The Long Haul for Progressives

Progressives who are serious about change need to stop whining and stay in the game

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Ralph Nader is a hero of mine. His populist rhetoric prompted me to get involved in politics at a young age. His groundbreaking work as a consumer advocate motivated me to pursue a career in journalism. His tireless pursuit of the powerful in the name of the powerless still serves as an inspiration.

Ralph Nader also makes me crazy. It’s true that as a perennial presidential candidate he has forced politicians from the two major parties to address issues often ignored in popular discourse, including poverty, corporate malfeasance, and campaign finance reform. But in pursuit of votes, he has also insisted on repeating ad nauseam that there is little to no difference between Republican and Democratic candidates.

One need only revisit George W. Bush’s reaction to 9/11—or consider what a President Gore would have done in the same situation—to conclude that Nader’s self-aggrandizing claim is as contemptuous as it is intellectually crude. Yet it’s this very sort of mantra, adopted in one form or another by a host of progressive thinkers, that gives otherwise rational, passionate people an excuse to disengage from the political process. Especially when they sense, or are told by the media, that an elected official dared to entertain compromise, retreated, or, God forbid, changed his or her mind in the face of fluid circumstances.

Take, for example, the ongoing evaluation of President Obama’s first 14 months in office by many of the left’s most influential pundits, whose reactions range from disillusionment to accusations of betrayal. “We tried to warn Obama, but he wouldn’t listen,” Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, wrote on the magazine’s website the day after the Republicans won a key Senate seat in Massachusetts. “Obama could have spoken the truth, told what he saw happening in Washington rather than trying to be a clever inside manipulator—a game that he was destined to lose.”

At the conclusion of Joe Bageant’s year-end rant, published in the January issue of Socialist Review, the author of the profound Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War responds to a liberal blogger who wonders aloud what a President John McCain would have done about the failing economy. “The same thing, brother. The same thing,” he writes. “Only with a different cover story. Both parties exist at the pleasure of the same crime syndicates.”

It would be unfair to suggest that Lerner’s and Bageant’s rage is anything but righteous. Critics, including me, have plenty of reasons for anxiety. Obama publicly decried the use of torture by the U.S. military and its affiliates, but failed to investigate the Bush administration for human rights abuses. The economic bailout stopped the banks from bleeding out, but lacked oversight and still wants for vision. And committing more troops to Afghanistan, while it is wholly consistent with Obama’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, is a continuation of the Cheney doctrine, both practically and rhetorically.

Still, Obama quickly reshuffled and re-energized a sluggish bureaucracy, got further down the road on health care than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, and scored a number of quick, substantive victories along the way. Among other things, his election altered the demographic and ideological shape of the Supreme Court, put credible leadership at the helm of the notoriously toothless Environmental Protection Agency, and resulted in a series of executive orders aimed at empowering organized labor. Most importantly, Obama’s State Department has gone a long way toward repairing America’s image abroad, particularly on the Arab street.

So why are so many progressives jumping ship before the midterm elections? When did the palpable energy of election night 2008 become so antagonistic?

I put these questions to Paul Roget Loeb, who published Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times in 1999, just as Bill Clinton’s final term was playing out on a low note. Last spring, Loeb took stock of the political landscape and knew the time was ripe to re-release his grassroots guidebook, which has been revised and will be available in April from St. Martin’s Griffin. “There was this sense even then that Obama had betrayed us, that he’d dashed our hopes, that he’d sold us out,” Loeb says. “I was stunned. The notion that you could already write the verdict on this presidency represented a staggeringly self-destructive sort of purism.”

Loeb believes that many voters were so hungry for radical transformation that they expected it to happen overnight. Additionally, a number of young voters, who helped push Obama over the electoral edge—and could well deliver a second term—lack perspective. They simply don’t know what it means to fight for something over the long haul. “What I’m trying to do in the book is convey to people what it takes to live the life of an activist,” Loeb says. “It’s not about losing one battle or vote and going home. It means persevering. It means persisting in the face of defeat.”

Women’s suffrage. Transformative labor laws. Civil rights. None of these things would have happened without grassroots action and great public pressure on the nation’s leaders, typically for years on end. The good news is that Obama has shown the potential to be moved and has demonstrated a willingness to get in front of momentous issues. He is not reckless, however, and his administration has shown that it will not act unless there’s a reasonable chance to succeed. That’s where those of us who voted for change a year ago come in. And, up to this point, at least, that’s where we’ve largely failed.

Consider the formative stages of the health care debate. Instead of going toe-to-toe with right-wing protesters at town hall meetings across the country, progressives held their tongues until media coverage of those meetings reshaped public opinion. Congressional Democrats, whom Obama erroneously tasked with writing the legislation, lacked leadership and spine, in large part because they didn’t have political cover back at home. And all the while the medical establishment, pharmaceutical companies, and the insurance industry lobbied aggressively behind closed doors. To have expected Obama to single-handedly transcend these realities and deliver a revolutionary change in domestic policy betrays a naive faith in presidential omnipotence.

In Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, Dana D. Nelson (interviewed in the Sept.-Oct. 2008 issue of Utne Reader) argues that presidentialism, a word she used at the time to describe the centrist appeal of McCain’s “straight talk express” and the cult of Obama, “trains us to want the president to take care of democracy for us instead of remembering that democracy, properly defined, is our job.”

When Nelson and I spoke before the 2008 election, she worried that there was so much anticipation that people couldn’t help but be disillusioned when Obama got to the business of governing a divided republic. His campaign managed to breed feelings of hope, but while this sort of feeling can make a difference at the ballot box, it cannot carry a nation through crisis.

As Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, writes in her subsequent book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America: “Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely within our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice.”

Given the state of our nation at the end of 2008, it should come as no surprise that Obama has stumbled during his first months in office. But for progressives to prematurely dismiss this president as a failure or, worse, as some sort of charlatan would be a miscalculation on par with buying into the notion that there was no real difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000.

As for the man who perpetrated that canard, it’s no exaggeration to say that over the past half century, Citizen Nader’s game-changing advocacy work involving everything from air bags and seat belts to product labels and federally mandated food protection has saved millions of lives. He also has inspired thousands of fledgling activists and spawned the creation of hundreds of nonprofit organizations, which have successfully lobbied both Democrats and Republicans for legislation that has improved consumer protection, environmental standards, and the criminal justice system.

It’s time for progressives to act, not as Nader says, but as he’s done. I remain certain that President Obama is committed to turning this country around. We just need to dispense with the whining and push him in the right direction.