The Rising Progressive Electorate
Lessons from the 2000 Election
And why Greater Evil Doesn’t Necessarily Lead to Greater Good
Well aren’t we the armchair quarterbacks!
Yes, Obama and the Democrats are messing up. In all sorts of ways. In our professional leftist opinion. Then again, the presidential candidate who probably comes closest to reflecting our views was a wonderful Congressman named Dennis Kucinich who barely garnered 1% of the Democratic primary vote. I have been reading a lot of progressive blogs lately and I’m hearing a very strong theme: Obama and the Democrats are messing up and they deserve to lose in the fall.
As a professional leftist myself, I want to call our bluff a little bit here –and I say this with love and a deep desire that we will actually one day create true lasting transformative change. Last time I checked, nobody elected most of us bloggers and progressive critics to City Council, let alone President of the United States. A lot of us would have trouble getting elected to our local school board. That’s not a knock on us. We have a different role. It’s just to say that getting elected is extremely difficult, and nothing to be taken for granted. If you’ll recall, in September 2008, McCain was leading in many polls. If the economic collapse had hit two months later, or we had suffered a terrorist attack, it is very likely that John McCain would be our President instead of Barack Obama right now. Our grip on the levers of power has been and will always be extremely tenuous.
It is tempting to over-interpret the 2008 election as a mandate for genuine systemic change. Let’s be real. “Change” was a campaign slogan –conveniently vague. Obama is a mainstream Democrat surrounded by professional campaigners who are also mainstream Democrats. He is in his heart probably 10-20% to the left of the Clintons in some respects. But with a lot more pressure as a black man (with a Muslim name) to prove that he too can be the President for all of America, not just the 53% who elected him.
We can armchair quarterback Obama all we want. The reality is that he is a reflection of his circumstances. And he is the best person we could find for the job. His actions and thinking are shaped and constrained in ways we in our armchairs can only imagine. Governing the United States right now is extremely difficult, maybe impossible. You have to make all sorts of promises to all sorts of people to get elected. And all sorts of compromises. You have to deal with all sorts of extremely powerful stakeholders and take into account variables that most of us professional leftists can only speculate on. The difference between being an outside observer versus actually having the responsibility of governing and being President of the world’s only super power at this particular moment in history is a vast gulf–can we really presume to put ourselves in his shoes?
I raise this because I see a lot of us –by which I mean people who I agree with politically- feeling demoralized and angry at the Democrats and the Obama administration. This is understandable. I get it. I feel you. I whole-heartedly agree that there needs to be an organized and outspoken left that pushes hard for better policies and solutions. I am part of that. And I agree that Obama and his advisers badly miscalculated a lot of things and failed to make good and courageous decisions in all sorts of ways.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The over-arching reason the Obama administration isn’t listening to us more is because we –the organized left– are not actually as powerful a constituency as we think we are. If we want to have a greater impact, we need to figure out a way to become a lot more powerful. That means we need to organize a lot more people, money, and media than we are currently organizing.
The good news is that the organized left actually does have a fair amount of power –more than we’ve ever had in my lifetime. And we’re more organized than we’ve ever been before. It has made a significant difference. It did allow us to win the biggest victories in several decades on health care, financial reform, student loans, lobbying reform, etc. The stimulus, for all its flaws, was the largest new anti-poverty program in decades.
The other good news is that we came very close to winning a lot more. We probably would have won the public option if we had been able to elect a few more Democrats to the Senate. If we had elected 62 Democrats instead of 60, we would probably have the public option right now. So bigger better change is possible. It’s not fundamentally out of reach. But we need to organize a bit bigger and better to get there.
The other other good news is that in many respects demographics are on our side. The younger generation is the most progressive sector of the electorate, and people of color will be a majority in the next four decades. If we can keep the younger generation involved, informed, and voting, time is on our side.
The bad news is that the other side knows this. They are terrified and they’re hitting back hard with everything they’ve got. There are parallels to white Afrikaaners under Apartheid.
My theory of change is that if we can make incremental improvements under eight years of Democratic control –and not slide too far backwards– then we can buy time for the new electorate, and an organized progressive movement, to elect a more and more progressive candidate pool from the ground up over the coming years. To me this is a quasi-realistic plan for how to make things better over the next few decades. Let’s call my theory of change “The Rising Progressive Electorate Theory of Change.”
A lot of folks on the left have another theory of change. I call it the “Greater Evil Leads to Greater Good Theory of Change.” It says that if we exercise the modest power we have to criticize and punish Democrats and by default we help elect Republicans who will be so bad that it will “wake people up” then people will rise up and create real systemic change. I understand this strategy. This was essentially the logic that elected George Bush. And it worked to some extent. George Bush’s presidency was the catalyst for the greatest progressive movement we have seen in decades. But the cost wasn’t worth it. At the very least, this theory of change is a dangerous game of Russian Roulette.
