Take Back America? Yes We Can, If…

Isaiah J. Poole

On the eve of this year’s “Take Back America” conference, that phrase is no longer a rallying cry to a distant goal—it is something that now, more than ever, progressives can concretely and imminently accomplish.

The signs are everywhere, according to the report the Campaign for America’s Future released Wednesday, “Progressives Rising—2008: A Sea-Change Election.” If anything, many of the conditions for a wholesale redirection of the ideological underpinnings guiding the nation’s politics are more prevalent today than they were in 1980, the beginning of the so-called “Reagan revolution.” As pollster Stan Greenberg and America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage pointed out in a conference call with reporters and bloggers Wednesday:

  • President Bush and conservatives in Congress enter a longer and more sustained period of public dissatisfaction than President Carter and congressional Democrats did in 1979.
  • Unlike the voter apathy that allowed Ronald Reagan to win election in 1980, the 2008 Democratic primaries have been characterized by record voter turnout. If the Democratic Party takes steps to keep that energy alive, new leadership will be swept into the White House and Congress on a wave of voter intensity.

Plus, the consequences of conservative failure are more vivid and their ideological underpinnings less defensible. The Iraq war has made us less safe; the Katrina debacle and the lapses in toy and food safety expose the lie that small government is always best; the deregulated economy with a tax code stacked to benefit the wealthy has been a disaster for working families; conservatism’s scorning of moves toward a green economy has put us at the mercy of $110-a-barrel oil. Arguably, America’s economic security and global standing is significantly worse today than it was when President Carter was grappling with a “stagflation” economy and the Iraq hostage crisis.

“Our suspicion is that the mugging that the country is taking from reality sets the stage for this kind of a sea-change,” Borosage said.

But Borosage is stressing that “it will be incumbent upon progressives—the ones gathered at the Take Back America conference—to both drive that process” of capturing the opportunity for change this election cycle “and to make certain that everyone understands that they will be held accountable for dramatic change once they’re elected.”

“The conservative coalition is already shattered,” Greenberg declared, citing the well-chronicled divisions now in the Republican party and issue polling data that indicates that “in every single area, we’ve seen a trend away from where the conservatives are.”

That trend is chronicled in another report released by Greenberg on Wednesday, “The Decline of Conservatism.” That report is a rich trove of data that includes polling on individual issues, party identification trends. It helps make the case that an increasing majority of the public supports progressive framing on a broad array of issues.

The challenge for progressives, as another respected pollster, Celinda Lake, told me in an interview, is that progressives have work to do to close the deal with the American public. Much of the public has yet to see a unifying progressive narrative that unifies our various “tribes”—labor, social justice activists, environmentalists, antiwar activists, and so on—and connects with the concerns and aspirations of working people.

Getting that done is more important than ever. We are indeed in an election that will be more centered on ideology than any since 1980. Even though neither of the likely Democratic nominees for president fully embrace the “progressive” label—in fact, they have had to be nudged to embrace progressive positions by disenchanted voters—they will nonetheless present an ideologically stark contrast to the Republican nominee, who has branded himself as the “true conservative” bidding to continue the continue the style of government that brought us Iraq, Katrina, a shrinking middle-class and the subprime mess.

After what is proving to be a fractious Democratic primary season, Borosage said, “it will be a test of us that we can help bring the factions together … in order to take on that ideological battle and claim the victory that is waiting there for us to claim.”

That’s why the Take Back America conference won’t be a vacation but a true “progressive convention”; there’s hard work involved in learning the facts, honing the arguments and forging the coalitions necessary to succeed in the ideological battle that will be waged in the coming months—and in fact will continue well after the election even if Democrats control the White House as well as both houses of Congress. The good news is that this year progressives enter the battle from a clear position of ascendancy.

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