By Ron Daniels
In my most recent article, I argued that the progressive movement must devise a strategy that looks beyond Obama and the Democrats but includes supporting the President’s reelection in 2012. My basic premise is that the rise to prominence and dominance of the right in the public discourse and electoral outcomes is bigger than the flaws of a single President. It has more to do with the reality that since the era of Ronald Reagan, the right has been successful in painting progressivism and liberalism as dirty words, so much so that as early as 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis refused to identify himself as a “liberal” even though his record clearly indicated otherwise.
Today to be identified as liberal is seen as radioactive, something to protect oneself from rather than embrace. Indeed, the emergence of the Democratic Leadership Conference as a “centrist” formation which sought to co-opt certain Republican ideas was a concession to the success of conservatives in shifting the political pendulum decisively to the right. Hence, the displeasure of many on the left with some of the policies advanced by President William Jefferson Clinton, e.g., NAFTA and Welfare Reform. But, given the alternatives and the absence of a movement to reverse the conservative tide, liberals and progressives were compelled to grin and bear it.
The lesson of Clinton and Obama presidencies is clear: unless the progressive movement can fashion a message based on its vision for America and effectively mobilize/organize substantial sectors/constituencies around that vision and message, we will forever be confined to moaning, groaning and complaining about the reactionary policies of conservatives or the shortcomings of Democrats including, the current and future presidents. The fact is that the present political terrain is decidedly unfavorable for progressives. It is a landscape shaped by the strategy, tactics and victories of the right.
Our challenge is to mount a counter-offensive to win and solidify a new majority which favors liberal-left-progressive ideals and policies and expresses its affirmation in the streets and at the ballot box. And, while it would be wonderful to have a sitting Democratic President stand and fight for these ideals, by now we know that Obama is a pragmatist, unwilling to do battle on unfavorable terrain. We must accept Obama for who he is and tactically mobilize/organize to support him in 2012 because we must. Sitting on our hands and tacitly contributing to the defeat of Obama is not a rational option!
Accepting this reality/conclusion does not mean passively acquiescing to or accepting current political conditions. On the contrary, it is imperative that we gather our forces to pose the vital alternative to the right. For all of our complaints and disaffection with Obama and the Democrats, there is no coherent, potent, independent force on the left that is equivalent to the Tea Party Patriots Movement on the right; a force with a demonstrated capacity to impact public opinion and influence the direction of the Democrats. There is a “Progressive Caucus” in Congress, but unlike the Tea Party Caucus, it is not directly tied to a movement/force which has mobilized/organized and actually elected candidates to Congress.
To the degree that there is a “progressive movement” it is largely disjointed, disorganized, disoriented and in disarray – and therefore inadequate to meet the daunting but doable task of creating a viable and vibrant alternative to the machination on the right. Frankly, it is at moments like this that we miss the National Rainbow Coalition as the glue, a unifying umbrella for the liberal/left/progressive movement. The demobilization and loss of the Rainbow Coalition is ancient history. Our challenge is to find the collective resolve, the will to build a similar force in a moment of grave crisis for workers, the middle class, people of color minorities and the poor.
The first task in this process is to assess the factors which contributed to the rise to prominence of conservatism. While there may well have been other factors at play, I believe a turning point was the ability of the right/conservatives to put liberals/progressives on the defensive in terms of the role of government in the life of our society. Influenced in part by the successful third party campaigns of Governor George Wallace of Alabama, Ronald Reagan skillfully tapped into the “white backlash” against the progress of the Civil Rights movement to convince a sizeable segment of the American electorate that “massive” federal spending on social programs was undermining the American economy and threatening “our cherished way of life.” Reagan also lashed out at “excessive” government regulation of the economy as stifling the ability of capital to work its magic in the market place.
The villains in this scenario were the “tax and spend,” big government liberals, mostly Democrats — who incidentally were also the key proponents of federal intervention in support of civil rights for African Americans, nullifying the doctrine of “states rights.” As articulated by Reagan, the conservative solution was to get the “burden of government” off the backs of taxpayers by drastically slashing social programs and cutting taxes. His pro-big business/corporate bias was also revealed when he declared war on organized labor by successfully attacking and decertifying the Air Traffic Controllers Union (PATCO) and firing thousands of air traffic controllers. In a clear indication of the racial subtext of his conservative agenda, Reagan also launched a direct assault on affirmative action and other race based remedies charging that such programs were tantamount to reverse discrimination or Black racism!
The formula worked. Reagan was successful in blurring the traditional lines that defined the answer to the question “whose side are you on?” He was successful in peeling off significant numbers of White poor and working class voters, so called “Reagan Democrats,” including defections among unionized workers (despite his open attack on PATCO), who had previously been reliable supporters of the Democratic Party. Liberals/progressives have been on the defensive and decline ever since. The centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birthday was commemorated with considerable national fanfare as he was hailed as one of America’s greatest presidents. The centennial of the birthday of the late Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey, one of the great liberals of the 20th Century, passed with hardly a mention.
