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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?

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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) "

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