As the incredible rush of the historic dimensions of the 2008 election starts to sink in and recede, we should begin to take stock of the implications of this event. There can be no question about the significance of the racial barriers that were breached by the majority of Americans who just elected a man of color as President of the United States. There can also be no quibbling about the consummate skill and exemplary conduct of Obama as a politician.
What we need to acknowledge at this point however, are the two groups who are the unequivocal losers in the new equation of power. The first, not surprisingly, are the social conservatives. The second, somewhat counter-intuitively, are progressives.
The mainstream media is already making this abundantly clear, though they never mention the word progressive. You can hear it on every network- what just won out is "centrism". Nancy Pelosi is proclaiming with the same bravado with which she declared "impeachment is off the table" that the Democrats will now "govern from the center". Even conservatives are promised a place in the new middle of the road consensus. An analyst on NPR this morning pointed out that Obama's biggest fights are not going to be with Republicans but rather with the left wing of his own party who will be expecting to move the country in a new direction.
The irony is that progressives continue to do the heavy lifting for the Democrats. The ideology of "centrism" has been in full control for the last eight years, but it never won many elections until the progressive, principled left injected some stamina into the party. In 2006 we had finally moved the playing field far enough to the left for the Democrats to win. But then, as today, the party elites, such as Rahm Emanuel, touted their ability to cleave to the center as the main ingredient in their victory. There was no acknowledgement or note of gratitude to those who, against tremendous derision and disparagement, had opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning.
Thus, we are seeing a repeat of this pattern. The activist left has spearheaded the critique of the Bush administration for eight long, bitter years which sowed the seeds for Obama's victory. The political landscape is utterly transformed since Al Gore ran, not just from Bush's disastrous policies but because there has been a consistent voice of conscience beating a steady tattoo for fundamental change. The centrist Democratic establishment who appeased Bush on every issue was certainly not the source of that drumbeat but they will surely be the main beneficiaries of its ascendancy.
Just as the Democrats used the anger of the Iraq War to win in 2006 but then made no serious moves to end it, we should expect today that the hunger for dramatic policy change will also go unsated. An unreformed congressional leadership combined with Obama's stated policy agenda of assuaging the status quo will surely lead to a landscape that will bear little resemblance to the hopes of progressives.
This isn't to suggest that there is something wrong with Obama's goal of achieving broad consensus or that progressives need to get everything they want. Rather, it is a recognition that in the process of getting to this point through our electoral process, progressives got almost nothing of what they wanted. If we are going to join into a broad coalition that might include conservatives and large corporations the idea that we should demand something in return for our support should have been understood from the beginning.
I apologize but I am going to have to run down this list again. There is no commitment to withdraw from Iraq or Afghanistan until it suits the masters of empire. There is no commitment to reign in the power of Wall Street or seriously re-regulate it. We will understand this fully when Obama chooses a Wall Street insider as Secretary of Treasury. There is a clear understanding at this point that the private health insurance industry will remain in control of our healthcare system. No matter what tinkering is done, any actual confrontation with this industry is off the table. Across the board, from the credit card industry to the nuclear and coal industries, corporate power, which is the root of all progressive discontent, is going to be well represented in the new government while progressives will have the consolation of their hopes.
The progressive position will be even weaker because they will feel compelled to go along with all of these reactionary, compromised policies. After all we voted for them. This must be what we wanted.
There is still every reason to expect that a smart man like Barack Obama can engineer a successful administration. Maybe it will be the best we've ever seen. But it will be done at the discretion of the establishment powerful. Progressives as a movement of like-minded people have almost no leverage to exert influence. We will grow even weaker as the impulse of self-censorship takes hold.
There are two things that I think can be done to try to salvage the movement from oblivion. The first, as people are no doubt already contemplating whether inside or outside the Democratic Party, is to become issue oriented. Advocate for specific results that you would like to see. This is of course is what we should have been doing throughout the electoral process to avoid our current predicament. If everyone who is in favor of single-payer healthcare had pledged to only vote for candidates who advocate single-payer healthcare then we undoubtedly would be looking at that outcome today.
Secondly, we need to borrow a strategy from the Republicans. Ever since Newt Gingrich got the cadres to bone up on The Art of War they have utilized a strategy of hitting Democrats whenever they raise their heads on a liberal issue. This is why Democrats inside the beltway lack the fortitude of the rank and file across the country. They are like experimental rats that get an electric shock every time they go down the wrong path in the maze.
Whether we have realized it or not, this is also what progressives have been doing to the Democrats for the last eight years. When they have headed down corridors of wishy-washy pseudo-conservatism, we have hit them hard and made them feel it. This is what has brought the Democratic Party back on course. These efforts to keep them in line are the reason they won by a solid majority yesterday. Keeping that kind of pressure up is our only hope of getting good results tomorrow.
Therefore it is imperative that we not change this strategy now. We have to keep being mean to the Democrats whenever they head down the wrong path in the maze. Its not that we are mean, it's just that we care passioniately about progressive principles.