PROGRESSIVES HAD high ambitions and expectations at the commencement of the Obama presidency: the economic debacle needs to be overcome, but the new president also needs to realize long-delayed goals. He must work toward lessening poverty and inequality, dramatically improving U.S. employment, health care, and education, and noticeably reducing environmental damage.
President Obama lacks a clear mandate to pursue many of these goals. A sixty-vote, filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate would not have assured passage of many of these proposals. Remember that the majority includes Democratic-voting senators Joe Lieberman and other centrist-oriented political figures.
Obama will therefore need a transformational electorate that will lead and encourage him to act as a transformational president. Promoting one is, of course, no easy matter. That is why liberals and progressives implore Democratic presidents to move beyond the political consensus. Then, we criticize them for their failure to risk defeat.
The Clinton presidency received this treatment: Liberals and progressives regarded the administration as a great failure. We did not view as significant our own inability to mobilize support for the measures. Clinton did not have a center-left mandate and progressives did not develop one. He did not fail progressives, however; progressives flunked. They did not rally political support to move Clinton to a transformational political outlook and to pursue their proposals.
History may be repeated if much more is expected of Obama than the political arena currently encourages and permits. It will be ineffective to criticize Obama from a progressive perspective. To promote a transformational administration, progressives need to not only rally their supporters (their usual approach) but to reach out to non-supporters (centrists, independents, moderate and/or disgruntled Republicans, even non-voters) in order to persuade them to advocate for center-left programs and policies. The progressive style of preaching to the already convinced is not a good use of political energy. Progressives have to demonstrate that they have won a decisive majority for their proposals.
Here are some lines to develop:
The Obama campaign developed an impressive, email-based support network that the administration will undoubtedly maintain and seek to expand. The members of this network form a key group because they not only raise funds but are individuals to whom the administration will respond. The obvious network objective in the post-2008 years will be to shore up backing for the administration’s initiatives and proposals. It should be possible to work proposals into this network that differ from the official pronouncements of the administration in an effort to convince many of these key Obama supporters to move beyond the administration’s tepid initiatives. Such action would have political impact.
Labor unions will be playing a central role in the Obama years as they did in the 2008 Obama campaign because of their membership, money, and trained staff. Their central legislative issue is easing the process of certifying a union as the collective bargaining agency for workers: employees signing cards to support a union rather than requiring an election. Can unions be encouraged to embrace other issues such as a broader health care measure? That is more likely to occur if issue organizations with other major concerns join with unions’ pursuit of some of their legislative objectives. Will union members adopt the progressive agenda? Achieving that goal will require effective leadership, not always in great supply.
Each of the important progressive advocacy and research groups has its own agenda, often competing with one another for media attention and finance. Might they collaborate, perhaps muting their own campaign for a week or two, and focus public attention on a key issue of another organization? Then, in turn, these other organizations would be the beneficiary for a short time of a less crowded public space. Such a procedure would mean that an organization would reduce its issue focus for a short time to help other groups and then receive highlighted attention for its own program. Funders might promote such collaboration on particular issues.
Community organizations are significant political actors–but mainly at local, even neighborhood, levels. They often eschew broader issues, such as national policy, for those that affect local conditions. Some are part of a national network like ACORN, Industrial Areas Foundation, or the Gamaliel Foundation; many more are unaffiliated groups focused on a single, frequently narrow, local issue. A first step would be to create a roster of all these groups. A second would be to provide information and education on broader issues that are–or should be–important for local groups such as the decision process on federally-financed construction projects. A third would be to start campaigns that join many of the organizations into action on relevant federal, state, or local issues.
A common progressive failing is its discomfort when it comes to speaking with people who do not readily embrace progressive outlooks. (The right-wing has a parallel political ailment.) Distancing oneself from persuading the un-persuaded is not a road to transformation. The art of persuasion or conversion has to be developed.
An important component of that craft is not to demonize those who don’t readily adopt your positions: Listen and learn about these outlooks and conditions. They should not be over-generalized; they are varied. Win their confidence that we are reliable reporters of facts. Search for common views and positions and stress traditional religious, political, cultural values that foster progressive concerns. Respond to their criticisms and doubts, such as questions about the personal character of would-be persuaders and their organizations.
When attention is paid to those outside the fold, progressives may sometimes give off a whiff of condescension. The cry of “elitism” is likely to become a strong component of the political and cultural interpretation of class in American society. It is already wielded as a weapon against progressives despite their concerns about poverty and inequality. Class is not only about economics; it is also about relationships–perceived and interpreted. Many progressives have not adequately grasped the importance of creating a consensus for their proposals.
Progressives do not always practice these general steps in persuasion. Unfortunately, they like talking with like-minded souls, commiserating together on the sad state of the political world. Dirges are not aspirational. We cannot urge President Obama into a role of transformational leadership. We have to help him by building a transformational electorate.
S. M. Miller is a senior fellow at the Commonwealth Institute and professor emeritus of sociology at Boston University. He is a co-founder of United for a Fair Economy and past president of several sociological associations. His most recent (co-authored) book is Respect and Rights. He is working on a book on long-run progressive policies and politics.