When asked what time it was, Yogi Berra responded, “You mean, right now?”
For those who are involved in politics, the question is “What’s the political time of day, like right now?” What’s happening in this country on the large scale? What’s the Obama administration trying to do? What are its internal limitations and its external constraints? And what should progressives be trying to accomplish?
When, during the election campaign, Obama said that he admired Reagan for having captured the mood of the country and shifting the governance of the country according to that mood, I don’t believe that he was conveying his approval of the character of the changes. Rather, I think that he was admiring the process of transformation because he envisions his administration initiating a process of change of direction of the nation as well.
Reagan’s “revolution” was to distance government on all levels from responsibility for infrastructure, corporate regulation and social safety net, while strengthening the military industrial complex, setting the stage for globalization, breaking the unions, and initiating the most extraordinary transfer of wealth to the ruling classes that this nation had not seen since the 1880s. The slogan, then as now, was free markets and limited government. And that slogan has taken hold; it now represents a deeply held feeling in this country, even among those for whom the absence of government has been crippling.
The Clinton administration, an eight year long hiccup preceded by eight years of Reagan and four of Daddy Bush and followed by eight of Baby Bush, was unwilling or unable to resist the Reagan revolution. Clinton and Gore supported NAFTA and happily proclaimed that the “era of big government is over.” Even so, the right-wing attack machine proclaimed the illegitimacy of the Clinton presidency. The neocon warhawks, who came to power with Baby Bush, had pilloried Clinton and yearned to implement their plans for U.S. global domination. They accomplished this goal with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So we have had 28 years of growing globalization, shrinking domestic manufacturing, deregulation of just about everything, a massive increase in the prison population, two debilitating wars and a vast increase in the resources of the military-industrial complex. Accompanying and justifying all of this is the complex of right-wing think tanks, media and the like. The right has, along with these institutional shifts, succeeded in changing the thinking of a significant portion of the American people, persuading them to organize and vote against their own economic interests. In the process, they have left the United States a wreck.
In the broadest terms, Obama has set his administration the task of beginning the process of reversing the Reagan revolution and bringing government back to the job of providing for the common good, a return to a contemporary version of Keynesian economics and the New Deal. The difficulty is that although Obama is moving many things in a progressive direction, there is great disappointment among progressives about how far he is willing to go. His problems arise when the “common good” requires taking steps against the prerogatives and interests of large corporations – when those interests stand in the way of the reforms needed to solve the problems facing our society. That’s where he vacillates and fails to fight for a truly effective reform program. The refusal to consistently and adequately pursue the “common good” where it conflicts with corporate interests is the main thing separating centrists from progressives. They are trying to ride two different horses.
In the broadest terms, Obama is looking for ways to stand down from the vision of a permanently-engaged U.S. military. I do not think that this should be understood as moving toward a progressive foreign policy. The foreign policy of the United States will remain that of hegemony, but Obama’s team seems somewhat more ready to adjust to the realities of the world.
Obama came to the presidency with the support of significant sections of the ruling elites, including many who had financially benefited from the policies of the past decades. For progressives to wrap their arms around this complexity, we must try to understand that some rich and powerful people, movers and shakers can simultaneously work to advance and protect their own wealth, and be in favor of changing the direction of this country as a whole.
But he also came to the presidency with the hopes and energy of a people that were disgusted with Republican rule and wanted a different direction.
I would also caution against overstating Obama’s mandate for change. Although Obama won a resounding victory in the Electoral College, the popular vote in his favor was a mere 53 – 47. And this was with a Republican ticket that came from a Monty Python show. Obama was trailing McCain until the economic crisis exploded. Were that explosion to have happened a few months later, McCain could very well have won. That’s how close the election was. And that’s an illustration of the divided mindset of the American people, not only about race, but also about the role of government.
