to be replaced with a new approach that defines the critical task as creating the conditions in the country that would enable a renewal of the momentum for progressive change. Candidate Obama repeatedly told audiences that the campaign wasn't about him, and in a much-maligned phrase that "we are the ones we have been waiting for." Turns out, he was right. Outside movements have a different compass than politicians, and a little less focus on what Obama is or isn't doing might serve us well.
The times are difficult and the challenges are great. But a sober analysis of our current predicament suggests that there are accomplishments to be celebrated and lessons to be learned from the intense period of history we have just lived through that can inform a comeback strategy. As important as our analysis will be upholding the commitments that have always nurtured the progressive spirit: to resist despair, to press on in times of uncertain prospects and to take risks to make a path forward.