Twenty-one months after Barack Obama was inaugurated on a wave of hope for change in America's politics and policies, at least two important and seemingly contradictory things can be said.
First, there has been a series of significant progressive reforms: an economic stimulus bill that contained far-reaching antipoverty, infrastructure, green jobs and conservation measures, and that is widely credited with pulling the economy from the brink; comprehensive healthcare reform that has eluded presidents of both parties for a century; and financial regulatory reform.
For progressives, each of these accomplishments are flawed -- the stimulus could have been bigger, there could have been a public option in healthcare and more teeth in financial regulation -- but they are long strides in the right direction, and given the near-total opposition of Republicans and the conservatism of key Democrats, this is an impressive, substantive record that has made and will make a big difference in people's lives.
Second, the nation's politics are more toxic than ever. The president's approval ratings have fallen steadily, even if they may have bottomed out. Independents are said to be disillusioned, many Democrats are demoralized and Republicans are in the grip of an increasingly -- there is no other way to say it -- crazy "base," ousting very conservative officeholders in favor of extremist Tea Party candidates who oppose virtually every role government plays.
That's where things stand today.
Two Possible Scenarios
It seems likely, even beyond the usual midterm swings, that the Republicans will make significant electoral gains, perhaps retaking the House of Representatives and even the Senate. The only bulwarks against that could be a newly feisty president, a resurgent progressive movement energizing voters or the scary wackiness of many Republican candidates that simply renders them unelectable. But the latter point is not something to be sanguine about, given the election of waves of similarly "unelectable" candidates in 1980 and 1994 -- many of whom -- like Orrin Hatch (R-UT) -- now seem like virtual statesmen in the present political environment.
Under the best scenario we can imagine, with retained but narrower Democratic majorities, it is likely that the 2009-10 period of legislative reform, which progressives fought for vigorously, is over. It is possible that comprehensive immigration reform, which some see in the long-term interests of Republicans as well as Democrats, can be resurrected in a congressional "lame-duck" session or in 2011. But the Tea Party movement taking over the Republican Party has a strongly nativist flavor that makes this challenging, to say the least. The need to energize his core constituencies in the run up to the 2012 elections may make the president more open to dramatic uses of executive power to address issues that matter to progressives, but there is no question that it will be very difficult to enact sweeping legislation in a more closely divided Congress.
Under the worst scenario, Republican majorities, newly seeded with zealots, would take control of both houses of Congress, forcing the president and progressive advocates into a completely defensive posture in which the key tool available would be a veto pen. Republicans would likely unleash a tsunami of recrimination and investigation that, given the current state of political discourse, would make the post-1994 congressional attacks on the Clinton administration look like the Era of Good Feelings.
In either scenario, how this country might address frightening and urgent national problems like climate change, growing inequality and worsening poverty is increasingly hard to imagine.
What Is the Story?
The rapid change in political climate has left us, like many advocates who have been involved in human rights and social justice issues for our entire careers, wondering what hit us. We have lost the storyline.
We felt we knew it in the Bush years. America was in the grip of ideological warriors who wanted to roll back the social safety net, gutting the country's ability to meet basic human needs. They were assaulting science and academic freedom, dominating the deregulated media, squandering the country's moral standing by countenancing torture and detention without charges, and waging bloody, unnecessary wars for political gain.
We felt we knew the storyline in 2008 and 2009. Though structural racism remained pervasive, it was possible to believe that we were making progress, as America was about to elect a black president. The economic crisis that was the consequence of tax and regulatory policies allowing banks to prey on the poor, coupled with the stark demonstration of anti-government ideology in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, created a climate for fundamental change, maybe even a paradigm shift. With Obama's inauguration, what many called a "Rooseveltian" moment was at hand, ending a forty-year interruption in the country's long march to a humane society. Now, perhaps, universal healthcare could be added to New Deal and Great Society achievements like Social Security and Medicare, and progressive taxation and regulation restored.
We are trying to find the storyline now, and indeed it is hard because, as we suggest in the opening paragraphs above, it remains to be fully written, like one of those "choose-your-own-ending" books for kids. What we are seeing may be the last desperate gasps of a dying order or a reassertion of the fundamental conservative nature of American politics, despite periodic moderate Democratic presidents (treated as if they were dangerous radicals) over the last two generations.
