A grand unifying theory of progressive frustration:
The ideological / policy divide within the Democratic coalition. The roots of the frustration arises from an ideological divide within the party pitting the progressive left, which seeks to use the public sector for public ends, versus the centrist, Third Way, New Democrat approach of using a subsidized and regulated private sector to achieve public ends. Ed Kilgore nailed this ideological difference in his recent essay Taking Ideological Differences Seriously:
To put it simply, and perhaps over-simply, on a variety of fronts (most notably financial restructuring and health care reform, but arguably on climate change as well), the Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results. This approach was a hallmark of the so-called Clintonian, "New Democrat" movement, and the broader international movement sometimes referred to as "the Third Way," which often defended the use of private means for public ends.
This "Third Way" philosophy is different from conservatism, which largely rejects the public ends in and of themselves, and left-progressivism, which views the private sector as unable to achieve--and in fact part of the problem in achieving--these public ends. Six months ago, I depicted the Third Way philosophy as the "crime and reward theory of government":
The philosophy is summed up as follows:
The flaw in progressive legislative proposals is that they don't give enough money to the corporations that caused the problem(s) which overall legislative effort is supposedly trying to solve.
It applies in all major cases. Check it out:
The way to lower health care costs is to give companies that have increased health care costs even more money: As Olympia Snowe and many others have articulated, the problem with a public option is that it lowers the cost of health insurance rather than increasing the amount of money private health insurers generate in revenue. While one would think that the purpose of health care reform legislation is to lower the price of health insurance, it appears that for many the purpose is actually to make sure that the companies ratcheting up health care costs receive even more money from the process (ie, through mandates to buy their over-priced insurance and no lower priced, public option).
The way to fix climate change is to give the companies that are the main cause of climate change even more money: As Collin Peterson and Claire McCaskill have articulated, the problem with climate change legislation is that it doesn't give enough money to the energy and agricultural conglomerates that are primarily responsible for global warming.
The way to fix the financial crisis is to give the financial institutions that caused the financial crisis even more money: This one is pretty straightforward and has been covered extensively. From the Wall Street bailout program itself, to making sure that Congress doesn't pass laws restricting executive bonuses out fear that financial institutions won't take our money, the government's solution to fixing the financial crisis is to give the people and companies that caused the financial crisis even more money. The progressive alternative, temporary nationalization, should be opposed because it wouldn't make enough money for shareholders.
These are the three major examples of the difference between the left-progressive view of government and the Third Way view of government. To solve major problems, from health care to climate change to the financial crisis to education (an example Kilgore discusses in his piece), the Third Way philosophy is not for the public sector to take over where the private sector has failed (which would have meant temporary bank nationalization, carbon tax, single payer / expanded public options, and equitable education funding) but instead to use a heavily subsidized and moderately regulated private sector (which meant purchasing toxic assets and loan interest loans to struggling banks, non-auctioned cap and trade, health insurance mandate with subsidies, and charter schools).
This is a huge ideological difference, which results in large differences in preferred policies. The frustration for progressives is that the White House, the Democratic leadership, and indeed perhaps most Democrats in Congress, largely favor the Third Way approach rather than the left-progressive approach. This is undeniable given the legislative policies they have pursued on the financial crisis, climate change, and health care this year. It also puts progressives on the short-end of an ideological divide within the Democratic coalition.
An organizational deficit. A second major frustration for progressives is that the center-left coalition's leadership, primarily President Obama and his political operation, has a massive organizational advantage that allows them to maintain the dominant position within the coalition's ideological divide.
This advantage manifests primarily in President Obama's dominant influence over opinion among the coalition's rank and file. Even with all progressive-left netroots organizations, even with all of the left-wing movement of the leadership of organized labor, and even with all the new progressive media, all of the new progressive institutional strength combined cannot come even close to President Obama's ability to influence opinion among the rank and file of the American center-left coalition.
Examples of this influence abound. Those who favor the health care bill still outnumber those who think it does not go far enough by a 3-1 margin (see here and here). Democratic rank and file opinion on troops levels in Afghanistan moved sharply away from withdrawal and toward support for more troops simply when Obama made the case for more troops. Democrats, who in 2008 were at one time signigicantly more skeptical of the Wall Street bailout than Republicans, became its biggest backers in 2009 once President Obama started regularly making the public case for it.
President Obama's organizational advantage, and resulting influence advantage, over the progressive-left is repeatedly demonstrated in his far greater ability to move opinion among the center-left rank and file. There are many causes of this advantage, but here are the top three:
The large political operation of the White house, including Organizing for America and its 20 million+ email list.
The dominant media coverage any administration receives simply by being in the White House.
The personal connection and trust the vast majority of the coalition rank and file still have with President Obama.
Facing all of this, it is very difficult for progressives to ever gain the upper hand in the intra-coalition ideological and policy divides outlined in point #1.
The structural deficit. So, progressives are facing the short-end of an ideological and policy divide within the center-left coalition, as outlined in point #1. Also, they are facing a vast organizational deficit that prevents them from influencing opinion within the rank and file of that coalition to anywhere near the level of the Obama administration, as outlined in point #2. This leads to the third pillar of progressive frustration, in that the structure of the American electoral system prevents them from being able to break with the center-left coalition and still form a governing coalition on their own.
Even though some people don't want to admit this, the progressive-left will never be able to form an independent coalition on its own that will reach majority status in America. There simply is no way that a left-wing third party will become the dominant political party in America.
Further, the progressive-left even faces problems within the intra-party, primary challenge strategy to electoral dominance if it publically breaks with the policies of the Obama administration. Winning primary campaigns requires the backing of the majority of the center-left coalition. As long as President Obama as able to determine the majority opinion of the center-left coalition, you can't rise to power within that coalition by breaking with President Obama.
That last point is made particularly difficult for progressives due to the Obama administration's demonstrated willingness to use its political clout to back members of the coalition who break with rank and file opinion to the right, and to crush those who break with rank and file opinion to the left. While the Obama administration will give support to Blue Dogs facing primary challenges from Progressives, they have also been willing to support right-wing primary challenges to Progressives if those Progressives break with administration policy. As Rahm Emanuel has often done throughout his career (see here and here), the White House is is using their leverage against Progressives, not on behalf of them.
Overall, this leaves progressives on the short-end of an ideological divide within the American center-left, with relatively little organizational ability to shift that hierarchy, and facing the very real prospect of being squashed if they step out of line. This is why so many progressives are frustrated right now.
The choices in this environment are to lash out and hurt the coalition's leadership for the sake of revenge split with the coalition anyway, give up altogether, or keep struggling through the coalition on a long slog. I go with the latter, because I want to keep fighting over the long haul, which makes splitting with the coalition or just giving up not real options. However, after writing this all out, I hope I at least articulated why some people are frustrated enough to choose other paths for themselves.