Meyerson: We Need a Progressive Movement

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.

23 thoughts on “Meyerson: We Need a Progressive Movement

  1. “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”

    I would argue Meyerson gives BecKKK way too much credit. While he has a pretty good viewership it still averages less than 1 million per day (not too shabby for a early evening cable show but still less than Stewart’s Daily show). The movement that Meyerson gives him credit for has always been in existence, we just never had a Black president before. BecKKK is just exploiting the ignorance and racism that prevails among the lower middle class whites in this country. I don’t consider these dimwitted teabaggers a real political force, maybe if they could temper their obvious biases, but that aint gonna happen. Without the hate the teabagger movement will fade away.

    As far as Chris Dodd goes, I doubt he’d be retiring if he hadn’t got caught with his hand in the Countrywide Mortgage cookie jar, serves him right.

  2. An “autonomous, vibrant, mass movement” would look like protest marches (beginning in DC), vigils on city street coners and outside the fence surrounding the White House grounds – their presence drove Nixon even closer to psychotic than he already was. Would they move Obama? Who knows, but we’ll never know if we don’t take up our signs and try.

    The French had to storm their Bastille: The Russians had to drag the landed gentry from their estates into the countryside – where they literally tore their victims apart, limb by limb. (We have only to be visible and noisy, fortunately.)

    As far as today’s Republicans??? Bill Maher’s observation that Republicans say government doesn’t work and then they get in it and prove it just about sums up what a return to a Republican dominated Congress would look like. Where were their rants, for example, about ever-increasing government debt and deficit when Bush/Reagan cut taxes were sucking up $2 1/2 trillion out of the budget?

  3. The construction of social movements is always a bit of a mystery.

    This is the key sentence for me. I don’t think I can say anything really definitive about the subject until I’ve studied this mystery to some depth. But, I’ll offer a few opinions, for what they’re worth…

    I keep coming back to the seeming requirement for mass hardship to build a movement that could overcome entrenched power. Things are nowhere as difficult in America today as they were during the Depression, and so there’s a lot of complacency. In the 30s, in America, mass hardship led to an FDR. In Europe, it led to fascism. In, the Soviet Union, a couple decades earlier, communist totalitarianism. I fear that the oligarchs learned their American history well, and next time it will be fascism, not a 21st century New Deal socialism that roots here. What do you think 20 years of demonizing liberals has been about?

    Another aspect of this, is the unfortunate shared context – America in the 30s was a young and upcoming country, a nascent powerhouse that was about to push aside Great Britain as the big kid on the block. Today, America is bankrupt. Our numbers are worse than Argentina’s before that collossus fell. The only reason the IMF hasn’t come in to rescue us is because of our still central position in the world’s financial system – our creditors are still willing to keep us afloat – but this won’t last. The oligarchs/global plutocracy know this, and are grabbing while the grabbing is still good. They’re even more determined to not share a dime of this with anybody, given our Titanic-struck-the-iceberg state. When the hard times come – and I mean shivering in the cold, starvation hard times, such as were known in Russia during the 90s – America will finally hit bottom and people will wake up from their complacency – but probably too late.

    We certainly have some of the ingredients for a social movement – an intelligentsia that has the Godsend of the internet to connect with each other, and some feeble media presence (thank God for Keith and Rachel). But these good things are still incredibly outgunned by the VRWC and all its tools. And yet, despite the wealth and organization of the right, much of it is intimidation by shadows – the right deliberately inflates their numbers to scare off the left, which fortunately is somewhat less effective than it used to be. And the legal system hasn’t been completely corrupted by the right, although it is an expensive minefield anyone would want to steer clear of.

    I’m not waiting for a social movement to emerge. What we have to do in the meantime is to continue chiseling away, the best we can. Fight for whatever we can in the Congresses, fight to elect good people not bad, and do what we can to educate others, and to awaken them from the mass hypnosis from the right.

    And to develop the spiritual strength, perception and fortitude to become some incredibly courageous people. We don’t have time to wait for a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi – all of us who are called must grow in these dimensions, pronto.

    If we’re lucky – and mean really lucky this time – there might just be enough critical mass, enough secret ingredients to turn the thing around. But make no mistake, we’re in the middle of some pretty damned difficult trench warfare, made all the more difficult by the complacency of most of our peers.

  4. If we are going to learn from the lessons of history, then somebody needs to point out that one of the reasons FDR moved so far to the left was to undercut the communists, who were making big headway in the Depression.

