Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Wednesday, January 6th, 2010.

Meyerson: We Need a Progressive Movement

Obama Administration

The retirement of senators Dodd and Dorgan (Dodd I’m sorry about; Dorgan I’m not) underscores the urgency of passing a health care reform bill in this Congress. It’s likely there will be fewer Democratic senators in 2011, which will make progressive legislation even more unlikely.

For all of you who still think that if the current bill is killed Congress will get right to work and pass a better, more progressive bill — yeah, and I’m Charlie the Tuna. We’ve got less than one year to get something passed and signed into law. And if it took all of 2009 for Congress to come up with the bills they finally passed, how zippy do you think the legislators will be in a midterm election year?

That said, Harold Meyerson may piss off some progressives with his column today. We need a progressive movement, Meyerson says, for there to be a renewal of progressivism.

The reasons for the stillbirth of the new progressive era are many and much discussed. There’s the death of liberal and moderate Republicanism, the reluctance of some administration officials and congressional Democrats to challenge the banks, the ever-larger role of money in politics (see reluctance to challenge banks, above), the weakness of labor, the dysfunctionality of the Senate — the list is long and familiar. But if there’s a common feature to the political landscapes in which Carter, Clinton and now Obama were compelled to work, it’s the absence of a vibrant left movement.

What does Meyerson mean by a “vibrant left movement”?

The America over which FDR presided was home to mass organizations of the unemployed; farmers’ groups that blocked foreclosures, sometimes at gunpoint; general strikes that shut down entire cities, and militant new unions that seized factories. Both communists and democratic socialists were enough of a presence in America to help shape these movements, generating so much street heat in so many congressional districts that Democrats were compelled to look leftward as they crafted their response to the Depression. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the civil rights movement, among whose leaders were such avowed democratic socialists as Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer, provided a new generation of street heat that both compelled and abetted the president and Congress to enact fundamental reforms.

Some on the Left don’t seem to have noticed that it’s still relatively safe to ignore us. Not quite as safe as it used to be, but we’re still not nearly as frightening as the Right. We have very little real leverage in Washington, which is why we couldn’t overcome the power of the lobbyists and the Right in crafting health care reform. If we (as some suggest) walk away from the political process, few will miss us.

What we’ve got is the leftie blogosphere, and lots of spokespersons saying lots of stuff, but there’s no real movement and no real leadership. Certainly, we can fault President Obama in the leadership department:

In America, major liberal reforms require not just liberal governments, but autonomous, vibrant mass movements, usually led by activists who stand at or beyond liberalism’s left fringe. No such movements were around during Carter and Clinton’s presidencies. For his part, Obama won election with something new under the political sun: a list of 13 million people who had supported his campaign. But he has consistently declined to activate his activists to help him win legislative battles by pressuring, for instance, those Democratic members of Congress who have weakened or blocked his major bills. To be sure, loosing the activists would have brought problems of its own: Unlike Roosevelt or Johnson, who benefited from autonomous movements, Obama would be answerable for every loopy tactic his followers employed. But in the absence of both a free-standing movement and a legion of loyalists, Congress isn’t feeling much pressure from the left to move Obama’s agenda.

Actually, I think Obama has made some attempts at activating people. I remember, for example, the request of last summer to take petitions to congresspersons’ offices asking them to pass health care reform. That doesn’t seem to have gone very far, however. I think it’s been such a long time since there was anything resembling a progressive movement and anything resembling a progressive president at the same time that we don’t know what to do with each other.

I’ve probably harped on this before, but the liberal movment that existed in the 1960s really did fall apart in the 1970s, and this was liberals’ own fault. All of the various liberation-for-me movements went their own ways and took no interest in building coalitions. Further — and this was partly inspired by our old buddy Ralph Nader — it came to be conventional wisdom among leftie activists that working outside the political parties and challenging laws we didn’t like through the court system was the way to go.

And when the Democrats lost the foundation of the New Deal coalition that had supported progressive legislation from FDR to LBJ, the Democratic Party became more conservative and more beholden to big special interest campaign donors. Thanks loads, Ralph.

It has been only recently, and through the netroots, that progressives across the nation came to be in touch with each other and began to organize to support Democratic politicians who seemed inclined to be progressive. But we still have very little real power, and that’s something we need to be honest with ourselves about, and take some responsibility for.

The construction of social movements is always a bit of a mystery. The right has had great success over the past year in building a movement that isn’t really for anything but that has channeled anew the fears and loathings of millions of Americans. If Glenn Beck can help do that for the right, can’t, say, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann help build a movement against the banks or for jobs programs? It might well be too little too late, but without left pressure from below, the Obama presidency will end up looking more like Carter’s or Clinton’s than Roosevelt’s or Johnson’s.

Part of the problem may be that too many leftie activists don’t know how to work for something instead of against it. There is a huge difference between pressuring the Obama Administration to be more progressive and declaring he is the enemy and must be defeated. He may not be the natural ally many had hoped for, but working with the Right to destroy his administration is not going to usher in a new era of progressivism, either.

What do you think of Meyerson’s column? What would an autonomous, vibrant mass movement, led by activists who stand at or beyond liberalism’s left fringe look like today?

Update: Steve Benen and Prairie Weather add some valuable comments to the Meyerson column.

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