Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now
Far more challenging is the problem of the role of money in our elections. Sure, most progressives would prefer public financing of our electoral system, but not only is there no public outcry to pay for elections, neither is there much willingness on the part of the Supreme Court to curb the power of corporate spending. Indeed, the eagerness of the court's majority to use the Citizens United case to offer up the broadest possible ruling striking down many of the limits on corporate "speech" (meaning "cash") has significantly complicated what was already an extremely daunting challenge. Given the current court's investment in the anachronistic concept of corporate "personhood"—and with it, the inability to curb corporate election spending that does not simultaneously impinge on individuals' freedom of speech—this is clearly a long, long term battle that may require the notoriously difficult solution of a constitutional amendment to remedy. (The ACLU is not even on our side in this fight.) In the meantime, progressives should be pressing for simpler reforms as they build toward this one. These would include same-day voter registration and the end of felony disenfranchisement. They would also include mechanisms that ensure the rights of people to vote without intimidation, particularly recent legal immigrants and other first-time voters. Speaking of which, as the liberal blogger Chris Bowers argues, immigration reform is also key to the long-term success of much of the progressive agenda, as well as the rationalization of a democratic process that leaves millions without a voice in determining their own futures. "Securing the ideological and partisan loyalties of expanding demographic groups in America is a pretty obvious key to long-term political success," he writes. "One of the keys to pulling this off always starts with immigration policy and rhetoric that improve the lives of newcomers to America, and make them feel welcomed."
Of course any sustained pressure on our politicians is going to require more pressure—and better organization—than progressives have been able to muster since the Obama administration came to power. Part of the problem is attributable to genuine political weakness. The right is wealthier than the left, which is as it should be. The Republicans are, after all, the party of capital. They are also far more populous and better organized to act as a movement. As the journalist Harold Meyerson rightly observes, thinking of both the New Deal and the civil rights reforms of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, "In America, major liberal reforms require not just liberal governments, but autonomous, vibrant mass movements, usually led by activists who stand at or beyond liberalism's left fringe." Many activists had great hopes for a partnership with the Obama administration after the election. Instead, as Michael Tomasky writes in the current issue of Democracy, "We've experienced the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, and the only mass movement to emerge from that reality is a right-wing populist one."
David Plouffe, the campaign's top organizer, managed to put together an e-mail list of more than 13 million names for future use. Many organizers salivated as the prospect of using that list to build up organizations in support of environmental, economic and various social causes to mirror the progressive agenda. Even if only 10 percent were diehard progressives willing to give of their time, well, a movement of 1.3 million members actively seeking the kind of "change" throughout the political system—clearing political brush as it were in advance of the next Obama initiative—appeared to have the potential to transform the political landscape. Plouffe, who took the year after the election off to write his book and spend time with his young children after a grueling campaign, appeared in his memoir to embrace the underlying logic of allowing grassroots to grow organically. In The Audacity to Win, he wrote of his realization that he had "initially pursued rallies to maintain the perception of the campaign as grass-roots driven," so that the campaign would not appear to be the captive of its big money donors. Eventually, however, the campaign came to treat "citizen fundraisers as no less important than our larger raisers.… They believed their effort was valued—and it was—so they dug deeper and kept raising. This was not a tactical relationship. It was authentic. And that authenticity became a very powerful driver in the connection between Barack Obama and his supporters." All this, alas, ended on election day. Despite the desire of hundreds of thousands of Obama volunteers to want to continue their efforts on behalf of the administration, according to an online survey conducted by Organizing for America, the successor organization to Obama For America, the administration was not really interested in promoting any alternative structure to the Democratic Party that might develop its own priorities and interfere with those of the administration. (And it certainly did not want to encourage primary challenges to sitting Democratic senators. In fact, it went to great lengths in Arkansas, New York and Pennsylvania to discourage such challenges almost irrespective of the politics of the incumbent in question.) A shadow of its former self—or what it might have been—continues to raise money and send out e-mails but it does not ask for any sustained involvement or even discussion of the issues the administration chooses to address or the manner in which it approaches them. As Charles Homans wrote in The Washington Monthly, OFA "looks less like a movement than a cheering section."
