On inauguration day in 2009 in Washington, my partner and I had a house full of guests from out of town. One of my most vivid memories was of a conversation with a long-time Obama aide who, while ecstatic, told me that from his point of view “exactly nothing has changed in the country or in Washington, DC.” He explained that notwithstanding the emotion of the moment, no one had been elected with Obama, that the basic power structure of the country had been unchanged in any fundamental way by the fact of his election. At the time, I read this comment as an effort to lower the expectations of outside advocates.
As the years have worn on though, I’ve come to see it as a prophecy of the trouble that was to befall us—with profound implications for our future.
Moving from resistance to governing—should we be fortunate enough to have that problem—is going to be very hard. Trump has provided a focal point and a cause for unity; his departure would be the occasion for long-standing fissures of vision and strategy to quickly reemerge. And the damage of the Trump years has been so profound that competition among constituencies and issue-based groups for attention is inevitable. As a leader of a progressive organization from the Obama to Trump years, I’ve thought long and hard about how we might approach governance and movement-building in a next Democratic administration. What can we learn from the choices that Democrats, movement actors, and the right made in that fateful 2009–10 period to better prepare us for taking and exercising power this time? Most of us are rightly focused now on winning the 2020 presidential election. Fortunately, many of the same things we need to do if Trump is defeated are also crucial to winning the election.
One part of the usual left critique of Obama is that because he and his elitist, neoliberal economic team were not willing to name or prosecute bankers, the field was laid wide open for a different kind of populism to take hold. The turn to renewed, vicious racism and nativism was perhaps inevitable given the election of the country’s first black president and the identity crisis that the Obama coalition’s rise created for large swaths of white America. But the administration’s failure to tell a clear, simple story with protagonists, villains, and a clear struggle obscured the causes not just of the financial crisis but of the whole edifice of vast economic and racial inequality in America. This line of critique seemed strong then—and looks even stronger with hindsight. I’ve been skeptical of the other current of left critique of Obama: that if only he had pushed harder, more far-reaching legislative accomplishments were at hand. The redistributionist thrust of the Obama program from the stimulus to health care was real and substantial—and correctly understood by the Tea Party and the Koch brothers to be so. The absence of feisty, broad-based movements demanding more, the implacable opposition of the Republicans in Congress, and the controlling hand of conservative Democrats created real constraints on the scope of what could be achieved.
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The most consequential mistake that Obama and his team made that paved the way for the Trump regime is different than the ones usually ascribed to them. The problem was less Obama’s legislative program than his total lack of interest in building the power that could have expanded the scope of the possible. Obama himself was elected at a time of desperate progressive weakness, the depth of which was masked by the upswell of energy and participation around his campaign. Labor union membership in the private sector was down to 7.2 percent, many establishment civil rights and women’s organizations had lost vitality and membership; liberal technocratic Beltway groups had lost interest in grassroots mobilization; big environmental groups were exposed as paper tigers without a social base; and the mainline Protestant churches that had backed previous epochs of progressive reform were in steep decline.
Facing such a landscape of ruin, the obvious task was to help rebuild progressive power. After a campaign that repeatedly invoked popular movements, a presidency that focused on building progressive infrastructure to prepare for the inevitable backlash was certainly possible. One obvious path was immediately foreclosed with the fateful decision to convert Organizing for America (the successor to Obama for America) into another e-mail advocacy group subsumed within a sleepy Democratic Party infrastructure.
A second option would have been to focus on reforms that would have, by expanding democracy, also expanded progressive power. Andre Gorz, the European socialist thinker, developed the notion of “non-reformist reforms”—policy changes that alter the relations of power in fundamental ways. There were several options available to the Obama team to alter power relations, including prioritizing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), immigration reform, or expanded voting rights. These might have produced millions more dues-paying union members, or millions of newly naturalized citizens loyal to the party that had fought for them, or millions more votes from young people and people of color. Even had it proved impossible to achieve those gains legislatively, fighting and making a case for them would have laid the predicate for more aggressive use of executive power to strengthen the hand of these constituencies.
A third option would have been to go after the sources of conservative power, for example by seizing the moment of disorientation and vulnerability among the economic elite to break up the banks or revive antitrust laws. Some Obama legislation redistributed income downward. But virtually nothing in those bills redistributed power downward. The health care bill extended coverage without curbing the power of the insurance companies or big pharma. And taking the side of the banks over the foreclosed—supposedly the heart of the Obama constituency—was a deeply demoralizing accommodation to the power structure that has had lasting political consequences. This orientation to technocratic policy solutions— notwithstanding the occasional rhetorical flourish about “Stonewall, Selma, and Seneca Falls”—was not unique to Obama, and is the fatal flaw in the center-left, elitist culture that views broad democratic participation as incidental to the “real work” of governing.
