Progressive Revolution: We Can't Afford to Play Small-Ball and Tip-Toe Around Right-Wingers Anymore

Election '08

The following is an excerpt from chapter 8 of Mike Lux's new book, "The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be" (Wiley, 2009). In this text, Lux argues that a "culture of caution" dominates Democratic politics in the modern era: "When you try something big and fail, even if the failure is due in great part to your own timidity, you only become more cautious. The failure of health-care reform made President Clinton more cautious, and he started playing small ball." As Obama's inauguration approaches, progressives and Democrats in Washington need to overcome their fears of proposing bold policies and stand up for the kind of America they believe in. 

 When Barack Obama based much of his 2008 Presidential campaign on the theme of hope, he certainly wasn't the first candidate to make that pitch. And when John McCain, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney, during the years since 9/11, preached fear and more fear and nothing but fear, they weren't the first to do that, either. The entire history of American political debate can, in some sense, be described as the argument between the hope of progressives for a better future vs. the fear of conservatives who want to protect the way things are now.

In recent decades, neither party has been able to get a toehold as an enduring political majority. The Republicans' problem has been that they aggressively overreach, and then their rather extreme policy prescriptions just don't work. We get wars with no exit plans, side tax cuts that result in gigantic deficits, and voluntary goals for industry that never result in anything tangible happening.

For Democrats, the problem has been the opposite. They have been so beaten down by the conservative attack machine that they have allowed themselves to get into the habit of being cautious. When in power, they have had decent policy ideas that have produced pretty good results, but the results aren't substantial enough to make permanent changes or get voters excited about what Democrats are trying to accomplish. Since the tumultuous change decade of the 1960s and the ugly backlash that followed it, Democrats have often been too scared to think big about progressive change, and it has hurt them. ...

Fear and Conservatism

Fear has been a staple of every generation of conservatives .... Fear of the democratic mob. Fear of the freed slave. Fear of the liberated woman destroying the traditional family. Fear of freethinkers destroying religion. Fear of communism. Fear of gays and lesbians. Fear of hippies, "free love," and the drug culture. Fear of the immigrant. In a bizarre twist, Social Darwinism gave us fear of the weak, and in the modern version of Social Darwinism, Reagan gave us fear of the poor on welfare. Post-9/11, you can now add in the ever-potent fear of terrorism. Sadly, while some of those fears have faded with the passage of history, many remain with us, still powerful.

Many conservatives still fear feminism, sometimes to a hilarious degree. Here is one of my all-time favorite quotes, from the inimitable Pat Robertson: "[Feminism] is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

I had no idea feminism was so comprehensive, but there you have it. Of course, many men who are threatened by strong women aren't quite so hysterical, but like threatened people everywhere, they love to mock. Rush Limbaugh, who coined the feminazi, has this definition of feminism: "Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society."

The prospect of empowered women isn't the only fear that conservatives have carried throughout the years of our nation's existence. They have always feared free thinking, which opens the door to a range of ideas and beliefs. The notion that their children might be exposed to any ideas or scientific theories that are different from what is being taught at home, as exemplified by the battles that are fought daily about public education, still scares conservatives a great deal. Read articles from any local newspaper about the nature of their resistance-to the teaching of evolution, the discussion of global warming, the assignment of certain books by English teachers, and so on-and you will see parents who are terrified that their own children might learn a way of thinking contrary to their own.

Fears of communism and welfare have faded somewhat in the last twenty years because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the passage of welfare reform, but they have been quickly replaced by conservatives' finding new things to scare voters with. Terrorism and immigrants have become the new hot-button excuses for pushing the political fear button. Or maybe I should amend that: terrorism, at least, is relatively new as a major fear for voters because until 9/11, people knew it could be a problem but didn't worry about it much. After 9/11, it became the biggest thing Americans were scared of. Immigration, on the other hand, is a very old fear that conservatives have been exploiting with renewed vigor in recent years.

In the early days of the United States, immigrants were generally quite welcome because the country had an ever expanding need for new workers, farmers, and pioneers to go out west. But by the 1850s, as more poor and working-class Irish journeyed across the Atlantic to settle here, the combination of anti-poor and anti-Catholic bigotry stirred up the vicious anti-immigrant movement called, appropriately enough, the Know-Nothings (the name came from the fact that their leaders swore an oath of secrecy about being involved in the movement, so that if asked about it, they said they knew nothing).

