Progressive values and ideals were not rejected on Election Day. That’s the first thing we should keep in mind. This was a very close campaign, too close to draw any conclusions about the public’s embrace or dismissal of any ideology. Indeed, there is still much reason to believe the public shares our core values: equal treatment and opportunity for all, strong communities, hard work, compassion as a way of life rather than a political slogan, greater economic opportunity, affordable and effective healthcare, and an educational system that makes all of this possible. These are our values, and they are America’s values.
Although our values weren’t rejected (no matter how often you hear otherwise) we were defeated, and there are things we’ll have to do better in the future.
First we must build a progressive infrastructure of think tanks, media monitors, issue advocacy organizations, and media outlets to compete with the right. Fortunately, this has already begun, with groups like the Center for American Progress, Air America and my organization, Media Matters for America.
Many progressives have realized over the last few years that the right enjoys a tremendous advantage in the long-term fight to define the playing field on which short-term electoral battles are fought. That’s one reason conservatives have electoral success that is disproportionate to the quality of their ideas. Their think tanks relentlessly promote right-wing policy proposals. Their media outlets like Fox News and the Washington Times act as little more than a newsletter for the Republican Party, and their media monitoring organizations pressure the mainstream media to do likewise. Just as importantly, media criticism on the right isn’t confined to a few organizations, but is instead fully integrated into all levels of the conservative message machine, from President Bush down to local activists.
Progressives have begun in recent years to address this infrastructure gap: We have started building effective and essential new organizations and activist networks; we’ve brought millions of new activists, volunteers and voters into progressive politics.
The challenge now is to maintain and increase these efforts. After all, conservatives brought millions of new activists into the process as well. We know theirs will remain engaged; if ours don’t, the next election really will be an overwhelming rejection of our values.
And that’s the second thing we should remember. Despite all the talk of 2004 as being the most important ideological fight of our lifetime, that isn’t quite true. The next big fight is always the most important of our lifetimes. The election of 2004 is over. The question now is whether we are broken or merely beaten, whether we retreat and cede to conservatives the dominance they claim to have already won, or whether we continue the hard work of slowly but steadily moving America forward.