Now that the festivities in Denver have drawn to a close and the bleary-eyed conventioneers (and media who cover them) have gathered up their swag and headed home, I wanted to take a moment to contemplate how this progressive moment looks in this short period of quiet after all the speeches and all the TV bloviating. One thing, at least, is clear to me after having spent four days among progressives from all over the country — they are convinced that this moment is real and that the stakes have never been higher.
In casual conversation and formal addresses, from health care to foreign policy to media reform and beyond, the progressive agenda dominated the discourse far more than I expected. I knew there would be solidarity in opposition to conservative rule, but it no longer stems from that alone. There is a sense of opportunity and engagement with issues that I haven’t seen in progressive circles for some time.
There also seemed to be an understanding that a new administration is not the end of the fight. As much excitement as there is for the prospect of a new beginning, very few are naive about the tremendous obstacles of institutional torpor, establishment resistance and wealthy special interest pleading facing a progressive administration. If the last few years of conservative rule have taught us anything it’s that those forces can get away with murder and it’s very difficult to even get anyone to notice.
So, as much as progressives are excited, that excitement is tempered by a new maturity and an acceptance that the words “hope” and “change” are not magical incantations but rather exhortations to the hard and frustrating work of turning this massive ship of state in a new direction. As David Sirota noted, that grainy footage of Teddy Kennedy pounding his fist on the podium decades ago arguing for universal health care is a sober reminder of how little progress has been made. That promise was a casualty of The Age of Reagan, that decades-long failed experiment in free market fundamentalism and movement conservatism.
But I would also argue that at the time Kennedy was making those statements, the idea of an African American president was nearly impossible for a great many Americans to imagine. Even in an era of conservative political dominance, cultural progress happened anyway. And in the long run, it may even be seen that the modern conservative movement was simply a short lived reactionary blip on a much longer liberal trajectory, although that’s not something anyone should ever count on in an age of global warming and nuclear proliferation. (And as as smart guy famously observed, in the long run we’ll all be dead. )
But however you slice it, Sirota is right that political progress has been stalled and even reversed over the past few years. And for a time progressivism itself stalled and sputtered, unsure of how to respond to the sustained assault by the conservative movement. The Bush years shook it out of its doldrums and as Sirota notes, it is now ideologically ascendant in the Democratic party.
That does not, of course, mean that the Democratic party establishment is progressive. Everything indicates that there will be substantial resistance to a true progressive agenda, perhaps even at times from its standard bearer. The forces for the status quo are always very strong and the challenges are huge. But it seems to me that the energy and the direction is set and whether it happens quickly, with an administration honeymoon and a hundred days of furious activity, or more slowly over time, it’s clear that the momentum of conservatism has been stopped and the process of turning in the other direction has begun.
So, the question for the movement seems to me to be less whether progressives recognize this moment, or agree on the agenda, which I think we do. We have also become pragmatic in our expectations of a new administration and take seriously FDR’s admonition that a sympathetic president must nevertheless be “made to” do it. The next question then, in discussing this progressive political moment, is how.
By what processes can a progressive movement “make them do it?” I don’t have the answers for that, but I think we’d better start focusing on it. You can bet that the status quo, including the corporate media, will use every bit of their money, personal influence and proximity to pressure a new president to slow any progressive momentum before it even starts. Indeed, the conservatives have an entire industry built for just that purpose.
In their piece on the Obama Moment in The Nation, Bob Borosage and Katrina vanden Heuval suggest that it will come with monitoring the opposition and creating large scale issue campaigns from outside the system:
Progressives will enjoy their greatest strength mobilizing independently to support Obama’s promises. We can organize constituent pressure on politicians who are blocking the way, something even a President with Obama’s activist network would be loath to do. We can expose the lobbies and interests and backstage maneuvers designed to limit reforms. Now that newspapers increasingly lack the resources for investigation, progressive media, online and off, and the independent progressive media infrastructure–from The Nation to Media Matters to Brave New Films to The Huffington Post–must assume a greater role in monitoring the opposition, even as we mobilize activists in targeted districts across the country.
In doing this, we can help give backbone to the Obama agenda, even as we supply muscle and energy to help pass it. The best way to achieve this is to generate large-scale independent-issue campaigns. A clear example is the Healthcare for Americans Now Coalition, which is ready to take on the insurance companies and support the White House’s commitment to universal care. The new Half in Ten Campaign, spearheaded by ACORN and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, will help ensure that poverty does not disappear from the agenda. Progressives generally should join the AFL-CIO and Change to Win in their drive to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. The Apollo Alliance and a range of environmental efforts will support the initiative on jobs and energy.
Acting in support of Obama will require challenging legislators in both parties who stand in the way, a task progressives should undertake aggressively. The Service Employees International Union has already taken the lead in announcing a $10 million “accountability program,” designed to force politicians to heed the will of their voters, with a new plan–Justice for All–as the core vehicle. This should be complemented by other independent efforts, despite likely objections from the Democratic Congressional leadership and possibly the White House. Democrats should be on notice from their own constituents that they will be expected to help move reform, not stand in its way.
Isaiah Poole wrote about this approach, discussed by Paul Krugman and others, which suggests that focusing on one historic achievement, like health care, could be what establishes progressive success in the public mind and opens the door to a more robust progressive government:
Paul Krugman, the columnist for The New York Times, told me in an interview here in Denver that getting a universal health care plan enacted will be one of he most important keys to creating a progressive moment on a whole host of issues.
His reasoning is this: “If you can get universal health care or something close to it in, however imperfect, then the country will never be the same again. It will be something that is an untouchable, and it will make people just understand once again that government can do things to make the society fairer, safer.”
Other people think the real key is pressuring the congress with attacks on the conservative forces within the party itself and threatening their majority. Still others believe progressives should seize the opportunity to fully discredit and expose movement conservatism, with hearings and legal action, before they have a chance to regroup.
Perhaps the answer lies in doing all of it and seeing what sticks, as FDR did during his first year in office, or assigning roles to certain players. But no matter what, this discussion of specific strategy should be fully engaged by everyone during this period before a new administration takes office. If even an informal consensus could be formed about aims and tactics among those who have platforms and access to institutional support, we will have a better chance of success.
Last week week in Denver I was convinced that the motivation, commitment and pragmatism necessary for progressive success are all in place, and they go beyond any specific candidate or campaign. The goals are clear. In this rather extraordinary moment of transition, as we move from a purely oppositional force to a force for positive action with allies in positions of great power, we need begin to focus in earnest on tactics, strategy and our specific roles for “making them do it.”
And I have to say that after the last 25 years of fighting off a conservative movement at the height of its power, it’s a very nice challenge to have.