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Reasons to Hope

Bush catalyzes a nascent progressive movement

Cynthia Moothart

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Our commander-in-chief has reason to celebrate this holiday season as his politics of utter failure cede territory to marginal gain: U.S. military personnel captured Saddam Hussein; the Dow hit 10,000 the first time in 18 months, and a recent flash poll showed his disapproval rating dip by 1 percentage point.

But this issue of In These Times is dedicated to hope, specifically progressives’ hope, that the nation can reverse course on the punitive and injurious stands now defining our polity. And there’s cause for celebration here, too: Progressives are engaged in the largest grassroots operation in U.S. history; liberals have formed a new political think tank, and studies show a preponderance of Americans share our values.

Yet our biggest reason for optimism in 2004 may be the man himself.

“Bush has galvanized the left and enabled the political activists to lay down their differences and figure out how to work together. And they have a very singular goal—and that is to un-elect George Bush,” says Ellen Miller, publisher of, an online public interest journal. “There’s no question in my mind that this is the beginning of a progressive movement that has disparate elements but a single goal. Bush has united the people.

“I’ve been part of the process for 30 years now, and I just see in the various views—whether it’s the environment or campaign finance where I come from—tremendous cooperation, people willing to do what needs to be done instead of just what they want to do.”

United we stand in opposition

The sectarianism that for decades bedeviled the left even now rumbles in its reaches. But a dawning understanding that this tendency has marginalized the movement—and abetted the right’s rise to power—has many progressives moving beyond their entrenched camps.

“The attitudes of progressives toward the Democratic Party have sometimes approached religiosity—with some liberals seeing the party as their savior and some leftists seeing it as a satanic trickster that needs its throat cut,” says Norman Solomon, founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy and a Ralph Nader supporter in 1996 and 2000. “But in the real world, the party isn’t an angel or a devil. Its national leaders are routinely problematic and often serve as corporate flunkies. But there are compelling reasons to support some Democratic candidates who are clearly preferable to the right-wing crazies now running Washington. In 2004, the imperative of dislodging the far right from the White House requires that we build a united front to defeat Bush. Like it or not—and I don’t—the obvious electoral tool for accomplishing that goal will be the Democratic presidential nominee, and that’s who we should support in 2004.”

Historian James Weinstein, founder of In These Times and, most recently, author of The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left, says progressives ought to take their cue from the religious right and encamp in the Democratic Party rather than back protest or third-party candidates who remain largely irrelevant within a national context.

“People have to understand that the major parties are not political parties in the European sense,” Weinstein says. “They are coalitions of parties and provide an arena in which people can operate and express themselves. That’s what the Republican right did. They represent only about 20 percent of Republicans, but they have organized and pushed their ideas and their organization and now have effective control of the Republican Party. That is why it makes sense to run in a Democratic primary instead of staying on the outside until that whole process is over and then run as a third party. That way you won’t be totally ignored—and appropriately.”

Viewing the Democratic Party as a coalition—and evolving beyond the age-old left-right division—holds enormous potential for engaging Americans who share progressive principles but don’t identify with the left. These are the people who politicians like Bill Clinton incorrectly classify as the “mushy middle” and mistakenly also argue hold “centrist” positions.

Studies in the last decade show that this middle bloc represents an estimated 36 percent of all adults and 45 percent of likely voters. The group skews favorably toward national health coverage (93 percent), ecological sustainability (78 percent) and feminism (74 percent), among other issues. More than 80 percent oppose big business and 50-plus percent reject social conservatives, yet only 18 percent define themselves as left. Their numbers far outdistance the 12 percent of Americans aligned with the liberal left and the 19 percent who view themselves as social conservatives. And yet, no one is engaging this potential bloc.

The New Progressives

“The data shows that if you look at people’s values and positions, what amounts to a progressive position is held by a good 55 to 60 percent of the voters,” says Paul H. Ray, who has conducted applied social research for 40 years and is co-chair of the Forum for a Wise Civilization in San Francisco. “They’re not a ‘mushy middle.’ They’re just fed up with conventional politics. They’re fed up with the conventional left-right rhetoric. We discovered that the people who really wanted to be active were very active locally where they could see some result, but they had withdrawn from national politics because they felt it had been bought by big-money interests. Now this is not a neutral position, this is not a muddled position. They were saying, ‘We are totally pissed off.’ They choose to, in effect, stay out of the game because they see it as crappy and dirty.”

