In the wake of health care reform, there is now a vibrant discussion underway about the relationship between progressives – including progressive bloggers – and the Obama Administration. In a post titled, The Emergence Of The Dem Blogosphere: The Celebration Of Triangulation, Big Tent Democrat (BTD) at TalkLeft laments "the transformation of the once Left blogosphere into the Democratic blogosphere."

Expressing frustration at liberal bloggers who have assumed the role of pragmatic Obama supporters who stand in opposition to the idealistic/unrealistic Obama critics, BTD disparages the "typical Beltway Media ‘if both sides hate you, I must be dong something right’ silliness" which today "is the height of insight in the Left Democratic blogosphere." BTD also quotes Professor Darren Hutchinson who wrote a post back in December on why "Criticizing President Obama is Pragmatic":

With respect to…pragmatism, depending upon the goals of progressives, criticizing Obama could operate as a highly pragmatic political tactic. President Obama has several items on his agenda — including reelection. These goals, however, might cause him to act in a way that is inconsistent with progressive political agendas. Progressives can only influence Obama and other elected Democrats if they express their discontent.

If they can also reveal that Obama is betraying his liberal base, then they can possibly make him more vulnerable from a political perspective. In order to cure or avoid this vulnerability, Obama may have to act in a way that addresses the concerns of progressives. If progressives never complain or engage in advocacy or mobilization, then politicians will have very few incentives to address their concerns.

By criticizing Obama, progressives are modeling the behavior of social movement participants as diverse as the abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights advocates, feminists, and proponents of GLBT rights. Progressive movements have never achieved their goals by peacefully acquiescing to the will of politicians.

While successful progressive movements have undoubtedly made and accepted compromises, they have also condemned politicians — even sympathetic politicians — when doing so was appropriate. The election of Obama does not provide a reasonable basis for abandoning this tried and tested historical approach to social change.

Chris Bowers at Open Left offers a rebuttal, writing that a large number of self-identified liberals have turned against Obama’s left-wing critics because those critics are not being persuasive in comparison to the President:

The progressive Internet space changed because President Obama was more persuasive to the audience of the progressive blogosphere than even the most prominent progressive bloggers. It changed because his message was more persuasive to the membership of large progressive email organizations than the leaders of those organizations. President Obama took his message…to the same online channels that are available to all of us, hired a bunch of smart online organizers, and ended up convincing many millions more people to voluntarily join him than any other online progressive organizational leader had ever done in the past.

…President Obama meant much more to the progressive base than any and all of his left-wing critics, myself included. He won the argument among the progressive base, and did so in dominating fashion, as is demonstrated by the fact that he got way, way more people to join him than any online progressive organization has ever done before.

Now, just because President Obama persuaded more people so far does not necessarily mean he is right in every case, that he will win in every case, or that his persuasive power is total. And it certainly doesn’t mean that, if you disagree with him from the left, you shouldn’t try to fight back. However, it is important to recognize that President Obama has in fact won the argument among the base so far, and not because of veal pens or sheeple. He convinced 13 million people to voluntarily join his online operation. In order for a more left-wing force to displace, or at least shift, Obama, they have to do something comparable.

Something will displace President Obama’s power among the progressive base eventually, as the ground is always shifting online, and always shifting in politics. However, longing for the good old days when a more left-wing viewpoint held a stronger position online is not going to put anyone in a position to take advantage of that shifting ground… We have to start to formulate what new, workable strategies there are for left-wing messaging and organizing in the future.

If I had to pick sides, I would lean in favor of BTD’s argument. First, Obama was a Presidential candidate when he built his following, which gives him somewhat of a larger platform than your average progressive blogger. Second, during the campaign, Obama promised the moon and stars to his most progressive supporters, persuading them he would bring "change we can believe in" and saying he would go with single payer if he could design our health care system from scratch. He built his 13 million member email list during the campaign, not after it.

Third, while this new mobilization machine (Organizing for America) has engaged many supporters in backing Obama’s legislative efforts, it would be hard to argue that it has established a consensus among progressives that working hand-in-glove with the Obama Administration is the right approach. If anything – as I’ve written previously – OFA exacerbates a counterproductive structural divide within the progressive community between "pragmatists" and "idealists" that was bound to open up with the election of a relatively liberal President.

