Missing the Movement
I have never found the pendulum metaphor particularly useful, since pendulums swing as far to the right as to the left, and politics is obviously not like that. We have had over 30 years in which all the momentum has been on the right, and the leftward swing of the 1960s has been more than equaled. Politically and ideologically, the shift has been very great; the whole country has moved rightward; every argument starts from a different place than it did 30 or 50 years ago. On a whole range of issues, it is extraordinarily difficult to make any headway: on the state’s obligation to provide health care (without the mediation of profit-seeking insurance companies), on the importance of unions, on a decent environmental policy (and a decent regard for the wellbeing of future generations), and even, in the midst of the recession, on the importance of job creation. November 2008 may have been the beginning of a reversal, the pendulum swinging leftward again. Maybe. But it looks right now like a very weak swing.
1993 doesn’t seem so different, but the ’30s and the ’60s were very different. In those decades there was a vibrant left politics, a movement politics, a grassroots politics, which doesn‘t exist today. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement–all these drove politics leftward. By contrast, Obama’s liberalism has no base. I am sure that surveys would show that he has a lot of support on the issues, maybe even majority support, but this is the kind of support that manifests itself almost entirely in opinion polls, not in the streets or in union halls and churches. What is necessary for a strong leftward pendulum swing is some form of mass mobilization. In addition to the people who tell pollsters that they would like, or would have liked, say, an extension of Medicare to people in their 50s, there have to be people who go to meetings, march in demonstrations, organize in their communities, raise money, and make enough noise so that politicians start worrying about their re-election. The right has been mobilized in exactly that way, at the base, for decades now–through the evangelical churches, the National Rifle Association, the anti-abortion movement, and much more. But since the right also has corporate power and vast amounts of money on its side, mobilization is less critical for it. For the left, it is everything. The only advantage we have is numbers–or, that’s the advantage we used to have.
What happened to that advantage? I think we all know. Starting with the antiwar movement of the ’60s, the left constituency divided in a pretty radical way: on one side, the liberal, secular, well-educated cosmopolitans and on the other side, the religious, socially conservative, working-class patriots. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama managed in different ways to bring these two groups together, at least to some extent, but only as an electoral coalition, not as a cohesive political force able to mobilize its members between elections. Is cohesion and mobilization even possible today? If not, we are likely to have more presidents like Clinton and Obama, who can win elections but cannot enact anything more than a highly compromised version of their own agenda–which is not, in any case, a strong left agenda.
This is an incrementalist time, and the crucial thing is to get the increments right. The economic crisis and the two wars that Obama inherited make this difficult for our embattled president–and the fierceness of the opposition, which I don’t think he expected, makes things even harder. Obama certainly believed everything he said about reconciliation; he thought that he could at least take the edge off the bitter partisanship of Washington politics. Obviously he hasn’t been able to do that, and now every step forward, including the small steps, will require a bloody fight. Meanwhile, the costs of the stimulus and of the wars leave the President very little money for social experiments. He has to move forward with health care and the environment and education even if he can only move slowly, much more slowly than he hoped. This is one form of incrementalism, and what is important is that each move open the way for further moves–no dead ends!
But there is another kind of incrementalism that we need to think about, on the margins, alongside the big issues. I mean things like putting some aggressive liberal/leftists on the National Labor Relations Board, or pushing through small changes in the labor laws that would make union organizing easier, or using federal funds in small amounts to strengthen the kinds of community organizations that the president once worked for, or creating a liberal/left version of Bush’s “faith-based welfare”–enabling local communities, unions, and different sorts of NGOs, as well as churches, to organize family services and mutual aid. This sort of thing is base-building for the future. It can be very quiet and still be effective; its point is simply to loosen the “limits of progressive governance,” so that a Democratic president years from now can do more than Obama can do today.
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