For progressives, the election result in Massachusetts on Tuesday night was both a serious blow and a potential opportunity for our agenda. Conservatives (those deeply committed to preserving the status quo) have managed to seize the mantle of change. Yet, the unique timing of this special election has given us a chance to turn the world left side up before more serious and enduring damage is done.
Many misinterpret the effects of recent events. Contrary to media hype, losing 60 votes in the Senate is not the main problem. Progressives never had 60 votes in the Senate to start with, and President Bush proved it is possible to do big things without a super-majority. The real and imminent risk is paralysis by fear. We must avoid a disastrous turn toward caution and incrementalism. Community organizers and progressives have a critical role in shaping the understanding and response to what actually happened.
In that regard, several things seem clear:
- The White House and Congress failed to reckon with the deep economic pain and suffering in the country. They never got on the right side of populism by taking on the banks from the get-go, or responding aggressively to the unemployment and foreclosure crisis. Rather, by shoveling billions of dollars to the richest institutions and people in the country they contributed to people's understanding that government is captive to the most powerful interests in our country and painted themselves as the latest bums worthy of being thrown out of office.
- The Administration and Congress made grievous errors in how they handled the health care debate, and turned control of the narrative and timing of the issue over to its staunchest opponents. Letting the issue play out for months on end, letting Max Baucus drag things out in fraudulent and fruitless "bi-partisan" talks, cutting side deals with the industries who many Americans understand to be the problem (and who ended up opposing the bill anyway), and not defining the issue clearly and consistently were all serious errors of strategy that took a real toll. It was a business-as-usual approach unworthy of the change narrative upon which the President was elected.
- The President has demobilized his base in favor of a largely interest group approach to politics. This is perhaps the most mystifying mistake. With corporate interests setting the table and arcane rules in the Senate, change in Washington is too hard without a loud, insistent and sometimes raucous push. At the same time, the President's failure to use the bully pulpit to create public understanding on some foundational questions, like the limits of markets and the role of government, left an ideology that should have been discredited in the wake of the financial crisis now resurgent.
For all these serious errors, it is too easy in this difficult moment to pile on. The President did not have to make sweeping health care reform his priority, and he insisted on it despite advice from many quarters to "go small." A massive (though not big enough) stimulus package was enacted into law that was, among other things, the largest piece of anti-poverty legislation in generations. More importantly, there is plenty of blame to go around. This remains a closely divided country with powerful conservative tendencies, and it was crazy talk to think that we would achieve transformational change without fighting a massive movement of opposition. Many progressives suffer from the delusion that the only thing standing between us and transformational change is what the President does or doesn't do. This view is a colossal mistake that lets all of us off the hook too easily.
So what is to be done now?
In the short run:
- We must, must, must pass health care reform and do so quickly. To squander the opportunity to extend health coverage to over 30 million people, a dream for progressives for most of the 20th century, would amount not merely to a tactical retreat; it would constitute a surrender of the soul. Tactically, the best way to do this is for the House to pass the Senate bill with clear assurances that necessary improvements would be accepted by the Senate in a subsequent reconciliation bill. This is technically possible, but it will take an enormous push from the outside and for Congress to overcome their fear and make it politically possible.
- Boldly attack the economic crisis our country faces. For months, many of us have been pushing for a bold response to the titanic crisis of unemployment. The plan must be of a scope and scale that could plausibly do something about the crisis our country faces. The worst thing of all would be to pass a tiny, symbolic bill crippled at birth by deficit hawks. This would rightly only feed cynicism. Better to fight for something big, bold and ambitious and lose if Republicans choose to obstruct and filibuster. We must make conservatives explain why they are against putting people to work. Moreover, we must not apologize for having this debate; we can and must explain the necessary role of government and the limits of markets. The fireside chats of our time are necessary to move and shift public understanding, and there is no better time to begin than with the State of the Union next Wednesday.
- Press forward with immigration reform. It may be counter-intuitive, but this may be the only issue with a realistic hope of bi-partisan support left on the table when the dust settles. The Democrats need to stand and deliver for a growing, energized constituency that delivered for them in 2008 or risk demoralization of the base headed into 2010. The Republicans need to do something to take the edge off the hate if they are to avoid consigning themselves to minority status for 100 years, and some of them, notably Senator Lindsey Graham, seem to really get that.
Beginning now, and for the long haul, progressives need to recommit to movement building and organizing at scale as the only path to transformative change. The great changes in American history - the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, the New Deal, civil rights and Great Society - were not the product of electoral shifts alone or insider influence peddling. They were the result of millions of people acting and taking history into their own hands. Many community organizations have risen to the challenge of this time by bringing people into action, most notably saving health care reform time and time again by out gunning the teabaggers at town hall meetings, mobilizing against insurance companies and holding swing members of Congress accountable. The modern day immigrant rights movement has put and kept a very hard and controversial issue on the national table by putting millions of people on the streets in the tradition of earlier social movements.
But the larger progressive movement has tended to neglect organizing in favor of two approaches with contradictory assumptions: quiet insider advocacy on the one hand and talking to the already converted in a small fishbowl on the other. Insider advocacy tends to view the country as irredeemably conservative and asserts that the best we can do is sneak through policy changes clothed in conservative arguments. It places a premium on relationships with the powerful. The fishbowl approach assumes the country is already converted to a progressive worldview and the only thing in our way is a bankrupt leadership. And this approach spends as much time attacking close ideological neighbors as it does genuine opponents. Neither of these views is accurate nor is either likely to lead to transformative change. What we need is organizing and movement building that recruits new people, shapes their understanding of the world, wins hearts and minds, and creates opportunities for them to take action. This kind of organizing is different from simply running electoral mobilization programs or "call your Congressman" campaigns, though both can be important tactics along the way.
The die is not cast, and despair is not an option. We can still achieve major, transformational changes in our country. What the President and Congress do matters. What we do matters more.