Progressive politics in the age of conservatism


Face it–progressive politics in America looks dead.

No, not socialism, that’s been dead almost from the beginning in the United States. Although during the height of the recent recession a Rasmussen poll found only 53% of the population lacked preferred capitalism to socialism. Yet there generally seems little support for workplace democracy and significant public ownership of state owned enterprises that are profitable and run for the benefit of the public. America’s version of government ownership is to take over ailing and unprofitable enterprises such as the auto industry or banks, pump billions if not trillions of public dollars into them, and then return them to private control just as they become profitable again. This is not socialism–it is corporate welfare.

The progressive politics that looks dead is good old-fashioned economic liberalism. This is not Bill Clinton liberalism that supported NAFTA and welfare reform and which Mitt Romney recently warmly embraced as the kind of Democratic Party politics he liked. Instead, the progressive politics that appears dead is that of Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and even Teddy Roosevelt. It is about the Great Society and the New Deal. It is about redistributive politics that sought to raise those at the economic bottom, narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and wrestle control of political power in the United States from corporations and plutocrats. It was a commitment to believing that the government had an important role in make sure we had a nation that was not one-third ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed, that kids should not go off to school hungry, and that corporations should not have the same rights as people.

But if Bill Clinton’s presidency did not kill off this type of progressive politics, surely Barack Obama has. If Obama did not do it directly, he did so indirectly with the 2010 backlash against him that has done more to kill progressive politics than can be imagined.

Look at where American politics is today. A 2009 Gallup poll pegged 40% of the population as describing themselves as conservative, nearly twice the 21% labeling themselves as liberal. In 2010 the numbers were 42%-20% conservative and liberal, and one can only speculate what they are today after the November, 2010 electoral rout of Obama and the Democrats. Since then Republicans have taken effective control both in Washington, St. Paul, and across the country. Obama is practically immobilized by the TEA Party, Mark Dayton gets nothing his first year in office then supports corporate welfare for the billionaire Vikings owner. Across the country in places such as Wisconsin Governor Walker stomps on union rights and may well be the first governor in history to survive a recall election. Yes unions did win some victories in Indiana and elsewhere, but they are on the defense.

Progressives are on the run everywhere. It is not just on matters of public policy such as with taxes, government regulation, and health care, but also in the rhetorical battle for the hearts and minds of the people. You can’t even call yourself a liberal anymore without being red baited. Thus the reason for switching to the term progressive. Conservatives have successfully labeled as left or socialist anyone who does not agree with them. During the Republican primaries Bachmann called fellow party members “frugal socialists.”

Watch cable news (not just FOX) or surf the web, crack pop conservative ideas dominate. Ron Paul pleads for a return to the gold standard, Michelle Bachmann blames Obamacare and Wall street reforms for the crash in the economy (even though neither have really taken effect for the most part). The recession of 2008 is the fault of the government and not greedy bankers and speculators, Keynesian economics to stimulate the economy is wasteful, consumer protection is bad for business, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United expanding corporate free speech rights to dump unlimited money into the buying of elections is good. Oh, and vaccines cause mental retardation and global warming does not exist. Main stream media seems afraid to put real progressives on the air and what passes as progressive on MSNBC is watered-down and defensive.

How did it happen? There is no one cause but there are several reasons. First, what Obama and progressives have failed to do is craft a narrative supporting their views. TEA Party activists and conservatives have the narrative of individual freedom–markets are good and government is bad. Government suppresses personal freedom and markets promote it. Never mind that corporations tell more people what to do with more of their life at work than the government ever does or could. That’s corporate freedom. Conservatives have made free choice their buzz word and equality a dirty one. Progressives have no overarching rhetoric and narrative to support their world view. “Hope” and “change” may be great election slogans but they do nothing for governance. The closest one has to a progressive narrative out there is from Occupy Wall Street about the “other 99%.” Yet OWS is so fragmented it lacks a central policy message upon which one could govern. Progressives need a winning narrative that appeals to Americans and which dictates a governing philosophy.

Second, Obama was not really a liberal but his rhetoric looked it. He ran promising change. The reason why so many are disappointed in him is not that he was too far left but that instead he failed to deliver on his lofty promises. At inauguration Obama had a window to change America but he flinched. Carpe diem was not his motto.

Third, progressives lack guts to fight. Look at Obama last year during the debt deal stand off or Dayton and the government shutdown. Both finally caved in. Why? Democrats (and one should not confuse the party with progressivism) believe that they are the caretakers for government. They believe that they need to be responsible and not run the risk of shutting the government down for fear of how it would ruin the economy or hurt people. But conservatives know this and take advantage of the Democrats willingness to blink. But by blinking the Democrats are screwing over poor people and the economy slowly by giving ground one inch at a time and they seem unable to recapture it. Until Democrats fight and show conservatives they are willing to shut the government down and hold conservatives responsible they will never win. Missing is the courage of their convictions.

Fourth, conservatives understand how to make structural reforms and policy changes that both benefit their supporters and enhance their power. Tax cuts and cuts in regulation are simple ways to benefit supporters, but there is more. Voter ID disempowers their opposition, attacking union rights undercuts labor support for Democrats and opposition to business in the workplace, and gutting regulations on money in politics strengthens corporations and rich individuals. Obama’s biggest mistake in his first two years was his failure to act accordingly. Instead of health care reform he should have used his sizable majorities in Congress to support the Employee Free Choice Act to strengthen unions, adopt national legislation banning voter ID and permitting day of election registration in federal elections, and adopting real Wall Street and bank reforms that would have limited their power, including reauthorizing Glass-Steagall.

Moreover, Obama should have first done something to help homeowners and workers get their houses and jobs back. Reward supporters up front and they are with you for life. Furthermore, when the Supreme Court issued Citizens United Obama could have issued an executive order barring corporations from bidding on federal contracts if they make political expenditures. Or he could have ordered the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue rules requiring shareholder assent before companies make political expenditures. Finally, to break the back of conservative news he could have embraced a reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine to require the media to offer diverse view points. But he did not do any of this? Why?

This is the last problem. Democrats now feed at the same trough as Republicans. Obama took more money in 2008 from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate in history. Democrats are increasingly as dependent on big corporate and individual donors as Republicans and just as bought and paid for.

Progressive politics is dead so long as it is married to the current Democrat Party. Progressives need their own TEA Party revolution on the left–one that engineers a new rhetoric and takeover of the party. One that is not willing to play it safe and worry that if a few Democrats lose that means the Republicans win. It means a willingness to fight for what you believe in. This is what progressive politics needs to be in the age of conservatism. Dead men don’t fight or win.