The State of the Progressive Movement
In Part 2 of my 3-part (1, 2, 3) interview with Eric Boehlert, one of the topics that we discussed was the self-censorship amongst even well known bloggers when faced with the prospect of having to say something critical about a politician that the blogger's readers supported. I asked Eric if there is a realistic chance that the "netroots" is likely to put enough pressure on the Obama administration to force it to shift left on issues like national security and the financial crisis. Eric seemed to think that because there is a strong left-leaning blogger and "netroots" community today unlike in the 1990s, there will be significant pressure on many issues and that the administration will have to keep in mind that they could pay a price for going too far to the right. (Read the entire Q&A for full context). I didn't respond to Eric's comment in the same post because it would take more than a few paragraphs to cover this topic and I wanted to reserve discussion for a separate post. As it turns out, reader Twinky P* mentioned a concurrent post by Jane Hamsher and asked me to comment on it. Jane had linked to and discussed this Dana Milbank article in the Washington Post focused on the recent progressive conference titled "America's Future Now" (the new version of "Take Back America") - and Milbank's basic premise is that with President Obama now in the White House, the progressive movement has been deflated and, in the words of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), "lacks muscle and bone density". I would recommend reading Jane's entire post - where she agrees with Milbank in part and disagrees in part.
But anyone who lived through the Clinton years should have been able to predict that if a Democrat won the White House most rank-and-file Democrats would feel their job was done. There is just never going to be the kind of energy surrounding sausage-making that you get around election year politics.
Hardly Barack Obama's fault.
I agree that the lowering of energy with the election of a Democrat was bound to deflate some of the activist momentum and that this is certainly not President Obama's fault. However, the comparison to the Clinton years is a bit misleading because there was no significant activist "netroots" progressive movement in those years that compares favorably to what we had in the last few years. So, just because the movement was weak in the 1990s doesn't automatically mean that the movement is likely to be weak today. Jane then quotes some of the people who exhorted the conference attendees to challenge the Obama administration from the left and adds (emphasis mine, throughout this post):
The Bush administration and their wars gave fuel to the progressive movement in this country, no doubt. I was personally at a loss during the primary battles -- from a movement perspective, I understood our job to be to hold fast to our principles and reward candidates for hewing to them and make them compete for our support.
What happened instead was that progressives divided into camps and started projecting progressive opinions onto candidates who had never expressed them, and fought relentlessly to establish a huge gulf between two candidates whose political records were largely indistinguishable. The progressive movement became subverted into a cult of personality on both sides from which it has yet to emerge, sucked in by a media complex that really doesn't know how to cover an election or interpret politics in any other way.
But that's only part of the story of why the progressive movement languishes, and I agree with Milbank that it does.
I will have to respectfully but strongly disagree with my friend Jane, especially on the 'both sides did it' argument because it represents an exercise in false balance that we frequently criticize the traditional media for. If we really want to understand why the movement languishes today, we cannot do so if we resort to oversimplified portrayals of reality.
As Eric and I discussed, most of the major Clinton supporters online (i.e., most "netroots" bloggers and movement activists) did not claim that Clinton and Obama were poles apart when it came to policy or progressive positions - quite the contrary. They also did not claim that Obama was someone they would have trouble supporting in the general election (i.e., they didn't have a "cult of personality" in favor of Sen. Clinton). The reverse was however often true when it came to several mainstream Obama supporters in the blogosphere and "progressive" movement. Not only was Sen. Clinton falsely portrayed in very negative fashion by some of the biggest players in the "progressive" movement, not many of those supporters bothered to even research voting records and carefully review their positions on issues to educate their readers about the basic fact that on most topics, both Obama and Clinton were very similar. So the notion that both sides were doing the same thing and devolved into a "cult of personality" is a notion that I would clearly disagree with. Additionally, the argument that we were "sucked in by a media complex that really doesn't know how to cover an election or interpret politics in any other way" is a cop out because there are simply no grounds to blame the media when many bloggers not only didn't do what Jane thinks they should have done, but became an arm of the media in promoting sensationalistic and false attacks on Clinton, as opposed to accurate and informed discussions on the candidates. Not to mention, leading "progressive" commentators on TV and radio (such as Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes) offered what amounted to basically non-stop character assassination of the candidate they hated, rather than educate their viewers on reality. Even major bloggers who were "neutral" in the race didn't sometimes bother to educate their readers on the voting records and policy positions of the candidates, failed to call out many of the worst character assassins in real time and self-censorship was common. None of this was Obama's fault. If anything, the fact that he was not just able to get past those who had biased him against Sen. Clinton (thanks in no small part to what Sen. Clinton did for him during the general election) but go a step beyond to offer her the position of Secretary of State is something I give him credit for. The responsibility for what happened in 2008, thus lies to a big extent with the so-called "progressive" bloggers and activists who actively participated in or propagated the anti-Clinton character assassination time and again, and a small portion of the blame is also shared by those who did little to call out the actors and their atrocities in real-time to try and blunt their influence.
