The progressive movement has had it easy. There's been a lot to mobilize for and unite against. Now what?
History doesn't offer much comfort. The conservative movement grew most when it was exile from the Republican Party. National Review was born under moderate Eisenhower. The grassroots conservative movement flourished in opposition to Rockefeller's presidential candidacy. The New Right arose to build an alternative to big-government Nixon. The early 1990s revival lead by Norquist, Reed and Gingrich was to oppose the tax-raising George H. W. Bush. At the same time, the conservative movement atrophied under the conservative presidents, Reagan and W., who governed the party in their name.
The progressive movement, in its short history, has followed a similar course. Progressive billionaires, bloggers and grassroots activists mobilized less against a conservative president than a complicit mainstream media and a Bush-enabling Democratic establishment. Their primary goal was not to defeat Republicans in 2004 but to nominate a choice, not an echo, who would come from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party. Progressive organizations were alternatives not just to the Heritage Foundation or the Americans for Tax Reform, but the Democratic Leadership Council and the Progressive Policy Institute. They were a people without a party.
Now, progressives are presented with a paradox from history. The more Obama embraces a progressive agenda the more the progressive movement will deflate. The more Obama moves into the territory of triangulation the more progressives will be inclined to build and mobilize.
Yet, politics is not simply a function of past occurrences, as today's inauguration testifies. History offers us an insight into probability but does not dictate necessity. It illuminates the difficulties that grassroots movements face when their leaders take office. As I have argued before, the progressive movement and the Left generally is inherently more unstable, less unified and more disorganized than their conservative counterparts.
Progressives have to work harder. To retain the advances made we must maintain fierce independence of the new Democratic establishment, the Obama presidency and mainstream media. Any capitulation to these institutions will wind back the incredible progress progressives have made in the past six years. If progressives lapse into the false security that conservatives under conservative administrations have done, they risk returning to the political exile from which they have returned.