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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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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 September 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.

Community Organizing

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.

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