Progressive cynicism is, unfortunately, not an oxymoron.
My previous post that listed five reasons why a confrontation with the president won't achieve progressive goals received a heavy battery of comments. Of those who disagreed - and there were lots - two basic arguments emerged.
One, from the Nader school, says that Obama has become, or always was, a "corporatist" and must be shamed out of it. Our socio-political system is so irrevocably corrupt that to operate within it is to advance its interests. A president truly committed to progressive change must be a revolutionary instead of a governor - a Neo to the country's Matrix. This might mean re-interpreting executive power to nationalize the health care and energy sectors.
The other argument presumes Obama is being either naive or incompetent in managing power politics in Washington. He won't, or can't, weaponize his progressive mandate against the enemies of his goals. Therefore, if he's not responding to the enemy's advancing army then we'd better graze his ear with one of our own bullets to get his attention.
Fundamentally, these arguments display a rejection of what the president means by "hope." They're rooted in a cynicism that's understandable but also self-destructive. These sentiments, and the president's most recent August swoon in general, remind us that this moment is the first real test of Obama's "hope" in the nitty-gritty of getting big things done in Washington.
The president could not have laid this fact out on the line more clearly than he did in his health care address to Congress:
When facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter - that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
This echoes exactly what he campaigned on. After his South Carolina primary victory, Obama said:
We are looking for more than just a change of party. ... We're not up just against the ingrained and destructive habits of Washington. We're also struggling with our own doubts, our own fears, our own cynicism. ... And so this is a battle for our own hearts and minds about what kind of country we want. ... It's about whether we settle for the same divisions and distractions and drama.
"Hope" is the simple belief that America as a body politic can work again.
Through this lens, the White House's approach to health care does not look like appeasement or even caution. The president looks like someone who's been trying to let the country have a grown-up debate. He looks like someone who understands that if the machinery of democracy can't work to solve big problems - if we remain stuck in our game of flea-minded, partisan pong - American entropy might be irreversible.
To those who point out that the nation has not been up to the challenge of a grown-up debate, well, they're obviously right. But we're a country that's just been able to admit it has a problem. We need to remember that; and the president reminded us just in time.
Now, I can practically hear the frustrated sighs of those who think this is just the can't-we-all-just-get-along, encounter-group language from a liberal naif. Not true. Look, I work in Providence cleaning up after a mayor who went to jail twice. I appreciate a fight as much as anybody, but I like results even better. And for the inveterate brawlers out there, I'd implore you to consider this: the most deadly political weapon the Left has devised in many years is, in fact, "hope."
Hope was the bludgeon that won the Presidency. Hope turns independents into progressives and it turns Republicans into nuts (which partially explains the effect on independents). Republicans become the spoiled brats at the American dinner table who voters must keep placing in timeout. Progressives must resist the urge to join the meltdown.
Cynicism is easy. I say this without moralization because I'm as guilty as anyone, but it's a fact. Belief, faith, trust, and yes, hope -- these are hard. They also work. They are the surest avenues progressives have to long-term legislative and electoral success. This is not to say we should sit down and shut up; just to take that leap of faith that maybe we're not being sold out, lied to or taken for granted. A place called hope is the high ground -- exactly where we should build our battle station.
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