We got some of what we expected since that extraordinary morning in November 2008, and indeed a checklist approach to the accomplishments of the last twenty months would look pretty good. But it sure doesn't feel that way. The question is why?
In a strange way, given our own political leanings, we embrace some of the right-wing views of this moment while rejecting some liberal perspectives. The change represented by the election of a black president and the restoration, however modest, of a different approach to government, is threatening to powerful interests. They are rightly concerned. A recent New York Times article about the closeness of lobbyists to the possible House Speaker, John Boehner (R-OH) , noted that they had relied on him for help in "combating fee increases for the oil industry, fighting a proposed cap on debit card fees, protecting tax breaks for hedge-fund executives and opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions." Polluters and gougers have a pretty good idea of what is at stake.
As for the left, we need to be less dependent on the president -- who has no magic wand -- and move past the language of betrayal in which we are too often mired. For all the supposed preparation progressives did for a return to political power, we haven't figured out how to relate constructively to an actual government, with all its responsibilities and broader constituent obligations. If progressives cannot "own" landmark achievements like healthcare and financial reform, how on earth can we expect anyone else to?
For its part, it is also true that the Obama administration made serious mistakes: demobilizing its base for an insider style of governance, allowing the healthcare debate to go on too long without projecting a coherent narrative and, perhaps above all, failing to sufficiently address the jobs crisis that has created the conditions for a toxic culture of war politics to take root. Nonetheless, placing blame on tactical decisions misses the larger, deeper dynamics.
Five Realities to Consider
In thinking about how we went from the high of January 2009 to the low of the current moment, there are five interconnected realities that deserve deeper attention if we are to move beyond a discussion that is not simply about the supposed mistakes of Obama and the Democrats and the perfidy of their opponents.
If we are right, those of us who are working together to advance social justice will need to do a better job at moving past campaigns, or rather buttressing them, with initiatives that address these deeper factors.
Attitudes Toward Government
It is astonishing in a period of the manifest failure of free-market dogma that the principal target of populist ire has been overreaching by government. Looking at the current situation in historical perspective, the current backlash and the efforts of the Bush administration should be seen as just the most recent chapters in a sustained assault on government that goes back over forty years. Presidents Carter and Clinton operated within the anti-government frame, Clinton going so far as to say that "the era of big government is over," and President Obama has done more, but not nearly enough, to challenge it. In retrospect, we were naïve to think that the damage done by forty years of delegitimization could be reversed even by the dramas of Hurricane Katrina and the market collapse. After the initial financial crisis seemed to have passed, President Obama found himself without a clear public mandate for a more robust government role , and containing and curbing government lies at the heart of the Tea Party movement, with no coherent counternarrative.
Hendrik Hertzberg, a staff writer at the New Yorker, summed this up well:
The prospects look pretty bleak just now and will probably look considerably bleaker after the midterm elections. The Obama experience, in my view, has highlighted the immensity of the structural barriers to reform -- the "separation of powers," the filibuster and other Senate horrors, federalism, the electoral system at all levels, the power of money. This is the sort of thing that is catching up with us, big time. Not a pretty picture.
Not too long into the stimulus and healthcare battles, once Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) had switched parties, it began to dawn on progressive advocates that the so-called filibuster-proof sixty-seat majority might be more imprisoning than liberating, converting the most conservative Democratic Caucus member -- at times Ben Nelson of Nebraska, at times Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- into a virtual one-man government. The arcane Senate rules, including secret "holds" on bills and nominees, in the hands of a minority determined to block every administration initiative, began to loom larger as an obstacle to progressive reform. It was not enough to win elections: the very undemocratic nature of Congress needs to be fixed. Yet the prospects of doing this successfully remain daunting.
The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling earlier this year, invalidating restrictions on corporate funding of elections, turned a bright spotlight on the pervasive power of money in politics. It seemed in 2008 that perhaps small-donor "people power" could carry the day. But we saw in the big legislative battles of the past year -- and we're seeing now in the 2010 elections -- that the outpouring of special-interest money hasn't stopped. The floodgates opened by Citizens United suggest that any further progressive reform that involves economic interests may be stymied.
