Combating the Disease of Progressive Cynicism

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Robert Creamer Political Organizer, Strategist, Author; Partner Democracy Partners

Lately there has been a growing wave of cynicism on the Left. Many progressive voices are poised, at the drop of a hat, to believe that the Obama Administration -- or the Democratic leadership in Congress, or even the leaders of many progressive institutions -- can't wait to abandon progressive values and sell out the aspirations of the base of the Democratic Party.

It's easy to understand where that cynicism comes from. On many fronts, the last eight years -- in fact, the last forty -- have been incredibly frustrating for those of us who have struggled to make fundamental progressive change. Of course it is always hard to change the status quo. Just as in physics, inertia is a powerful force to overcome. It is easy for those with a vested interest in the way things are, to exploit the fear of the unknown -- even among those who would gain the most from change.

The collapse of the economy, the failure of Neo-Conservative foreign policy, the election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in Congress, have created a new moment of possibility that Progressives don't want to waste. Many of us are passionately committed to taking advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to make real progressive change.

But the best way to squander this rare, historic opportunity is to allow the disease of cynicism to infect our ranks -- to be ready, on a hair trigger, to bet against our own success.

My late father liked to spend time at the craps tables in Las Vegas. He had a betting system that worked pretty well for him over the years. Among other things, he always bet against the shooter. In the end, after all, the shooter in craps always craps out.

That makes a lot of sense when it comes to craps. It makes no sense at all when it comes to making progressive change.

Take the question of the public health insurance option. Many progressive commentators and bloggers seem intent on believing that, at every juncture, the public option must be dead. They willingly join in the narrative of the "sophisticated" commentators in the mainstream media who always think it's "naïve" to think that real change is possible in Washington.

Now, I don't claim to have perfect knowledge of the future. But I believe the odds are very high that by the time the Senate Finance Committee bill is merged with the Senate Health Committee bill - and the final Senate bill is merged with an excellent House bill in the House-Senate Conference - Congress will pass strong, progressive, health insurance reform that will finally fulfill the promise of health care for all and include a public option.

One thing I know for sure. If progressives constantly pronounce the public option dead -- it will be. The cynics will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, the cynics who are so convinced that the President and Democratic Leadership will "sell them out" on health care help empower the opponents of change. The health insurance industry would like nothing better than for everyone to agree with them that it is impossible to pass a public option. That would mean that it would fall off the agenda - off the menu of the possible. That is exactly what the health insurance industry wants.

In forty years of fighting for progressive change, I have become more convinced by the day that in order to win, you have to believe that you can. If you don't believe you can win, you won't win. Optimism that winning is possible is not always sufficient to guarantee success, but without it no success is ever possible.

There are two other corollaries to this rule.

First, progressive optimism isn't naïve. It understands that you have to make change starting from where you are, not where you wish you were. You have to transform the present into the future. You have to understand that making change involves the exercise of power, not wishful thinking.

The health care sector involves one-sixth of the economy. There are dozens of massive vested interests. The battle over health insurance reform is not mainly conflict over policies or ideas. It is mainly a battle over who gets how much money and who gets how much health care. It is a battle of vested interests against the public interest.

The other side is very powerful. To win, we have to be tougher, smarter, more determined - and believe absolutely that we can succeed. Cynicism and defeatism simply have no place in a battle like that.

Second, to win, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of being cynical about the motivations of our leaders. When you've struggled for years against long odds - when you've seen lots of political leaders with weak knees that get cozy with every special interest around - it is easy to fall into the trap of mistrusting every political leader. It's easier just to lump all politicians into the same bucket of unprincipled, uncommitted, egotists who don't care about anything but getting their pictures on TV or "being important." The problem is that it's not true.

Before he entered public life, Barack Obama was a community organizer who shared a passionate dedication to progressive values. He still does.

His Deputy Chief of Staff, Jim Messina - the man in charge of the political campaign to pass health insurance reform - is as dedicated to serious progressive reform of the health care system as any one else in America. And Rahm Emanuel is the perfect person to use the levers of political power to make the President's progressive agenda into reality.

Nancy Pelosi and many in the House Leadership are dyed-in-the-wool Progressives. She is literally working full time to get the strongest possible health care bill out of the House. The same is true of many members of the Senate. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin are completely committed to fundamentally reforming health care in American - including a strong public option.

Progressives have an enormous domestic agenda: health insurance reform, reform of the financial sector, creating a clean energy economy, immigration reform, labor law reform - and most importantly, reviving our economy. To win that agenda a unified progressive community must relentlessly challenge entrenched vested interests.

We have to work together to make sure that as these battles unfold, each element of the progressive community is empowered to promote its priorities. There must be plenty of room for vigorous advocacy and debate. But there must be no room for cynicism.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on