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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.

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 but—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 story line.

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