To join the organization of the original Know-Nothing movement, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, you had to be white and male, be born in the United States, and not only be Protestant but have no family connection whatsoever to Catholicism. The Know-Nothing political party, called the American Party, won nine gubernatorial seats and controlled at least one branch of the legislature in six states during the mid-1850s. It ran former president Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate in the 1856 election, and he received about a quarter of the votes. But the movement quickly faded because the slavery issue soon overwhelmed everything else.

Throughout the late 1800s, another conservative period in U.S. history, immigration was regularly featured in the American political debate. Concerns about Chinese immigrants in California and Irish immigrants in the east were a constant refrain in the arguments against voting rights and civil rights. Sadly, even the populist movement was tainted by anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as by its alliance with southern segregationists.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first major restriction on immigration. Passed in 1882, it prohibited most immigration from Asia and took away the right of Chinese immigrants to become citizens. However, it was after World War I that anti-immigrant zeal truly reached its peak. Fearing a wave of postwar refugees and gripped by the conservative frenzy of the times, Congress passed legislation, in 1921 and 1924, that restricted immigration. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 limited European immigration to 3 percent of the total population of each European nationality living in the United States as of 1910. The Immigration Act of 1924 went much further, limiting European immigration to 2 percent of each nationality living in the United States as of 1890.

Just as conservatives do today, back then they also used people's fear of immigrants to attack other progressive ideas and legislation. Congressional opponents of the 14th and 15th amendments, for example, worried that immigrants would take advantage of these new voting rights. In the 1920s and earlier, immigrant bashers were anxious about what kinds of communists, socialists, and anarchists might be coming over to contaminate our population.

For example, a San Francisco newspaper, the Daily American printed the following editorial in April 1881:

Steamships are vomiting forth rotten cargoes of a thousand Chinese fortnightly, smitten and cursed with the plague of small-pox, and with other deadly plagues. The one-hundred thousand Chinese on this coast today, without family ties, with no elements of a prosperous immigration, the bronze locusts from Asia, plague-bearing[,] are eating out the substance which rightly belongs to the patrimony of the people.The single Chinese immigrant does, in this sense, usurp the place of a family. Trades and industries languish. The evils of Chinese immigration are upon us full force, aggregated by obstructions which originated with politicians who care more for some petty interest of party (the democratic party) than for the great and vital interests of the country.

If you think that was then and things have progressed, here are a couple of quotes from the current leadership of the anti immigration movement. The first comes from Congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia, who gained notoriety when he criticized Keith Ellison's choice to be sworn in using a copy of the Koran, rather than the Bible. Good warned his constituents, "If American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office." He also had this to say about Hispanic immigration: "My message to them is, not in two weeks, not in two months, not in two years, never! We must be clear that we will not surrender America and we will not turn the United States over to the invaders from south of the border."

Another anti-immigration leader, Joseph Turner -- a staff member of the most powerful anti-immigration lobbying group, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) -- recently said this in a letter to anti-immigration contributors: "Our enemies are bloodied and beaten. We cannot relent. Our boot is on their throat and we must have the willingness to crush their "throat" so that we can put our enemy down for good. The sovereignty of our nation and the future of our culture and civilization are at stake. The United States culture is man's salvation. If we perish, man perishes."

These statements were made in 2006 and 2007, not in some long-ago debate when social conventions and attitudes were different. And they were not the ravings of marginal crazies or rabid talk-show hosts; they were made by a senior member of the Republican caucus in Congress and by a leader of one of the biggest organizations working on the anti-immigration side of the aisle.

These are legitimate issues to debate in terms of immigration policy. Having better border security is a good thing, and we should be worried about corporations that try to exploit immigrant labor. But we can work those issues through and create a legitimate path to citizenship for immigrants without resorting to the fearmongering of the right wing.

Just as stopping the spread of totalitarian communism and keeping us safe from Soviet aggression during the Cold War were important objectives, today we need to deal with the real threat of terrorism. Many thoughtful suggestions, such as those generated by the Hart-Rudman commission and the 9/11 Commission, have been put forward. Important issues like securing the uranium from old Soviet weapons sites and keeping it away from the hands of terrorists, as well as safeguarding our own country's nuclear and chemical facilities to a greater degree, ought to be priorities for the U.S. government. What is fundamentally wrong, though, is turning the fear of terrorism into a political football, as Bush, Cheney, and other right-wingers have done.

Here's George W. Bush in 2004: "The Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses. That's what's at stake in this election."

And Dick Cheney: "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again-that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States."

