Holding the Center
Eighteen months into the Obama era, the progressive movement is experiencing malaise, based on disappointment about what has been accomplished so far and confusion about the path forward. The sense of disappointment is, in our view, exaggerated. It is important to remember that progressive campaigns and grassroots efforts have played a major role in achieving reforms that are more substantial than anything we have seen since the Great Society: provision of health insurance coverage to more than 30 million additional people and partial regulation of the health insurance industry; the largest (albeit temporary) expansion of antipoverty programs in forty years as part of the Recovery Act; student lending reforms making it easier for young people to go to college; and legislation to increase regulation of the financial sector. There is much to be proud of in the way progressive organizations have risen to the historical moment, educated and mobilized their constituencies, and helped to secure major victories that will have a real, positive impact on people's lives.
At the same time, there are legitimate grounds for disappointment with the administration's policies on many issues, including the war in Afghanistan, climate change, persistent unemployment, foreclosures, civil liberties and immigration, to name just a few. The gulf oil spill, the Arizona immigration law and real unemployment rates in the double digits are evidence of Washington's continuing failure to solve problems even when they become catastrophic.
As we head into a difficult and challenging period, with crucial elections looming and prospects for further progressive policy victories uncertain, the most important question for progressives is not how Obama is doing but how we as a movement are doing. Our most pressing challenge in this era is movement recruitment. This means focusing on building a base and drafting new followers of a progressive agenda as well as supporters for progressive politicians and organizations. If the movement has fallen down in this assignment, it is because we do not understand what Obama understands so well—that most people are not ideologically driven and, in fact, the opinions of most people are internally inconsistent. They should not be courted and recruited as if they are "latent progressives" waiting to be shown the truth. A sober look at the fluidity and ideological contradictions of public opinion in the country may point a way forward.
For thirty years, journalists and political analysts have described the polarized electorate as engaged in a "culture war." Though this frame provides a handy way to communicate the dialectic between the ideologies of the right and left, it is misleading and, to the extent that we buy into the dichotomy, could be damaging to progressive causes. The assumption that people are "with us or against us" suggests that people can be arrayed along an ideological spectrum from right to left, and that they will occupy their assigned spot consistently. That is, a person will be a "moderate rightist" or a "centrist" or an "extreme fundamentalist," or will occupy any number of other slots.
There are elaborate charts that lay out the distinctions among the many variations of each movement—the right and the progressive movement. But there is very little discussion of the actual content of the opinions of those in the center (not just voters but those who may, at some point, decide to vote). Many of these voters chose Obama in the 2008 election. They represent the potential for growth in the Democratic Party and perhaps the progressive movement. Pollsters do ask them how they rank their concerns and focus groups collect their opinions, often noting that those opinions do not reflect the reality of their material lives. But there is little research on their belief systems. As we have traveled the country for the past twenty-five years, we have observed that centrists are not ideologically consistent but are very often internally logically inconsistent. They do not adhere to any ideological belief system but are often all over the map ideologically.
Battles in Congress that fall rigidly along partisan lines reinforce the idea of two sides locked in a longstanding clash of worldviews. But despite the political drama of the "tea parties" staged by the right to oppose Obama, is the larger electorate similarly divided? And can we afford, at this weighty moment in history, to use a theme in our own work that was developed by the right to assist in its movement recruitment? Or should we reject the culture war frame outright?
We have found a third "side" in our experience, especially among nonactivists. Many people who are not ideologically driven (but who may hold strong opinions on various issues) make up the vast "center," in journalistic parlance. They are also called "swing voters" or "nonideological neighbors." They may identify with one party or the other, or see themselves as independents, but they couldn't state with certainty the major parties' stance on every position. This fluid "center" is the determining vote in many elections and issue campaigns. Obama ran as a thoughtful, modest, knowledgeable and principled candidate who is not ideologically driven. It is precisely because he was able to project a nonideological persona that he won. This point is important for progressives to understand. Obama attracted an odd collection of voters in his campaign, and not all of them agreed with him on everything. In part, that's because so many voters don't agree with themselves on everything.
Without a deeper understanding of the misperceptions from the culture war, progressives will fail to learn two important lessons from the right's past success with centrists: (1) there is no movement building without prioritizing recruitment; and (2) it is important to go everywhere, even into hostile territory, to recruit those who agree with you on one or more things. It is notable that the states that have sent the most conservative Blue Dog Democrats to Congress, where they have blocked progressive initiatives in the Senate and House—Arkansas, Nebraska, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana and others—are places where progressives have not been able to build a strong base. To engage in effective recruitment, progressives need to understand the political center. Understanding the center is the key to understanding how Obama captured the election and how he has governed.