It’s been a rough and tough few months. And this August is making a bid to replace the Ides of (is it?) March as the meanest month in our calendar. From a slew of intense late night and early morning calls, I know that many progressives are wondering: Who did we vote for? (And I won’t pose the David Axelrod question: Are you Muhammad Ali or Sonny Liston? Though I confess I think it’s one worth asking right now.)
Now, no one on the left with any savvy or knowledge of history believed we wouldn’t live — and learn — through disappointment. Isn’t that what politicians are for? And anyone who believed Obama was going to remain an idealistic community organizer, well — I got a bridge to sell you.
Still, questions remain: Couldn’t he have picked a cabinet filled with that real team of rivals? Why not include a Joseph Stiglitz along with a Larry Summers and let the sparks fly? It might have led to a kind of creative de/construction. Where is the organizing out of the White House — committed to overtaking those who would undermine its message and policies? And couldn’t Obama, like FDR, have used this moment of crisis, admittedly not as severe as 1933, but still as severe as many living have experienced, to restructure –not simply resuscitate –the smug financial sector? Couldn’t he have used his pulpit and brilliant speaking skills to explain that what we need to fear is joblessness — not deficits? Or as one of the great historians of the New Deal, David Kennedy, argued, Obama “will be judged not simply on whether he manages a rescue from the current economic crisis but also on whether he grasps the opportunity to make us more resilient to face those future crises that inevitably await us.”
The healthcare fight is still up for grabs, yet the emerging stories of White House dealmaking with the drug and insurance industries — and with the heavily mortgaged Max Baucus and the Senate Finance Committee — are more than dispiriting. Yet we also confront a political landscape filled with those who fulminate at rallies about government overreach — the very same folks who should stop, take a deep breath and understand what their lives would be like without government programs like Social Security and Medicare. These are the very programs that Roosevelt, and then Lyndon Johnson, and subsequent Democratic and, yes, Republican Presidents and Congresses, put in place to temper for generations what FDR liked to call the “hazards and vicissitudes” of life.
In this hot month of town halls filled with raging, often inchoate, anger on the Right — and a season of disappointment among progressives, I wanted to repost what I wrote just a few days after that glorious election night in 2008 — a night in which the forces of decency and dignity vanquished those forces which hate and demean the possibilities of government and cheer on the forces of reaction at home and abroad. Let’s not forget that as we move forward.
Here’s what I wrote on November 23, 2008:
I think that we progressives need to be as clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he is about us.
President-elect Obama is a centrist at a time when centrism means energy independence and green jobs and universal health care and massive economic stimulus programs and government intervention in the economy. He is a pragmatist at a moment when pragmatism and the scale of our financial crisis compel him to adopt bold policies. He is a cautious leader at a time when, to paraphrase New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, caution is the new risky. The great traumas of our day do not allow for cautious steps or responses.
At 143 years old ( that’s the The Nation‘s age, not mine), we like a little bit of history with our politics. And while Lincoln’s way of picking a cabinet frames this transition moment, it’s worth remembering another template for governing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to become a bolder and, yes, more progressive President (if progressive means ensuring that the actual conditions of peoples’ lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategically placed mobilization and pressure of organized movements.
That history makes me think that this is the moment for progressives to avoid falling into either of two extremes –reflexively defensive or reflexively critical. We’d be wiser and more effective if we followed the advice of one of The Nation‘s valued editorial board members who shared thoughts with the Board at our meeting last Friday, November 21.
1. It will take large scale, organized movements to win transformative change. There is no civil rights legislation without the movement, no New Deal without the unions and the unemployed councils, no end to slavery without the abolitionists. In our era, this will need to play out at two levels: district-by- district and state-by-state organizing to get us to the 218 and sixty votes necessary to pass any major legislation; and the movement energy that can create public will, a new narrative and move the elites in DC to shift from orthodoxy. The energy in the country needs to be converted into real organization.
2. We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. I think this will be challenging for those of us schooled in the habits of pure opposition and protest. We need to make an effort to engage the new Administration and Congress constructively, even as we push without apology for solutions at a scale necessary to deliver. This is in the interest of the Democratic Party–which rode the wave of a new coalition of African Americans, Latinos, young people, women, etc–but they have been beaten down by conservative attacks and the natural impulse will be caution and hiding behind desks.
3. Progressives need to stick up especially forcefully for the most vulnerable parts of the coalition–poor people, immigrants, etc– those who got almost no mention during the election and will be most likely to be left off the bus.