Comparing a politician to Joe McCarthy is pretty strong stuff, but I find it hard to avoid the comparison when we live in a time when government officials spout the rhetoric I've just quoted. Using fear to justify virtually everything you want to do-from torture to absurd levels of government secrecy, to a war with no exit plan, to no-bid contracts for your biggest contributors, to violating the law and the constitution with warrantless wiretapping-is fundamentally wrong. Just as John Dean said that the Bush administration scandals have been the worst since Watergate, I'd be inclined to argue that Bush's and the Republicans' fearmongering over terrorism has been worse than McCarthy's fearmongering over Communism. ...

On my blog,, I have written about the timidity of Democrats in terms of both policy and politics. I call it the "culture of caution," a name I thought of in 2005 when my Democratic friends on Capitol Hill began to talk about the Republicans' culture of corruption. I liked that phrase and used it a lot myself in attacking the Republicans in 2005 and 2006, but I also thought, well, that is their problem, while ours is a culture of caution. ...

The Culture of Caution

In the culture of caution that dominates Democratic politics in the modern era, when you try something big and fail, even if the failure is due in great part to your own timidity, you only become more cautious. The failure of health-care reform made President Clinton more cautious, and he started playing small ball. President Clinton famously advocated support for things like school uniforms and agreed to support bad Republican bills on welfare reform and telecommunications reform. Clinton deserves credit for standing up to Republicans in the 1995 budget showdown, a decision that was the most important factor in his winning re-election, and for the other achievements I mentioned previously. For the most part, however, his last six years in office were a time of very modest policy ideas.

The culture of caution hurt the Democrats' political strategy as well. When the Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment fight with the Republicans reared their ugly heads in 1998, I was working for the progressive group People for the American Way. We got heavily involved in opposing the impeachment and worked alongside the activists who eventually started We ran ads saying that it was time for the country to stop worrying about a sex scandal and "move on." Many Democratic politicians were horrified at those ads, convinced that by mentioning the issue we would just remind voters of what they didn't like about Clinton. We were asked by the party committees and the top members of Congress to pull them, but our focus groups had convinced us that we were right and should stand out ground. The message worked so well that candidates running in competitive races started to use the message in the ads, and, eventually, even the party committees did as well. Democrats picked up five seats in the 1998 elections and thereby stunned the pundits of conventional wisdom, who had widely predicted Democratic losses of thirty seats or more in Congress. It was the best showing for the party of a president in his sixth year in office in history since 1822, when James Monroe essentially had no opposition party. But Democrats would likely have won control of Congress if the Democratic establishment had not been so cautious for so long about facing the impeachment issue.

When Bush took over and exhibited an aggressive form of ideological partisanship never before seen in modern history, Democrats sometimes stood up to him, but all too frequently, they rolled over. This was especially true on national security and civil liberties issues after 9/11.

In 2002, when the authorization vote on the Iraq War came up, I was told in confidence by a top aide to Dick Gephardt that if Democrats would cut a deal with Bush on the war, the issue would go away and Democrats would win the 2002 election on domestic issues. That same cycle, I was told by a top pollster for the party committees that Democrats should just avoid talking about national security altogether because it wasn't our strongest issue.

Of course, this strategy didn't work out so well, as Democrats went down to an ugly defeat in the 2002 election, where security issues dominated. In fact, Gephardt's strategy of cutting a deal with Bush was a political disaster. Progressive antiwar Democrats were divided and discouraged, and the Republicans attacked the Democrats just as hard as they would have otherwise on national security. The deal also played out poorly in the 2004 elections because John Kerry could never quite explain why he had voted for the war, even though he later said that he opposed it.

The most aggravating thing about the Democratic culture of caution is how strong it is, even when the aggressive approaches are working. Too many Democrats remained cautious despite their win in 2006 using heavily populist and antiwar campaigns, and even when Bush's approval ratings and credibility had gone down the tubes. In 2007 and 2008, Democrats caved multiple times on war-related votes and on civil liberties; they lived in fear that a president with a 30 percent approval rating would call them soft on terrorism.

Although I regret that the Democrats haven't stood up to Bush more on security and civil liberties issues, and I think they could have easily survived politically if they had, there is at least a stronger argument for being politically careful on those issues -- voters are really scared of terrorism, and the message for Democrats on security issues is complicated. On domestic policy, though, Democrats have also failed to be strong advocates of dramatic new initiatives. The minimum wage and ethics initiatives they passed were solid achievements; forcing Bush to veto S-CHIP has been a worthy political fight to engage in, as was compelling him to veto legislation to withdraw troops from Iraq. The compromise energy bill that the Democrats passed and got Bush to sign had some respectable policy initiatives in it although it also had some poor ideas. But Democrats have failed to provoke major battles with Bush and the Republicans to illustrate how important their policy differences are.

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