Change Won't Come Easy
A renewed focus on building protest movements can bolster, not weaken, reform efforts. National debates over fundamental reforms will provide the grist for such organizing. In 2010, assuming healthcare finally passes, the legislative agenda will turn to jobs and financial accountability, two issues that are vital to building the new economy. Politically, the fall elections will likely depend on which candidates and which party can convince skeptical voters that they are on the side of working people and for curbing Wall Street's excesses.
Here progressive organizing and protests that challenge the limits of the current debate are essential. On jobs, the fundamental questions are whether a commitment will be made of sufficient scale to meet the deepening jobs crisis and whether that initiative will be sufficiently targeted to impact those areas most devastated. Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats are already declaiming against any new program. The administration, badgered about deficits and believing the economy is on the road to recovery, is likely to support a face-lift when reconstructive surgery is needed.
The stakes here couldn't be higher. If Democrats don't deliver on jobs, the economy won't recover, and the 2010 election may well snuff out any chance for reforms. At the very least, they have to show Americans that they're fighting for jobs. Independent organizing that gives voice to the unemployed, already begun by labor unions and civil rights groups, is essential. The House Progressive Caucus can play a major role in raising the bar and forcing the issue.
Similarly, the debate on financial reform should provide the context for progressive protest organizing. The White House plans to pick a fight with the banking lobby over the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would create an independent cop to police banks and protect consumers from financial frauds and abuses. In the House, Republicans voted with the banks against reform. In contrast, progressives are pushing sweeping reforms that go to the heart of the financial excesses of the past years--auditing the Federal Reserve; breaking up the big banks; taxing windfall profits, excess bonuses and speculation; outlawing exotic instruments; and limiting usurious interest rates.
Independent organizing can tap into a wellspring of public fury. Muckraking is needed to detail and broadcast the systemic frauds and corruptions. Creative demonstrations can embarrass the bank lobby and the legislators on the take. It is only if the big banks' money becomes toxic that there is any hope of gaining the reforms needed to curb their power. Here is where the creativity and energy of the Obama activists, many frustrated by the timidity of Organizing for America, can find expression.
Pundits predict that the other issues on the president's agenda--climate change, immigration reform, employee free choice--will have a difficult time getting a hearing before the 2010 elections. Progressives will have to push hard to ensure that these reforms--vital to both the new economy and to consolidating the emerging progressive majority--are not shunted to the side.
Because of the botched terrorist attempt to bomb a plane on Christmas Day, the administration enters the year on the defensive on terrorism. The furor will add to bipartisan support for an enlarged military budget and for military escalation in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. The president will sound more bellicose notes on terrorism. The opposition to escalation in Afghanistan, which probably still enjoys majority support among Democrats in the House, will have to redouble its work, educating Americans about the costs and the stakes and offering common-sense alternative strategies to meet the threat of terrorism.
Challenge Those Who Stand in the Way
Democratic prospects look grim for the fall elections. In low-turnout midterm elections, the passion of base supporters plays a large role. Clearly, the right will be mobilized. Progressives will have to confound the widespread expectation that they will not match the right's fervor.
The elections will turn into a national referendum on the country's direction. Will Americans punish those pushing for reform, or those standing in the way? The clear focus must be to make certain that Republicans pay for their irresponsible strategy of obstruction. Here the GOP's opposition to creating jobs and curbing banks should provide a clear picture of what side they are on.
But this cannot be a purely partisan effort. Democrats who have consistently opposed or weakened vital reforms should not get a free pass. Progressives should be organizing primary challenges against the most egregious Blue Dogs--exemplified by Representative Melissa Bean, who gilded her campaign war chest by leading the banks' lobby efforts to weaken financial reform. It would be best to do this in districts or states where Democrats are strong, so the seats are not lost; but that may not be possible. Organizing formidable challenges in a couple of districts will send an important message.
The Audacity of Hope
As Frederick Douglass taught, "power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will." Digging out of the hole that conservatives left Americans in can't be done overnight. The president has called on the country to face daunting challenges. Every step of reform is contested by powerful interests. Ruinous policies--such as our commitment to policing the world--have broad bipartisan support. Yet we haven't had this kind of moment since the 1960s. With persistence, work, rededication and struggle, we can issue the demands that change requires. This is a time for neither the innocent nor the cynical. It is a time for passion, for tenacity and, yes, for hope.