The sight of progressive Democrats shaming and exposing the Wall Street-funded "third way" Democrats this week is a sign of a powerful new opening for progressives on the American political spectrum.
The standing of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Bill De Blasio and many others is on the rise. The Clinton Democrats are being challenged from the populist left; the AFL-CIO is supporting a new generation of organizers; the immigrant rights movement is reviving the tradition of the student civil rights movement; the LGBT movement is learning to win. And as long as the economy is failing for the poor, working people, and the middle class, the conditions for a new politics are ripening rapidly.
These moments come and go like the tides, which makes leadership, vision and strategy critically important. Where do social movements fit in? Or groups like PDA? Where is the new center of gravity?
Our eyes should be on 2016, achieving as much as possible from the Obama era, and defending against a right-wing rollback in that year’s presidential election. The centrist Democratic strategy thus far has been to paint the Republicans as dangerous extremists, which is working nicely with Republican cooperation. Because of the disastrous stumbling on Obamacare, however, Democratic prospects in the 2014 low-turnout congressional elections have stalled for now. The best that can be hoped for at this point is Democratic control of the Senate and a narrowing of the gap in the Republican House. Meanwhile, given the deep partisan divisions, at least 45 percent of American voters live under entrenched right-wing rule.
Despite the stalemate, there are multiple fronts where weird coalitions might prevail:
- Immigration reform if the Republican establishment prevails over the Tea Party;
- Blocking of the secret pro-corporate trade agreements which will dismantle labor and environmental protections, assuming labor-liberal Democrats coalesce with the Republican libertarians;
- Reform of the Big Brother/Big Data surveillance apparatus by the same liberal-libertarian coalition; and
- Prevention of unwinnable, unaffordable military adventures. Diplomatic recognition of Cuba will be a heavy lift, but the president has shown he can overcome the Republican-led Cuban Right in the House and the unpopular Sen. Menendez in the Senate.
None of these achievements will be easy, but all are doable.
Keeping the White House in 2016 is vital in order to shift the balance on the US Supreme Court and to retain regulatory power over social, economic, voting rights, and environmental policies. It is also imperative to keep the Senate majority Democratic for its appointment powers and to prevent the conservative cancer from spreading from the House. It is important for the progressive Democrats in the House to fight aggressively as if they are behind enemy lines as opposed to a rational debating society.
Any efforts to cobble together weird coalitions at the congressional level may fail or be resisted by the White House. Change is more likely to be delivered from social movements in progressive states and cities, however, not from the trench warfare in D.C. Call it a trickle-up populism. California, for example, already leads the way on conservation and renewables as well as immigration reform. Vermont is implementing its right to single-payer health care. Colorado and Washington are legalizing and regulating marijuana.
A major challenge for progressives is whether it is possible forge consensus on vision and program [or as consultants call it, narrative]. Obama is re-emphasizing an emphasis on economic inequality, framed as a choice between being on your own or all in this together. That’s a start for Democrats, and a welcome echo of Occupy Wall Street. The same theme accounts for the exceptional rise of Warren and De Blasio. But it is a fuzzy and incomplete vision, a blended blur of the New Deal ("expand Social Security") and the New Economy ("Facebook and Google will set us free"). The faulty vision reflects fault lines in the underlying coalition. Balancing the contradictions is the key to building a winning majority coalition electorally; too far in either direction can result in splits which favor the Republican strategy of divide-to-rule.
The first contradiction for Democrats, and even some progressives, is whether to be “all in” in the fight against climate change, or to take a “balanced” approach for electoral reasons by flirting with “clean coal”. The return of John Podesta to the White House is encouraging news for environmentalists in this regard.
The equally problematic contradiction for Democrats, and even some human rights groups, is whether to embrace more military intervention, secret ops, and drone tactics, in order to satisfy the “liberal interventionists”; including Samantha Power, Human Rights Watch, the Feminist Majority and AIPAC, or whether to deepen policy of avoiding unwinnable and unaffordable wars at the risk of being labeled “isolationist.” The reality is that there are not enough discretionary funds for health care and warfare.
A third contradiction is between labor, progressives and human rights groups on one side and the corporate-leaning Democrats on issues of international investment and trade, a rift which has continued since the Seattle uprisings of 1999, where Bill Clinton both sponsored the WTO Summit and distanced himself from the shambles that followed.
While every effort should be made to reconcile such contradictions, the predictable truth is that they will be fought out in the 2016 Democratic primaries.
There are problematic contradictions on these issues in the Democratic coalition. Liberals on domestic policy frequently avoid taking stands on national security or even endorse hawkish policies.
The Democratic progressive base is making clear that Hillary Clinton must make an adjustment from her hawkish centrism towards the new populism, or lose significant support either in the 2016 primaries or the general election.
One battle Democrats, labor and progressives can agree on is the expansion and protection of the emerging political majority from the Republican effort to diminish their voting rights, turnout potential and representation in the Electoral College. The seemingly-insane Republican over-reaction to the recent modest change in Senate filibuster rules is an indication of how greatly Republican political power rests on guarding their minority status. The fight over media reform is another struggle between the public versus the corporate interests where progressives must gain and hold their ground. A similar unity should prevail on chipping away against Citizens United, but the party is unable to end its overall addiction to a fund-raising frenzy which empowers many of the most unsavory elements in the political culture. They cannot agree even on eliminating the business tax deduction by which special interests use taxpayers’ money to pass legislation ripping off the same taxpayers. Every local, state and federal reform of the campaign finance system is a vital gain for democracy, and a base for progressives winning electoral seats.