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What Should Progressives Do Now? Here are 5 Important Forces to Consider

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.

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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 story line 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 antigovernment 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 story line 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) [2], 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.

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