Why Progressives Keep On Losing and the Right Keeps On Winning

Richard Eskow

Congratulations! The “grand compromise” will cut nearly thirty nine billion dollars in needed government spending, which proves how “serious” everyone is about reducing the deficit. The grand compromisers could have cancelled the next ten years of tax subsidies for oil companies and cut the deficit by forty billion, but apparently that’s not how serious people do things.

If the Republican Party were singing to its base today, the song would be the theme from Friends, “I’ll Be There For You.” And the Democrats would be singing “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” We’re being told we should celebrate a “compromise” in which Democrats gave up $38.5 billion in spending cuts, when the original Republican demand was for $32 billion. That means the Democrats only gave the Republicans 20% more (20.2135%, to be precise) than they originally demanded.

Okay, guys. You get an extra 20% — and not a penny more!

Once again the unpopular views of a minority have been imposed on the majority. Others will rant and rave about the Democratic leadership, and in fact that process has already begun. But progressives in this country should be asking themselves a serious question: Why does the Tea Party seem to be so much more effective than the left as a movement?

It’s a complicated question that deserves in-depth discussion, but some of the things that may be impeding progressives include excessive party loyalty, the desire for a charismatic leader (the “XFK phenomenon”), and the urge to prematurely celebrate accomplishments that are flawed and incomplete.

Why?

Why did Tea Partiers win such a major victory? Money, for starters. The Tea Party’s generously funded by billionaires like the Koch Brothers, and ultra-conservative policies are given “nonpartisan” ideological cover by right-wing billionaire Pete Peterson and his network of allies and paid savants. Corporate campaign financing, now made limitless by the GOP’s ideological packing of the Supreme Court, allows the mega-corporations of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to impose policies that crush the middle class and smaller businesses. And decades’ worth of funding for ad campaigns and “conservative think tanks” (an oxymoron, perhaps?) continue to lay the groundwork for destructive moves like the one we saw last night.

Progressives can’t change the money equation without campaign finance reform, so that needs to be a priority.

And progressives can’t be blamed for helping to elect a president who either misrepresented his positions on a number of issues or reversed himself once he was elected. (A sample: the health excise tax, which he opposed and later actively worked to enact; the individual mandate for health care coverage, which he opposed and then supported; some matters of civil liberties; and science policy).

But it’s not as if progressives don’t have any cards to play. Their policies are very popular, while those of the Tea Party and the Republicans are equally unpopular. Strong majorities in both political parties oppose cuts to Social Security and want to see the payroll tax cap raised, for example. Most people want the government to do more to create jobs. Only six percent of those polled think that reducing the deficit is Congress’ highest priority. More people would like to see more done to end poverty.

If these popular positions weren’t always being labelled “progressive” in the media, they’d probably be even more popular. The White House and other Democrats would be forced to respond to public pressure.

Despite the naysayers, the nation elected a President who presented himself as an unambiguous progressive and gave him both houses of Congress too. So it can be done. So what keeps going wrong, over and over?

24-Hour Party People

I didn’t vote for Ralph Nader in 2000 or 2008. I’ve always believed that political change is best effected in this country through the two-party system. But that idea can be taken too far. The Democratic Party is a tool, a means to an end and not an end in itself.

And there’s a world of difference between supporting the Democratic Party and supporting incumbents in the Democratic Party. The Tea Party did a very smart thing last year: They kicked out a few independents who didn’t support them politically. Too many progressives followed the President’s lead and pledged their fealty to Democratic incumbents who had devoted themselves to undermining causes supported both by progressives and the majority of Americans across the political spectrum.

Not everyone did that, of course. Progressive groups like Blue America are doing a brilliant job of targeting problem Democrats and promoting progressive challengers, and the union movement performed a valuable service for all Americans by supporting Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s challenger in the Arkansas primary.

Challenging incumbents doesn’t just help the progressive cause. Paradoxically, it helps the Democratic Party too, by forcing it to clarify its “brand” and espouse more popular positions than those it now holds.

Remember what Harry Truman said, which we will liberally paraphrase as follows: In a race between a Republican and a Republican, the Republican wins every time.

If progressives want to identify and work within the Democratic party, that’s a worthwhile endeavor. But their relationship to the party should mirror what Thoreau said about his relationship to the world: Be in it, but not of it.

Premature Exhilaration

Progressive activists should celebrate accomplishments in health care and financial reform, but they should never forget what went wrong and why. Progressives were much too quick to celebrate both the health care and financial reform bills before they were done, and while issues of critical importance were still being debated.

We heard it during the financial reform debate. Progressives were all too quick to label the draft bill a success, even while it lacked (and continues to lack) critical provisions on “too big to fail” banks and the so-called Volcker rule. That removed any leverage the left might have had to win a better bill that had more restraints on banks (and would therefore have been more popular with the public).

