News & Politics

The Political Path for Progressives in the Face of Rabid Right-Wing Resistance

From Sarah Palin to John Boehner to the operatives pulling Tea Party strings, conservatives seek to block every reform on the progressive agenda. We must fight back.

“Change don’t come easy.” 

Barely more than a year in office, the Obama presidency seems besieged.  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a worsening catastrophe, casts a haunting pall.  A jobs bill, even when cribbed, is torpedoed by members of the president’s own party in Congress.  Entrenched interests delay and dilute vital reforms.  On the right, a furious reaction builds.  Former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich rallies conservatives against the “secular socialist Obama machine.”  Pundits predict Republicans will benefit from their strategy of obstruction and make significant gains in the fall elections.   

Will reaction block renewal?   Will a politics of hate overcome the politics of hope?  Will the Gulf oil disaster become a metaphor for government too incapacitated or too compromised to address the challenges we face? 

These are not academic questions.  And the challenge for progressives is that the answers depend on what we do.  Whether we mobilize or stay home, sustain hope or grow cynical, clean out Washington or give up in despair – we have the power. 

Frustrating Reform

Many in the White House wonder why, like Rodney Dangerfield, they can’t get no respect.  By any historical measure, in 16 months, the president has launched the greatest reform period since the 1960s.  Inheriting an economy in free fall and in two wars, he had little choice, but the accomplishments have been many.

The economic hemorrhaging was staunched, a financial collapse avoided, and a return to growth begun.  The largest recovery program ever was passed, including within it the largest bolstering of poverty programs since the Great Society and the greatest investment in renewable energy ever. We’ve seen enacted the most significant health care reform since Medicare and the largest increase in college student aid since the GI Bill.  Also in place is the greatest expansion of national service since the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Soon, the most comprehensive financial reform since the Great Depression will be enacted.   A nuclear arms reduction accord gave force to a commitment to nuclear disarmament.  And there is much more.

Yet across the progressive movement, dismay exceeds delight.  The expectations of the activist base of the party were disappointed.  Feminists were stunned by the retreat on abortion in the health care bill, peace activists unsettled by the escalation in Afghanistan, environmentalists frustrated by the gridlock of energy legislation, civil libertarians appalled by retreats on everything from rendition to Guantanamo.  Union activists and immigrant communities saw labor law and immigration reform deferred, if not dropped. 

Some in the White House dismiss progressive dismay as merely the bursting of the unrealistic expectations of those who don’t understand how Washington works or how incremental change must be—or, more cynically, the inevitable discontent of those organized to be discontented.  President Obama was never a movement progressive, as Ronald Reagan was a movement conservative, so, they argue, those who drank the Kool-Aid and thought they were electing a Messiah inevitably had their hopes disappointed.

But that cynicism ignores both the needs of the country and the moment we are in.  Obama was elected with a mandate for change by a citizenry in desperate need of it.  The dismay is grounded in a stark reality—that the Obama initiatives, however historic in comparison to the last decades of conservative misrule, are insufficient to meet the challenges they must address.  The recovery plan was too small to put people back to work.  It’s unclear whether the health care reforms will produce affordable care.  The financial reform leaves the largest banks more concentrated and more powerful than before, even as they reopen the Wall Street casino.  The energy bill is so compromised, its commitment to new energy so constrained, that it would leave the U.S. a laggard, not a leader, in addressing climate change.  The delays and retreats on empowering workers and reforming our broken immigration system simply perpetuate an economy in which workers have been losing ground for two decades.  The education aid is not sufficient to counter the tuition hikes and school cutbacks that will price more and more students out of college.  Yes, they represent significant first steps, but will there be opportunity for further steps to be taken?

The Progressive Project Imperiled

Imperiled in the process is the progressive project of economic renewal itself.  No one has defined that project better than Obama himself.  In his inaugural address, he set the standard clearly:

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

In his economic “Sermon on the Mount” at Georgetown, he argued that we could not go back to the bubble-and-bust economy that was built on debt, speculation, rising inequality and a declining middle class.  Instead “we must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.” 

