Features » January 24, 2011
Lead or Be Left Behind
President Obama and Congress have moved to the Right. Progressives need an offensive strategy before it’s too late.
'You don't get anything from this administration unless you push—and it is also capable of doing politically suicidal things,' says Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future.
What should progressives do now? Compared to the euphoric vista of hope and change two years ago, the political landscape today looks as bleak as an Iowa cornfield in mid-winter. November election results were bad enough. Then in December, President Barack Obama capitulated to Republicans on the tax deal, preserving Bush tax cuts for the rich and slashing estate taxes in exchange for extending long-term unemployment programs. This limited boost to the economy was achieved at great cost, while opening new threats to Social Security.
“This may well be a tipping point with our members,” says MoveOn Executive Director Justin Ruben. “People get that Republicans were holding the middle class hostage, but they feel you shouldn’t concede to hostage takers without a fight or it just incentivizes them to take more hostages.”
Despite some year-end progressive victories–ratifying New Start and repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell–Republicans started the New Year with a slash-and-burn approach to government spending. But progressives also worried that Democrats–including Obama–would preemptively propose their own cutbacks, even in Social Security and Medicare, while neglecting the main political and economic challenge–creating more good jobs.
As Obama dismissed his left critics as “sanctimonious” perfectionists, some on the left, like Michael Lerner of Tikkun, called for challenging Obama in the primaries or with a third party–an unrealistic strategy.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of consensus among progressives on strategy,” says Ed Mullen, chair of a Chicago branch of Democracy for America (DFA), “but there is finger pointing–and debate.” DFA, with roughly one million members, is an offshoot of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Their expansive expectations for Obama deflated, many progressives share the mood in union circles that one official describes as “pretty bleak, angry and pessimistic.” She said they felt “betrayed” by “Obama’s lack of backbone” to the point that “we are starting to feel we need to deal differently with the administration.” AFL-CIO leaders concluded in December that the federation had to “act independently and support people who work for a strong middle class and call out those who don’t, regardless of who they are,” according to public affairs director Denise Mitchell.
Obama’s style and strategy are, however, only part of the problem. “Too many progressives have focused on the weaknesses of Obama and not our own weaknesses, including why he has not been pressured more,” says Bill Fletcher, a union official and editorial board member of Black Commentator.
While progressives may not agree on their present shortcomings or future plans, most agree that big changes are in order. Discussions with a cross-section of leaders pointed to a new strategy for these frustrating times.
This strategy aims to build progressive forces in two ways–among elected officials and as a popular movement that combines online organizing and traditional, face-to-face organizing. While fighting necessary defensive battles, this movement would both push assertive short-term measures, especially on jobs, and lay the foundation for proposals that may not have much chance in the next two years, but that would be relevant if Democrats recapture the House in 2012. And while working inside the Democratic Party to promote progressive candidates and ideas, progressive groups would also stake out positions independent of Obama or party leaders (an “inside/outside” approach, as national director Tim Carpenter describes the work of Progressive Democrats of America, or PDA). In addition to pressuring elected officials, the political left would also pointedly target financial and corporate elites, making social class a defining issue in U.S. politics. Progressive leaders realize that they must more vigorously engage the right in the battle of ideas, including articulating a left alternative to the increasingly raw form of capitalism in the United States.
This new strategy has five critical components:
+ Resist the assault on government: Republicans are planning a “massive assault,” says Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future (CAF). As they stoke fears about the federal deficit (which they just increased with billionaire tax cuts), they are threatening to not raise the debt limit in order to force cuts in vital programs. In any case, the states are likely to be deprived of federal aid, such as funding to keep teachers and other key public employees working. In response state governments will try to lay off employees; reduce the pay and pensions of those remaining; undermine their right to collective bargaining; slash budgets; and push for right-to-work laws and other anti-worker legislation.
Most progressive groups will give high priority to resisting that assault. But Hickey argues that a crucial first step is to prevent Obama from doing anything stupid, like cutting Social Security. The same advice applies to Democrats at both state and federal levels. (Even the reliably progressive Senate assistant minority leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has succumbed to faulty deficit politics. And some top Democrats, in “blue” states like Illinois and New York, are attacking public employee unions or promoting conservative nostrums, like a taxpayer bill of rights.)
