Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Big Picture: Grassroots Progressives Need to Step it Up

With our wildest dreams suddenly becoming true, grassroots progressives, myself included, have lost our sense of urgency and become too complacent and too easily distracted. We are still reveling in the awe-inspiring ascendancy of Barack Obama, the comeback of the Democratic Party, the end of the Bush years, the implosion of the Republican Party. We are also, if MSNBC and the Huffington Post and the e-mails I get from MoveOn are any indication, decidedly NOT moving on from the Bush years and devoting far too much of our energy and passion to issues like prosecuting torture, release of prisoner abuse photos, and the like. We need to be much more aware, far more respondent to, the desperation in the country due to the economic crisis and the longer-term issue of the Crunch on working and middle class people, manifest in unacceptably high levels of economic and social insecurity and in crises in health care, energy, and education. We need to remember that not only are the problems devastating, but they are deeply rooted in a political and economic system that is very resistant to change. We can't forget that it is going to take innovative ideas and organizing strategies, as well as enormous amounts of energy, passion, and plain old hard work, to create the change we need.

It is to President Obama's great credit that he is pushing on these issues, and that he is calling for these major changes, calling for people to recognize that the status quo is unacceptable but still very difficult to shift. I am very pleased to see him fighting for ordinary people against the credit card industry - it is good policy and good politics. And I was excited to see Obama give one of the best speeches of his Presidency last Friday in one of the too-rare instances in which he focused squarely on jobs. Before he spoke, he handed the microphone to two women, one a worker who had been laid off but was re-hired thanks to the stimulus package, another a small businesswoman who had felt the pain of laying off her friends but had been able to re-hire thanks to the stimulus package. Obama demonstrated his powers of empathy and personal connection - powers he keeps under wraps too often - as he showed that he understood the pain, fear, and insecurity of a recession. The structure of his speech was excellent: after "feeling your pain", he said what the stimulus package has already done, then he said the immediate steps his administration will be taking, and then he closed by re-emphasizing his vision of a New Foundation for growth "built on rock", built on investing in the American people. I'd like to see him give that speech again and again, in every corner of the country, on every network. This would cut through all the distractions and the distortions and explain to a fearful and uncertain nation that we have a real plan to help people, to make the economy work for them. It would also be a warning to the status quo that this enormously popular President is on the side of ordinary people and will do what he has to do to make the economy work for those ordinary people.

But grassroots progressives need to get off our asses and help Obama. The best friend of the status quo is a silent populace. All the opponents of the New Foundation - the banks and the health care industry and the rich heirs who oppose the necessary regulations, investments, tax code changes, changes in incentives and priorities - may be in a very unpopular position politically due to the Three Big Truths. But unless public opinion is organized and channeled and amplified, unless it demands to be heard, it becomes almost irrelevant in the halls of Congress where these battles are fought. As we said a couple months ago about the battle over Obama's budget, progressives will not succeed unless politics feels qualitatively different - if it's just the same old inside-the-beltway horse-trading game, where no one is paying attention or weighing in except the powerful and well-connected, we'll get some cosmetic changes but not the wholesale shift the country demands.

And that is where grassroots progressives come in. We need to make the invisible people in America - the invisible victims of the policies and priorities of the status quo - we need to make them so visible that they can't be ignored. In the last week Obama has wisely made the causes he's promoting real, by bringing out real people to tell their story, tell how they suffered under the old ways and will benefit from the New Foundation. Progressives need to heed that lesson. Right now it's easy for Congress and the media and all the "wise men" who determine conventional wisdom to give lip service to the struggles of ordinary people, but when one turns on CNBC or read the Wall Street Journal editorial page or reads between the lines of so many "serious" analyses, it's clear that elites are detached from the Great Recession. At most they see it as a cyclical annoyance, one that just needs some tinkering here and there to send stock prices soaring once again, and who cares about tens of millions losing their jobs and health care and livelihoods. Elites may feel some sympathy, may feign some concern for political advantage, but no way will lobbyists let Congress take away their wealth and power to make the changes we need to actually help these people. Even as gifted a persuader as Obama can't use eloquence to convince these people to give up their power voluntarily.

If we want serious changes, it is a far from ideal situation right now because Obama is the one pushing hardest with the boldest proposals, with no serious force to his left. The other side knows that Obama will be forced to compromise in order to get something done because his biggest priority, even bigger than making policies progressive, is to get them enacted so he has a record of accomplishment. On issues of health care, taxes, energy and the environment, and regulation, the key players to get to 60 votes are the self-styled centrists like Arlen Specter, Evan Bayh, and Ben Nelson, Senators who always choose to be in the center of the debate. f Obama is the "most left", than their position will be significantly to the right, and they will eventually bring Obama to their side because he has more need to get something done than they do. But if there was an organized force to the left of Obama on those issues, than the Senators could position themselves in the center without undermining the essence of The New Foundation.

That was the dynamic that allowed the great achievements of the 1930s and the 1960s: Presidents could support serious reform while still appearing moderate because there was an organized force to the left. I don't know exactly how to organize this force in the current environment, and I don't think anybody does, but the best bet is to try lots of ideas and see what proves effective. The basics should involve organizing and publicizing working people, their struggles and needs, their solutions and their hopes. Only a popular groundswell, something that breaks new ground and appears qualitatively different from the normal interest group haggling will put on the necessary pressure to achieve the New Foundation. Something bigger and bolder, innovative and passionate, connecting disenfranchised people from across the country. Something like the Obama Campaign. Progressives are in an amazing position to achieve this organization because there is so much struggling out there even as there is so much hope and desire for major changes. It's just going to take a lot of brainstorming, a lot of thinking, and a whole lot of hard work. Let's get started.

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