Jane then goes on to say the following (emphasis mine):
I love the sausage-making process much more than the bomb-throwing, and I find taking part in incremental victories on issues like social security, cramdown or oversight of the Fed more satisfying than thundering defeats. But I have come to understand that the institutional forces that prevent real change from happening are more formidable and more structural than I anticipated.
That isn't Obama's fault, either.
More problematic is the way that progressive leadership is sitting things out, which is what Naomi Klein is addressing. Some may feel they have to -- if the membership of their organizations are not interested in challenging the administration, many feel they can't move without splitting them. But it's a self-reinforcing problem. If the usual progressive validators aren't saying anything, people don't perceive that anything is wrong. And it becomes extremely difficult to generate enthusiasm for activism.
This is an important point and I agree with Jane that as long as organizations, including "think tanks" are dependent on their supporters for funding and as long as those supporters mostly favor an elected candidate, there is going to be significant pressure on those organizations to toe the line favored by the supporters, who are generally likely to be happy with the candidate as long as the candidate stays within the same political party (in this case, as long as Obama has a D against his name). Some organizations make this a more explicit part of their existence - like MoveOn.org - by defining their charter around the views of the majority of their (voting) members. Thus, once it became clear that their voting members favored Obama, it was only natural that MoveOn's leadership decided to make themselves an unofficial appendage of the Obama campaign in 2008 and the Obama administration in 2009.
There is more to it though. Simply blaming the members of an organization or readers of blogs for our not being able to hold a politician's feet to the fire is also not entirely fair. Consider the example of Tom Hayden, described in Wikipedia as:
Thomas Emmet Hayden (born December 11, 1939) is an American social and political activist and politician, most famous for his involvement in the animal rights, and the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Back in July of last year, here is the explanation that the famous "activist" Hayden gave for his endorsement of Obama during the primaries (emphasis mine):
I first endorsed Obama because of the nature of the movement supporting him, not his particular stands on issues. The excitement among African-Americans and young people, the audacity of their hope, still holds the promise of a new era of social activism. The force of their rising expectations, i believe, could pressure a President Obama in a progressive direction and also energize a new wave of social movements.
This is how an alleged progressive movement "activist", someone considered a leader by some parts of the movement, made decisions on candidates - based on the "nature of the movement supporting him, not his particular stands on issues". I respect Hayden for his candor - many others are not this honest - but the consequences of making decisions along lines that have little to do with issues is that we can then no longer blame average readers or citizens, who might not be as thoroughly informed on the issues, for making it difficult for us to take issue-based stands against politicians whom we continue to admire.
Jane concludes with the following observations:
But Obama does bear some responsibility for the current state of affairs. The administration has consistently moved to distance itself from progressive leadership, refusing to even meet with the Progressive Caucus until recently. They have also consciously corralled progressive organizations and sought to strictly control their messaging. Media Matters and the Center for American Progress may have been important voices in the progressive movement at one time, but they're little more than arms of the White House now, playing a zero sum game with Republicans who really don't matter. When Democrats control both Congress and the White House, nobody needs the GOP's help to pass legislation.
I understand that nobody wants to be on the outside like they were during the Bush years, but the price of a few cocktail parties at the White House -- and the threat of lost donors -- is buying a lot more than it should. There is some weakening around the edges, particularly among intellectuals concerned with finance issues (like Klein) and unions staring down a series of broken promises (like Gerard). Some predicted that Afghanistan would cause a split, but I never bought it. It's probably going to take a big, stinging Congressional defeat -- like Employee Free Choice -- before any of the progressive institutions feel they must declare themselves independent of the White House and focus their energies on movement values once again.
The fact that the President would want to control messaging and external organizations that might oppose his stands should not be a surprise in itself. That is what Presidents and most politicians do. If anything, Obama has been very consistent on this right from the beginning and most of the so-called "progressive" activists and "netroots" made it very clear during the 2008 primary that this wasn't something they particularly cared about. I am not entirely sure what Jane means in her comment about CAP and MM becoming "little more than arms of the White House", but she is right that the desire for access to the powerful often subsumes issue-based agendas. This is a structural problem but it cannot be blamed on Obama. The blame rests squarely with the leadership of the organizations that have made an explicit decision to become "little more than arms of the White House" or have decided, based on the alleged fear of upsetting their members, to not take a more active role in pushing the Obama administration to the left.
The most striking example today is the Sonia Sotomayor nomination. From everything I have read about Judge Sotomayor she appears to be a person of sterling character and intellect and a very competent and accomplished jurist. However, she is not exactly a "liberal" judge and in some cases, might even be to the right of the Justice whom she will replace in the Supreme Court (David Souter). Where are the blogswarms and where is the activism to push Obama more to the left on his Supreme Court nomination? I recall a time when the "netroots" and progressives used to be extraordinarily concerned about the conservative tilt of the Supreme Court and the once in a generation opportunity to change it - now, other than repel Republican attacks on Sotomayor, I don't see a lot of people even bothering to push Obama to pick someone who might be more progressive.
The bottom line to me is simple. The progressive movement in the United States might be very effective in fighting Republicans and electing Democrats to office but it is nowhere near being able to drive a truly progressive agenda in some key areas. The main reason for this is that many of the key players in this movement are not really leaders. It remains to be seen how that changes in the coming years.