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Change Won't Come Easy | The Nation

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Change Won't Come Easy

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Going Grassroots

About the Author

Robert L. Borosage
Robert L. Borosage
Robert L. Borosage is president of the Institute for America's Future.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is a frequent commentator on American and...

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The president warned that change wouldn't come easy. From the start, the administration devoted energy and resources to organizing a unified base of activists. Organizing for Obama promised use of an unmatched list of activists and supporters built during the campaign. Donors were tapped to set up new entities--Common Purpose Project, Unity '09, etc.--to coordinate messages and field operations. Significant resources went to coalitions to help drive healthcare, climate change and immigration reform. The administration's argument was and is compelling. This is a reform moment with the most liberal president in memory. It is time to unite, provide support for his leadership and help drive reform.

Progressives and grassroots networks across the country rallied to that call. Remarkable work has been done. Broad coalitions were built, arming activists with more capacity and better coordination in the process of lobbying legislators. New constituencies--the faith community, young people and small business owners--have been enlisted. Resources were devoted to conservative districts and states where key swing votes had to be won.

These efforts have propelled the president's key reforms. When tea-baggers threatened to torpedo healthcare reform, progressives--led by Health Care for America Now, unions and MoveOn--mobilized and soon overwhelmed them in town hall meetings.

But there were costs associated with channeling progressive energy through the administration. Obama aides, led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, argued fiercely against going after the Democrats--Blue Dogs and New Dems--who were impeding reform, and the White House chose not to mobilize its base to pressure them. Groups were often blindsided by backroom deals like the one with the drug companies that sustained the ban on negotiating lower drug prices.

One unintended consequence was that populist anger has been channeled by the right, not the left. Tea-baggers, well funded by established interests, turned rage against those trying to dig out of the hole rather than those who got us into it. Their voice was inchoate, but at the core was a fury at Big Government, Big Banks and Big Business, which were taking their jobs, pocketing public subsidies and helping "those people" while raising their taxes. On the left, there has been no movement comparable to the labor and socialist demonstrations in the '30s or the civil rights movement in the '60s that forced the pace of change.

Moving Forward: Ideas Matter

Cynicism is the cheap coin of politics. The left blogosphere is rife with the complaints of the disillusioned (denouncing politicians as crooks, the government as corrupt and Obama as compromised) and threats to give up and stay home. That would be a profound mistake. This country is enmeshed in a fierce debate about its future. Can we summon up the will and the majorities needed to meet the critical challenges we face? Or will we continue our decline, ceding ground to the entrenched corporate cronyism that profits from conservative misrule?

Winning this debate requires new thinking as well as independent organizing. Progressives should be moving outside the Beltway, working to organize protest movements for social justice and giving voice to the displaced and the unemployed. We should be helping to chart a new course while exposing the false idols and powerful interests that stand in the way.

And we should be directly joining the argument with the resurgent right. One basic lesson must be repeated and elaborated upon: the mess that we are in results not from inaction or partisan stalemate but from the failure of conservative policies and ideas in action. Only by coming together to demand an accountable democratic government on our side, free from the special interests that feed off it, can we build a stronger, more just and more vibrant America.

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