A note from one of my readers offers a window into how this dynamic in the blogosphere plays out in similar fashion on the ground. Recently, I received an email from a top local Democratic Party official expressing remorse that in working with OFA, the local Party channeled volunteers’ unhappiness over the loss of the public option and a chance for single-payer health care into continued support of the President’s agenda. The reader wanted to believe the volunteers were at least influencing OFA’s direction (which as I’ve noted is impossible – the organization is structurally prohibited from taking a position to the left or right of wherever Obama is at the moment), and was questioning "whether we are in any way leading or are merely being led."

What this reader is describing is a concern that local progressives were coopted. Whether someone willingly and enthusiastically hitches their wagon to a powerful and popular President or reluctantly supports him despite agonizing over the compromises made (e.g., as Dennis Kucinich has done), it is difficult to resist the power of a strong politician. Yet maintaining that level of independence has historically been vital to successful social movements, whether they have been advocating for civil rights or collective bargaining rights. Like BTD, Katrina vanden Heuvel, writing in today’s Washington Post, counsels progressives against being complacent with the compromise positions that our elected leaders have taken:

This reality — a historic reform that isn’t strong enough to get the job done — is characteristic of the Obama administration, a progressive-centrist government in a moment that demands fundamental reform.

The recovery plan was the largest ever — but too small to generate enough jobs and get the economy really moving. Financial reform, if passed, will be the most comprehensive since the Great Depression, yet it is not likely to shackle the big banks sufficiently, much less provide consumers with an independent agency to protect them from predatory lenders. The climate and energy bill that passed the House was disappointing; the Senate is making it weaker…

This discordant gap — between the need and the reality — is one reason the right seems more energized than the emerging progressive majority that has been trying to remake this country…Progressives see a moderate administration proposing comprehensive but compromised reforms in areas vital to our future, which are then diluted and delayed not by the Tea Party right but by the entrenched corporate lobbies that influence both parties…

That leaves progressives in a dilemma. We can’t abandon reform to the rabid right, but we don’t believe the reform going forward will do the trick. That’s why progressives must organize independently, not as an arm of the administration. We need to push the administration to be bolder than it is. (emphasis added) This was exemplified this month by the movement for immigration reform. When the conventional wisdom in Washington wrote off immigration reform this year, activists and their allies didn’t mourn, they brought tens of thousands to Washington and made it clear to Democrats that it will cost more politically to ignore immigration reform than to embrace it.

Politicians — even those as gifted as President Obama — have to deal with the balance of forces as they see them. Movements can change that perceived balance (emphasis added)… "Which side are you on?" is the famous union rallying cry. But before asking the question, people have to know what the sides are. Impassioned and creative citizen movements can make that clear. Surely that is the first task for progressives as we begin the run-up to the elections this fall.

Although I agree with BTD and vanden Heuvel – and think that Bowers does make some valid points – where I differ from all of them is my belief that the Internet does not offer the best forum to resolve these divisions. There is no democratic way in which Daily Kos bloggers and Fire Dog Lake bloggers and MoveOn people and OFA people and left-wing ideologues and center-left Obama fans can come together, debate, and actually resolve anything in a process that concludes with some form of agreement.

That resolution around a common purpose and a shared course of action must take place at the community level, with real personal interaction, meaningful deliberation, and a democratic process for voting on a set of agreed-upon goals and strategies. Contrary to popular opinion, I think that technology can often serve as a powerfully centralizing tool that inhibits authentic grassroots empowerment. With the click of a button, a charismatic leader can tell us what to do and how to think, removing our own sense of agency in the decision-making process.

If we want to build a progressive movement that unites behind a coherent course of action – whether to go along with Democrats or to pressure them from the left – we first need to decentralize and democratize power within our ranks, and we need to begin these independent organizing efforts in our own communities.

Cross-posted at Democratize the Progressive Movement.

[If you have examples of democratic local organizing by progressives on national issues from your community, please send them to michael.karpman [at] gmail.com.]

For a related post, check out El Duderino at Fire Dog Lake.

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