Progressives: Time to Go Off the Reservation

Robert Borosage

When progressive activists gather next week at the annual America’s Future Now conference, frustration and dismay will be widespread. Action on jobs is stalled among mixed signals from the White House. A Democratic Congress pours billions into the war in Afghanistan even as legislation to forestall the unimaginable layoff of 300,000 teachers is derailed in the Senate. The growing calamity of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill only highlights the lack of action on climate change and new energy.

Pollsters talk of an “enthusiasm gap.” The tea-party right is on the march. Independents are increasingly skeptical. Turnout is flagging among the “rising electorate” – the young, single women, minorities – the core Obama base that has been hard hit by the recession. If Democrats suffer deep losses in the fall as now predicted, gridlock will grow worse. The challenge now is how progressives will respond.

Mandate and Resistance

Democrats fare badly when the base of the party is disengaged. Progressives were key to forging the majority that allowed Democrats to take back Congress in 2006. Progressives gave Democrats their voice on Iraq. Progressive bloggers helped teach Democrats to confront the right. Progressives built the coalition that stopped Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security, and forged the positive agenda – from health care to new energy – that galvanized Democratic and independent voters. That success inspired Obama to run, and he in turn inspired progressive activists to turn out voters in large numbers.

The administration was elected with a mandate for change, in the midst of a crisis that demanded it. The president responded, and progressives largely threw themselves into passing his reform agenda, with significant success: the largest recovery plan in history, comprehensive health care reform, the largest increase in student aid since the GI bill and, soon, the first major financial reform since the Great Depression.

Yet progressives have grown ever more disappointed. The reforms were both historic and insufficient to the cause. The recovery plan was too small. The health care plan was dangerously compromised. Financial reform is too timid. Even the student aid was overwhelmed by the soaring tuitions and severe cuts in programs in the universities. Wall Street was rescued while unemployment rose to 10 percent.

And we’ve suffered harsh retreats and reverses: Escalation in Afghanistan and compromise on core civil liberties. No movement on worker rights. No movement on comprehensive immigration reform. Delay on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Retreat on choice. Retreat on climate change and new energy.

What happened?

Surely, the resistance was great. Republicans chose obstruction as a political strategy in the midst of a Great Recession. Entrenched corporate interests mobilized. Conservative Democrats were too easily cowed or corrupted.

But the White House has also been an uncertain trumpet. The president never claimed to be a movement progressive the way Reagan exulted in being a movement conservative. The breath of the president’s vision was often not matched by the scope of his program. The reforms proposed were preemptively compromised. The argument for change was often muted in the search for a deal.

Not surprisingly, the Obama presidency sparked a rabid right-wing reaction. But with progressives largely enmeshed in the often squalid legislative debates, the right’s faux populism gained traction, focusing public anger at the administration’s efforts to staunch the crisis, rather than at the failed conservative policies that caused it.

Time for Progressive to Mobilize

Democrats will not fare well in elections with the progressive base of the party disaffected. Needed reforms will be blocked if the right succeeds in becoming the vehicle for both voter anger and corporate interest.

In this circumstance, it is time for labor and other progressive movements to re-engage our own base, to mobilize independently and challenge the limits of the current debate. The right seeks revival with a more zealous version of the market fundamentalism and bellicose cowboy interventionism that led this country off the cliff. They must be confronted, the bankruptcy of their ideas exposed.

At the same time, conservative Democrats and compromised administrators must learn once more the temper of their own activists. Those who are standing in the way must understand that they will not be given a free pass. Unions and progressives have launched a challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas primary. Already that helped transform her posture in the financial reform debate, while sending a message to the rest of the Senate. Progressives will expand their capacity to hold legislators accountable.

History suggests that progressive movements must organize independently of Democratic administrations to effect change. We must be “off the reservation” as labor was under Roosevelt, and the civil rights movement was under Johnson. President Johnson wanted the Rev. Martin Luther King to shut down the demonstrations, saying that they would make reform impossible. With an independent movement, even King could not do that. Instead he went to Selma, and the resulting confrontation led directly to passage of the Voting Rights Act.

America faces stark challenges. We have to build a new economy out of the ruins of the old. We need to end our addiction to oil and help lead the green industrial revolution that cannot be deferred. Once we recover from the Great Recession, we will face a harsh battle over priorities. A country that squanders trillions on endless wars across the world while failing to provide every child with the nutrition, early education and good schools vital to development is charting its own decline.

None of these reforms can be made with a government and Congress corrupted by entrenched corporate interests and befuddled by failed conservative doctrines. Only limited reform can come from an administration necessarily seeking the best deal it can get. Only independent progressive mobilization can change the balance of forces in Washington. It is time for progressive to lead once more.

Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich say they want to take America back to the policies that proved so ruinous. We say we will take America forward – and revitalize the progressive majority for change that can forge a more perfect Union.

A version of this article originally appeared in Politico.

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