Face the Facts

BY Joel Bleifuss

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With the Republicans in control of the executive, legislative and, increasingly, judicial branches of our federal government, it is time for progressives to face up the sad truth that they are losers.

Only when we know where we stand can we begin to make wise choices about where we should be going. In this issue we provide two perspectives on directions progressives should consider taking.

Chalmers Johnson, the author of Blowback and, most recently, The Sorrows of Empire, lays out what a progressive foreign policy might look like. He writes, “First and foremost, we should get out of Iraq and demand that Congress never again fail to honor article 1, section 8, clause 11 of the Constitution giving it the exclusive power to go to war.”

Christopher Hayes challenges the time-honored assumption that a majority of Americans are in their hearts progressive—a political force ready to be activated by the right message. Instead, Hayes asks us to consider how we can win progressive converts. He suggests that creating a national, grassroots debtors movement “should be a top progressive priority.” Such a movement, he writes, might have been able to stop “the criminally venal bankruptcy bill just passed by the Senate” by a vote of 74 to 25.

What Johnson’s and Hayes’ proposals have in common is that their ultimate success requires that the number of progressives grow to the point that we can influence the votes and behavior of members of Congress.

Were those Democrats who supported the bankruptcy bill, which exempts credit card debt from bankruptcy laws, voting on principle? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1999 the Democrats who voted against the bill each have received an average of $20,200 from the credit card industry, as compared to the $51,200, on average, collected by the 18 Democrats who voted to pass it.

Similarly, Senate Democrats had an opportunity to weigh in on the Iraq war when they voted on whether to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. They might have been expected to hold Rice accountable for her repeated lies about the dangers posed by Iraq. But only 13 Senate Democrats opposed her nomination.

Confirmation votes on two more Bush nominees, John Negroponte and John Bolton, provide Senate Democrats another opportunity to take a principled stand. Don’t hold your breath.

Being political animals, Democrats too often take the most politically expedient path. Barack Obama, for example, in his Senate debut voted to confirm Rice and help Bush pass the pro-corporate “tort reform” bill. That the darling of progressives can vote this way without fear of repercussion says something about progressives’ lack of clout and political immaturity. Didn’t we learn anything during the Clinton administration, when progressives muted their criticism of bad policies out of deference to their “friends” in power?

It is not enough to fight one judicial appointment or another legislative travesty. We need to confront Democratic legislators’ tendency to take progressive support for granted, at the same time that we challenge the legitimacy of the conservative worldview that sets the national agenda.

Progressives must be proud of their ideals and not shirk the responsibility to defend them. As Garret Keizer writes in the current issue of Mother Jones, “Had Howard Dean been an evangelical Christian with an evangelical Christian base, would his followers have deserted him because his Iowa holler made him ‘unelectable’? Or would they have closed ranks behind him because his stand on the Iraq war made him right?”

We are right, and though we may not be in the majority, we should be motivated by the conviction that the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” is a basic principle not to be compromised. Relentlessly defending that principle may seem hopeless, but we are not required to win now, only to persevere until winning becomes possible.


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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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