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Harold Meyerson: “Progressive Era Has Not Burst Forth”

In the Washington Post op-ed Without a movement, progressives can’t aid Obama’s agenda (January 6, 2010), Harold Meyerson presents a most illuminating contrast between, on the one hand, the successful progressive eras of the 1930s and 1960s (the New Deal during the presidency of FDR and the Great Society during LBJ’s presidency), during which times domestic programs were proposed and successfully enacted, and, on the other, the presidencies of Democrats since LBJ – Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and now Barack Obama – all coming into office with substantial Democratic majorities in Congress and all holding out the promise “that a new burst of progressivism was at hand.”

Meyerson’s argument is based on the following assertion:

“If there’s a common feature to the political landscapes in which Carter, Clinton and now Obama were compelled to work, it’s the absence of a vibrant left movement.”

And it is with this assertion that I take partial issue.

The part with which I take issue is that Obama was not compelled to work in a political landscape that lacked a vibrant left movement.

Very much the opposite: the Obama campaign moved quickly after Obama secured the presidential nomination in 2008 to silence activists on the left, to bring all the enthusiasm on the left under the Obama campaign’s wing and to bring all the energy on the left firmly under the Obama campaign’s control.

Meyerson actually points to the problem without fully realizing its cause:

“In America, major liberal reforms require not just liberal governments, but autonomous, vibrant mass movements, usually led by activists who stand at or beyond liberalism’s left fringe.”

Some will say that Organizing for America (OFA) represents Obama’s effort to create what Meyerson says Obama needs to realize a new progressive era. These would say that Meyerson can’t blame Obama for not trying to work with a vibrant left movement.

But Meyerson doesn’t say that there needs to be a movement controlled by the president’s operatives, a movement of liberals who will support the president no matter what he does. Meyerson says that there must be a movement that is autonomous and that will pull the president to the left.

In fact OFA is the opposite of what Meyerson thinks is necessary. Following from Meyerson’s arguments, I conclude that the fact that Obama’s efforts to control the left are still going strong a year into his presidency are the very reason why he has not ushered in a new progressive era and why he will not achieve anything like the New Deal or the Great Society.

Indeed, I think Meyerson is been far too gracious when he says:

“For his part, Obama won election with something new under the political sun: a list of 13 million people who had supported his campaign. But he has consistently declined to activate his activists to help him win legislative battles by pressuring, for instance, those Democratic members of Congress who have weakened or blocked his major bills.”

Meyerson assumes that operatives for Obama haven’t used that list of 13 million people. They have. They use it to quiet the left – indeed, they use supporters on the left to quiet dissent – as Obama pursues a decidedly non-progressive legislative agenda.

I receive glowing endorsements from OFA, which spins Obama’s failures as if they were great successes, and requests for contributions from OFA, which claims that more money is needed to help Obama continue these “successes,” all the time.

To make this situation all the more unfortunate, Obama and those he’s chosen to surround himself with have badly misjudged the times. As Meyerson put it:

“Unlike Carter and Clinton, however, Obama took office at a moment when the intellectual force of laissez-faire economics was plainly spent. His reform agenda was nothing if not ambitious: health care for all, financial re-regulation, climate-change legislation and a Keynesian stimulus to revive a wounded economy. But as the first anniversary of his inauguration approaches, it’s clear that despite the impending enactment of a genuinely epochal expansion of health care, a progressive era has not burst forth. Major legislation languishes or is watered down. Right-wing pseudo-populism stalks the land. The liberal base is demobilized. The ’30s or the ’60s it ain’t.”

Meyerson wants to see a real movement appear on the left. He thinks Obama’s presidency can still be saved. He hopes that maybe Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann can do for the left what Glenn Beck has done for the right. They can’t. And, more importantly, Obama doesn’t want them to.

In this climate, progressive activists can’t expect to shake up the landscape and knock this Democratic president or these congressional Democrats onto a course toward a true progressive agenda.

Obama and current Democratic leaders have decided that greatness isn’t in their interests. Despite their promises, they’ve taken steps to ensure that the America people will not witness anything like the New Deal or the Great Society.

The best progressive activists can do is be true to themselves, to speak out on the issues every day, to keep the hope alive, and wait patiently for the emergence of real leaders who will deserve the support and loyalty of the American people.

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Neoptolemos Nikator

Neoptolemos Nikator