The Right Challenger Could Spur a Movement That Sets the Stage for Bringing Progressives to Power and the Transformative Change the Country Needs!
In the crucial debt-ceiling negotiations just completed, President Obama has once again displayed a seemingly instinctual preference for political compromise over a vigorous, even if unprevailing, defense of progressive principle. Given that demonstrated predilection, it seems progressives now have little to regret and possibly something to gain in backing a primary challenge to the President in 2012. I recognize that such a candidacy has little to no chance of producing the Democratic nominee, nor even to push the inherently cautious Obama further to the political left. As I hope to explain, however, it could well contribute effectively to a national consciousness-raising about what it is political progressives stand for.
The need for such an educational mission hit home with me earlier this year, when I happened to catch a panel discussion on C-SPAN's "Book TV" about the impact of "extremist views" on the American political discourse. Unsurprisingly, the panelists -- who included both self-acknowledged liberals and conservatives -- agreed that extremist views, though protected by the First Amendment, are by their nature beyond the pale and both hinder and distort the development of rational policy. What did surprise me, however, was the panelists' facile, and unanimous, assumption that what they called "extremism" in America exists on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. For them, apparently, Noam Chomsky, the late Howard Zinn, or even Dennis Kucinich are as irrational as right-wing radio hosts, and the influence of each is equally to be regretted.
It was precisely this assumption -- shared by putative political experts -- that set me on a course that has brought me now to support a progressive primary challenge to Obama.
Mull as I might after watching the C-SPAN discussion, I could think of no expression of views from the progressive American left that offends against reasoned discourse as does the often demagogic bombast of a G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Savage, Limbaugh or Beck; nor do its few political voices utter the kind of bigoted inanities and jingoistic appeals characteristic of Tea Party politicians like Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. What I do find on the left are generally well-argued policy critiques from politicians like Bernie Sanders, Kucinich and Ralph Nader; well-informed media voices like those of Rachel Maddow and Ariana Huffington; deeply moral writers like Chris Hedges; and highly motivated, but rational and peaceful, activist groups like MoveOn, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Network for Spiritual Progressives, and People for the American Way.
Clearly, the two ends of the political spectrum are not the same. Yet, as the C-Span panel discussion showed, even sophisticated political analysts seem to accept as a given that those at both ends represent an equal nuisance to rational political discourse -- though (fortunately, as they see it) also equal futility as a political force. This apparently mainstream view struck me as so shockingly misrepresentative of fact that it served as a kind of moral wake-up call. It was evident that the country needed a major political consciousness-raising, and I wondered -- though unproductively at the time -- how this could best be achieved.
Now I've had the flash of an idea. Maybe the very few public voices who have called for a progressive challenge to the President in next year's Democratic primaries are really on to something. At a minimum, such a campaign would offer progressives an unparalleled opportunity to make the public aware of the vital, but so far widely unappreciated, moral values that inform their worldview. What better way could there be to get that message out than with the high media amplification that would surely accompany a challenge to the President from within his own major party?
Progressive Solutions, but First a Progressive Movement.
Those of us on the political left are of course convinced
that the progressive vision for change is not only eminently rational, but
critical to the nation's well-being. At
the same time, however, we must acknowledge the reality that progressive views
are seldom invoked in our political discourse.
As the C-Span panelists made clear, they draw no more serious attention
among mainstream analysts than are accorded the lunatic right.
More critically, progressive values are rarely a part of our national legislative debate. Can any of us recall an American president in our lifetime who has plainly declared that, as leader of the entire nation, his focus will be fixed on advancing the common good, not on solving particular problems that endanger the country's economic expansion or security interests? And, how often, lately, have we heard any elected federal official address head-on one of the five moral issues that today matter most for the country's well-being: namely, the influence of private money on the outcome of federal elections and policies; economic fairness; corporate social responsibility; abatement of global climate change; and a foreign policy that is based not on domination, but on international cooperation?
No doubt the cards in America are stacked against progressive values. In a society that is culturally right of center, broadly anti-intellectual, and politically unsophisticated, the Far Right seeks and easily achieves power through the simple means of divisive appeals to popular fears and resentments. Meanwhile, those on the left are written off because their progressive approach to the issues is considered either soft-headed or "socialistic," and therefore un-American.
Despite these obstacles, however, I think we must ask: Will there ever be a better time than now, when conditions at home cry out for a sense of American community and our national security is tied more closely than ever to a willingness to respect and support the aspirations of other nations, to give progressive solutions a full-court press? Isn't it in fact past time to make the broad middle of American political opinion aware of the country's need to structure more democratic federal elections; to shrink the increasingly obscene gap between our richest and poorest citizens; to invest in the public sphere of education, physical infrastructure, and technological research; to encourage more socially responsible corporate behavior; to care for our natural environment; and to foster a more caring, cooperative, and peaceful world?
It must be conceded, of course, that a progressive primary challenger to the President would have little to no chance of unseating him. It is unlikely, in this era of profound suspicion of government and a massive federal debt, that even the most effective advocacy of a policy agenda to the President's left could attract the broad support of Independent, or even died-in-the-wool Democratic, voters. It would surely not gain the backing of the Democratic Party elite or of interest groups that would be needed to fund a truly competitive campaign.
On the other hand, no one could give more effective voice to the progressive message than a major-party candidate for president who, aware that he has little or no chance to win, could rise above the usual pusillanimity, pandering, and partisanship of electioneering. He could be completely open, and contribute significantly to the country's more immediate need of a broad political consciousness-raising. That is the necessary first step toward building a political infrastructure that can, in the future, provide the basis for electing a progressive president and Congress that will enact progressive policies.
As I see it, that first step, moreover, could be achieved without
compromising the political powers of President Obama himself. In successfully meeting a primary challenge,
he would almost certainly reinforce his image with the electorate as an
eminently astute, reasonable, and principled leader who, given the limitations of
the current state of America's economy, politics and culture, remains the best
realistic choice to serve as the nation's chief executive.
The Challenge of
the Conservative Mindset.
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