Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008, 8:12 am
CONVENTION DISPATCH: The Rise of the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party
This morning - the morning after Ted Kennedy's electrifying convention speech, the Wall Street Journal's headline reiterates this point with a striking headline: "Party's Left Pushes for a Seat at the Table.". The story takes a deeper look at the remarkable rise of progressives - a rise that was so powerfully woven into the fabric of this convention by Ted Kennedy's emotional speech last night.
As someone who has fought the trench war against corporate front groups like the Democratic Leadership Council way back when it was considered uncouth, I can tell you that I have never seen the party so ideologically unified. After years of watching the Washington Democratic Party Establishment attack economic populists and anti-war activists, progressives have come back. The turnaround can be explained by two factors: George W. Bush and the 2008 Democratic Primary.
In so aggressively overreaching on so many issues, Bush has been America's polarizer-in-chief to the point that the center of public opinion has tectonically shifted in a progressive direction. Today, polls show broad consensus support for the major tenets of a progressive agenda: namely, universal government-sponsored health care, trade policy reform, a re-regulation of Wall Street, and an end to the Iraq War.
Within the Democratic Party, Bush's extremism has galvanized progressives to reassert themselves after years of watching Clintonism run "over the dead bodies" of kitchen table priorities, as American Express's CEO famously praised Bill Clinton for doing. And, as the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and I agreed last night on Minnesota Public Radio, recent election results have only bolstered progressives' arguments. Instead of listening to corporate front groups who wrap corruption in the language of "moderation" and political "expertise," progressives point to 2006 candidates who won some of the toughest swing districts and states with full-throated populist campaigns. They make the convincing argument that in forcing the Democratic Party to be more progressive, activists are not only helping to accelerate the pace of policy change, but also helping Democrats win elections.
By the time the 2008 Democratic presidential primary hit, progressives had laid the groundwork for a full takeover of the party. Because labor, environmental, antiwar and other grassroots groups had set the stage so effectively, the competition between John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama became a competition to show who was a more full-throated progressive. The heat of that supercharged battle ended up burning off the corporate naysayers and unifying the party.
Of course, the work still continues, as money remains a persistent and powerful force. For all his populist rhetoric, Obama still surrounds himself not with the grassroots organizers that he brags about starting his career around, but instead with a mix of Wall Street profiteers and Ivory Tower elites like Cass Sunstein, who wrap their free market fundamentalism in the argot of academia. That means remembering this specific passage in the Wall Street Journal's article:
David Sirota, a liberal analyst and author with the Campaign for America's Future, which bills itself as "the strategy center for the progressive movement," expresses particular concern about whether Sen. Obama will attack corporate interests on behalf of the working class. "If we are serious about developing the tactics and strategies to bring about real change after the election, we have to first know if Barack Obama is even with us," he wrote a few days ago on the Campaign for America's Future Web site. Mr. Sirota expressed particular qualms about the candidate's choice of economic advisers who support free-trade agreements and hail from the investment-banking world.
At the convention last night, a video showed a young Kennedy thundering away at a podium, slamming his fist down demanding universal health care. The video's grainy quality and the senator's then-black hair was haunting. It reminded the audience of how long the fight over health care - and all other progressive causes - has been going on, and how little we've moved forward. it was a subtle message that reminded that enough is enough - and that we don't want to look back on this moment, and wonder why - again - we did not move forward. Twenty years from now we don't want to be ruefully watching at a grainy video of a young Barack Obama insisting he's going to reform our trade policy so as to revive the American job base - and know that he was never forced to fulfill those promises.
Thankfully, the millions of rank-and-file citizens who comprise the Democratic Party have finally answered the age-old question: Which side are you on? And they have answered it by siding with America's progressive majority, suggesting that a progressive pressure system will indeed follow Obama into office, if he is elected. That is critical, because Obama hasn't yet decisively answered the same question - the question of which side he is on. It will be up to the newly invigorated Democratic wing of the Democratic Party to make sure he listens to the public - not the Establishment job-seekers now flocking to his inner circle - when he answers that question.
David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.