Pillars of the new economy’s foundation include investing in areas vital to our future—world-class education for every child, a 21st –century infrastructure, research and development to fuel innovation. We must capture a lead role in the green industrial revolution that creates the markets of the future, and wean ourselves from our addiction to oil.  It requires new rules to shrink finance so that it is once more the servant, not the master, of the real economy.  Workers must be empowered to gain a fair share of the productivity that they help generate.  Our trade must be more balanced, so we make more here and borrow and buy less from abroad.  The social contract must be strengthened—with health care and a secure retirement afforded to all.

This is the core of the president’s progressive project— a new economy in which prosperity is widely shared, opportunity guaranteed, and a broad middle class revived.  And it poses a direct challenge to the conservative misrule of the last decades.  Market fundamentalism generated Gilded-Age inequality, a sinking middle class staying afloat on debt, unsustainable trade deficits financed by increasing foreign debt, a decaying infrastructure and a staggering failure to provide every child with the nutrition and education essential to fulfilling his or her potential.  

It is this basic project that is now in question.  The “recovery” seems to be drifting by inertia back to the old economy.  Finance is now capturing 30 percent of corporate profits and reopening the casino of Wall Street speculation.  The trade deficit is back to over $1 billion a day.  China, Germany and other countries with industrial policies are capturing the lead in new energy production.  Recovery is declared and attention turned to deficit reduction, even with 24 million people without jobs or forced to work part-time, insuring continued wage stagnation.  And worse, the hope, the belief that government could be once more turned to an instrument of common purpose rather than simply a servant of special interests is shaken once more. 

The Fierce Reaction

Despite the national crisis, and the president’s stunning electoral mandate, it isn’t surprising that his program met fierce resistance.  Republicans, resentful at being tossed out of power, chose obstruction as their comeback strategy.  With remarkable unity, they opposed every major reform, forcing record filibusters in the Senate, doing what they could to frustrate reform. 

More importantly, entrenched corporate interests mobilized to defend their subsidies and their privileges.  Insurance companies and big banks spent more than a million dollars a day to fend off reform.  It has been salad days for Democratic lobbyists.  Republican obstruction made it easier to focus on the few Democrats needed to block progress.  From day one, conservative Democrats worked against their own president, diluting and delaying reform out of ideological difference or on behalf of special interest influence.

The administration’s own limited conception also circumscribed reform.  The president surrounded himself with a notably centrist core of economic and national security advisors—the brightest and the best of the Clinton era, but hardly bold reformers.  They chose to bail out the banks without reorganizing them.  Their financial reform chose to regulate banks that were too big to fail, not break them up.  Their health care plan cut back and finally abandoned the public option to compete with insurance companies.  The escalation in Afghanistan and increases in military spending dampened any hope of new priorities.

Worse, the administration’s willingness to let the Congressional process work and its eagerness to cut deals with large interests and recalcitrant legislators stained the whole process of reform.  Energy legislation turned into a corporate feeding frenzy.  Drug companies sustained the obscene ban on Medicare from negotiating bulk-price discounts.  The “Louisiana Purchase” and the “Cornhusker Kickback,” deals cut in the Senate to gain the last votes for health care reform, became infamous. 

If unified, Democrats had the votes to force change.  Instead, a popular president with a public mandate found himself reduced to bartering with members of his own party to gain support.  And that very process made him look less like the herald of a new way of doing business, and more like a traditional politician cutting the best deal he could.

The Rabid Right

Nor is it surprising that Obama’s progressive project would generate a hostile reaction on the right.  Historically, reform presidents have always roused a rabid and frenzied right, its funding assured by alarmed corporate interests.  The right’s mighty Wurlitzer—from Limbaugh to Fox to the Wall Street Journal—provides a constant megaphone. 