The Polarized Media
The 24-7 cable news environment, the proliferation of political blogs plying every angle of who's up and who's down, the increasingly polarized and personalized media bubbles that have made folk heroes of Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow to their vastly different, non-overlapping constituencies -- all of these developments have made it significantly harder to govern, sustain an intelligent public discourse and address serious national problems.
The Tea Party itself grew out of the infamous town hall meetings of the summer of 2009, covered by the press as if a vast insurgency was taking off, though in fact supporters of healthcare often outnumbered opponents at those meetings. The ugly fight over the supposed Ground Zero mosque (though it is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero) was greatly amplified by disproportionate media coverage, and the pathetic Florida preacher who announced plans to burn a Koran commanded the airwaves for days on end prior to Sept. 11 before some journalists began to question their own standards for coverage.
The trends exemplified by these incidents have been a longtime building, and will not be easily, if ever, reversed. In our view, insufficient attention has been given to the structural character of our media crisis. In other words, it is more than a question of whether, say, progressives have a perch on MSNBC that can counter the conservative domination of Fox. It is that, as in the broader economic realm, the deregulation of a community resource -- the publicly allocated spectrum -- has relieved broadcasters of any residual obligation for fairness, community service or balance.
If ever there was a moment to restore some measure of accountability -- consistent with the First Amendment, of course -- it would be at the dawn of a progressive administration, but no such efforts were ever seriously made, and no campaign seems to be in sight. Indeed, the relatively progressive head of the Federal Communications Commission has his hands full, in the face of adverse court rulings and intense corporate pressure, just to keep the Internet from becoming fully privatized.
In the face of this situation, it is all the more necessary that we step up discussion and consideration of means of information, education and persuasion that go around the traditional media, that utilize ethnic media, and social and organizing networks.
When Obama was elected, while most progressive organizers were pleased, they reminded one another that having an impressive, progressive president was not enough, that organizing needed to continue to keep the administration true to its principles. Along with the oft-cited Rahm Emanuel quote that a crisis is a "terrible thing to waste," the most recycled story was one from the New Deal in which President Roosevelt is said to have told a group of labor leaders who came to pressure him on some measure: "You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it."
And yet it soon became clear that too many did not appreciate how important the role of an engaged outside progressive movement would be. The triumphant Obama election campaign squandered weeks deciding what to do with the millions of supporters in its activist base -- no other president took office with such a rich potential resource for governing -- before deciding, fatefully, to lodge it in the Democratic Party and sap it of much of its energy. The entire early and critical debate on the economic stimulus, for example, took place with little effort to mobilize outside supporters.
At the same time, while the unprecedented organizing campaign on healthcare is seen as having made a critical difference, it was not sufficient to achieve the highest progressive goals like a public option. While we often cite the immigrant rights movement as one of the most sophisticated on the progressive side, with dynamic grassroots leadership, growing alliances, remarkable mobilization capacity and favorable political demographics -- we seem further away at this moment from comprehensive reform than we were at the beginning of the year. Labor helped put Democrats in office, but is nowhere near its most sought-after objective, the Employee Free Choice Act. The same is true on climate change and gay rights -- where the big, high-impact goals like cap and trade or repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" remain elusive, despite the relative money and numbers of the environmental and LGBT movements -- and dramatically so on civil liberties issues like closing Guantanamo. In the last few areas, public interest litigation has been the engine of what victories we have managed. Our side simply does not have enough power.
The State of Ideas
FDR was famous for his fireside chats, which helped the public understand the causes and remedies for the economic crisis of that era. President Obama, so good and steady at governing and managing, has fallen short in his use of the public platform that once seemed his greatest strength.
Not just on the stimulus, but on the leading economic issue of the day, the stubborn persistence of joblessness, the president and the Democrats have no consistent voice or policy, even allowing for the obstructionist, idea-less nature of their opposition. There is an almost complete absence of any overarching narrative from the progressive side to drive individual policy debates and to shape the national dialogue. We wonder if part of the reason is that progressive advocates have too little to say on the core economic justice issues of the moment. We have good policy proposals that would materially reduce suffering in the country -- from state and local fiscal relief, to public job creation, to strengthening safety nets. But we lack a persuasive long-term vision for how to create good jobs that would address the fundamental moral and political questions that will grip the country for the next few years.
