There Will Be No Silver Bullet

There Will Be No Silver Bullet

The forces stacked against progressive change must not prevent the left from continually fighting for new levels of democratization and social justice.


Eric Alterman has provided us with a useful, if dispiriting, catalog of the myriad forces and roadblocks preventing a more rapid pace of progressive change. Here is a partial list:

§ Undemocratic Senate rules slowing the pace of Senate business and requiring a supermajority for the passage of most bills and nominations;

§ The concentration of progressive organizing efforts within the Democratic leadership rendering the leadership better organized than the independent structures pressuring that leadership. For example, Organizing for America, run out of the DNC, now has an activist e-mail list more than two and a half times the size of’s;

§ A Democratic Party catering largely to the center-right of the party;

§ An administration that actually is moderate rather than one that just tells the country it is moderate while surreptitiously governing from the left;

§ A progressive ecosystem that remains divided along lines of ethnicity, class, generation and issues;

§ A system of funding elections that favors large donors, self-funded candidates and unlimited, independent expenditures;

§ The dominance of corporate lobbyists on Capitol Hill and the almost complete absence of progressive advocates;

§ National media that favor conflict and "he said, she said" over substance and fact;

§ Weak Democratic messaging that, in the words of Representative Anthony Weiner, often results in Democrats coming into "knife fights carrying library books."

§ An eagerness to compromise with Republicans that puts Democrats in a poor negotiating position. This is not just a problem among elected Democrats but within the rank and file of the party, too. A Pew poll from early 2007 found that self-identified Democrats preferred candidates who compromised over candidates who stuck to their positions by a 58 to 34 percent margin. By contrast, self-identified Republicans preferred candidates who stuck to their positions by a 57 to 36 percent margin. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that Democrats often get a quarter of a loaf, or an eighth, when negotiating with Republicans.

As noted above, this is just a partial catalog. But beyond identifying this dizzying and depressing list of problems, what do we do about it? Here are three must-haves:

(1) Don’t give up. As tempting as it may be to just throw in the towel in frustration, the surest path to further retrenchment of the status quo is to stop fighting it. If the number of people pushing for progressive change shrinks, then there is going to be even less progressive change.

(2) Don’t believe in silver bullets. None of the problems listed above will solve all progressives woes, in and of themselves. There is no simple key that is going to unlock all of the tumblers at once, no climactic moment of tossing a ring into a volcano. There needs to be broad-based improvement in all areas.

(3) Deal with fixing Senate rules first. Of all the problems facing progressives, the struggle to fix Senate rules is going to be resolved first. This is an opportunity for change that will be won or lost by January 3, the first day that the Senate convenes in the 112th Congress. On that day, and on that day only, Democrats have the opportunity to change all Senate rules with only fifty-one votes instead of the typical sixty-seven. The short-term, date-certain time frame on this fight makes it a top priority, perhaps the top priority, over the next five months.

This is inevitably going to be a long, hard slog where the primary experience is one of disappointment. It is, after all, tautological for progressives to be disappointed in the status quo and to be striving for levels of democratization and social justice that have never previously been achieved. If we are not disappointed, then we are not progressive.

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