News & Politics

What Obama Can Learn from the Social Movements That Changed the World

History reminds us that any social movement that changes the terms of debate will eventually change the national conversation. Why don't Democrats have the guts to do that?

In the wake of the election, progressive movements and their members are debating what went wrong. Some say the media amplified the bizarre statements of the Tea Party. Still others argue that Obama didn’t offer sufficient leadership or remind us what he had actually achieved during his first 18 months in office. Many blame no one, knowing that midterm elections bring a backlash, regardless of who is in power.

All of these are basically true. But something gets lost in this wringing of hands or resigned acceptance of inevitable defeat. Barack Obama ignited a hope for change and then squandered the opportunity -- right in the middle of high unemployment, terrible economic anxiety, and widespread fear of a declining America -- to hold tightly to the terms of debate that vaulted him to power and might have resulted in many fewer Democratic losses.

But he is not alone. Progressives all over the country sat back for 18 months without pushing him to guard those terms of debate, namely those of equality, fairness, decency, and a society that must depend on the state to protect the poor and the vulnerable. During his presidency, FDR confided to unions and progressive activists that they had to “force” him to do things that would be politically unacceptable. Progressives didn’t do that during the last eighteen months. Had they pushed much, much harder, we might have kept more people in their homes, and had a national jobs program that would have softened the terror of having no livelihood.

It is true that Obama faced an obstructionist Republican Senate minority. But he would have changed the terms of debate if he had allowed Republicans to filibuster and read telephone books for two weeks over the question of taxes. Imagine the spectacle. Americans would have perked up their ears, a new national conversation could have eclipsed the Tea Party, and many people would have agreed that the wealthy didn’t need tax cuts and that they should expire.

History reminds us that any social movement that changes the terms of debate will eventually change the national conversation.

Look back at the successes of the modern women’s movement. They didn’t win all their battles, but they forced the nation to debate why men rape 92 year-old women or 3 three year- old girls and gradually people began to recognize that rape is not about sexual lust. They also forced the nation to consider what constitutes sexual harassment at work -- for which there existed no language before the movement -- and over time, the public began to understand why sexual blackmail undermined a woman’s civil rights and her right to earn a living. By openly discussing “date rape” and “marital rape,” activists launched a heated debate over what is acceptable and what is not. In the end, many laws, policies and social customs changed dramatically.

But it didn’t stop there. Violence against women and incest against girls had been painful individual secrets. By openly discussing them, women even convinced the UN’s General Assembly in 1993 to vote for a convention that described such violence as a violation of their human rights. A decade later, rape as a tool of war also became a violation of women’s human rights, replacing their traditional role as part of the spoils of war.

The demand by women to control their own bodies, and to decide whether to have a child, whether to terminate a pregnancy, changed the terms of debate so radically that the country is still wrangling over the implications of a woman’s right to control her own reproductive choices. In fact, it has even become a litmus test for politicians.

The women’s movement didn’t win all its battles. But it did change the terms of debate, redefining traditional customs as crimes. That was its great accomplishment and that is why the nation is still debating much of its movement’s agenda from the late 1960s and 1970s.

By now, most people know that a large segment of white women in the nation either sat out this election or switched to the Republicans out of economic fear. Yet Obama did little to remind women how much he had, in fact, done for them: He ended the gag rule; he made sure that women could sue for discriminatory pay; and his health care program and the stimulus helped many women protect their families and keep their jobs. But he needed to shout these from the White House because women’s fears, amidst so much unemployment and so many foreclosures, certainly eclipsed what he actually did for them. In short, he didn’t give white women a reason to vote for him. It was minority women who gave him their votes. Had he courted all women and addressed their needs for economic security and child care, the conversation might have been quite different.

What Obama, Democrats and progressives failed to do during this electoral cycle was to define and then proudly grab the terms of debate. If you look back at all successful social movements, all their great accomplishments, some of which changed laws, were to change the terms of debate. The Civil Rights movement forced Americans to question the truthfulness of racial supremacy and the fairness of racial inequality. The environmental movement asked whether we could protect the planet’s health and sustainability if we raped all of its resources. And the gay and lesbian movements, by encouraging people to leave their closets, forced Americans to recognize the ordinary humanity of their gay friends, neighbors, and relatives. Just recently, a new movement launched by young undocumented college-aged immigrants is encouraging students to come out of the shadows and, following the successes of gays and lesbians, proudly say “I’m undocumented and unafraid.”

These are the social movements that change the conversation. Instead, Obama, Democrats and progressives allowed the well-organized, oil-funded Tea Party and its media echo chamber to turn the mantra of “no taxes , no government, no deficit” into the terms of debate. No wonder they have so many victories to celebrate after this election.

Ruth Rosen, a former columnist at the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, is a Professor Emerita of History, currently teaching at U.C Berkeley. Her most recent book is "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America" (Penguin 2007) "