Building to Win
Gazing out over our national political terrain, it's not hard for progressives to see that we're in the fight of our lives. As Pat Buchanan likes to say, the left has won most of the culture wars and lost almost all the political and economic ones.
We have helped build a society that's more socially tolerant than it was a quarter-century ago. America suffers far less from invidious discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation than it did a generation back. That's a crucial achievement and one that provides an important reminder of our power to mobilize the forces of change.
But when it comes to public policy, economic outcomes, control of government and the business of public life, the story is quite different. The broad movement of American politics over the past twenty-five years has been toward the acceptance, indeed the embrace, of greater inequality, the discrediting of public institutions and a near-idolatry of private markets at the expense of corporate accountability to the rest of us. Not since the 1920s has political organization been so weak, inequality so great or public life and mass culture so dominated by corporate priorities. In each of these important arenas, progressives are getting clobbered.
George W. Bush has made it clear that mandate or no mandate, he will pursue an extremist far-right agenda--a further redirection of resources to the rich, the privatization of Social Security, vouchers for Medicare, a rollback of environmental progress, the mugging of labor and the use of government to benefit corporate interests.
Just how extreme Bush's policies really are was dramatized by Jim Jeffords's recent defection. It has given Congressional Democrats an opportunity to regain their voice, frame the issues and be strong in opposition and offer alternatives, but so far the party leadership has offered no consistent counterstrategy, let alone the sort of visionary leadership that would mobilize the great mass of disengaged Americans. The view of many Democrats that they can "work" with Bush is a dangerous delusion. Contrary to what the Democratic Leadership Council was preaching just months ago, Democrats have almost no common ground with the Administration. To continue to seek bipartisan consensus on legislation muddles the debate and squanders an opportunity to create a record of difference between the parties for 2002 and 2004.
We have no choice but to fight back. But to fight back we must also fight smart. That means recognizing our own responsibility for our current predicament. We cannot keep blaming our undervalued position in the marketplace of ideas on a "reactionary" or "ignorant" public. A progressive politics that blames the people as its starting point is dead on arrival. And the people are, in more cases than not, on the side of progressives. Indeed, supermajorities share progressive positions, from equal opportunity to clean elections, a clean environment, leveling up not down on trade, keeping the government out of our bedrooms and battling those who would discriminate on the basis of sex or race.
The last election showed the emerging strength of a progressive majority. The combined Gore/Nader vote of 52 percent was the largest center-left vote since 1964. The election also showed continued solidification of the Democratic base among union households, minority communities, prochoice women and people concerned about the environment--suggesting that strong stands on these issues will not hurt the party. More important, the changes taking place in society and the economy--the growing demographic diversity, the increase of women in the workplace, the growth of less traditional households--suggest that this emerging majority is likely to grow. And the "new economy" should make conditions more favorable to progressives as people confront increasing insecurity in jobs, benefits and wages, as well as escalating demands on their time.
Al Gore's message--despite his garbled presentation--was considerably more popular than the candidate himself. Democrats who were bolder than Gore, who more clearly distinguished themselves from Republicans, generally won. The result: In many states, as Gore was going down to defeat at the top of the ticket, Democrats won, often by whopping margins. Take North Dakota. There, Gore claimed one of the smallest shares of the popular vote in any state--a bare 33 percent. Same day, same election, Kent Conrad, the Democratic senator with populist positions on trade and farm issues, was re-elected with 61 percent of the vote, and Democrat Earl Pomeroy, another vigorous advocate of family farmers and a leader among House Democrats in attacking Republicans on Social Security and Bush's tax bill, was re-elected to the state's single seat in the House. Similar stories can be told in West Virginia, Missouri, Florida and other states.