The resulting vacuum is not good for the administration, not good for the adequacy of progressive response to the major crisis of the time, not good for the people whose lives are being turned upside down and not good for the political fortunes of those who are expected to have something coherent to offer in response to the free-market, anti-tax dogma of the right. The fear and anxiety brought about by persistently high unemployment are devastating to all progressive advocacy efforts, even those unrelated to economic justice.
One area of real need for progressives is the ongoing necessity of an effective, progressive framework for national security. Though our organizations (Atlantic Philanthropies and Campaign for Community Change) are focused most intensely on domestic policy issues, many of our progressive allies have been demoralized by the lack of progress the Obama administration has made on civil liberties.
Developing a realistic and effective framework for progressives around national security is not just good politics -- eliminating a popular cudgel ("the left is soft on national security") relied on by the right for generations -- it is also essential, as we have largely ceded this ground and are offering few ideas that are included in the national-security debate. It may be that with a far more polarized Congress at home, President Obama's next two years could be increasingly focused on foreign affairs. This presents an opportunity for the left to claim a seat at the table in unexpected ways.
The Road Ahead
So what might we do in the period ahead of us? There is much good in the social-justice infrastructure that should be preserved and strengthened, and there is much that needs to be reinvented or created. A few directional thoughts:
First, the key strategic task in this era is movement building. Without a far stronger constituency for policy change, we will make no progress and perhaps suffer serious losses. This will involve building stronger capacity in key states and with key constituencies, and also experimenting with new approaches to movement building. The Obama campaign, the immigrant rights movement and the Tea Party -- arguably the three biggest national movements of recent years -- have several things in common: a clear national program and vision, deep investment in local organizing and especially on recruiting new people to the cause, and the use of new media and technology to keep people connected and active. We will need to dramatically strengthen organizing efforts to build public will in the years ahead.
Second, the issue of race is obviously central both to conservative backlash and to any prospect of progressive resurgence. The Obama administration has been unwilling and perhaps unable to speak cogently about the persistent racial divide in the country or to propose targeted measures to address structural disadvantage. The need for a strong and effective racial justice movement and agenda is arguably greater now than before Obama became president.
This will probably require several linked strategies: dramatically strengthening movement capacity in communities of color and relationships among communities of color; thinking seriously about how to engage white working-class communities; and developing new initiatives (perhaps centered on the jobs crisis) that, in John Powell's framing, keep both universalism and targeting to disadvantaged communities at the forefront. At the same time we pursue such deeper strategies, it seems essential that all of us see responding to backlash politics -- whether the targets are Shirley Sherrod, immigrants, Muslims or whoever is next -- as our responsibility.
Third, we will need to focus more on medium- to long-term efforts rather than solely on short-term campaigns. In social change efforts, there is a classic divide between those focused on the art of the possible and those devoted to changing what is possible. In the last two years, there has been a necessary and worthy concentration of effort on seizing the moment to secure critical policy changes in a narrow window of possibility. In the period ahead, there will be critical national-policy debates that require our attention -- on jobs, the deficit, social security and possibly immigration reform. But more attention will need to be devoted to changing hearts and minds, recruiting more supporters and developing intellectual capital.
Finally, a recalibration in the movement's relationship to the Obama administration seems in order. The bipolar tendencies of reflexive criticism or uncritical support will need to be replaced with a new approach that defines the critical task as creating the conditions in the country that would enable a renewal of the momentum for progressive change. Candidate Obama repeatedly told audiences that the campaign wasn't about him, and in a much-maligned phrase that "we are the ones we have been waiting for." Turns out, he was right. Outside movements have a different compass than politicians, and a little less focus on what Obama is or isn't doing might serve us well.
The times are difficult and the challenges are great. But a sober analysis of our current predicament suggests that there are accomplishments to be celebrated and lessons to be learned from the intense period of history we have just lived through that can inform a comeback strategy. As important as our analysis will be upholding the commitments that have always nurtured the progressive spirit: to resist despair, to press on in times of uncertain prospects and to take risks to make a path forward.
Deepak Bhargava and Gara LaMarche will be part of a forum, "Working Toward Progressive Reform and Social Justice," moderated by Bill Moyers and sponsored by Philanthropy New York , on October 13 in New York City. A version of this appeared at TheNation.com.