The issue of the role of government is at the core of what the current struggles in Washington, as well as in state and local government, are all about. Since the election the Republican Party has shown itself to be interested in just one thing – bringing down the Obama administration, and its political vehicle has been “big government.” I want to emphasize this point. Although progressives were and continue to be strong advocates for “Medicare for all” and the “public option,” the resistance of Republicans and conservative Democrats was not, in my view, in the first place to those proposals. Rather, it was resistance to the idea that government had a place in health care at all or should be considered a right.
I think that discussing the Republicans should be a starting point for progressives. To restate what everyone knows, the Republicans have continually moved farther to the right in the past decades to the point that there no longer is any significant entity that could be called “moderate Republicans.” Those few who could be so characterized have been captured and are held hostage by the right-wing core of the party. They now have 41 seats in the Senate, making them able to stop most things, unless there is full Democratic unity. That gives conservative Democrats power well beyond their numbers and that power will continue for the foreseeable future unless the Democrats are able to defeat some of the Republicans who now come from quite conservative states. As we have seen, this political and structural reality has dramatic political consequences.
It is important to remember that the Democrats split on issues of globalization during the Clinton administration and that split continues to this day. Clinton Democrats allied with the majority of the corporate (as opposed to libertarian and protectionist) Republicans in opposition to the progressive Democrats to win NAFTA and to loosen financial regulations. The Democrats split over the war in Iraq as well. That means the New Democrats were among globalization’s ideological leaders. Major sections of Wall Street, once a Republican bastion, are now firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party, although that may not last as the Obama administration presses for financial reform.
The next big fight, the one that has already started, is over whether big financial institutions should be regulated at all. The Republicans are saying “NO” and the conservative Democrats will pull the debate to the right. There is no doubt in my mind that progressives should be prepared to be disappointed with the specific legislative outcomes of this fight. The same thing will happen with legislation about energy and environment, with workers’ rights, with immigration, and with every other issue of consequence that will arise during this administration.
Aside from taxing the rich, military spending is the elephant in the room. The power of the military-industrial complex has increased dramatically in the past decades, not only because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also because of the extraordinary level of privatization of the military establishment during that period.
On all of these issues, the fight that will be fought will be over whether the government should be acting for the common good of all of society or for the narrow interests of the most conservative of the corporate elites. It will not be fought over what is the progressive solution to the problem at hand.
Given all of this, I think that progressives should be giving a continuing shout out and support for the Progressive, Black, and Latino Caucuses that, for the most part, have been at the cutting edge of advancing progressive legislation, often being forced to retreat and regroup, and remaining the core of efforts to achieve peace and justice.
So all of this poses some interesting challenges to progressives, who must hold in mind multiple contradictory ideas and realities while reflecting on these goals:
1. Supporting the shift that the Obama administration represents, moving to have government assume responsibility for the well-being of the country and its people;
2. Advancing progressive solutions to the burning problems of the day;
3. Ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;
4. Increasing the power of progressives in the Democratic Party and build independent progressive movements;
5. Defeating Republicans at the polls;
6. Holding conservative Democrats to account, and pressuring them to support the movement away from Reaganism and support reforms of our corporate culture.
For political activists on the left, this is not simply a mind game. It is at the core of what we do. We do want to advance a progressive agenda; we do want the most progressive proposals to see the light of day, we do want the opportunity to win support for a progressive agenda beyond the ranks of progressives, and we do want to challenge the Democratic Party to consider these more fundamental reforms.
At the same time, we want to defeat the Republicans. We really want to do that because we are now seeing what the Republicans really are. And it’s very scary.
I think that we are now in the fight of our lives. The Obama victory has provided an opening for the struggle to place government back into the role of being the economic and structural champion of working people. But it does so with the legacy of Reaganism and neo-liberalism having captured the high ground of the political conversation in this country and the thinking of a major portion of the American people.
I am not offering a playbook or a solution, but rather an invitation to complex and contradictory thinking about complex and contradictory circumstances.
I suggest that this is the time of day.
Jack Kurzweil is active in California’s East Bay Democratic Party Progressive Caucus. The author says with thanks to Nancy Friedman and Matthew Hallinan.