    And what drives the GOP today so the right is the need to cater to their fickle, bat-shit crazy extremely religious base. (This is a natural consequence of the concentration of wealth into a smaller group — the moneyed class just doesn’t have the electoral clout it used to, except by manipulation of the populace.)

    Anybody else up for forming the American Socialist Part to bite the DLC?

  5. The prospect of a return to a Republican majority and, perhaps, White House scares the living bejeezees’s out of me. Apart from the fanaticism they bring with them, their reputation for fiscal responsibility and “homeland security” (sieg heil) was squandered decades ago. On the contrary, they spend us blind — mostly on provocative adventures overseas which leave us with a “vibrant mass” of armed and desperate enemies.

    Okay, I was of protest age in the ’60’s but living overseas, only to come back a couple of times (hmm! flying in to make trouble!) and join what was a multi-generational, passionate mass of people. What’s the difference between then and now? Hard to pinpoint. But I’d say one major difference is that on the one hand we have the internet (makes clarion calls easier) and on the other hand we have the internet and cable TV, and (for many) two jobs, and for many more a disinclination to leave the warm, foody,and wired nest for an uncertain time risking one’s neck in an arena where the other side seems to get increasingly vicious, increasingly willing to play dirty. Here in rural TX, when I’ve joined silent candle-holding peace protests, I’ve noticed more civilian threats but less attention from the police. In the old days, the police were the vicious ones and would toss CS canisters into innocent gatherings, make threatening movements with truncheons and holsters without provocation or cause. Here and now, “F” and “C” words (and gestures) are more popular.

    Here in TX, we live among a largely tea party population. Don’t underestimate them. They have no idea what’s really going on — they really don’t! — but they think they do and will act (and vote) accordingly — make no mistaken about that.

    I’d love to see some comments from others who have been protesters or “vibrant mass” members in both eras and how they see the differences, similarities. I think a silent protest at the WH would do a lot for (and to) Obama. A constant stream of civil, knowledgeable, handwritten, stamped letters (at least one a week from each of us) to both WH and Congress would make a huge difference.

    Thanks for the link, Maha! It’s great to come over here and see the good comments.

  6. Good job, moonbat. My belief that taking to the streets is the only thing that works faced with a very rich, very protected, politically powerful and entrenched plutocracy is because I’ve seen it work. It was probably the Vietnam draft that got us out of there eventually and it was probably the civil rights marches that resulted in the death of segregation.

    I would agree with you that things haven’t got bad enough, unjust enough to move us to the streets. Too bad, but those are about the only necessary stimuli to mount a rebellion by the people. Unfortunately, little people sitting at their little computers typing angry words won’t move anybody but the Right to retaliate in kind. Very hohum.

  7. The people who took to the streets in the 60s are like me now, too damn old and tired and crippled to take to the streets. It needs to be the youth of today to take to the streets; but, I don’t see them leaving their computers or gameboys any time soon. Also, those of us who took to the streets were liberals not progressives–and, I beleive there was a difference between the liberals of the 60s and the progressives of today.

  8. Meyerson is on the money with two points:

    First, there needs to be action outside of the two-party system. I don’t miss a chance to support groups and efforts that try to push back against the corporate and military/industrial hegemony in whatever small ways I can–environmental groups, boycott Israel groups, Huffington’s call to not do business with the big banks–they may be small beans, but not nearly as small as trying to move my Democratic Senators and Congressperson.

    Second, words do count. I’m thinking that the MSNBC cluster of Ed-Countdown-Maddow may be worth more than my said Senators and Congressperson. Frankly, MAHABLOG may eventually be worth about as much as my Congressperson.

    Alas, Maha, I think you’ve gone way off the money. I’m not trying to “destroy” Obama. I’m certainly going to vote for Obama, since I do not care to have another Sam Alito or three on the SC and I do not care to have the red phone in the hands of some mouth-breathing Dr. Strangelove. But half the reason for the need for action outside the two party system is the sad nature of what we have inside the system–to wit, Obama on one side and fake populist/Fascist lunacy on the other. The big roadblock to Obama’s (alleged) progressive program is the corporatocracy. Surely rule 1 should be “Do not feed the beast”? When Obama made secret deals with big Pharma, that’s just a corrupt as what Tom Delay did, and it’s feeding the beast. The expenditure of billions–trillions, perhaps–on the Megabanks, with no publicly ascertainable and enforceable standards, and often with no publicly accessible records, is just as corrupt under the Obama administration as it was under Bush, and it’s feeding the beast. If Obama does not want to be called out as the enemy, then he needs to stop being the enemy. Do not expect progressive ideas to gain any traction if efforts are devoted to stopping “attacks” on Obama from the “left”.