The tea parties have gained national attention, but their reach is exaggerated.  To a great extent, they represent an extremist fringe that has always been a part of the right.  Much of the outrage is fueled by scarcely hidden racial animosity, reflected in the “birther” conspiracies that label the president literally un-American.  What is extraordinary is how much of the leadership of the Republican Party, from Sarah Palin to Newt Gingrich, has competed to echo the attacks.  Even the head of theAmerican Enterprise Institute, the Fortune 500’s favorite think tank, warned that Obama’s reforms threatened America’s way of life.  

The devastation of the Great Recession and the slow recovery provided a broader audience for the faux populism of the right.  Americans watched as the government racked up record deficits while bailing out Wall Street and failing to provide jobs on Main Street.   (In fact, the Obama recovery act added little—too little, progressive economists would say—to the deficit.  The bulk of the deficit was the cumulative effect of the Bush folly of waging two wars and passing prescription drug reform while cutting taxes, and the automatic result of the recession, producing declining revenues and rising costs in unemployment benefits, food stamps and the like.)
But the combination of deficits, Wall Street’s bailout, and the squalid and corrupted legislative process was a toxic brew.  Independents grew increasingly skeptical.  Whose side was the government on?  

BP and the Fouling of American Governance

The continuing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico – rapidly becoming the worst environmental calamity in our history – encapsulates the fouling of the American government that the administration inherits.

In many ways, the calamity is a direct legacy of conservative failure.   The growing dependence on imported oil – exacerbated by the Dick Cheney energy policies and the “drill, baby, drill” posturing of the right—opened the way for offshore drilling at the extreme limits of technology.   The conservative disdain for regulation, the weakening of enforcement and the pervasive corruption of government regulators—in this case literally in bed with the companies they were supposed to police—emboldened companies to cut corners and take risks.  In the resulting catastrophe, the lack of government capacity left the country dependent on the very corporation responsible for the disaster.

The calamity renders the right incoherent.  Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, last seen responding to the president’s State of the Union address by invoking traditional conservative nostrums about smaller government and free markets, arguing that there was a “fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.”  Now Jindal expresses his frustration with the “disjointed effort.”  “BP is the responsible party but we need the federal government to make sure they are held accountable… Our way of life depends on it.”

Rand Paul, the self-described messenger of the tea parties, stuck to the conservative gospel, arguing that property rights should not only trump civil rights, but that when it came to British Petroleum and the catastrophe in the Gulf, the administration was “really un-American in his criticism of business” because “sometimes accidents happen.”  The candor was too much for Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced that Paul had said “quite enough …in terms of national press coverage,” and Paul summarily cancelled his scheduled appearance on Meet the Press. 

But if the spreading oil slick confounds the right, it also exposes the challenges facing the Obama presidency.  He inherits a government, after 30 years of conservative dominance, which has seen its capacity diminished, its best employees depart, its regulators frustrated or compromised.   The task of reviving confidence of and in government, of rebuilding competent regulatory authority will take many years.  The accumulated risks, crimes and excesses that went unpoliced are unknown, and could be a constant source of calamity or scandal. 

The president inherits the choices made and the paths not taken over the past decades.  With conservatives scorning President Carter’s investment in renewable energy, the limited choices drove approval of high-risk, deep-sea drilling. That same logic led Obama to extend offshore drilling—and to vouch for its safety—literally days before the Deepwater Horizon failed.  

And, as days turn to weeks and weeks to months with the well untapped and the destruction spreading, Americans once more see a hapless government, not competent to address a national calamity. 

This is the awful irony of conservative misrule.  Their policies make government less competent, which validates their argument that government, in Reagan’s words, is the problem, not the solution.  In contrast, a corrupted and demoralized government undermines the progressive effort to make it an instrument of common purpose.  

