Liberals, Progressives and the Left

BY Ken Brociner

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The term “progressive” has evolved a great deal over the past 35 years.

By the ’70s, many ’60s veterans had concluded that working “within the system” had become a viable option. As a result, many leftists stopped using rhetoric and slogans that had marginalized them from the political mainstream. Labels like “radical”, “leftist”, and “revolutionary” sounded stale and gratuitously provocative. And so, gradually, activists began to use the much less threatening “progressive.” Today, “progressive” is the term of choice for practically everyone who has a politics that used to be called “radical.”

On a somewhat parallel track, in the ’80s, liberal politicians found themselves under attack by the Reagan inspired right-wing of the Republican Party. Soon, conservatives succeeded in changing “liberal” into something akin to a dirty word and liberal politicians began to avoid any association with the term whatsoever.

By the early ’90s more and more Democratic politicians began referring to themselves as being “progressive.” For most of the ’90s, though, this shift was so gradual that only the closest political observers seemed to even notice it. Notably, the progressive label was not only picked up by liberals like Ted Kennedy, but also by centrists like Bill Clinton and his cohorts in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

In fact, during the Clinton administration a tug of war ensued between centrists, liberals, and the left over who owned “progressive.” But by the end of the ’90s, “progressive” belonged to the left-wing of the Democratic party as well as to those activists who had one foot in the party and one foot outside of it–to its left.

Since 2001, “progressive” has become considerably more vague in its meaning and application. With a hard right-wing administration in power, the differences between various left of center groups and politicians became less important than the need to stand up in opposition to Bush’s disastrous policies.

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Since it now appears all but certain that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for president, let’s assume–for the moment at least–that he also wins the general election. With Obama in the White House, the left would at last be able to go on the offense–especially if the Democrats can expand their majorities in the House and, most importantly, in the Senate.

Then what? Obviously we would need to help support Obama’s legislative initiatives against the fierce opposition he would face from big business and its Republican allies. But since most progressives see themselves as being to Obama’s left, the question then arises as to how we might push his administration further to the left.

Three basic organizational strategies could be pursued:

1. Building “a party within a party.”

2. Constructing a multi-issue progressive coalition to pull the Democrats to the left.

3. Proceeding in an ad-hoc manner to advance the progressive agenda on an issue-by-issue basis.

The first strategy is being employed on Capitol Hill by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The 72 members of Congress who make up the Progressive Caucus are left-leaning Democrats who have drawn up an agenda called “The Progressive Promise: Fairness for All” that clearly positions the Caucus on the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

Co-chaired by California Reps. Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, the Progressive Caucus regularly rallies support for causes and legislation that have yet to be embraced by their more “moderate” colleagues in the House and Senate. While the Progressive Caucus hasn’t been able to win passage of any of its legislative priorities, it is widely seen by grassroots activists as providing the movement with an important voice in the corridors of power in Washington.

The “party-within-a party” strategy is also the approach being followed by the Progressive Democrats of America. PDA is in the process of trying to build chapters across the country in order to move the Democrats to the left. So far, though, it has had only very limited success. Perhaps most significantly, the progressive movement itself hasn’t gravitated toward either PDA or its general strategy.

While few progressives would disagree with the desirability of having one grand progressive coalition, those who are most familiar with all the ins and outs of organizational politics on the left argue that such a coalition isn’t in the cards–at least not for the foreseeable future. The reasons for this include: the differences in the agendas of many of the largest progressive organizations–especially those in the labor movement; the all too frequent inter-organizational rivalries and clashing egos; and the genuine differences that exist when it comes to what strategies should be pursued in the first place.

So by process of elimination, we are left with the “ad-hoc, issue by issue strategy” (or non-strategy if you will). Given the shifting nature of groups that mobilize around one issue or another, this ad-hoc approach is the most realistic and viable strategy at our disposal (even if it does lack the strategic coherence that the other two might offer).

Ironically even though this “strategy” has rarely been spelled out, let alone given a name, it has, in fact, been the primary approach that the progressive movement has utilized since Bush became president in 2001.

The grassroots coalition that came together in 2005 to defeat Bush’s attempt to privatize social security is a highly successful example of this “issue by issue” approach–which will almost certainly be the de-facto strategy of the progressive movement in the years ahead.

Another key advantage of this approach is that it doesn’t require the same degree of ideological unity that would be required by the other two strategies. It allows moderate- liberal Democrats and leftists to continue to cohabitate under the progressive banner. And, given the strength and power of our common adversaries, maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship between mainstream Democrats and the left is of the utmost importance for the future of the progressive movement.

Ken Brociner's essays and book reviews have appeared in Dissent, In These Times and Israel Horizons. He also has a biweekly column in the Somerville (Mass.) Journal.

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