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Jedediah Purdy Headshot

What We Have Lost (and What We Are Fighting for)

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It's time to fight like hell for the party of the center-right, represented by Barack Obama, against the party of the far right. There is no alternative.

It's a time for progressives to be disappointed and resolute. This is so different from the mood of 2008 that it's worth pausing to sort out what has changed.

I believed in 2008 that an Obama presidency might mean a new life for the exhausted politics of fairness and solidarity -- the politics that begins from the fact that we are all in this together. I believed this because part of what makes politics is its poetry, the weave that binds policy to feeling and imagination, and Obama, at his best, said things about looking out for one another, and tied them to government's role, as no one of his stature had done for a long time.

I believed it also because of the movement Obama inspired. Remember: We were in the streets for months and months. We gave money we didn't have. We took the nomination away from an anointed, supposedly untouchable candidate, Hillary Clinton, because we wanted to do more than win by the rules someone else had handed down. We wanted to remember, by doing, that all democratic power comes from the people, who sometimes change the rules of the game.

This is real: It was we who did this, who coalesced around Barack Obama, but were more than a campaign, more than a bunch of people taking orders. Proof of this is in the spontaneous action so many people took. Where I live, in North Carolina, there was a grass-roots campaign for Obama over a month before the Obama campaign arrived, and that earlier, chthonic campaign never really disappeared, just merged its spirit with its official successor.

I point this out because it is now standard to say that no one should have believed that hope and change stuff in the first place. To this we have to say, bullshit, and double bullshit for being all condescending and pseudo worldly wise. What we believed made possible what we did, and what we did made a president. Talking about the Obama presidency without that hope and change stuff is like discussing the Civil War with reference to neither union nor freedom. Take out what people are working, fighting, sacrificing for, and you might as well be mapping the movements of an anthill.

Yet we have been disappointed. Why? Because the poetry of health care came in late and weak, even though it is the issue God seems to have meant Obama to explain to Americans in moral terms. Fate seemingly designed the president's life as training for this mission, he chose it in the face of pressure to work on the economy first, and then, mysteriously, he handed it to Max Baucus and Harry Reid. Because the governing strategy has been as cautious and deferential to established rules -- Congressional, financial, etc. -- as the campaign was -- okay, I'm all in anyway -- audacious. Because this liberal lawyer's procedures for killing Americans and his other legal innovations in the massive, global anti-terror campaign may end up being nearly as bad as some of the Bush policies, and also more durable (they are smarter and more careful).

Basically, I think we have been disappointed because we halfway fooled ourselves. Speaking for myself and some of the idealists around me, we imagined that the substance of political transformation could arise from the rhetoric and the sentiment. I'm now inclined to think that, for transformation to work, you first have to be fighting for concrete things. The poetry and feeling grow up around those fights. Or, at least, the power is much greater then. In this way, there was something strange in the 2008 campaign: We marched largely on sentiment, on trust, without a map toward the horizon where we thought we saw light. After the election, who was there to keep Obama honest on how to approach Wall Street, how to preserve civil liberties and due process, how to lay down a marker of universal coverage at the very beginning of the health-care fight and try to move to dial of political pressure on some senators accordingly? We had built no institutions to make sure the president would be the candidate we thought we were supporting. The other guys -- the industries, the money -- had not been neglecting institutional development over the years.

But it's best not to linger over disappointment. The disappointment honors what we hoped for and why we worked in 2008, but it can also stand in the way of present facts. This administration has done things that need defending.

Take health care, which is both a disappointment and an achievement. The Affordable Care Act is a major piece of moral progress, easily the biggest in national politics in decades. This should be clear to anyone who cares about anyone who lacks insurance, has a pre-existing condition, or is stuck in a job just to keep coverage -- the whole monstrous litany that the insurance industry's free-market bureaucracy has produced. Nor should it depend on knowing someone, though it often does. The same facts should be clear to anyone who makes the minimum effort of moral imagination to consider the tens of millions of Americans who are actively, poignantly, trying to play by the rules and do the right thing, and are made vulnerable by explicit decisions to freeze them out of care -- decisions that are not "in our name" only because we have handed them off to profit-seeking companies.

That kind of imagination, by the way, is what Barack Obama in 2008 was offering to help cultivate. This has been one of the great styles of rhetorical leadership in presidents, notably in Lincoln, who worked heroically to bring divided people to see through one another's eyes, even just a little.

It may be one of the really tragic lessons of the last four years that, in the present state of national politics, there is no space for that kind of moral imagination, that, instead, everything gets immediately dragged into the trench warfare of slur and counter-slur, accusation and counter-accusation. The president's diffidence about this chest-beating and finger-pointing style of politics, which still might cost him the election (if we say it is part of what inhibited him in the first debate), is closely connected with what got him elected four years ago: The wish for a better condition of American political community. He acts, sometimes, as if he thought he were too good for this nonsensical, pandering pseudo-argument. Aren't we all? If we dislike his diffidence, isn't that at least a little because it justly accuses us of forgetting ourselves?

But never mind. If he doesn't win, things will get worse, quite possibly much worse. The White House will spend four years eroding implementation of the Affordable Care Act, even if Congress can't repeal it. Environmental protection will be history. The next Supreme Court will be staffed with people who would have invalidated the health-care law outright, and, by the way, love Citizens United and money in politics generally. People who think we aren't fighting enough wars in the Middle East will have President Romney's ear.

There are two basic takes on what an Obama defeat would mean. Some say it would crush progressive hopes for a generation or more because it would be taken as a rejection of health care reform, the stimulus and energy policy, and the rest of what Obama has done and tried to do. More sanguine observers think that long-term demographic trends will doom the Republican Party in its present form: They agree with Lindsey Graham that there aren't enough angry white men to hold up the party.

I tend more to the pessimistic view because demographic trends will always let you down as prophecy: groups change, parties change. Nothing about the relative decline of rural, white men protects the country from becoming more mutually indifferent, fragmented, and unconnected by policies or institutions that treat us as parts of a single community. Nothing in our demographics will protect from more deficit-financed wars. But no forecast is worth leaning on very hard. The future is guaranteed to be surprising. Remember that George W. Bush was widely expected to be an easygoing moderate who would unite the country and bring the Republican party into the post-Clinton policy consensus (and who wasn't interested in foreign policy).

The future is obscure, the past is full of disappointment, and in the present a few things are clear. Here's one. It's time to march again, though we are fewer and tired, toward the horizon where the darkness seems the least impassable.