Holding the Center
It seems unlikely that Obama will address this inconsistency on the issue of poverty head-on, instead continuing his practice of quietly improving government benefits for low-income people while not invoking the words "poverty" or "welfare." But progressives can play a role in appealing to centrists on the issue of poverty—while, at the same time, beginning to recast the debate—by engaging in the age-old tradition of making meaning and teaching: through traveling lecturers (drawing on the history of populism); teach-ins (the antiwar movement); citizenship schools (from the civil rights tradition); consciousness raising (feminism) and popular education. These practices are largely defunded and weak on the left. We seem more regularly to ask people to take action on very specific policy issues without helping them understand the larger context or make meaning of their experiences through dialogue. The progressive movement needs to create venues for this sort of self-education.
In its early stages, this education could appeal to the generosity and caring of many hardline opponents of government programs. We could approach the issue with an understanding of the inconsistencies and not require an entire progressive ideological package—arguing, for instance, that churches and private charities alone cannot effectively address poverty. Such a campaign would not insist that its adherents understand that private relief programs often provide services to those with whom they identify rather than taking a universal approach. Or that private relief is often racially discriminatory, demeaning and inadequate. Rather, that a country that allows children and adults to go hungry is not a caring country.
The progressive movement is often presented as fractured between those "defending Obama's back" and those "rejecting him as inadequate to the task he set himself (and he's no progressive to boot)." None of what we have said about the importance of recruitment suggests that we should not criticize Obama. As progressives, we are obliged, for example, to confront the failure of the administration to respond aggressively to the massive unemployment that is wrecking people's lives, especially in communities of color. But this division between Obama supporters and detractors is weakening the progressive movement, as each side is increasingly intolerant of the other. Those who engage in recruitment appreciate the need to work with people who are not consistently progressive in order to open minds to new messages; those who are fed up with Obama are pushing him to be more committed to progressive principles and more willing to take risks for them. But a mature movement can play both roles, because its members understand there is a need for both.
It is unrealistic to believe that what stands between us and progressive success is simply insufficient nerve or spine on the part of the president. Our argument is for realism and a deep understanding of the context in which campaigns are conducted in the United States. We are calling for the progressive movement to put movement building and recruitment at the center of its ambitions, without giving up our principles or engaging in internecine conflict over who is most ideologically pure.
The progressive movement entered the Obama era in a somewhat depleted state. While we have large, well-funded think tanks and media organizations, the grassroots groups so vital to a healthy movement are struggling and closing in the midst of the financial crisis affecting their donors and many foundations. Corporate power and money still present formidable obstacles to the changes we seek. Equally important, the movement lacks an overarching vision. But while the United States in many ways remains a conservative country, changing demographics and a maturing and savvy progressive movement could even the political playing field as never before. With a clear and realistic reading of the country and a humility not often associated with the left, progressives could carry the day for decades to come.