Progressives in the Obama Era

With the tea party roiling Republican primaries, pollsters talk about an “enthusiasm gap” between the parties.   Independents are increasingly skeptical.   Turnout is flagging among the “rising electorate” – the young, single women, minorities—the core Obama base that has been hard hit by the recession.  If Democrats suffer deep losses in the fall as now predicted, gridlock will grow worse. 

Democrats fare badly when the base of the party is disaffected.  It is worth remembering that progressives were key to forging the majority that allowed Democrats to take back Congress in 2006.  Progressives gave Democrats their voice on Iraq.  Progressive bloggers helped teach Democrats to confront the right.  Progressives built the coalitions that stopped Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security, and forged the positive agenda—from health care to new energy—that galvanized Democratic and independent voters.  Progressives embraced the diversity and fought for the reforms that helped build the Democrats’ majority coalition.  That success inspired Obama to run, and he in turn inspired progressive activists to turn out voters in large numbers.

With Obama’s election, much of the progressive infrastructure threw itself into the effort to support Obama’s reform agenda—from health care to energy to immigration reform.  Large and effective grassroots lobbying efforts were launched.  In fact, progressives turned out far more activists to the town meetings around health care than the opponents did. 

The deep involvement of lead organizations and organizers in legislative battles had its costs, opening the way for the right to capture the populist voice and appeal to growing public frustration.  And the often-squalid legislative debates and compromises dismayed many.

In this circumstance, it is time for labor and other progressive movements to re-engage our own base, to mobilize independently and challenge the limits of the current debate.   From Palin to Gingrich, Limbaugh to Fox, McConnell to Boehner, conservatives seek revival by blocking reform, while promising to take America back to a more zealous version of the market fundamentalism and bellicose cowboy interventionism that led this country off the cliff.  They must be confronted, the bankruptcy of their ideas exposed. 

History does not repeat itself, Mark Twain wrote, but sometimes it rhymes.  Experience suggests that to best effect change, progressive movements must organize independently of Democratic reform administrations.  We must be “off the reservation,” as labor was under Roosevelt and the civil rights movement was under Johnson.  For example, in 1964 and 1965, Johnson pressed King to shut down the demonstrations, saying that they would make reform impossible.  With an independent movement, King could not do that, even had he wanted to.   Instead he went to Selma, and the resulting confrontation led directly to passage of the Voting Rights Act. 

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, states that labor will be a “troublesome ally” of the administration.  It will mobilize its members around their needs.  It will support the administration when possible, challenge it when desirable, and oppose it when necessary.  No administration likes pressure from its base, but progressive leaders of independent movements have little choice.  They must be responsive to their activists to be able to mobilize them.  And they must mobilize to be effective.  
Moreover, only independent mobilization can change the limits of the possible.  The president can call on Americans for support, rally his party to unite, negotiate directly with legislators and interests standing in the way.  But to get anything done, he must deal with the resulting balance of forces.

Independent progressive movements can challenge those standing in the way directly.  Conservative Democrats and compromised administrators can be taught the temper of their own activists.  Those who oppose vital reforms must understand that they will not be given a free pass. Unions, MoveOn.org and other progressives groups supported a primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas primary.  Already that helped stiffen her posture in the financial reform debate while sending a message to the rest of the Senate.   Progressives need to expand their capacity to hold legislators accountable.

Moreover, after the last months of watching the legislative process in its full glory, progressive movements should come together to challenge the money politics and corporate lobbies that so distort our governance.  Process politics are said to have little traction with the public.  But the spectacle of the corporate lobbies blocking reform in the midst of the recession gives cleaning up Washington a potent populist edge.  The outrageous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which opens the floodgates for corporate money in elections, makes reform all the more necessary. 

The Brutal Choice

Independent progressive mobilization is vital now because the administration and the Congress are about to face brutal choices about the priorities and the direction of the country—and at this point, the administration needs a course correction.

