Here’s the scenario. A piece of legislation come up for discussion in congress. The national media takes to the discussion with ferocity. The Democrats demand one thing, the Republicans demand another. Inevitably there’s a compromise that’s typically a let-down compared to the potential gains (from a progressive point of view) but is still technically a baby-step away from how radically conservative the current law is written.
Conservative scream about how the President’s liberal agenda is going to destroy America. Liberals scream that Obama is the weakest President ever, question his loyalties to the progressive cause, and claim he’s betrayed them. Obama’s numbers in the polls continue to drop. And nothing changes.
As I discuss this with many of my progressive colleagues I hear the talking points as if they are on repeat. “Obama is way too weak!” “He’s not even really a Democrat, just a moderate Republican.” “Candidate Obama is nothing like President Obama!” “This President lied about caring about progressive causes.” I decide to chime in with a point I like to make, “Well, clearly Obama isn’t the only one to blame for the fact that X new legislation isn’t as progressive as it could be.” And suddenly I’m hit with the two most damaging words a self-identified liberal could ever be called, “Obama apologist!”
Suddenly the conversation is over. Words are still being spoken but it’s no longer a conversation. Everything I say is now being half-listened to or disregarded as if it’s coming from uninformed child. I hear the speech patterns of my colleagues shift from mutual respect to tactical strategy in attempts to manipulate my seemingly primitive brain away from my ‘irrational’ and ‘emotional’ perspective I’ve naively been brainwashed into. It’s not my fault, I just don’t know better. So now they must hold my hand and guide me gently across the street to sanity.
But instead of conceding and bowing out, I double-down on my argument in attempts to explain my perspective and the reasoning I used to get there. But it gets worse. Now apparently I’m not just a lost child. I’m clearly not truly a progressive. I don’t REALLY believe in liberal ideals. Just a centrist sheep in liberal themed wolf’s clothing. It doesn’t matter what I say anymore. They’re not listening, just waiting for their turn to tell me now misguided and wrong I am. How I’m not really part of the team. And I am livid. I refuse to continue the conversation. My colleagues assume it’s because I’m too sensitive to hear the ‘truth’ as they’ve defined it. I’m written off as just another hopeless American citizen that’ll never come truly see reality. At best I’m a second-class progressive. Is it not ridiculous that I’m more comfortable telling a room of Tea Partiers that I’d support pure socialism than I am telling my own liberal colleagues that I plan on voting for Obama in 2012?
What happens those conversation is exactly what I think is wrong with the liberal cause and why it is so weak.
First let me proclaim a few of my stances to the doubters. I’m pro-Union, pro-choice, pro-stimulus, pro-Buffet rule, and pro-universal health care. I’m opposed to torture, both wars in the middle east, Guantanamo Bay remaining open, further tax cuts to the rich, and many of these free trade agreements. I think approval the Keystone XL pipeline would be the worst single environmental decision in history. I’d support socialization of all personal banking. I’d support legalization of all drugs and prostitution as long as they are done privately with full consent of all parties involved. I want all nuclear weapons disarmed. I think support of Wikileaks is extremely patriotic – and by patriotic I mean supporting what I view is best for the citizens of this country. I think the four worst policy changes in the last 25 years are the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Bush tax cuts, and Citizens United. I’m sure that by most definitions, I’m squarely on the liberal side of things.
What I do not support is the continual Obama bashing in absence of developing a solution/strategy to bring Washington legislation further toward the left. This has always been the Left’s weakness. Liberals are largely compromised of intellectuals and academics that by profession spend their time analyzing and discussing the faults of policy and policy makers but do not spend an adequate amount of time, in my opinion, mobilizing and creating strategy to get liberal policy passed. The majority of the conversation seems to be focused on how ineffectual Obama has been with little if any acknowledgement of the historic levels of opposition he’s faced both inside and outside his own party. I do not see this as a productive way to get progressive legislation passed.
I have for quite some time (as a liberal, university-educated, black man) been disappointed with the Progressive and Black Caucuses for this reason. For years both Caucuses have proposed legislation beneficial to their respective causes. It’s been voted down without much of a fight. They’ve happily voted for the weakened legislation. And then members of both Caucuses have taken an at-least-we-tried stance and gone back to their constituents claiming the system is still holding them down but they’ll continue the fight. Then they’re re-elected and the cycle continues (Part of the reason I wasn’t really bothered when Obama told the Black Caucus to stop whining). Do I believe they really want the legislation they claim they fight for to be passed? Yes. Do I also believe that their primary goal is to be re-elected (like every other politician) and that their half-hearted battles are enough to secure their victories? Absolutely. In my opinion every single Democrat that votes for any of the weakened legislation they claim to despise so much is equally as responsible for it’s passage.
Meanwhile, the Tea Party has taken the entire government hostage. They haven’t done so because they represent the opinions of the majority. They’ve done so because they’ve made their own party afraid of them. They threaten to not support their own party if the proposed legislation isn’t radical enough and they dare their bluff to be called. The Republicans are so worried that the Tea Party won’t vote in solidarity with them that they’ve pander to the Tea Party with everything. The current Republican Presidential Candidate race has become this ridiculous race to the right where the highest polling candidate each week is the one who says the most recent insanely radical conservative statement. Herman Cain is getting applauses for saying that unemployed people only have themselves to blame in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Obama is not perfect. Guantanamo is still open. Bradley Manning is being held without trial in torturous conditions. His deportation record is abysmal. Afghanistan has escalated and we’re still not out of Iraq. The Bush tax cuts are currently still in place. However, he’s also gotten Health Care passed which puts us in a slightly better position. He got a stimulus package passed to help keep out of full out depression. He’s passed financial reforms, including the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which put us in a slightly better position. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed, which brings us slightly closer to legalizing gay marriage.
He’s very clearly taken the stance that progress in the smallest of baby-steps is still progress. He definitely has a responsibility to bring the national policy closer to the left of the spectrum (even moving back to the center would be great), but so are the other 243 Democrats in the House and Senate. I also think some responsibility lies on the progressive ‘strategists’ we see as contributors to news shows and political websites. If we want Obama to move further to the left let’s force him to. If he knows that he’ll get progressive votes regardless and he’ll take progressive heat regardless what reason does he have to push for a more radical agenda? In the end it’s easy to see how the casual voting citizen can sympathize with a hyper-conservative but unified and passionate Republican party than a divided, self-loathing Democratic party.
As liberals I ask that we learn from the Tea Party. Take action, make demands, withhold votes, and celebrate victories - even small ones. It’s possible to be supportive of small gains and still push for bigger ones. That’s how you gain momentum. If we regard every negotiation as a loss, even if it’s actually a small step to the left, the chances decrease that the next battle will be a progressive victory. It’s okay to not get hail mary touchdowns every play. Let’s keep getting first downs until the Republican defense is so cracked that we can finish the drive with that 40yd TD pass. Maybe a little support every now and then would embolden Obama to go for more ambitious proposals. And maybe, just maybe, a person can still be liberal, logical, well-informed, and come to an intelligent perspective without blaming Obama for everything.