Why Progressives Fail

According to Sun Tzu; “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” 

In The Nation magazine Gara LaMarche and Deepak Bhargava attempt to lay out the Road Ahead for Progressives.(www.thenation.com/road-ahead-progressives-back-basics)  What they accomplish, however, is to reflect blind spots and logical disconnects that color their attempt at analysis.  While applauding Healthcare reform, the stimulus and financial reform they also represent that these reforms simply did not go far enough, a common theme among progressive leading lights. More, there should have been more.  At the same time they identify the “toxic” nature of the nation’s politics but make no connection between public discontent with the “flawed” nature of the big three accomplishments.  They appear incapable of making the connection that those “flawed achievements” are what turned the political environment toxic in the first place.

The authors offer a dispirited recognition of a Conservative resurgence and contend that the only tonic is a “newly feisty President” and a “resurgent Progressive movement”; if we can just have more!  They unfortunately descend into name calling as a substitute for analysis: a conservative base that is “crazy, wacky, zealots” and from their point of view, hopefully “unelectable”, while at the same time recognizing the actual electability of Conservatives that occurred in 1980 and 1994.  While they reference the history it is clearly difficult to either recognize or accept the dynamics behind those elections.  

In a serious tin ear moment the authors hope for two things to happen before a newly elected Congress is seated; lame duck passage of Immigration Reform and expanded use of Executive Powers, even as they recognize the likelihood of independents and conservative Democrats fleeing their advice.  These hopes come with no apparent realization that yet another unpopular, one party solution and yet more Executive mandates will only make the Progressive resurgence they hope for more difficult if not impossible. We’re these hopes to come to fruition it would cement the perception that the Progressive agenda is totally disconnected from the consent of the governed.  This is a logical disconnect of the first order.

The authors, in the scenarios they envision, are hard put to imagine that the current political climate will be capable of addressing their core issues: climate change, inequality and worsening poverty.  They do not, however, connect their concerns with the policies of the current administration or the fact that a significant majority do not share their agenda as the core agenda.  They fly by the fact that up to 62% of the electorate that simply does not accept, agree with or is prepared to adopt their agenda as the critical agenda for the country.  While the vast majority of Americans see economics and job growth as the critical issues Progressives still cling to environmental and social justice issues as the core of what we should be about.    

The authors feel they have “lost the story line” for the Progressive push back against the evils of the Bush Administration.  They thought they had that story line firmly in hand from 2000 through 2009.  Now they must find it again but how?  The last twenty months should be an ode to accomplishment but they admit it does not feel that way and wonder why.  They attempt to define the key dynamics:

They cannot  understand why their belief that the free market proved to be a “manifest failure” was met with a movement to limit government not market dynamics. It’s anathema to them and reflective of the belief that government will somehow provide the necessary panacea.  An idea that most Americans reject.   

They discuss “structural barriers to reform”.  What are those “barriers”; separation of powers, federalism and the electoral system.  In other words key fundamentals of our political system are a “structural barrier to reform”, a negative.

Polarized media is also identified as a problem and maybe here we can agree that it can be an inhibition to intelligent engagement of issues.  What is the alternative?  Accountability is the answer they offer “consistent with the First Amendment, of course”.  The problem with the Progressive version of accountability is that it cannot, by its own definitions of accountability, be consistent with the First Amendment which is why the Progressive head of the FCC is being slapped down by the courts. 

Community organizing must be stepped up according to the authors quoting FDR’s challenge to labor leaders to make their point “You’ve convinced me.  Now go out and make me do it”.  They remain upset that the President “lodged” his support behind the Democratic Party instead of the “outside” Progressive movement and thus sapped the Progressive energy that elected him.  This is a tortured argument based on the unfulfilled expectations of an easy path to power requiring no actual organization.  The fact that the Tea Party has pulled it off is a lesson that escapes the authors.  Also escaping the authors is the fact that the Progressives did not elect the President as they contend; middle class, middle income, moderate white folks elected the President.  Progressives were always “in the bag”.  Progressives understood and took comfort in the code words, all of those hopeful folks in the middle did not know the code words and thus could not anticipate what would come their way! 

It is clear that the Progressive movement, as reflected by these authors expected much more; the public option in healthcare, the Employee Free Choice Act, Cap and Trade, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t tell, bigger stimulus, more gay rights legislation and the closure of Gitmo.  They associate these failures with their movement not being more central to the seat of power, not with a public rejection of either the policy or the chosen path to implement those policies.  It does not occur that had Progressives been closer to the seat of power and more in control of the ‘agenda’ the rejection would have been much worse.

The blind spot in this analysis is the blind spot suffered by Progressivism back to Woodrow Wilson.  This blind spot has never been fully reconciled by Progressives. Amongst all the talk of the movement, issues of social justice, agendas, expectations and complaints there is a glaring omission.  Not once are the “people” mentioned as the true nexus of policy.  Not once, in this analysis, is the will of the governed taken as a factor worthy of serious consideration.  This absence is the source of the perceived arrogance associated with the movement; it will also be the source of perpetual failure despite occasional revival.