The Progressive Movement: Out of Work and Losing Hope

The progressive movement that fueled Obama’s stunning 2008 election victory is out of work. Sure, lots of people are unemployed — but the demographic groups at the heart of the Obama coalition have been hit especially hard. That’s why it’s so bitter to watch Obama so passive on the economy. He is meekly awaiting the upturn as if patience will be rewarded, and he has adopted many of the right wing talking points that got us into the mess.

Okay, we’re happy with what we have. The Recovery Act provided the only light in the tunnel, and health care reform will kick in someday. But we want more. We want the political alignment to reflect our wins.

Obama won the national election with 53 percent of the vote compared to McCain’s 46 percent, a margin of seven percentage points. Unsurprisingly, he carried African Americans by a 91 point margin (95 to 4) and women by a 13 point margin (56 to 43). But that’s not all. The political coalition that carried him to victory is the wave of the future. Hispanics voted for Obama by 36 percentage points (67 to 31). Youth under thirty — many voting for the first time, and all of them eligible for decades into the future — voted for Obama by a 34 percentage point margin (66 to 32). White youth chose Obama over McCain by ten points (54 to 44). The Obama coalition could be a progressive coalition for a generation to come.

But he seems to have abandoned them. Obama’s people care about jobs but Obama talks about deficits. The Democratic base needs work but the Democrats can’t muster enough votes to extend unemployment benefits or aid to the states to avoid layoffs of teachers and firefighters. Our progressive coalition is ready to fight, but Obama seems more intent on making friends with his enemies (AKA bipartisanship) than making friends with his friends.

Obama’s people are hurting badly. Teenage unemployment stands at 25.7 percent. African Americans as a whole have an unemployment rate of 15.4 percent; black youth from 16 to 24 are unemployed at a horrifying 31.1 percent. The figures nearly double if they include people who are underemployed — working part-time but looking for full-time — or who have simply given up. People in prison don’t even count as part of the potential labor force, so unemployment data acts as if one young black man in nine doesn’t even exist.

Obama victory margin over McCain (%) June 2010 unemployment
National 7 (53 to 46) 9.5 percent
African American 91 (95 to 4) 15.4 percent
Hispanics 36 (67 to 31) 12.4 percent
Unmarried Women 41 (70 to 29) 10.3 percent
Youth 34 (66 to 32) 14.7 percent
Sources: CNN exit polls. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls/#USP00p1
http://data.bls.gov:8080/PDQ/outside.jsp?survey=ln

We need more! This is the time to talk about jobs. Time to put people to work rebuilding our infrastructure, laying our tracks for high speed rail, and fixing the water mains that burst every two minutes somewhere in the country. This is time for clean energy jobs, building wind turbines and retrofitting public buildings for energy efficiency. It’s time to revitalize our manufacturing sector by doing all of that with parts made in America.

There’s plenty of work to do. People are hungry to do it. Democrats can make friends with their friends. I promise that working class Republicans won’t complain either.

This is not the time to obsess over deficits. Our WW2 debt to GDP ratio was higher when we passed the GI bill and put a generation of Americans through college. We were still in the hole when Eisenhower built the interstate highways. The same politicians who nowadays rail about fiscal responsibility didn’t seem to care when they were in power, passing unfunded wars and top end tax cuts. Debt is a long term problem but it’s being used for short-term politics.

This coalition of blacks, Hispanics, youth and women worked to elect democrats a few years ago. They might be willing to work to keep them in office — especially if they see that it did them any good. Right now they’re sitting at home, out of work and low on hope. The Republicans have won the message war. Democrats don’t even seem to be fighting.

Use them or lose them” advises the New Democratic Coalition. Put us to work. Fight for us. Give us a reason to fight for you.

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