It’s also historically naïve. It is inspired by some very real examples –the depression leading to the New Deal. Segregation leading to civil rights.
However, in far too many cases, Greater Evils have a way of leading to greater and greater evils. Our Europeans ancestors came to this continent and killed off a bunch of the original Americans. And then they killed more and more. There was no greater good. There was no bounce back. Just greater evil until almost everyone was killed off. Ditto for the conquest of Africa.
It is always dangerous to let right-wing movements come to power. We thought it was bad under Clinton. So, in 2000, we didn’t work hard to elect Al Gore. That gave us George Bush –by 537 votes– who brought us the Iraq war, an economic crisis, and a multi-trillion dollar national debt we will spend the rest of our lives trying to get out of. This debt will constrain progressive economic programs for decades to come.
Things can always get worse. They don’t always bounce back. Especially when it comes to the environment. Especially when it comes to the lives of people in economically vulnerable circumstances. This is part of why the progressive movement as it exists tends to reflect a degree of economic and class privilege. Greater Evils don’t always lead to Greater Goods. They sometimes just lead to Greater Evils. Even when confrontation with evil causes people to rise up against injustice, as in post-colonial independence struggles in the third world, the patterns of evil are hard to unlock, and they tend to keep cycling back over and over like a broken record.
Cycles of good can spiral too. To me, the Rising Progressive Electorate Theory of Change has a real chance of succeeding if we give it a chance. What’s scary is that it is extremely fragile and vulnerable. If young people grow cynical, or are wooed by right wing investment, our entire hope for the future goes up in smoke.
2010 reminds me a lot of 2000 in terms of the mood of the progressive electorate. We were mad at Clinton. We thought Gore sucked. My friends organized sit-ins outside Gore’s campaign offices to protest his ties to Occidental Petroleum. Ralph Nader was organizing stadium sized super rallies. People thought Bush was a joke the same way people think Palin and Beck and the Tea Party are a joke today.
So we sat the 2000 election out –we didn’t treat it as a national emergency. The Republican Secretary of State in Florida did her dirty deeds. And we lost in the final tally by 537 votes.
People think of 2008 as the most historic and defining election in recent memory. I think it was 2000. That was the year progressives sat it out. We played Russian Roulette and through our inaction we handed the election to Bush who damaged our country and world in ways which may be irreparable.
2010 reminds me a lot of 2000 in terms of the mood of the progressive community. We are indulging in the fantasy that things can’t get worse. Or that things getting worse will lead to things getting better. It is a very dangerous game of Russian Roulette we are playing.
The long-term question is how do we actually change the American electorate and political system enough so that we can get people in office who truly represent the will and needs of the American people? Some advocate third parties which won’t work unless we pass fusion, like the Working Families Party has in a few states.
Some advocate money out of politics as a silver bullet. It is silver. And it’s a bullet. But in order to pass it and back it up, we need something to actually shoot the silver bullet called a powerful progressive movement.
At the end of the day, systems changes are empty technocratic fixes without the presence of a powerful unified movement.
How do we build a movement strong enough and capable of winning and managing the machinery of governing? This is the real question.
I don’t think we get closer to where we want to be in the long run by playing Russian Roulette with this election. I think we get there through organizing more people, more money, more media, and developing better ideas.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize the Obama administration or Democrats in congress. We should. By all means. And just as importantly we should be organizing and sharing our vision and values. There is a season for every tactic. When it’s primary season, we should primary them. When it’s legislative season, we should push legislation. It is now getting to be general election season, which means it’s time to get out the vote to make sure that the Rising Progressive Electorate understands what is at stake, participates, and allows progressive ideas to live another day.
There is a great concept from feminism called “Both And.” We can criticize the Lesser of two Evils. We can primary them. AND we can protect them from being replaced by even greater evils. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
If Democrats lose the House by narrow margins in a couple of states, we can kiss any hope of Federal change goodbye for at least the next two years. And it’s Russian Roulette to assume Obama would be able to use two years of Republican obstructionism, as Bill Clinton did in 1996, to his advantage in 2012.
I don’t want another razor close election like 2000 on my conscience. If only we had known what was going to happen when Bush got elected, it would have been so much easier to go back and organize 538 more voters in Florida.
It is a moral imperative to make sure 2010 is not like 2000. We can’t afford to play Russian Roulette. We need this rising progressive electorate to keep rising. For decades to come and future generations, we can’t afford to have any regrets on this one.