President Barack Obama is photographed during a presidential portrait sitting for an official photo in the Oval Office, Dec. 6, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)[/caption]I was watching the West Wing last night (I had seen some of it before, but I have decided that as a political junky I ought to watch the whole series), and the episode Let Bartlet Be Bartlet kinda struck me. That and Robert Gibbs’ rant about the “professional left.”
I think that Gibbs may be right that some on the left have failed to give President Obama credit where credit is due. He did pass a $800B stimulus package, sweeping health care reform, and a financial reform bill. Were these perfect? Far from it. It seems clear that the stimulus should have been larger, the health care reform bill does little to hold down costs, and the financial reform bill likely will not prevent the need for another government bailout sometime in the future. But are these bills that progressives would have been tripping over themselves to celebrate a few years ago? You bet.
The real issue I think that many on the “professional left” have with President Obama is his unwillingness to publicly declare what he wants in legislation and then to fight for it, even if he loses.** He could have come out and demanded $1.2T stimulus, which might have then resulted in congress passing a $1T stimulus. He could have made the public option a core part of what he wanted in a health care bill. He could have actually fought for a strong Volcker Rule rather than letting Treasury weaken it to the point that it would hardly work. The real issue the “professional left” has with President Obama is the same issue that Mandy had with Bartlet: his policy choices are all crafted to win a second term. But the reason that all of those voters got excited for President Obama was not so that he could win a second term, but because of a hope that he could change the discourse of Washington. That he would fight for average people and shed light on the obstructionist forces that prevented government from reaching its true potential. That kind of fight may not win legislative battles and it may not win elections, but it would make a lot of people feel better.
It’s not that people on the “professional left” really wanted the health care bill vetoed (well, most of them did not), it’s that they wanted President Obama to fight for parts of it, even if he did not get them. What gets people on the “professional left” upset is not the progressive legislation that passed, but the idea that no on fought for legislation that could have done so much more.
**I also think that many on the “professional left” had unreasonable expectations of how liberal President Obama would actually be. His campaign promises were certainly liberal, but they were always much closer to the center than many on the “professional left” allowed themselves to believe.
Part of the problem with liberal disillusionment with Obama’s apparent failure to pursue and enact a sufficiently liberal agenda is an inability to identify the structural context within which liberal and conservative activists operate. In “Kabuki Democracy” (http://www.thenation.com/article/37165/kabuki-democracy-why-progressive-presidency-impossible-now?page=0,11) Eric Alterman attempts to lay out in a comprehensive manner the structural obstacles to sweeping progressive change via the American political system. These include but are not limited to archaic and excessively anti-majoritarian composition and rules of the senate (grossly disproportionate representation and the procedural filibuster), the unmitigated influence of big money in politics (see Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) and the nature of the Democratic and Conservative Coalitions (diverse and fractured vs. ideologically and demographically cohesive, angry old an organized).
I think Alterman is largely right about these structural obstacles and the need to wear them down through a combination of legislating, organizing and movement building. What he and many liberals miss however, are the divergent natures of liberal and conservative politics, of liberal and conservative organizing. A conservative political “revolution” of the Gingrich or Cheney sort, is inevitably easier than the liberal equivalent. These political and social regressions are the one step backward for every two forward–if you’re an optimist like me. It should not come as a surprise to the left that our political institutions and societal organization are “rigged” to promote and protect the status-quo. In International Relations, its commonly accepted that international institutions or governance structures do not radically change except in cases of war or crisis or through the painfully long and arduous process of evolution that reflects changing global power dynamics. Applying this kind of realism to domestic politics might do liberals some good. We need to recognize that for political institutions and rules to become more fundamentally progressive, we must first do the hard work of progressive movement building, of building a progressive power base.
Some might ask how Europeans overcame older and arguably more conservative institutions to create the kinds of social programs US progressives can only dream of. The answer I think is that liberals in the United States have faced a different set of structural obstacles. In addition to unique protestant-conservative and libertarian traditions, diverse demographics and racial divisions have allowed conservatives to hold back and weaken progressive coalitions. Europe’s failure to extend the welfare state to immigrants and secure full employment are indicative of a different set of structural obstacles for European progressives.
