11/04/2010 10:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Progressive's Guide to What's Next

Close your eyes, and imagine that you're a committed member of a major political party. Your beloved president, just twenty-two months into his first term, has watched his approval ratings plummet from a high of nearly seventy all the way down to forty-two -- they will dip as low as thirty-five by January. The midterms are over; you've barely held on to the Senate, and Americans came out in droves to vote against you in the House. Add to this a recession that has brought unemployment up to 9.7%, and an angry, energized opposition gearing up to stonewall your agenda. Open your eyes. What do you do?

If you answered "pop on my Members Only jacket, crack open a Tab, and watch some Knight Rider," then you've correctly identified the year as 1982, and the increasingly unpopular president as Ronald Reagan.

Now, flash-forward to present day. You're a progressive, and are having trouble deciding whether to be madder or sadder in response to your fellow citizens' electoral slaughter of the Democratic Party. You can be excused for this sense of despair: a slew of progressive voices were extinguished by the sultans of sound bite, and even at the traditionally liberal end of the tunnel, darkness and light are still too close to call. But you're not dead -- in fact, there is a great deal for which to be thankful. Public option champion Michael Bennet will be a member of the next Senate, and religious zealots Ken Buck, Joe Miller, Sharron Angle, and Christine O'Donnell will not. More than half of the Blue Dog Coalition was wiped out, as was party blemish Blanche Lincoln -- the incoming Democratic Congress will be smaller, to be sure, but also sleeker and more representative of progressive values. Perhaps most crucially, Republicans will now be responsible for a portion of our government.

And it's there, right there in the bitterness of Democratic defeat, where mourning in America becomes morning in America for the progressive cause. A divided Congress means that Republicans, relegated for two years to booing from the stands, now get to call some of the plays. If you're a Democrat, and you truly believe that liberal solutions to the problems facing our nation are better than conservative solutions, this is phenomenal news. Progressives are famously miserable at negotiating the electoral process, and are almost comically inept at getting their message across to the voters; they have acquiesced in letting the word 'liberal' become a slur, cling to nuance and dispassion at all the wrong times, and basically do everything in their power to sound condescending and, ahem, 'elite,' because they think the fact of being smarter or saner than their opponent will be enough to get them elected (despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary).

Elections are about candidates, but governance is about ideas. And there's the rub: liberal candidates are often wildly unpopular, but liberal ideas almost never are. The abolition of slavery was a liberal idea. So was women's suffrage. Liberals brought us Social Security and Medicare, the civil rights movement, environmental protections, antitrust laws, the minimum wage, and the GI Bill, while conservatives vehemently opposed each of these measures (former Chamber of Commerce head Silas Strawn called Social Security an attempt "to Sovietize America," while Rep. Daniel Reed (R-NY) promised that, with its passage, "Americans would come to feel the lash of the dictator"). If you're wondering where the conservative legacy is, well, so am I.

Electoral losses can sting, and this one may hit progressives especially hard. In the long game, though, elections are ephemeral and good ideas survive, and there is comfort to be had in that. I believe that health care reform, the stimulus, and financial reform will soon join the list of liberal ideas embraced by Americans after a period of vitriolic opposition -- over the coming months, as unemployment blessedly ebbs, we will know better what a calm America thinks of these initiatives. If conservatives believe that they have finer ideas, then now is the time to put them to the test; I honestly look forward to seeing what their contribution to the nation will look like now that they have been asked to govern.

Ronald Reagan regained his popularity as the economy grew, just as Bill Clinton regained his following the 1994 Republican wave. Both of them had lower approval ratings at this point in their presidency than does Barack Obama, and it doesn't take an economist or political scientist to understand that as America gets back to work the president's numbers will rebound. In the meantime, Democrats must remember certain truths.

The thing about progress is that it's much, much harder than staying where you are; you sometimes have to wait years for vindication, and while you wait you have to run against candidates who call you a socialist and claim that they can lower the national debt while cutting taxes on the wealthy. They substitute fantasies for ideas, because fantasies are satisfying, and popular, and don't need time to ripen. And so it is: fantasies win the battle, but ideas always win the war. My hope for progressives is the same as my hope for conservatives -- that they bring their best ideas to the next Congress, so that the American people might begin to compare the visions of the two parties in action, side by side, free from the hyperbolic inflammations of the campaign trail. Democrats should have no qualms about picking themselves up, extending their hand, and saying "welcome to the government; may the best ideas win."

Now is the time for distraught progressives to remember those words, to dwell on them, to tattoo them on their arms, or inscribe them on their doorposts: May the best ideas win. If history proves anything, it's that, in the end, they always do.