It’s gotten to that time in the primary contest where lines are drawn, camps are solidified and conversations around dinner tables grow heated. My friend Dan recently put it this way: “You start talking about the candidates, and next thing you know someone’s crying!” The excellent (and uncommitted) blogger Digby recently decided to shut down her comments section because the posts had grown so toxic. The recent uptick in acrimony is largely due to the narrowing of the field. While once the energy was spread over many camps, it is now, with the exits of Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards, concentrated on just two, leaving progressives in a fierce debate over whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would make the better nominee, and President.
According to polling data as well as my conversations with friends and colleagues, progressives are evenly split or undecided between the two. This is, to me, somewhat astonishing (about which more in a moment), but it also means that at a time when other subgroups within the Democratic coalition are leaning heavily toward one candidate or the other, progressives are at a moment of maximum leverage.
Insofar as the issues discussed during a presidential campaign are circumscribed by the taboos and pieties of the political and media establishments, they tend to be dispiriting for those of us on the left. Neither front-runner is calling for the nation to renounce its decades-old imperial posture or to end the prison-industrial complex; neither is saying that America’s suburbs and car culture are not sustainable modes of living in an era of expensive oil and global warming or pointing out that the “war on drugs” has been a moral disaster and strategic failure, with casualties borne most violently and destructively by society’s most marginalized and–a word you won’t be hearing from either candidate–oppressed. And yet, this election is far more encouraging (dare I say hopeful?) than any in recent memory. The policy agenda for the Democratic front-runners is significantly further to the left on the war, climate change and healthcare than that of John Kerry in 2004. The ideological implosion of conservatism, the failures of the Bush Administration and, perhaps most important, the shifts in public opinion in a leftward direction on war, the economy, civil liberties and civil rights are all coming together at the same time, providing progressives with the rare and historic opportunity to elect a President with a progressive majority and an actual mandate for progressive change.
The question then becomes this: which of the two Democratic candidates is more likely to bring to fruition a new progressive majority? I believe, passionately and deeply, if occasionally waveringly, that it’s Barack Obama.
Had you told me a few years ago that the left of the Democratic Party would be split between Obama and Clinton, I’d have dismissed you as crazy: Barack Obama has been a community organizer, a civil rights attorney, a loyal and reliable ally in the State Senate of progressive groups. For the Chicago left, his primary campaign and his subsequent election to the US Senate was a collective rallying cry. If you’ve read his first book, the truly beautiful, honest and intellectually sophisticated Dreams From My Father, you have an inkling of what young Chicago progressives felt about Obama. He is one of us, and now he’s in the Senate. We thought we’d elected our own Paul Wellstone. (Full disclosure: my brother is an organizer on the Obama campaign.)