The results of Obama’s lack of interest in altering the relations of power became brutally clear very quickly. Republican “trifectas” in which they controlled both houses of state legislatures and the governors’ mansions increased from 10 states to 22 states in the 2010 elections—on the eve of a redistricting process that set the playing field for a decade. By the time Obama left office, union membership had been reduced to 6.4 percent and the overall progressive infrastructure was even weaker than it had been. It’s almost impossible to conceive of the parallel universe in which corporations would limp out of a Republican administration weaker than they started.
Meanwhile, Republicans and conservative oligarchs were thinking strategically. The GOP’s first priority, once they took over state legislatures in 2010, was to enact voter ID laws to reduce the strength of key Democratic constituencies—especially black voters—and to pass “right to work” laws that crippled public-sector unions, another bastion of Democratic strength. That led directly to the narrow defeat of Democrats in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that threw the White House to Trump. This shrewd use of power to build more power is not unknown to the Democratic Party when feeling pressured by movements. The New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act made it easier for unions to organize; the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity helped to fund black-led groups that successfully challenged white urban power structures in the 1960s. As Sargent Shriver put it, OEO was “for the poor what the National Labor Relations Act was for unions.”
While Obama, like Clinton and Carter before him, showed no interest in altering relations of power, he did care about delivering material gains to people. But the way those measures were pursued not only left power structures intact but also rendered those very benefits invisible to the people receiving them. I remember saying to the first lady at a reception at the White House how notably progressive the stimulus legislation was, in that it included a stunning amount of money targeted to very poor households. She offhandedly said, “Yes, but let’s keep that to ourselves.” The implicit view, widely held in the liberal establishment, that gains for poor people can be secured only if the country doesn’t understand what’s happening is of course a frank admission of political weakness. And it is self-fulfilling, because there can be no response from direct beneficiaries to defend gains if there is no call. Worldview—the meaning people make of what’s happening to them—is a crucial dimension of power, and the Obama administration showed little interest in using policy to shape people’s views of the role of politics or government.
But the right wasn’t fooled by stealthy redistribution and went on a war footing immediately. So the decision to demobilize the base and neglect the rebuilding of progressive power was compounded, as a newly energized right—in the toxic form of the Tea Party—entered the arena mostly unopposed.
Our movement (myself included), also made major mistakes. Prior to Obama’s election and before the recession there had been deep preparation to seize the moment in the event of a Democratic victory by building coalitions, and sophisticated campaign plans to advance potential Obama priorities on issues like health care, climate, and immigration. But we had put so much energy into areas where there was a pent-up demand for change that we were poorly prepared to pivot to the areas where massive new energy was building: unemployment, foreclosures and financial reform. There was some organizing of newly unemployed and foreclosed people, but more resources and talent should have been devoted to fanning the flames of a movement to demand relief. Restoring a culture of recruitment to the left (as distinct from a culture of mobilization, which focuses on energizing existing activists) will be essential if our fortunes are to be reversed. There is a cultural aversion in too many parts of the activist left to the core work of recruitment—which requires engaging respectfully with people who are not consistently ideological and contain bundles of messy contradictions in how they approach politics and seeking to move them over time. It is slow and patient work, and often uncomfortable. The genius of the right has been not only the mobilization of its fierce partisans but also the many on-ramps to engagement, membership, and ideological conversion that it has created for new recruits. Far too often the activist and organizational left, trapped in bubbles of ideological purity or demands to service existing members, fails abysmally at this task—a crucial ingredient for winning elections as well as for governing successfully.
Another mistake was the failure of the mostly white-led progressive movement to prioritize immigration as an issue—and so it took a ringside seat on both rounds of the fight for federal immigration reform in 2010 and 2013. This failure to lean in has had devastating consequences, since it was clear even then that immigration was not just another issue and that the failure to prioritize it was going to imperil the entire social democratic project and create a massive political vacuum—which Trump successfully filled.
Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, three supposedly progressive tribes collided in a highly counterproductive way. The political hacks who dominate the Democratic Party are focused on “winning” with a very short time horizon; hence their obsession with catering to white swing voters rather than delivering for or building the power of the base (Trump has no such compunction about delivering for his base!). This orientation (epitomized by Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel) results in consistent deprioritization of things like making it easier for workers to organize or legalization of undocumented immigrants—because projections of the fears of white suburban voters amount to a hidden veto. The policy professionals who dominate advocacy in Washington, on the other hand, are purely preoccupied with delivering on policy agendas with no interest in how such policies are received by their beneficiaries, or whether they alter relationships of power nationally or in communities. Such “good government” policy work produces a cacophony of demands on different worthy issues, with no governing logic about how to prioritize or sequence them through the lens of power. Lastly, some left activists prefer being righteous and virtue signaling to a narrow base in social media rather than increasing power or winning. For them, narratives of betrayal and accusations of “sellout” replace any analysis of what power is actually required to win transformational change, while clicks in social media are more easily generated by attacking people who agree with them on 90 percent of their agenda rather than taking on their common enemies. Such sectarian bitterness also paralyzes other progressives who, fearful of being attacked, end up defending positions that are far from where the actual (not the Twitter) base stands. These three dominant styles of liberal/left approaches to governing are in constant tension and often combine in a highly toxic stew to sabotage progress.