Given this history, a central ingredient in the formula for a liberal-progressive counter-offensive must be a vigorous articulation and defense of the role of government as one of the “great equalizers” in America’s capitalist political-economy! The other great equalizer is organized labor/unions. However, the right to organize and maintain unions was legitimized by legislation enacted by the federal government. Liberals/progressives utilized the public sphere/government in an effort to level the playing field against the “Captains of Industry” and “Robber Barons.” Historically it has been liberals and progressives of both political parties that have advocated for the development of public institutions to ensure that the sons and daughters of all Americans irrespective of economic status could have access to education, health care, housing and a social safety net to at least subsist with dignity in the midst of wealth and plenty.
The daughters and sons of workers and the poor may not be able to go to private elementary or secondary schools or to Harvard or Yale for a college education, but public schools and public colleges/universities were the liberal/progressive answer to the obvious inequities in opportunity in this society. The same applies for public hospitals, public housing, public services (like transportation) and public benefits to ameliorate the plight of workers and the poor. Liberals and progressives must re-educate the American electorate on the role of government as the great equalizer, the guardian against the excesses of those at the commanding heights of capital and finance, and a vehicle for providing opportunities for all classes to enjoy a modicum of the wealth of this nation.
We must remind American workers, the middle class, women, people of color minorities and the poor that, historically, liberals and progressives have been on their side. Note I did not say Democrats but liberals and progressives. From Radical Reconstruction to the era of “fighting Bob Lafollette,” the “trust busting” progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt to Congress Members and Senators who supported civil rights legislation (over the strident objection of Dixiecrats), there have been Republican moderates, liberals and progressives who have also stood on the side of the “many against the few.” Therefore, the liberal-progressive counter-offensive is not against Republicans per se but the conservative extremism which has consumed the present day Republican Party. This is an important distinction because in the current battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate, it is essential that liberals and progressives expose the reactionary record of conservatives as it relates to protecting and expanding the social and economic rights of workers, women, the middle class, people of color minorities and the poor.
We cannot allow the American electorate to have historical amnesia as it relates to the reactionary character of the adherents of rightwing ideology. One of the great mysteries of the messaging of liberals/progressives in the face of the contemporary onslaught from the right has been the utter failure to stand on what should be viewed as a proud record of accomplishments – fighting on the side of the majority. If conservatism is in vogue, then our mission must be to educate the electorate so that there is clarity about on whose side conservatives have stood historically and where they stand today.
This is particularly important because we have a whole generation which has grown up with little or no knowledge of the historical contributions of liberals/progressives; a whole generation that has grown up during the pinnacle of the ascendancy of conservatism as reflected by conservative Presidents in the White House and conservative control of one or both branches of Congress for much of the past 30 years. For this generation conservative is fashionable, liberal is passé.
At virtually every turn in the history of this country, it was the liberal-progressive forces who advanced policies and regulations designed to enhance the quality of life for the majority of the American people, those on the bottom rungs of the social-economic ladder. Responding to mass actions in the streets and an imminent danger to capitalism as a core value of this nation, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal that rescued the legions of unemployed, millions of impoverished and untold multitudes of hungry and homeless people from the callous neglect and reckless, ruinous, pro-wealthy policies of his Republican predecessor. The New Deal became the cornerstone for an emerging “culture of rights” in American society, championed by liberals/progressives. Roosevelt stood on the side of the” many against the few.”
It was liberals/progressives who fought for the right of workers to organize and maintain unions, fought for Workers Compensation, Social Security, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Medicare, Medicaid, consumer and environmental protection legislation and regulations, civil rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. Lest we forget, and apparently we have allowed our fellow Americans to do so, it was liberals/progressives who launched the “War on Poverty” and other social programs to mitigate, if not eliminate, poverty in America.
It was liberals/progressives who continued the concept of “public sector jobs” to put people back to work in times of economic distress, responding to high levels of unemployment among youth/young people by enacting the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and the Joint Partnership and Training Act. It was Senator Hubert Humphrey who teamed-up with Congressman Augustus Hawkins to propose the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act which established 3 percent employment as the benchmark for a full employment economy and mandated that the President annually report to the nation on progress toward achieving this goal. Finally, lest we forget as the nation ritualistically honors him each year, at the end of his life, Martin Luther King was mobilizing/organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to call upon this nation via its elected representatives in Congress to enact an Economic Bill of Rights to guarantee a minimum standard of living/quality of life for all Americans in the areas of income, housings, health and education.
Time and time again, the record will show that in the main, conservatives have stood in stanch opposition to these people-oriented measures. Americans should never have been allowed to forget that liberals/progressives have consistently stood on their side over the opposition of conservatives! Nor should they have been allowed to forget how liberals/progressives utilized government, the public sphere as the great equalizer in our society. But, this is precisely what has happened. Under fierce fire from conservatives, with rare exception, liberals/progressives have retreated to the closet, running from rather than embracing a stellar record of accomplishments. In the void, conservatism has become en vogue.
This must change. Liberals/progressives must boldly reclaim the mantle as the proponents/advocates for the “many against the few.” This clarity will enable the majority to more aptly choose on whose side they stand. By reclaiming its proud legacy of promoting and defending the interests and aspirations of workers, the middle class, people of color minorities and the poor, liberals/progressives will be well positioned to successfully challenge conservatives for primacy in the struggle for the future of this nation.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected] .