In the short term, the question is posed as a choice between jobs and deficits.  The administration’s economists join progressives in arguing that more must be done to put people to work.  Its pollsters suggest that anger at the deficits and skepticism about government spending make that too risky to push.  The desire to provide reassurance about deficits has muddled the call for action on jobs. The uncertain trumpet from the White House emboldens conservatives in the Congress.  Blue-Dog Democrats in the House blocked what should have been a routine extension of unemployment and health care benefits at a time of record long-term unemployment.

Democrats in the Senate derailed consideration of a $23 billion emergency bill that would forestall the layoff of 300,000 teachers next year.
Mass unemployment is a national emergency and a human tragedy, not a normal condition.  It cannot be met with politics as usual.  Progressives must come together to demand action from the White House and the Congress.  The voices of those who have lost their jobs must be heard.  No issue is of greater concern to Americans—and no issue of greater importance to the country. 

The Pitched Battle Over Direction

The current jockeying is simply a prelude to what will be a pitched battle over priorities and deficits after the election.  The president tasked a Bipartisan Commission on the Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to report by December 1 on a path to deficit reduction.  Whether the Commission can reach agreement is in question, but the elite consensus has already begun to congeal.  Meanwhile, the budget crisis that the recession caused at the state and local level has already begun to force hard decisions on laying off teachers, closing parks and libraries, raising tolls and fares.

America is headed into a period in which it must make choices. Will we make the investments vital to the new economy or sacrifice them to austerity?  Will we make the commitment to provide every child a healthy start and a world-class education or will we rob some of their future?  Will we choose to police the world or to rebuild America?  Will we have progressive tax reform or impose consumption taxes the hit working people disproportionately?  Will workers be insured a secure retirement with adequate health care at the end of a long work life or will we cut Social Security and limit Medicare?

This debate has already begun, and the early direction is forbidding.  Soaring health care costs are virtually the entire source of rising long-term deficits, but the focus instead has turned to “fixing” Social Security to reassure markets.

We spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on our military while not making the investments the president says are vital to the new economy, but the president has called for a three-year hard freeze on domestic spending, leaving the military budget to rise.  In a time of Gilded-Age inequality, the wealthiest Americans pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries, but attention has turned to a regressive hidden sales tax, not progressive tax reforms.

These choices concern what kind of country we create.  Coming out of World War II, our debt burden was 120 percent of gross domestic product, much higher than it is now.  Yet we passed the GI Bill and sent a generation of veterans to college or advanced training.  We provided a Marshall Plan to revive Europe, and create a market for our exports. President Eisenhower put a lid on military spending and built the Interstate Highway System.  We constructed schools for the baby-boom generation.  America built a broad middle class while dramatically reducing its debt burdens.

We will face that choice again, only in a society marked by economic inequity and division, not wartime solidarity.  It will take broad public education and a sustained progressive mobilization to make these choices correctly.

Reform or Reaction:  The Choice is Ours

Pundits now predict that Democrats will fare badly in the fall elections, with the majority of the House said even to be at risk.  Clearly, a more conservative Congress, with obstructionists rewarded for their opposition, will make any reform more difficult.

In off-year elections, much depends on who turns out.  The right is mobilized, but has limited appeal.  The real question is what happens to the emerging progressive majority?  Does the rising Obama electorate – the young, single women and minorities – turn out or stay home?  Do workers vote their hopes or their fears?  Will seniors be encouraged or angered by health care reforms?  Will progressives mobilize to drive reform, or stay home in frustration and dismay?

Much will depend on what progressives do.  We can drive the issues that frame the election.  We can expose the right’s efforts to take us back to the policies that failed.  A progressive majority is there to be forged, but it won’t turn out automatically.  In the end, it is not the anger of the right that will determine the rate of America’s renewal.  It is the energy, the persistence, the will of progressives that will decide.  The choice is ours.

 

Robert Borosage is co-director of the Campaign For America's Future, and he has written on political, economic, and national security issues for publications including The New York Times and The Nation.