Marx once famously said that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy the second time as farce.” Should we be skilled and lucky enough to avoid a second Trump term, our movement may face many of the same conditions as in the first Obama term. We will likely be at the front end of a recession, and the institutional strength of liberal and left forces remains quite weak.
Trump’s defeat should not be misinterpreted as a majority endorsement of a left agenda. However, it would offer a second chance to consolidate a progressive majority for a generation. Should President Sanders or Biden be in the White House, the Tea Party will be a pale shadow of the kind of right-wing opposition in the streets that progressives will face. The demons let loose in Charlottesville and supported from the Trump White House will not easily be put back in their bottles. Success will depend on a ruthless focus on a few variables both by those Democrats in power and by key movement actors. First and foremost, the new administration must deliver visibly and quickly for the base to consolidate loyalty and marshal a defense for the inevitable Tea Party–style counter-mobilization leading into the midterms in 2022. If Milwaukee continues to suffer from the same level of devastating poverty two years after a new presidential election and immigrants in Phoenix continue to be subject to ICE dragnets and deportation, no force on earth (and certainly not the better “messaging” so in vogue in the political class these days) will save Democrats from the inevitable midterm drop-off.
Second, there must be a deliberate choice to prioritize measures to build the power of progressive constituencies. Whether the right first domino to knock over turns out to be strengthening unions’ right to organize, legalizing millions of immigrants, or expanding voting rights should be a matter of sober power analysis rather than of sentiment. If we come out of two or four years of a Democratic administration with a movement even further depleted, shame on us. Progressive policy groups typically devote immense amounts of energy and time to “transition projects” to identify critical policy changes and potential personnel for a new administration. What’s urgently needed instead is a transition project that focuses on how to use the machinery of government (including, of course, the courts and executive action, where legislation is foreclosed) to help build countervailing power to the right-wing surge that has swept the country—and won’t go away after a Democratic victory.
Some may be squeamish about the idea that the levers of government should be used to build power for certain social groups. But there is no moral equivalence between such efforts and the work of the right to suppress the vote of people of color or crush unions. That’s because progressive power-building through governance inherently involves expanding rather than restricting democracy.
Looking at governance through the lens of power also underlines the need to break up monopoly power in the financial and tech sectors—pursued through an “air war” that names corporate villains and tells a coherent story about the unequal economy, and an aggressive regulatory or legislative agenda that defines battle lines and puts opponents on the defensive. Power needs to be built at the bottom—but also tamed at the top.
Perhaps most crucially, the focus of progressive leaders must be on recruitment as well as mobilization, because without growth, we cannot even hope to hold our position. The temptation to turn inward to the machinations of Washington will be strong. But it must be resisted, with major resources devoted to engaging the millions of people beyond the choir who will still be struggling after the election—and in need of major change.
Putting chess moves of this kind on the board will require less political hackery, less policy wonkery, and less sectarianism. Key leaders on the “inside” and “outside” will instead need to model a new kind of principled, pragmatic radicalism: visionary in the social transformation it seeks, but deeply sober about the state of power relationships that exist and must be built to win. This tradition of progressivism, which extends from the abolitionists and radical Republicans through the best of the New Dealers and CIO unionists to the civil rights movement organizers and OEO leadership, is unfashionable now but can and must be reinvigorated.
There are bright shoots of life in this tradition across the country—in the brilliant and strategic work to enfranchise black voters in Georgia championed by Stacey Abrams, the visionary coalition working to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people in Florida, New Virginia Majority’s campaign to enact a bold democracy and voting rights agenda in triple-blue Virginia, efforts by immigrant groups around the country to accelerate naturalization, and the bold “Unions for All” vision that the SEIU is pushing Democratic presidential candidates to embrace. Meanwhile, a new coalition of labor, environmental, racial justice, and community groups committed to advancing structural democracy reform is gaining momentum nationally.
There are some important differences between today and the early Obama years that are also cause for hope. By attacking people of color with such racialized venom, Trump has inadvertently done important work to build our sense of being in it together as a leading edge of a new American majority. Demography is not destiny. But a singular asset of progressive movements in the United States compared to other Western nations is the growing population of people of color to lead and anchor a new progressive majority. Other positive developments include the mobilization of white women in cities and suburbs who were politicized by Trump, the growing race and immigration consciousness of white progressives, and the vibrant multiracial youth energy of the climate movement. And on the terrain of ideas, the energy is all on the left. Bold proposals such as the Green New Deal are setting the terms of the debate, with very little original thinking coming from moderates in the Democratic Party or the right. So there are reasons to be deeply optimistic about the future. Meeting the governing moment with sobriety, determination, and strategic savvy will be essential if we’re to realize the promise.