    • If Obama does not want to be called out as the enemy, then he needs to stop being the enemy.

      Liberal Manicheanism. Obama is not a friend, not an enemy, not good, not bad, not right, not wrong, not with us, not against us. He’s only “the enemy” if you treat him like the enemy. Otherwise, he’s material to be worked with. Flawed material, yes, but not the enemy.

  9. I agree with moonbat and felicity’s take. As long as people are comfortable– or can be conned into thinking they’re comfortable– they’re going to stay home on their sofas watching TV and eating their Extra Value Meals. Nowadays, we in the masses have a lot of opiates, not just religion. If Americans had to endure the daily miseries of, say, folks in Gaza, Baghdad, or Kandahar, I’d like to think there’d be a groundswell movement for societal change in no time. (Then again, maybe there wouldn’t; we’ve been comfortable for so many generations, maybe we wouldn’t remember how to rise up.)

  10. Dear Maha,
    The verbiage “enemy” is yours, not mine. I’d be happy to change that to a declaration that when Obama actively promotes corporatist interests, he’s not an enemy, he’s “material to be worked” against, as was GWB. When he actively takes progressive actions, then he’s either a friend or “material to be be worked” with, whichever verbiage you are most comfortable with. Granted, I am quite “manichean” on some points. Making secret deals with these powerful, self-interested corporations in exchange for money or political support is wrong, and that’s as clearly a matter of good/right or bad/wrong as you’re likely to find in politics. Please, don’t tell me it was okay because he allegedly did it for a fifty percent reduction in certain name-brand drugs for seniors.

    • Lynn,

      You write “The verbiage “enemy” is yours, not mine.” No, it is yours. In your earlier comment, you wrote, “If Obama does not want to be called out as the enemy, then he needs to stop being the enemy.” Casting people into rigid roles like that never helps. Criticize what he does, yes, but don’t make him into some archetype of evil.

  11. Here’s a story which I cite from PaxAmericana –

    …”Continuing the story, Belafonte recounted what FDR replied upon hearing Randolph’s remarks: “You know, Mr. Randolph, I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit. … But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it.”

    I don’t think Obama likes big Pharma or was bought off by them. To get reform passed he deliberately split Insurance and Pharma so that SOME of the influence of the Insurance lobby was countered by a push FOR the bill by Pharma. In a world where the army that elected Obama was there to push on issues, such a deal would be unnescessary. But most of the army deserted after January thinking the war was won when it was only begun.

    The big issue is getting an informed active electorate out of a mob determined to be/stay ignorant and passive (and I AM talking about registered democrats). One thing I have noticed is that the SNL Palin skits in ’08 did more to inform through entertainment than Madow & Oberman (and they are great). The skit you posted about a panel discussing which religion Woods should convert to was effective if you rate effective as affecting the opinion of the casual voter. Anyone remember what the Smothers Brothers did to Nixon?

  12. In crisis past, I don’t believe we had such a large misbalance in broadcast media. Certainly no party had a 24×7 dedicated newz oulet and so many toadies in the MSM. That took a decade to build and learn to use it. That advantage isn’t easily overcome.

    Americans are too lazy to sustain mass protests, IMHO. And as I recall they weren’t really all that effective back in the day.

    We need bold new ideas. What we’re getting is “et tu Brute?” perhaps the best we can do is recognize that we’re in this for the long haul -it may take decades. Perhaps we need to simply stop the bickering, and quietly, firmly support our guy in the White House for the greater good. Quiet mass support will strengthen his hand.

    Possible to do in the progressive community? I’m pessamistic.

  13. What’s with the Dorgan hate? You’re not sorry about a non-backstabbing populist retiring and handing the seat to the GOP for generations?

