There's no sugarcoating it: 2010 was a rough year for progressives. Looking back, there were plenty of bad and some downright ugly moments for us, culminating in the Republican victories in the November midterms. But pointing fingers and looking for places to lay blame doesn't get us very far.
There are lessons to be learned from our failures and hopes to be drawn from our successes that can point to how we can have better political results in 2011 and 2012. Just look at the actions taken in the Senate this weekend. The failure of the DREAM Act and the successful repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) are indicative of the roller coaster ride we have been on with Congress this year. They are also examples of how persistence and a strong grassroots program can pay off in the long run. The fight to repeal DADT failed before it succeeded and I have hope that the DREAM Act has only hit a stumbling block on the path to passage.
One of the highlights of this year for me was Senator Bernie Sanders' eight-and-a-half hour filibuster on the Senate floor in defense of the American middle class. Regardless of whether you think that President Obama's tax cut deal was a wholesale sell-out or that extending unemployment benefits was important enough to compromise for, the Sanders filibuster showed how progressives can make a strong, clear stand against corporate privilege and for working families.
Sanders' stand should provide a lesson for the White House. We could have imagined the president and his surrogates holding public meetings across the country this fall to say, "This is where we're going to extend tax cuts to the middle class, and this is where we are going to draw the line." By mobilizing his base, getting outside Washington, and refusing to play inside baseball, Obama could have produced a different national discussion about taxes and created a very different set of possible policy outcomes. Sanders showed how to do it right in the future.
Washington was not entirely devoid of bright spots over the course of the year. For one, while we might not have been entirely satisfied with the health care reform that finally passed, it will nevertheless extend health coverage to over 30 million Americans who would have otherwise been uninsured. This is no small change. Moreover, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in the House of Representatives put up a steadfast fight for the public option. Viewed as an isolated effort, it was a failure. But if we look at it as a model for future behavior, it is far more promising. Our elected officials need to push for what's right on an on-going basis, instead of accepting what's already on the table. Because it is by continually pushing the envelope of the possible that they will change the terms of debate in Washington.
We should look at our electoral strategy in the same way. Every stance that moves us beyond simply accepting the lesser of two evils in elections should be seen as one step forward in a march toward a different type of politics. One such effort from 2010 that should be replicated was the primary challenge to incumbent Senator and prominent Blue Dog Democrat Blanche Lincoln. The labor movement defied the wishes of the White House by supporting the challenge, and they should be applauded for it. Although the effort to replace Lincoln was ultimately unsuccessful, the move sent the message that having elected officials with the letter "D" behind their names is not enough. If these types of challenges become more standard in the future, we'll look back on the primary campaign against Lincoln as a time when labor and other progressive constituencies started demanding candidates who are champions, not fair-weather friends.
Again, taken as isolated events and statements, none of the items above is particularly momentous. But taken together, they can be seen as pieces that could add up to something larger. They suggest that the elements of a winning agenda are present within the scope of Democratic activism. And they highlight strategies for how to both communicate this agenda to the public and push it forward in our political programs.
Earlier this year, I went to a town hall meeting sponsored by the Ed Schultz Show. There, people who had been laid off or who were losing their pensions as a result of the economic crisis took turns sharing their stories. What amazed me was that, instead of trying to pick a scapegoat for their troubles, these people expressed great solidarity for one another and great hope for finding ways to promote the public good. While rightly targeting their anger at politicians who have failed them, these people demonstrated some of the best qualities of democratic optimism. In stark contrast to all the talk about Tea Party individualism, their conversation was about finding a way to work together to improve our common situation.
Dispirited progressives should take a lesson from them. We should make sure we learn the good, the bad, and the ugly lessons of 2010 and see 2011 as an opportunity for bringing together those in this country who have been hit hard by economic downturn but who still believe that the solution to our problems is to be found through collective, democratic action.
-- Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. She can be reached via the Web site: http://www.amybdean.com or on Twitter @AmybDean
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