How Not to Blow It

Alan Jenkins

It’s hard to overstate the transformative moment that we’re in as a nation and, particularly, as progressives. In just a few years, we’ve gone from the high point of conservative power to a stunning rejection of conservative federal leadership and the historic election of a progressive African-American president.

But the electoral sea change is just part of the extraordinary national moment. The financial meltdown and slide toward deep recession have crystallized Americans’ anger over deteriorating economic security, stagnant mobility, growing inequality, and policies of isolation instead of connection. Americans are ready for a new social compact and a transformed relationship between the people and our government. They are calling for a new era of big ideas and different values than we’ve seen over most of the past three decades.

The electorate has shown an unprecedented willingness to overcome racial and ethnic barriers to take on daunting shared challenges. Young people, people of color, and low-income people turned out to register and vote in unprecedented numbers that bode well for a far more participatory and egalitarian democracy going forward.

Even before this year’s remarkable events, opinion research showed a historic, progressive shift in Americans’ views on issues that (not coincidentally) were barely mentioned in the election. Perhaps most striking is the shift on criminal justice and problems of addiction, where the U.S. public has moved broadly to support rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration and retribution, as well as assistance and integration for people emerging from prison.

But an unprecedented opportunity for progressive values and ideas is not the same as victory for a progressive social and policy vision. The stark challenges of rising inequality, faltering security, and broken systems of health care, immigration, and criminal justice are the same on November 5 as they were on November 4. What’s changed is only the chance for transformative change.

History shows that progressives could easily blow this opportunity, just as conservatives blew their transformative moments after the 1994 elections and the attacks of September 11, 2001. A few principles can help progressives move from opportunity to realization in ways that profoundly benefit our country.

Remember the Values that Got You Here
The headlines of Barack Obama’s story this year were, of course, Change and the Hope it brings for a better day. But two important values gave substance to that message. They were Community—the idea that we’re all in it together and have a common responsibility to uphold the common good—and Opportunity—the profoundly American idea that we all deserve a fair chance to achieve our full potential.

Obama and other progressive candidates returned to those values again and again, including with the Democratic Convention’s theme of “Fulfilling America’s Promise.” But long before either party had chosen its nominee, progressive groups around the country were elevating those values as the ones that would usher in a new political era.

That work included the Campaign for Community Values, which sponsored the Heartland Presidential Forum in Iowa ahead of the caucuses and coordinated thousands of community organizers throughout the country around a shared, non-partisan Community message. That effort, in turn, connected with a movement elevating Opportunity as a unifying and much-needed theme in our political and policy discourse. The Center for Community Change, The Opportunity Agenda, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and other leaders of these efforts connected with large numbers of state and local groups, engaging millions of Americans to tell a new story.

The values of Community and Opportunity, and the movements behind them, have concrete policy implications. They stand for guaranteed, affordable health care for every person in our nation, as well as knocking down barriers to quality care in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Community and Opportunity mean combining a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 13 million undocumented immigrants with living wage jobs and workplace protections for native-born and immigrant workers alike. They mean education for a 21st Century world and economy, from quality public schools to expanded college access, to job retraining, to a new commitment to equal educational opportunity.

Progressives will need to continue promoting the values of Community and Opportunity in our political discourse while insisting on policies that uphold those values.

Don’t Confuse Party with Progress
A significant number of progressives will take up residence this January in Congress and the White House. But it would be a grave mistake to confuse the large Democratic majority with a progressive majority. The expanded Democratic majority includes conservatives and centrists as well as progressives, with differences that will surface quickly after inauguration day.

Obama himself has progressive instincts, but has surrounded himself with a fairly centrist crowd of advisors, particularly on economic issues, since gaining the nomination. Instead of declaring victory, progressives will have to press the new administration and Congress to fulfill an agenda that lives up to today’s moment and challenges.

That includes reminding the leadership at every turn that it was progressive values, issues and constituencies that forced the change in Washington: Latinos appalled by anti-immigrant fervor; African-Americans stung by the Hurricane Katrina fiasco and an abandonment of civil rights and social justice policy; an active anti-war movement; Hillary health care voters; and a rising tide of young people demanding a fair shot at the American Dream. Even non-ideological “bread and butter” voters in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio favored a progressive message of Opportunity and Community over warmed-over conservative fear and culture-war tactics disguised as William Ayers, Reverend Wright, tax-baiting, and Socialism.

Just as important, this is a time to nurture a new crop of progressive Republicans—younger pols who are Republican because of upbringing or geography, but who hold center-left views and values, particularly on the environment, poverty, health care, immigration, living wages, and criminal justice. Younger evangelicals are a growing part of this group. A progressive movement that engages with, but remains independent of, the Democratic party can build a powerful new coalition.

Listen

The difference between delivering on a mandate and fatally overreaching is remembering to listen to the people. That’s less a matter of adhering rigidly to polls than of engaging the public and understanding their hopes and dreams, as well as their concerns. There’s plenty of room for taking courageous, even unpopular positions. But that requires leadership in tune with the public. As with Johnson and Civil Rights, FDR and the New Deal, some steps forward require educating the public and connecting progress to the good of the nation.

Progressive community organizers and networks like the Gamaliel Foundation and the Center for Community Change are crucial to that listening and empowerment process. As a former organizer himself, the new President understands that role, but may need to be reminded of its continued importance to his success.

Think Big but Practical
For more than a decade, progressives have resigned themselves to defensive battles and incremental victories at the federal level. It’s a new day, but the old tunnel vision may be hard to shake. Now is the time to promote big solutions to the daunting problems facing the country. Certainly, guaranteed affordable health care for all and immigration reform are crucial, but the times also demand broad investment in job creation and training, clean energy, transportation infrastructure, education, and in shoring up faltering homeownership. Initiatives like the Apollo Alliance show that integrating those investments can further enhance shared prosperity.

Tackle the Tough Issues
Obama has shown a talent for talking about tough issues, from race to guns to abortion. During the election, however, he largely argued that we can agree to disagree on those issues while focusing on common ground. As president, he will need to pursue specific, often controversial solutions.

Many will say that, having elected an African-American president, the U.S. has overcome its race problem. As he has in the past, Obama will correctly say that it’s not that simple; that while his election marks an incredible milestone in the progress we’ve made as a nation, we still have miles to go. But he must go beyond those words, and pursue a human rights agenda for the 21st Century; one that expands opportunity for everyone while addressing contemporary bias and knocking down persistent racial barriers to equal opportunity.

The progressive advocacy community will have a corresponding responsibility to acknowledge the progress and changes we’ve seen, and to pursue efforts that foster equal opportunity while expanding opportunity for all Americans. Ideas like “targeted universalism” and “democratic merit” touted by john powell and Lani Guinier will be important to tomorrow’s Community and Opportunity policies.

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