The Democratic Party's leftwing -- comprised, for the most part, of labor, peace, racial justice, women's rights, and environmental organizations, as well as unaffiliated progressive activists -- faces some difficult choices in 2012, when it will be dealing with numerous election campaigns.
Many progressives feel a keen sense of disappointment with the Obama administration, which showed a remarkable willingness to capitulate to conservatives when the Democrats controlled congress and even more craven behavior once the Republicans won back control of the House of Representatives. Organized labor is aghast at the continuation of the Bush tax cuts and the collapse of legislative efforts to facilitate union recognition, peace groups are appalled by the escalation of the Afghanistan War and the rise of the Pentagon budget, civil rights groups despair over the absence of anti-poverty measures and the growing restrictions on voting rights, women's groups deplore the administration's capitulation on contraception, and environmental groups shake their heads at the administration's veto of auto emission standards, its green light to offshore oil drilling, and its retreat on reducing carbon emissions. Contrasting the administration's all-out effort to save Wall Street with its indifference to Main Street, many progressives wonder if they have gained anything worthwhile with Obama's election.
On the other hand, disappointment among progressive forces is a long-standing pattern, for, since World War II, they almost invariably have felt sold out by Democratic administrations. In 1948, angry with the Truman administration, many liberals joined leftists in supporting the ill-fated Progressive Party or else sought to block Truman's re-nomination on the Democratic ticket. In 1968, disgusted with the Johnson administration, they fervently backed Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in their Democratic presidential primary challenges and, when these collapsed, sat out the election. In 1980, irate at the administration of Jimmy Carter, they backed Ted Kennedy's challenge in the Democratic presidential primaries and, when this failed, many turned to the third party tickets of Barry Commoner and John Anderson. And, in 2000, fed up with the administration of Bill Clinton, many refused to back the presidential bid of his vice president, Al Gore, and flocked, instead, to the third party candidacy of Ralph Nader.
And yet, despite this history of revolt, neither a Democratic primary challenge nor a serious third party challenge to Obama has yet arisen. Why is that? It's certainly not because progressive activists believe Obama is popular with the general public. Indeed, his poll numbers are consistently bad -- so bad that, if the GOP had a reasonably sane, likable candidate, Obama would be easily defeated.
Probably the most important reason for the quiescence of progressive activists is that the Republican party has shifted so far to the right that they consider a Republican presidential victory simply unthinkable. They have concluded that there really is a difference between the leaders of the political parties -- the difference between bad and worse.
In these circumstances, it seems likely that, in 2012, despite their qualms, progressive forces will provide at least token support for Obama's re-election. This will include endorsements and campaign contributions from unions and other traditionally Democratic party support groups.
At the same time, however, most of the progressive effort and resources will probably go into taking back control of the House of Representatives, holding on to control of the Senate, challenging reactionary Republican governors, and supporting progressive ballot propositions. In the elections, activists seem likely to put the bulk of their effort into championing the most progressive congressional candidates (such as Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Norman Solomon in California, Bernie Sanders in Vermont, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, and Alan Grayson in Florida). And the unions are likely to put significant resources into state campaigns, where reactionary Republican administrations, elected in 2010, are going all out to destroy them. After all, if they can secure some significant victories at the polls -- as they did in 2011 -- they will be able to turn the tide in the states, strengthen their hand within the Democratic party, and push the Obama administration leftward.
Of course, with nearly a year to go before the elections, the political situation may change dramatically. Furthermore, Obama -- drawing plenty of money from his wealthy backers but having alienated his Democratic base -- may go down to defeat.
But, at this point at least, it seems that the Democratic party's leftwing -- while giving tepid backing to Obama -- will concentrate its energies on candidates and ventures that it considers more deserving of its support.
Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is "Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement" (Stanford University Press).