Dana Milbank’s 750 Word Quota and the Future of Progressive Activism
Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post that President Obama is "killing the progressive movement."
He comes to this conclusion after observing lower turnout for this year’s America’s Future Now conference. But anyone who lived through the Clinton years should have been able to predict that if a Democrat won the White House most rank-and-file Democrats would feel their job was done. There is just never going to be the kind of energy surrounding sausage-making that you get around election year politics.
Hardly Barack Obama’s fault.
More telling, however, are the voices of progressive dissent Milbank hears at the conference:
Speakers at the closing session exhorted the liberals to take back America — from Obama. "The president of the most powerful country in the world is doing all right, but there are a lot of people in this country who are not doing all right," writer Naomi Klein told the crowd. "Obama is making us stupid," she added. "Love can make you stupid."
And Leo Gerard, head of the United Steelworkers, warned that if his fellow activists don’t "seize the opportunity to lead with our progressive ideas," then "Rahm Emanuel will lead." And while "Rahm has the president’s back," the union leader said of Obama’s chief of staff, "I don’t think he has our back."
But many in the audience had warmer feelings toward the Obama administration. A straw poll taken by pollster Stan Greenberg found that 90 percent of those in attendance approve of the job the president is doing, and that they have no consensus about whether to help Obama or fight him.
Ellison demanded investigations of Bush administration wrongdoings — "and anybody who doesn’t want to do it in the administration needs to be pushed to do it."
But Ellison didn’t sound terribly optimistic. "Our movement lacks muscle and bone density," he diagnosed.
The Bush administration and their wars gave fuel to the progressive movement in this country, no doubt. I was personally at a loss during the primary battles — from a movement perspective, I understood our job to be to hold fast to our principles and reward candidates for hewing to them and make them compete for our support.
What happened instead was that progressives divided into camps and started projecting progressive opinions onto candidates who had never expressed them, and fought relentlessly to establish a huge gulf between two candidates whose political records were largely indistinguishable. The progressive movement became subverted into a cult of personality on both sides from which it has yet to emerge, sucked in by a media complex that really doesn’t know how to cover an election or interpret politics in any other way.
But that’s only part of the story of why the progressive movement languishes, and I agree with Milbank that it does. I love the sausage-making process much more than the bomb-throwing, and I find taking part in incremental victories on issues like social security, cramdown or oversight of the Fed more satisfying than thundering defeats. But I have come to understand that the institutional forces that prevent real change from happening are more formidable and more structural than I anticipated.
That isn’t Obama’s fault, either.
More problematic is the way that progressive leadership is sitting things out, which is what Naomi Klein is addressing. Some may feel they have to — if the membership of their organizations are not interested in challenging the administration, many feel they can’t move without splitting them. But it’s a self-reinforcing problem. If the usual progressive validators aren’t saying anything, people don’t perceive that anything is wrong. And it becomes extremely difficult to generate enthusiasm for activism.
But Obama does bear some responsibility for the current state of affairs. The administration has consistently moved to distance itself from progressive leadership, refusing to even meet with the Progressive Caucus until recently. They have also consciously corralled progressive organizations and sought to strictly control their messaging. Media Matters and the Center for American Progress may have been important voices in the progressive movement at one time, but they’re little more than arms of the White House now, playing a zero sum game with Republicans who really don’t matter. When Democrats control both Congress and the White House, nobody needs the GOP’s help to pass legislation.
I understand that nobody wants to be on the outside like they were during the Bush years, but the price of a few cocktail parties at the White House — and the threat of lost donors — is buying a lot more than it should. There is some weakening around the edges, particularly among intellectuals concerned with finance issues (like Klein) and unions staring down a series of broken promises (like Gerard). Some predicted that Afghanistan would cause a split, but I never bought it. It’s probably going to take a big, stinging Congressional defeat — like Employee Free Choice — before any of the progressive institutions feel they must declare themselves independent of the White House and focus their energies on movement values once again.