  14. Folks,
    WE are the ones WE’VE been waiting for!
    Now to work!
    We have to do what the right did and start at the greassroots. Elect liberals and progressives in local elections, yes, even for school boards, and nurture them as they move up – hopefully.
    We have Ed, Keith and Rachel, and that’s a start on TV. Work for more…
    Radio, uhm, not so much. And I don’t know how we change that, what with Clear Channel and others controlling the airwaves. Internet radio is a good idea, though, and we need to figure out how to grow it.
    We have some good columnists on our side, too. And we need many, many more, to counter the right wing media machine.
    However, we need to remember that liberals are tolerated only so much by the media conglomerates. These people are there only on their whim. So we need to work to create actions which will force Congress to break up these monopolies, this cross-ownership of mediums by one group (like FOX News, the NY Post, the WSJ, and FOX radio).
    The Liberal and Progressive blogs are a good start. These sites are “virtual” meeting places where we can start to coordinate action (more than what’s already been done). They ae a start, though.
    There’s a lot more I could write about, but I don’t have the time. Any other suggestions out there?
    Talk to you later. It’s Russian Orthodox Christmas and I’m off to church soon. I’m not a believer, but I value some of the traditions. And it makes my family happier, so why not?
    Merry Christmas! And, as I tell people – no, we’re NOT two weeks behind you, we’re 50 weeks AHEAD of you. So there! 🙂

  15. “There is a huge difference between pressuring the Obama Administration to be more progressive and declaring he is the enemy and must be defeated. ” You very words, Maha. I have a real problem with being told that if I note that in an alarming number of cases, Obama has been part of the problem not part of the solution I am casting him in rigid roles and making him an archtype of evil. Are you trying to make me an archtype of idiocy?

    That said, kudos andMerry Xmas to you too to cun d gulag.

    More on demonization and archtypes: I’m going to try to talk to a teabagger. Likely enough to be a fool’s errand, but maybe as productive as another letter to the editor. I was the treasurer for a candidate for county commissioner in our rural but non-agricultural county here in Puget Sound. Over the course of 2 elections in 2006 and 2008, the Commission changed from being all Republican to all Democrat for the first time in history, only to be faced with catastrophic revenue losses from the recession. The Commissioners have been besieged with teabaggers and Republicans demanding that they cut–eliminate!–everything not required by law, such as the parks, the animal shelters, the senior centers and senior services, the agricultural extension with its 4H programs, etc.

    I started going to all the sessions and observed the teabagger-in-chief–an older woman, husband recently laid off and her own hours reduced, attentive, not stupid, filled with tearful anger over how she couldn’t afford increased taxes to pay for the parks & etc. Last time I asked her to have lunch with me; she seemed good with that, then changed it to coffee, then changed it to maybe next time because she was going to put in her weekly 2 hrs at Republican Headquarters(!). Perhaps she will come. Perhaps we can talk. Perhaps we can agree that American concepts of freedom rest on the concept of dispersal of power in both the political and economic spheres. Perhaps we can agree that Obama’s corporatist actions in banks and health care do not reflect that concept of dispersal of power. If we get that far, perhaps I can ask why, since the top tax bracket in the 50’s was 260% of what it is now, tax cuts are going to help us. Or perhaps not. But I’ll be darned if I think dumping on progressives who are furious with Obama is going to help either.

    • “There is a huge difference between pressuring the Obama Administration to be more progressive and declaring he is the enemy and must be defeated. ” You very words, Maha.

      Yes, and I was responding to your words, that Obama is the enemy. What is your problem?

      Never mind. I don’t have time for discussions with dishonest people. Get a grip, and good bye.

  16. GOP congress critters – Here’s a concept – Try giving a rat’s ass about the people who elected you to represent them instead of toeing the party line. Of course that pretty much went the way of “We The People.” Just pat the tea partiers on the back and tell them what true patriots they are, while shouting “We want our country back” with them.

  17. Waiting around for a national calamity sucks. And making lasting cultural changes nationwide, seems like a tough thing to do. And then you have that thing where honest intellectuals, empathic dreamers and rational idealists are usually pretty good at starting movements, but get into trouble keeping directional control when all the unwashed masses join in because it’s suddenly ‘cool’, ‘fun’, or ‘everybody’s doing it’. Finding things current liberalism already has in common with the independent, moderate, apathetic and non-partisan masses seems good. I mean, lately most good workers have experienced increasing job pressures for themselves just to maintain, while insiders and ‘kewl kids’ get all the perks. And then the latter more often screw up when they’re in power. And the last decade, liberals have been much more competent, much less corrupt and inside, than the conservatives. That’s gotta be worth something.

Comments are closed.