07/13/2009 04:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ideology is Missing Element of Progressive Strategy

Ideology is Missing Element of Progressive Strategy
By Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Center for Community Change

In spite of the possibility that November's election created for transformational policy and social change, progressives face some stiff challenges from entrenched conservatism. When measuring the sobering reality of the last few months of politics-as-usual in Washington against the heady expectations of Election Day and the Inauguration, it is easy but insufficient to chalk it up to well-worn frustrations with our political institutions.

Sure, the debate in Congress over the last few months has reminded us of the gridlock endemic in partisan politics, and of the deep fissures within political parties. Both the banks' defeat of the so-called "cramdown" bill this spring, and the $1.4 million being spent by the health-care industry each day are stark reminders of the continued power of money in policymaking. And the persistent worsening of the economic situation of those who were already struggling when the economy was supposedly strong - with unemployment for Blacks and Latinos approaching 20% - puts the wide divide between people's lived experience and the inside-the-Beltway discussion in focus yet again. But when taking stock of the barriers to progressive change, we must understand that they are not only about political and social structures. Conservative ideology is another advantage (along with money and armies of lobbyists) the right draws on and employs in their efforts to block the change we were promised last November.

Even though the election would have led some to believe that we're in the midst of a liberal renaissance, polls have suggested that the public's ideology really hasn't changed. In fact, the latest Gallup survey of American's self-defined political ideology indicates that political views are becoming more conservative. We could rationalize the numbers as merely reflecting growing concern with the economy or the slow pace of delivery on campaign promises. But the hard truth is that we still operate in a political environment where our values (of equity and justice), principles (that good government is essential to securing the common good), and policies (like the public option in healthcare reform) are as likely to be regarded with suspicion by the public under the current Administration as they were under the previous one.

Faced with this ideological opposition, too much of the liberal establishment is only playing the Beltway game, while conservatives continue to work to simultaneously influence public views and block crucial legislation. The conservative juggernaut is taking advantage of the Republican Party's limited legislative power by focusing on the ground game. The right-wing tea parties in April may have seemed silly (despite the 300,000-plus attendees), but they allowed conservatives to stoke myths of governmental incompetence that undermine our goals for a host of policy goals, from healthcare to economic stimulus. In response, progressives generally mocked and disregarded the tea parties without offering a reasoned and substantive ideological challenge (admittedly, I was as guilty of this as anyone else).

Over the coming days we will see conservatives live up to their stated goal of using the confirmation debate over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a "teaching moment." Whether agitating race-based fears and resentments or talking in measured tones about 'identity politics,' conservatives are working to spread a worldview that undermines any claims made by communities of color about the continuation of racial inequality and oppression. And in response, progressives are playing defense rather than launching our own "teaching moment." Instead of trying to distance Judge Sotomayor from her own "affirmative action baby" quote, progressives should be taking this opportunity to emphasize both the success of equal opportunity programs and their continued importance. Progressives should be educating the public about the persistence of overt racial bias (as in the case of the white-only pool in Philadelphia) and structural inequalities (like the racial divide in unemployment), in order to both expose the racism and falsehoods of the arguments against Judge Sotomayor and re-shape people's conceptions of race in America for the next debate that touches on issues of race and inequality.

The tendency of progressives to not even engage in the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans undermines our ability to win policy change and hold on to power. It is far too short-sighted to continue to push policies without talking about our core values or putting our policy solutions in the context of a narrative that explains who is responsible for (and how to solve) the tough situations that people find themselves in. Even though progressives have offered a clear policy solution (a government-backed insurance alternative) and tried to use the anti-corporate sentiment of the financial crisis against the fat-cat insurance companies, the ideological opposition to governmental and collective solutions is as much a threat to healthcare reform as ever. Poll after poll shows that people are fed up and want the healthcare system to change. Yet over the last five years, the Gallup poll shows an increase in the view that it is not the government's responsibility to provide all Americans with healthcare. This rejection of both a role for government and the importance of including everyone in the solution to our healthcare crisis reveals how ineffective we are in pushing back against the conservative ideology that has blocked our progress for decades.

Even though we're still weak on ideology, progressives have learned important lessons from the last decade of conservative dominance. We now demonstrate our grassroots muscle by generating overwhelming numbers of calls and emails to legislators in support of our policy positions. In the past two months, the grassroots energy on health care reform and comprehensive immigration reform has been undeniable. Thousands of community leaders traveled to Washington to put pressure on their legislators. Many more took action in their home states and are directly responsible for turning on-the-fence legislators into champions and chastening those who were willing to trade the interests of their constituents for campaign contributions. We are succeeding in deepening the commitment of the organized progressive base to the policy solutions we want, but conservatives still hold sway with the unorganized and disaffected.

We need to develop clear principles and moral yardsticks that put our core values on the national agenda. If we pursue a politics informed more by what public opinion will tolerate than what our vision and values dictate we will never move people beyond the default conservative ideology that still dominates. And we will allow the right-wing to spread its new brand of angry, reactionary populism and backlash politics, unchallenged. We have to pave the way for a progressive majority in this country. And that will require both winning policy changes that improve people's lives and also telling a compelling and consistent story about the world that changes hearts and minds and discredits the conservative ideology.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld is Deputy Director of Idea Generation & Dissemination at the Center for Community Change