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Deepak Bhargava Headshot

Progressive Strategy in the Obama Era

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Some 500 days into the new administration, progressives are souring on President Obama's leadership on a range of issues from jobs and energy to immigration and foreign intervention. Paradoxically, it is this precise moment when I propose that the progressive movement turn this disappointment into a reflection on our selves rather than merely on a single political figure. Much of the criticism from left against the White House, has been in my opinion, over the top (This coming from someone who has been a harsh critic on jobs, immigration and was arrested outside the gates of the White House a few short weeks ago).

Yet, in some sense, blaming a politician for being a product of a broken political system which gives too much weight to the powerful interests of the status quo begs the question of how we counter the forces which obstruct the hopes of millions of people. Great changes in our history have always come through mass pressure from the outside combined with receptive leadership in positions of power. Presidents don't create moral urgency; social movements do and Presidents respond.

The central lesson of American history is that it takes social movements to get big things done. Abolition, women's suffrage, and the reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society were not fast or easy wins, nor were they brought about by a single election or by a President handing change down like manna from heaven. The passion and the power for big change came from below in each of these instances.

As we look at the next two years and consider the changes we'd like to see, we need to realize that the important question is not what the Obama Administration does or does not do. The important question is: Are we capable of mounting the kind of mass movement that can create a cycle of transformative, progressive change in the country. Whether President Obama turns into FDR or LBJ, or Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, is only partly about what he does. I'd argue that it's mostly about what we do.

So far we have not done enough. Since the 2008 election, the only mass progressive movement has been the immigrant rights movement, and this absence is worrisome particularly in light of the biggest economic crisis the country has seen in many years. There have been some very encouraging signs of life over the last few months with protests at Wall Street and here in Washington, but in the populist uprising on economic issues, it has really been the Tea Party movement that's held sway in the debate.

The absence of vocal and broad-based movements from the grassroots frees politicians to negotiate with each other, usually with very poor results.

Let me give a historical example from the civil rights era about the power of movement:

As senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson did everything in his power to water down the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This legislation was the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, proposed by the Eisenhower Administration and vigorously opposed by Southern Democrats, which would have placed the federal court system in charge of protecting voting rights nationwide. Thanks to Johnson, the version that eventually passed the Senate bore no resemblance to that original goal. Johnson made sure the Judiciary Committee, chaired by a segregationist from Mississippi, stripped away any real enforcement of voting rights by federal judges. He saw to it that any state-level enforcement would be decided by jury trial rather than a judge's ruling, recognizing that no Southern jury would return a verdict in favor of black plaintiffs. He defeated an amendment to give the Justice Department enforcement authority to sue for school desegregation.

Every step of the way, Lyndon Johnson was firmly to the right of the Eisenhower Administration in that legislative debate in 1957. According to Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, he "whittled the bill down to minimum form" and promised Southern Democrats to make it "as weak as possible."

Fast forward to the 1960s, when as President, Johnson championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. He roused Congress to action in the famous speech where he affirmed that "we shall overcome." Clearly that speech would never have been delivered unless there had been a civil rights movement that for decades had made the moral case and forced the country to look in the mirror.

The progressive movement has a lot to learn from today's immigrant rights movement, too. More than a million people have marched for immigration reform this year. The March 21 immigration rally in DC was the largest mobilization of any kind on any issue since President Obama was inaugurated. A boycott of Arizona is gaining steam. A wave of civil disobedience led by young people, faith leaders and others has begun all over the country. Some of the most vulnerable, exploited segments of our society with the most to lose from engaging in public life are showing the greatest level of capacity for mobilization and movement, and the greatest courage.

The battle for comprehensive reform legislation has been declared more times than I can count over the last year. Yet every time it has appeared to be over, the movement has mobilized at a large scale and brought it back. Every bit of progress we've made thus far is because we've pushed for it. And we will prevail.

As we move forward, it is also critical that progressives have a sober and realistic view of the nation we live in. Ours is still a deeply divided country. I remember the sense of euphoria that prevailed over the festivities of the President's inauguration all over the country. The euphoria was justified, but the election of the President was misinterpreted in many circles as a sweeping mandate for broad and progressive change in the country. The election represented a rejection of failed policies and bankrupt leadership, and openness to something different. This is why organizing and recruiting new people, and not just mobilizing existing activists, is so important. Progressives who think the country already agrees with them about everything are quick to blame spineless politicians for failures. Progressives who understand that we have a long way to go to win hearts and minds put the emphasis on organizing and recruitment, and social movements.

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