The rise of the New Progressives, as Ray calls them, contravenes the commonly held position that America’s political landscape resembles a bell-shaped curve, in which small numbers occupy the fringes and the bulk of citizens reside in the passive center. He offers a new configuration represented by a compass, in which north and south are added to right and left. Although the New Progressives don’t identify with either side, they willfully and knowingly stand in opposition to the southern station—“Big Business Conservatives,” responsible for 80 percent of campaign contributions but comprising only 19 percent of voters. According to Ray’s research, New Progressives deeply internalize political struggle—that is, they view it in terms of what threatens our planet and our children’s future, such issues as global warming, educational spending, diminishing quality of life and worldwide violence.

Conventional political messages—both in their delivery and in their delivery system—clearly fail to inspire New Progressives’ participation. Television ads that reduce discourse to inflamed charges lack the nuance, personal engagement and authenticity these people seek. What does work—and where progressives already are heading—is door-to-door retail politics. But establishing commonality between progressives and this group requires updating metaphors and routines that appear tired and dated.

“Given the size of these numbers and the issues represented, this suggests that our recent history has been not just a failure of the left with voters, but also a substantial success—at the level of change in political culture,” Ray says. “There has been a change in the hearts and minds of many Americans to accept many viewpoints the left wants to claim. However, I also want to suggest that while the broad progressive constituency has evolved into more sophisticated interests, many progressive leaders are often trailing behind with obsolete rhetoric, perspectives and political culture.”

Massaging the message

The right suffers no such crisis of message. After getting their collective butt kicked in 1964, Republicans gradually regrouped and reframed their core issues—and in the intervening years, with think tanks churning out thousands of position papers, massive direct mail campaigns reaching millions of voters and political demagogues dominating the public sphere, their message has been loud and clear.

Democrats responded from a defensive crouch—first modulating their message then seemingly lacking one altogether, ceding all terms of the debate to the other side.

“The reason I think Democrats have done so poorly in the last few election cycles is they didn’t really know what they wanted to accomplish,” says John Nichols, who writes extensively on national politics and is associate editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. “They just wanted to maintain a hold on the White House and get the House and the Senate back. Just clawing your way back to power is not a very attractive thing. Republicans offer something real. And at this point the Democrats have had several cycles of offering nothing more than saying, ‘We’re not Republicans.’ ”

Backing away from radical rhetoric even as the left seeks fundamental change also is a nonstarter because it’s correctly read by voters as fearful, insincere and patronizing: All too often, progressives’ attitudes seem to be “We know the truth and you can’t handle it.” A New York Times poll after the WTO protests in Seattle, for example, showed that 52 percent of Americans agreed with the demonstrators, despite persistently muted critiques from Democratic leadership.

“I think it’s a loser from an organizing point,” says Robert Jensen, associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas and author of the upcoming Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. “If you’re trying to offer a milquetoast alternative to the radical right, which may be completely evil and corrupt but has a very clear and powerful message, then you’re fighting clear and powerful with milquetoast. You’re not going to get the dominant majority by talking this way.”

Recent shifts in mainstream thinking prove that progressive principles—defined in genuine and positive ways—can prevail in the marketplace of ideas.

“I think it’s really significant that a lot of the things the left has been saying for a long time are being proved true,” Nichols says. “We always believed what we said. But now it’s being quantified. For instance, we said a corporate model for free trade would be bad for American workers and would do nothing to raise the standard of living for workers in other countries. We said NAFTA was a terrible idea. And for years we were dismissed, even many Democrats like Bill Clinton said we were wrong. But now our argument has become a very mainstream argument, and we’re able to go into this discourse and say ‘Look, we were right about this.’ I think we should be hopeful. It’s absurd to be anything else.”

A failed presidency. A unified left. A predisposed constituency. Hope.

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Cynthia Moothart is managing editor for content at In These Times.
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