To successfully resist the Republican onslaught, Democrats will have to mount an unapologetic defense of government, public workers and progressive taxation. Campaigning on federal aid for state and local government may be most effective, since services closer to home are more tangible to voters.
+ Take the initiative on jobs and the economy: Republicans, who greatly weakened Democratic accomplishments during the past two years, are likely to block progressive initiatives for the next two. But the best defense remains a strong offense, and, whatever the time frame, it’s the only way forward.
“My big worry is we will just fight defensive fights we have to, and put off long-range programs,” says Alan Charney, political director of U.S. Action, a federation of statewide citizen groups that promotes progressive legislation, and campaigns for progressive candidates in state and local elections. “If we don’t start now with a long-term program of fixing the economy, we’ll never be able to change things, win politically or gain power as a progressive movement.”
Democrats lost because they did not do enough about job creation, Hickey says. Unemployment is likely to remain high, especially with Republicans undermining government stimulus. Obama and Democrats can only hope to win in 2012 if people see them as credible champions of creating more good (and, where possible, “green”) jobs through public investment, regulatory and administrative acts, and legislative initiatives (like a new public service jobs program). Obama can do a lot with administrative powers. Democrats can create infrastructure constructions jobs by funding renewal of such legislation as the Clean Water and Surface Transportation Acts, which both voters and many Republicans support. If the right stymies these proposals, Democrats should hold them accountable for continuing joblessness.
But progressive economic initiatives do not all have to go through Congress. George Goehl, executive director of National Peoples Action, a Chicago-based national network of community groups, argues that progressives can win victories and build a movement with direct action, such as demonstrations or shareholder initiatives, targeting the financial sector that caused the crisis and yet has gone unpunished. Their current campaign, working with allies and an investigation by all 50 state attorneys general, demands that banks reduce home mortgage principal and interest rates owed by millions of working- and middle-class families.
Attacking big banks on behalf of homeowners who face foreclosure or underwater mortgages has benefits beyond relief to victims of financial sector misdeeds. Pitting homeowners against the banks puts class interests squarely in political play. Such a campaign may indirectly help Democrats regain the working class support they have been losing, especially among white men.
+ Regain independence: On Tuesdays in Washington, D.C., a fluctuating group of leaders of several dozen progressive groups, such as CAF, AFL-CIO, US Action, Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute, have been meeting on their own to discuss common strategies. But a similar assortment also gathers under the leadership of administration officials as the “Common Purpose” group, where–with a few exceptions–these leaders subordinate their common work to the White House agenda.
In light of Obama’s recent moves, Hickey says, “There’s a dawning realization that if all the left does is to ask the administration what we do next, that’s a guarantee of wasted energy and failure. You don’t get anything from this administration unless you push–and it is also capable of doing politically suicidal things.”
Progressive leaders need to remember that, despite frustrating many key supporters, Obama still remains popular among loyally Democratic black and Latino voters. “People still want the guy to succeed,” MoveOn’s Ruben. “But they’re disappointed and realize we have to do the job ourselves.”
Less deference to Obama could imply closer ties with the 80-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, which would suit PDA (a 100,000-member offshoot of Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign, whose strategic goal has been to strengthen the caucus) and Progressive Congress (a nonprofit that links caucus members and staff to progressive research and campaigns). Despite its moderate size and Republican control of the House, the caucus “is big enough to make some significant statements about priorities,” says Darcy Burner, the director of Progressive Congress.
+ Build a movement: “The biggest thing that would change calculations of Democrats and the president would be a real grassroots revolt on the economy, or some incredibly damaging thing Republicans and some Democrats might try in the next year,” says Ruben. Indeed, revolts like the Tea Party, which some on the left hope to replicate, more often occur as reactions to threats, not as proactive initiatives like the civil rights movement.
