John Judis of the New Republic today makes a point that I generally agree with, but disagree with specifically:
The main reason that Obama is having trouble is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket.
In the general sense, I agree with Judis (even though there's something hilarious about an article in the neocon New Republic bewailing a lack of pressure from the left) - way too much of the progressive movement (whether activists or organizations) often seems focused on deferring to the Obama administration out of partisan loyalty/celebrity worship, rather than pressuring the administration out of loyalty to legislative goals. But it's not just deference to Obama - I wrote a whole chapter in The Uprising about how the progressive movement has been way too deferential to the Democratic Party for years. There was no "Make Him Do It" Dynamic, and that deference allowed for strong Democratic support for the Iraq War, financial deregulation, bad trade deals, etc.
However, I think Judis is misguided in specifically using the stimulus debate as proof of his (generally accurate) thesis.
|There's ample evidence that the progressive movement did a pretty solid job of agitating for a robust stimulus package, decrying the Obama administration's efforts to lard it up with bad tax cuts, and demanding it be far bigger than many Blue Dog Democrats wanted it to be. Could we have pushed harder? Maybe. Did we push pretty damn hard? I think so. Did that pushing have real results and make the bill ultimately good and worthy of passage? Absolutely - the stimulus got bigger, the worst tax cuts got removed, progressive provisions like Buy America were inserted, and the bill (while not all that we wanted) is pretty decent.
I mean, think about it this way: If 4 months ago I had told you we'd be spending $500 billion on public priorities like infrastructure and green jobs, many would have said that was a progressive pipe dream. Now, it's perfectly legitimate in our debate to bemoan the fact that that's not enough (and it certainly isn't enough). In that sense, progressives really have radically moved the center of the political debate in short order.
The real question is what next? The stimulus bill was basically inevitable - even Republicans like Mitch McConnell admitted that early on. But the new bills for universal health care, worker rights (ie. EFCA), fairer trade and financial regulation are not inevitable - they will require even bolder pressure, and there's a very good chance the Obama administration could play an adversarial role. At that point, we'll see if our movement has significantly matured - we'll see if we have evolved from the reflexive prioritization of partisan/candidate loyalty over issues that I described in The Uprising and that Judis describes today. If we have, then there's a great chance we'll be making Obama and the Democrats uncomfortable - and actually seeing real legislative success.
Movements are ultimately organized around issues, not parties and candidates. And Judis is right that Obama's election will soon force lots of progressive organizations to decide whether they are going to be administration water-carriers or movement actors (and by the way, at the times the administration is doing the right thing, progressive organizations will be both). I am optimistic - since I originally reported on the dynamic Judis examines today, I think we've greatly matured as a movement. But we're going to know very soon after this stimulus passes - and I actually think that - as opposed to the movement's 2007 deference to Democratic inaction on the war - our tactics and pressure on the stimulus is encouraging.
The alternative would, of course be awful. As Glenn Greenwald says, "on one issue after the next, one can vividly observe the harm that comes from a political faction being beholden to a leader rather than to any actual ideas or political principles." In the coming months, if we are "beholden to the leader rather than to principles" then it's pretty well guaranteed we're not going to achieve some of our most minimal goals. I'm no blind hopemonger, but I'm cautiously optimistic that after the bipartisan-backed Iraq War and financial deregulation, we're starting to learn that truism.