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The First Step to Making America a "Center-Left" Nation

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While progressive pundits walk around with their heads down, throwing out accusations and projections over a myriad of failures, there's something higher up they're overlooking. This is a nation founded on the premise that Americans can act as One Nation -- "We the People," but shocking levels of ignorance remain about our unity with each other through the government and our unity with something greater beyond us all -- "One Nation Under God."

Jared Bernstein in "Lousy Negotiating Skills Are Not the Problem," points fingers of blame for a bad debt deal not only at President Obama, but at progressives:

If too many Americans don't believe in or understand what government does to help them, to offset recessions, to protect their security in retirement and in hard times, to maintain the infrastructure, to provide educational opportunities and health care decent enough to offset the disadvantages so many are born with...if those functions are unknown, underfunded, and/or carried out poorly, why should they care about how much this deal or the next one cuts?

Those of us who do care about the above will not defeat those who strive to get rid of it all by becoming better tacticians. We will only find success when a majority of Americans agrees with us that government is something worth fighting for.

That's exactly right. While on occasion the federal government can take initiatives without popular backing (as with health care reform), such victories can be undone if they go too far. The challenge for Democrats -- and everyone concerned with a more Integral national politics -- is to work to transform public awareness.

Not just public opinion, public consciousness. But opinion is an important part of that consciousness. Kevin Drum writes in Mother Jones's "It's Public Opinion, Stupid":

Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.

But no matter how many times we try to kid ourselves with one poll result or another, liberals just don't have that advantage. The public is mostly in favor of raising taxes on the rich -- though I suspect its support is pretty soft -- but on the bigger issues they mostly aren't on our side. They think deficits are bad, they don't trust Keynesian economics, they don't want a higher IRS bill (who does, after all?), and they believe the federal government is spending too much on stuff they don't really understand. Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we're not going to be able to make much progress.

This is why I blame the broad liberal community for our failures, not just President Obama. My biggest beef with Obama is the same one I had three years ago, namely that he's never really even tried to move public opinion in a specifically progressive direction. But that hardly even matters unless all the rest of us have laid the groundwork. And we haven't. Wonks, hacks, activists, all of us. We just haven't persuaded the public to support our vision of government. Until we do, the tea party tendency will always be more powerful than we are.

As much as that sounds like a breath of fresh air to hear from a liberal publication, does anyone have a sense that the progressive movement really understands the depth of the public opinion problem or has the capacity to create truly transformative changes in opinion over time?

Without the emergence of an Integral national politics -- a vision that is inclusive, comprehensive, long-term, progressive, and dynamic -- there's little hope for American progressives to beat back the reactionary tides that could wash their policy achievements away time and again.

President Obama's deal on the debt crisis may not have been the course I would have steered, but I defer to his judgment. He is in a position to know more than the vast majority of any commentators in the blogosphere or media. He's probably even a better negotiator than he's being given credit for, too, but it's hard to say from where I stand.

Not only does Obama have more knowledge than his detractors on the left and right, he also usually has a longer-term strategic vision for his decisions than most of them. While the Republican leadership in Congress is focused on making the decision that will give them the immediate satisfaction of being able to save face and claim victory, I get the sense that he's schemed the entire game out until the last inning in 2016 or beyond.

If you accept that the US is incapable of sustaining a Paul Krugman-style Keynesian economic agenda because public opinion has turned strongly against it (which I do), then deficit reduction must come. The adults in the room all know that the only realistic solution is to include both tax hikes and spending cuts spread across discretionary, entitlement, and defense. Nothing in the debt deal precludes any of that; in fact, it makes such an outcome all but assured.

Obama didn't really need to press for tax cuts now, when he'll have the opportunity to do so again in December and yet again in 2012 when the Bush tax cuts expire and he will have the chance to veto any legislation sent to him to extend the cuts even if it's the last thing he does as President. Ending the Bush tax cuts is really the ultimate WMD in the Obama administration's arsenal, and it's still intact.

Bernstein and Drum are right. It's time for the attention of progressives to shift from short-term tactics to the long-term success. In doing so, we can draw lessons from two unlikely sources: the gay rights battle for public opinion (an enormous though still unfinished agenda), and the Integral political philosophy which has been sketched by Ken Wilber among others (which provides a blueprint for the sort of inclusive, comprehensive, long-term, progressive, and dynamic thinking necessary).

A reformed progressive movement could do far more than win more favorable terms on a debt ceiling resolution; a new spirit of progressiveness could shift America to a "center-left" nation. That's the target to which I believe liberals now need to aspire, and realizing that this is the right target is the first step in achieving it.

If you're inspired to take part in a conversation about how to create a "center-left" nation, read along at Joe Perez, where I'll continue to explore the look and agenda of Integral politics as a vehicle for reforming the American progressive movement.

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I'm a Seattle-based writer exploring integral approaches to values, politics, culture, religion, spirituality, and contemporary life. My books include Soulfully Gay (Integral Books/Shambhala, 2007), the first published "how-i-found-my-faith" sort of memoir in the Integral Spirituality tradition. I am currently blogging at my eponymous blog, (more...)
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