The most powerful social force combines popular upsurge with competent democratic organization. Many left groups consist of Washington offices and e-mail lists. While often effective in their online activism, some groups that started as virtual organizations–like MoveOn–make efforts to create physical meetings and actions. Both DFA and PDA, which is more left than and independent of the Democratic Party, have local, somewhat autonomous chapters. In six states, especially New York, Working Families Parties generate vital membership activity. All three groups are building an electoral political force from local races on up the ballot, regardless of Obama’s leadership.
The labor movement–for all its shortcomings–remains the biggest, most influential organized progressive force. Democrats, unfortunately, have not recognized how much their future is linked to using their political power to help unions organize on a grand scale. And unions have grown defensive of what little they have, thus constraining their leadership from pressing their demands more forcefully.
“If [Obama] were running today I’d be hard-pressed to get my members to bust a gut for him,” says DFA chair Jim Dean, echoing the sentiments of many of Obama’s 2008 campaign volunteers. “I’m trying to harness these people to control the political process, and we can do that locally right now.”
Echoing Dean, populist writer Jim Hightower urges progressives to “decamp from Washington, D.C., and get out in the countryside where our strength is and where innovation is flourishing. We’ve had too much of our money and organizational heads in D.C., pretending or thinking they’re being listened to by Obama. We have got to lead the outside force.”
+ Fight the battle of big ideas: Progressives worry that the right often packages its politics more persuasively, however mendacious or misleading the wrapping, such as labeling the estate tax a “death tax.” But the problem goes deeper than language and “messaging.” Even when people support many progressive programs, as they do, they often hold a conservative, individualistic, anti-government worldview that can undermine their pragmatic, progressive inclinations.
“Democrats and progressives are losing the war of ideas,” Ruben says. “As progressives, we need to take that seriously. A big part of the White House and Democratic capitulation has to do with their calculation that they can’t win a messaging war with the Republicans.” By failing to defend taxes as the price of a good society; progressive taxation as an expression of the responsibility of those who benefit most from society; government as a protector of the public interest; and government deficits and debt as justifiable in recessions, Democrats have surrendered in the battle of ideas, capitulating to the right–first in theory, then in practice.
The battle has been lost on several fronts, including translating political philosophy into easily grasped stories. “Everyone knows we have to have a narrative,” says US Action Executive Director Jeff Blum. “Republicans have a narrative that doesn’t work as policy but works politically. Our narrative has to be rooted in reality but can’t say everything. Economic opportunity, justice, and sustainability are our goals as we try to answer the question, ‘How will America create the next 20 million new jobs?’ Now the American people have no idea of what our vision is.”
Since the 1930s, Democrats had a narrative that they were the party that helped the average working family and that stood up to malefactors of great wealth. Yet, in an effort to be seen as “responsible” and not “anti-business,” Obama failed both to paint financiers as the villains they are–and to use the crisis to tell a progressive narrative. And this left the Republicans free to turn the crisis into their story of government excess and incompetence.
Fletcher notes that Obama faced political difficulties attacking bankers, since he had to avoid appearing to be “an angry black man.” But Goehl argues that he missed the opportunity to create powerful new narratives about inequality and about democracy under threat from corporate power. As a result, says Working Families Party executive director Dan Cantor, he also failed to push for measures such as a financial transaction tax that could have financed job creation, dampened speculation, and moved the economy toward a “productive democracy, where everyone has a chance to contribute.” He concludes, “We need a better narrative, to build organizational infrastructure, to seek opportunities, to play defense, and to fight the battle of ideas.”
In that battle of big ideas, progressives fly the banners of democracy, egalitarianism, solidarity and the potential of government to be a powerful tool for creating the common good. The battle is long, but the progressive vision, like much of the conservative worldview, has deep roots in American history. The contest between traditions of progressive government and egalitarianism, and conservative notions of the self-made man and the virtue of greed will not be resolved in the next election. But its outcome is crucial for our political future.
In the short run, however, if progressives do their job well enough in the next two years, Obama may just decide by his next term–if he has one–to use his formidable skills for a common purpose defined by progressives.
But the real hope for change does not come from leaders as much as from strong popular movements–and that is what the country now needs as much as ever.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at email@example.com.