Face the Facts

Joel BleifussMarch 22, 2005

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.

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.

Blei­fuss has worked at In These Times for 34 years, includ­ing as man­ag­ing edi­tor and senior edi­tor. He tack­les the state of nation­al and inter­na­tion­al events with a blend of crit­i­cal insight and humor, and over the years has devel­oped a niche for inves­tiga­tive reporting.

His report­ing on envi­ron­men­tal health issues, nation­al secu­ri­ty scan­dals and the Iran Con­tra affair has land­ed in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines around the coun­try, includ­ing the New York Times, the Utne Read­er, the Cap­i­tal Eye and many others.

He is the co-author of the book Was The 2004 Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion Stolen?,” with Steven F. Freeman.

Before join­ing In These Times, Blei­fuss was direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri, a fea­tures writer for the Ful­ton Sun in Ful­ton, Mis­souri, and a free­lance jour­nal­ist in Spain.

Blei­fuss cur­rent­ly serves on the advi­so­ry board of The Pub­lic Square, a pro­gram of the Illi­nois Human­i­ties Council.

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