As so often happens, we heard lectures from Democrats and some progressives about “what’s politically possible.” Yet when progressive measures found their way into open debate — a process that was often blocked by Democrats like ex-Senator (and now film industry lobbyist) Chris Dodd — we saw right-wing stalwarts like Sen. Tom Coburn and establishment Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley cross the aisle to support them. We also saw the Senate’s only Socialist, Bernie Sanders, team with right-wing libertarian Ron Paul on a measure to audit the Federal Reserve.

The progressive inclination toward “premature exhilaration” over flawed Democratic bills is often matched with a flawed sense of what’s politically possible… and politically popular.

The Right likes to call the health bill “Obamacare.” A better name would be “BaucusConradNelsonLincolnLiebermanAndSomeOtherSenatorsCare.” The president maintained a characteristically hands-off approach as the details were being worked out in the Senate, only stepping in at the last minute to push a provision he had specifically opposed as a candidate. If Democratic Senators had been under the same kind of political pressure that the Tea Party is now applying to Republicans, we’d have a significantly better (and significantly more popular) bill.

Instead the left was eagerly applauding a bill before it was finished, despite the fact that it was (and is) seriously flawed. Those of us who were strongly criticizing its weaknesses were subjected to a barrage of harsh and often personal attacks from progressives who accused us of undermining the President.

Once when I was on The Young Turks, a liberal writer said “If it’s such a bad bill, why does Bernie Sanders support it?” I explained that Sanders held out for a long time and only signed on after he was given billions of dollars in additional funding for community health clinics. My answer then (and now) was this: “Bernie Sanders got billions of dollars for clinics in return for supporting this bill. What did you get?”

Tea Partiers instinctively understand that kind of strategy. In exploring the question “Was John Boehner bluffing all along?” Steve Kornacki also illustrates how a movement that places its goals over a political party’s success can get results that are disproportionate to the popularity of those goals.

The “XFK” Phenomenon

Then there’s something that might be called the “XFK Phenomenon.” Progressives of a certain age recall the exciting days when JFK became president (I was six, so the memory’s vague) and when RFK energized disillusioned young people and a broad range of other Americans. (I was fourteen then and very political, so I certainly remember that.)

A lot of progressives have been waiting, through decades of gloom and disappointment, for the next Kennedy-esque figure to lead them out of the gloom and rescue a suffering nation. This charismatic figure has no name, face, race, or gender. He or she is an “X” to be filled in with the dreams and yearning of a movement that longs for leadership.

A lot of people thought that Barack Obama might be that “XFK.” I’ll confess, I eventually came to think so myself. Other people thought it might be Hillary Clinton, or even (odd as the thought seems now) John Edwards.

Isn’t it time to let go of that yearning? Activists succeed when they stop following leaders and start acting for themselves. The Tea Party is seen as a leaderless movement. By having no alliance to a party or a politician, it holds a credible veto threat over the Republicans and their leadership. There’s something to learn from that.

Whatever your feelings about President Obama, he’s not “XFK.” XFK never existed, and like Clifford Odets’ “Lefty,” he ain’t comin’. Activism starts at the ground floor, not at the top. While the President may not be today’s JFK, much less its FDR, like any politician he’s open to persuasion from progressives and the Democratic base. But progressives have to be willing to persuade – as gently or as strongly as the moment demands.

2021 Vision

Say what you will about Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal, it’s a vision. By proposing to dismantle Medicare for people retiring in 2021 and afterwards, he’s laid out a radical alternative to today’s policies. By slashing taxes for the wealthy and proposing deregulation for all industries, the Ryan plan envisions a future America: one where the environment is despoiled, the poor go unfed, and the middle class faces a lifetime of financial insecurity following by an old age of sickness and penury.

It may not be a good vision, but it’s a vision.

Where’s the progressive vision for 2021? Where’s the dream people can seize upon and make their own? Where’s the ideal that can energize activists? Where’s the extreme position from which the Democrats can be “bargained down” so that they, too, can only get 20% more than they asked for when the negotiations began? If they’re not going to do it, we have to do it for them.

Here’s a start: First increase Social Security retirement benefits by 15%, across the board, by lifting the payroll tax cap and imposing a financial transactions tax. Second, increase income taxes on a sliding scale that goes up to 60% for the highest earners in the country. (It’s been as high as 90% during periods of our greatest prosperity.) Third, add $500 billion to our stimulus spending over the next two years, and keep adding it until unemployment is down to 4%. Fourth, immediately add a public option, “Medicare For All” plan that’s voluntarily available to Americans of all age brackets.

Have fun. Add your own visions. Dream. Then demand your dream. It’s working for the Tea Party, and it can work for you.

One thing’s for sure: The old definition of insanity, “doing the same thing and expecting different results,” still holds. Whatever the progressive movement’s doing right now, it’s not working as well as it should. It’s frustrating, but it’s no reason to give up. Like a guy with a guitar said a century ago: Don’t mourn, organize.

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