Holding the Center

Holding the Center

To build on the gains of Obama’s presidency, progressive activists must focus on recruitment.


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.

For many people, especially those not on the left or right of the political spectrum, internal ideological consistency is not a compelling duty. Many people hold strong opinions that are contradictory, and they are not bothered by that. Bitter grumbling about the US Postal Service is often accompanied by equally bitter grumbling about rising taxes, which are needed to support postal improvements. Many who are antichoice on the issue of abortion, saying that it is "killing a human being," are also pro–death penalty. Those who complain loudest about tainted peanut butter may oppose government regulation of industry. These constituents demonstrate that social traditions can trump financial self-interest, and that financial self-interest can sometimes trump social traditions. Loyalty to community practices, to family or friendship networks, to religious training or to economic self-interest plays a large role in a person’s worldview, but nevertheless most people believe what they want to believe. The ideological commitments of the average voter cannot easily be categorized, as they can be in the case of ideologically motivated activists.

Obama’s lack of a clear, consistent ideology is appealing to many centrists. Having endured eight years of George W. Bush, whose ideology was seldom breached during his administration, the voters were open to embracing a nonideologue. The "hope" and "change" slogans, maligned by Obama’s opposition and some leftists, allowed many voters to assign positions to him according to their own internally inconsistent preferences. And now we see Obama presiding over an administration that is also internally inconsistent. He brought on Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, two central figures in the financial excesses of the past fifteen years, to fix the problems those excesses have caused. He expresses strong support for unions and also supports charter schools, which are notorious for barring unionization of teachers. He wants to study the violations of the Constitution under George W. Bush carefully but has shown a willingness to use some of Bush’s arguments to protect "state secrets." These are not the positions of an ideologue.

In order to woo centrist voters, rightists and progressives have debated whether to stay close to their core principles or to reach out with compromise policies. If the progressive movement wants to succeed in the Obama era, we must have a deep analytical understanding of the country, be politically mature in realizing that a movement needs above all to recruit new members and learn to live with those whose beliefs contain inconsistencies while opposing those beliefs that violate our core principles. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia and certain other bigotry cannot be condoned in any way. But how we oppose them is important. When Rick Warren, an explicitly antigay preacher, was chosen to give the invocation at Obama’s inauguration, the LGBTQ community modeled an effective oppositional campaign to register their protest and educate Obama. Rather than demonize and attack Obama, they instead focused on demonstrating how insulting and hurtful the decision was. This is an approach that community organizers know well. Quite often, the challenge they face is to mobilize the community around an issue that will draw the maximum number of people. Without compromising their principles, organizers will often work with people whose views on other issues are incomprehensible to them. If the positions of supporters are abhorrent, however, recruitment could become a betrayal of core principles.

Voters who lack ideological consistency are estimated to account for between 18 and 25 percent of the electorate—more than the hard-core members of the religious right. The importance of the Tea Party has been vastly overstated relative to the importance of this swing bloc. Like Obama, the right seems to understand the strategic value of appealing to swing voters. For example, many born-again evangelical Christians, most of whom are not part of the religious right, are extremely generous and compassionate people. By teaching that poverty is a "disease of the soul," the right has played to their inconsistency. While criticizing government programs for serving both the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor (the latter being poor because they are losers, addicts or loose women), those on the right advocate addressing poverty on a case-by-case basis. It is more difficult for them to paint children with the "undeserving" brush, but the Republican blockage of S-CHIP legislation in 2008, and the lack of outrage about that from the center, demonstrates the power of ideological inconsistency. Most evangelicals agree that child poverty is certainly wrong and should be addressed, but often that position does not lead to support for federal programs. To progressives this is a blatant inconsistency, but to many evangelicals, who have been courted, recruited and "educated" by the right, it is an acceptable, even logical, position. While they do charitable work, often serving as the first to lend help in a natural disaster and provide desperately needed services on a daily basis, they see this work as a "private" rather than government mission. Their religiously motivated antipoverty work often places them close to people’s experiences and gives them an understanding of the life challenges of the average person. But they do not trust government (also often based on their own experience).

It seems unlikely that Obama will address this inconsistency on the issue of poverty head-on, instead continuing his practice of quietly improving government benefits for low-income people while not invoking the words "poverty" or "welfare." But progressives can play a role in appealing to centrists on the issue of poverty—while, at the same time, beginning to recast the debate—by engaging in the age-old tradition of making meaning and teaching: through traveling lecturers (drawing on the history of populism); teach-ins (the antiwar movement); citizenship schools (from the civil rights tradition); consciousness raising (feminism) and popular education. These practices are largely defunded and weak on the left. We seem more regularly to ask people to take action on very specific policy issues without helping them understand the larger context or make meaning of their experiences through dialogue. The progressive movement needs to create venues for this sort of self-education.

In its early stages, this education could appeal to the generosity and caring of many hardline opponents of government programs. We could approach the issue with an understanding of the inconsistencies and not require an entire progressive ideological package—arguing, for instance, that churches and private charities alone cannot effectively address poverty. Such a campaign would not insist that its adherents understand that private relief programs often provide services to those with whom they identify rather than taking a universal approach. Or that private relief is often racially discriminatory, demeaning and inadequate. Rather, that a country that allows children and adults to go hungry is not a caring country.

The progressive movement is often presented as fractured between those "defending Obama’s back" and those "rejecting him as inadequate to the task he set himself (and he’s no progressive to boot)." None of what we have said about the importance of recruitment suggests that we should not criticize Obama. As progressives, we are obliged, for example, to confront the failure of the administration to respond aggressively to the massive unemployment that is wrecking people’s lives, especially in communities of color. But this division between Obama supporters and detractors is weakening the progressive movement, as each side is increasingly intolerant of the other. Those who engage in recruitment appreciate the need to work with people who are not consistently progressive in order to open minds to new messages; those who are fed up with Obama are pushing him to be more committed to progressive principles and more willing to take risks for them. But a mature movement can play both roles, because its members understand there is a need for both.

It is unrealistic to believe that what stands between us and progressive success is simply insufficient nerve or spine on the part of the president. Our argument is for realism and a deep understanding of the context in which campaigns are conducted in the United States. We are calling for the progressive movement to put movement building and recruitment at the center of its ambitions, without giving up our principles or engaging in internecine conflict over who is most ideologically pure.

The progressive movement entered the Obama era in a somewhat depleted state. While we have large, well-funded think tanks and media organizations, the grassroots groups so vital to a healthy movement are struggling and closing in the midst of the financial crisis affecting their donors and many foundations. Corporate power and money still present formidable obstacles to the changes we seek. Equally important, the movement lacks an overarching vision. But while the United States in many ways remains a conservative country, changing demographics and a maturing and savvy progressive movement could even the political playing field as never before. With a clear and realistic reading of the country and a humility not often associated with the left, progressives could carry the day for decades to come.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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