Since the Obama administration is clearly happier with a top-down approach, progressives who take movement organizing seriously need to develop their institutions independently. To do so, however, they will have to put aside traditional differences that have separated them in the past, particularly those between liberals and progressives who think of themselves as left of liberal. MoveOn's role has proven exemplary in the past in joining these two groups together and provides a model for future political organization. As Jim Vopat reported in In These Times, in Michigan a group of progressives who met through MoveOn house parties established Harbor Country Progress, an official Democratic Party club that is changing the political landscape in the state's rural Sixth Congressional District. As G. William Domoff noted in the same publication, replicating this model across the country "allows activists to maintain their primary social and political identities while at the same time enabling them to compete within the Democratic Party." They could be as progressive as they like so long as the campaign stayed a positive one; and win or lose, everyone would agree to support the Democrat in the election. This is the un-Nader way of transforming a party and as such, is a nearly perfectly constructive model. Also unlike Nader, it has the potential to build for the future, particularly one where Internet fundraising allows progressives to compete with corporations as never before.
Of course progressives need to keep up the pressure they have begun to place on the mainstream media not to adopt the deliberately misleading and frequently false frames foisted on readers and viewers by an increasingly self-confident and well-funded right-wing noise machine. Media Matters, FAIR and other organizations have done this in the past but it needs to be kept up. And in an age of instant, personal communication, there's no reason it can't be. (It also, and this is key, needs to be polite. No journalist is going to respond to the kind of personal abuse that is all too common on newspaper comment sections and other such forums for MSM complaint.) Done properly, such pressure is an effective means of forcing journalists to rethink some of their reflective prejudices, particularly in a today's punishing economic environment. But if progressives continue to pressure them to live up to the promises of their profession—to refuse to cater to the lowest common denominator of tabloids or the right-wing cesspool of talk radio/cable television discourse—such pressure on these organizations should strengthen reporters' and editors' backbones to do the kind of the work that made them proud to be journalists in the first place. (This is, happily, a fundamental difference between right and left wing media criticism. The right seeks to undermine the messengers of news that does not comport with its worldview; the left wants journalism to stick to its guns and resist such pressures to color the news, believing, as Stephen Colbert once said, that the facts "have a well-known liberal bias.") And on the positive side, we need to support those journalistic enterprises and experiments that attempt to live up to their values as it becomes harder and harder to do so, whether with subscriptions, clicks or direct donations. A campaign for taxpayer-funded high-quality journalism on the model of the BBC—and recently suggested by a study published by the Columbia School of Journalism—should not be off the table.
Indeed, with regard to almost every single one of our problems, we need better, smarter organizing at every level and a willingness on the part of liberals and leftists to work with what remains of the center to begin the process of reforms that are a beginning, rather than an endpoint in the process of societal transformation. As American history consistently instructs us, this is pretty much the only way things change in our system. Over time, reforms like Social Security, Medicare and the Voting Rights Act can add up to a kind of revolution, one that succeeds without bloodshed or widespread destruction of order, property or necessary institutions.
What's more, one hypothesis—one I'm tempted to share—for the Obama administration's willingness to compromise so extensively on the promises that candidate Obama made during the 2008 campaign would be that as president, he is playing for time. Obama is taking the best deal on the table today, but hopes and expects that once he is re-elected in 2012—a pretty strong bet, I'd say—he will build on the foundations laid during his first term to bring on the fundamental "change" that is not possible in today's environment. This would be consistent with FDR's strategy during his second term and makes a kind of sense when one considers the nature of the opposition he faces today and the likelihood that it will discredit itself following a takeover of one or both houses in 2010. For that strategy to make sense, however, 2013 will have to provide a more pregnant sense of progressive possibility than 2009 did, and that will take a great deal of work by the rest of us.
To borrow from Hillel the Elder: "If not now, when? If not us, who?"