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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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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 antigovernment 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 [3], and containing and curbing government lies at the heart of the Tea Party movement, with no coherent counternarrative.

Political Structures

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.

 
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