Progressive movements in the United States are fractured, but not nonexistent. Nascent movements exist around the issues of dug prohibition and mass incarceration, immigration and unemployment. The obstacles to uniting and strengthening these movements can hardly be overestimated but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. I am among those that believe it must be done with a frank message of economic populism, one that can unite all those kept out of the American Dream. This would mean, among other things, creating a new narrative that does not stigmatize poor or working class status, but recognizes these as empowering identities that offer unique and valuable perspectives.
Liberals should continue to put public pressure on the president to take seriously their interests and agenda. This does not have to be to the detriment of Obama’s political posturing. The president can score cheap political points for an attack on the “professional left” and the country’s progressives can benefit from extracting an apology and making their presence known. Obama cannot enact a progressive revolution commensurate with ’08 chants of hope and change. But the still-strong Democratic position in Washington can be a starting point for a long and arduous progressive slog. Unfortunately “remain hopeful while we slog through the shit” probably wouldn’t stir the crowds quite like “Yes We Can.” But it’s all we can do for now. Slog and hope slog and hope slog and hope. If we’re lucky and slog far enough, we might see something like a Progressive Revolution.
Hey, we just got back from the Activities Fair. Great to see new and returning students out and about. Thanks are in order to Mark from the Lentz office, Hannah from the Sestak office, and special guest Swarthmore Mayor Rick Lowe.
Mark and Hannah had some exciting opportunities for Swat students. Swarthmore is in the district for two of the nation’s most competitive races – Joe Sestak’s campaign for the Senate and Bryan Lentz’s campaign for the House. Both are fine candidates from right nearby and both have offices near campus! Lentz’s office is a short walk away in the Olde Sproul Center on the Baltimore Pike and Sestak’s is a quick bus ride down the Pike to Media. Both welcome student volunteers, have flexible interning schedules, and have longstanding relationships with the Swarthmore College Dems. Please check them out. Whatever you can do will be welcome.
Thanks to all who came to our first meeting! If you missed it don’t sweat it, we just did some introduction. You can come next week (Tuesday at 9pm in Kohlberg 226) and catch up. I promise there’s no pop quiz.
Thanks to Natalie, Harry, and Colleen for their overview of the College Dems and what’s going on politically around here. As was mentioned, we have some very competitive races. From local to national: Walt Waite is running a serious campaign to hold the 161st and is attracting Harrisburg’s attention; Bryan Lentz is in perhaps the nation’s biggest and most competitive U.S. House race; and Joe Sestak is in the national spotlight with a formidable Senate bid.
Here’s how to get involved:
We are canvassing for Bryan Lentz on Saturday and will keep doing weekend canvasses. Don’t worry if you’ve never done it before, we’ll match you with someone experienced. People are generally nice and you feel like a pro in no time. Canvassing is also the single best way to contact voters: it yields more contacts (people you talk to) per attempt (people you try to talk to), more IDs (people who tell you how they plan to vote) per contact, and better results (people persuaded) than phone calls.
We’re also phonebanking for Bryan Lentz. Julio and I (Nick) go down to the office at 4:30 every Tuesday and Thursday and stay until 8:30. You can come down during those times and we’ll be happy to show you the ropes. But the office is open EVERY SINGLE DAY, with phonebanking every weekday from noon until 8:30 PM. Come in whenever you can – an hour or two a week or even just once is appreciated. Call the office at 610-328-0070, or talk to me or Julio (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com) or Harry or Natalie (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). It’s a very short walk. Ask any one of the above for directions.
Work for Sestak and Waite will come, so stay tuned! We have two months. Don’t wake up on Nov. 3rd wondering what you could have done to stop a Republican takeover. Delaware County – and I am dead serious – is the front line. Sestak and Lentz have the rapt attention of the national parties, and this is their backyard.