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Obama's Relationship To Progressives

Editor's note: We're pleased and honored to welcome Susie Madrak to the C&L team today. Many of you no doubt are familiar with Susie's stellar work at

Editor's note: We're pleased and honored to welcome Susie Madrak to the C&L team today. Many of you no doubt are familiar with Susie's stellar work at Suburban Guerrilla. Now she'll be bringing her wit and wisdom to our pages as well.

Fascinating article in the Democratic Strategist by James Vega about what's really required to achieve progressive goals. None of that whiny "woe is me" stuff that's been pervading the blogosphere since the election:

The rapidly mushrooming debate about the relationship between the Obama administration and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party suffers from an unnecessary lack of clarity because many of the commentators do not make a clear distinction between two very distinct ways of visualizing the issue.

The first, which might be called "the battle for the President's soul" perspective, visualizes progressives and centrists or conservatives as engaged in a permanent tug of war to win the President's support for their agenda. In this perspective, each cabinet appointment and each policy decision the President makes represents one more episode in a perpetual struggle to pull, pressure or cajole the President toward progressive approaches and solutions

For progressive Democrats who entered politics during and after the Clinton administration, this way of thinking about a new administration seems entirely natural and indeed almost completely self-evident. By late 1980's most progressive movements had become increasingly Washington-focused and political campaign-oriented, in contrast to previous eras of independent progressive grass-roots organizing and mobilization. For many younger progressives, working for political candidates and campaigns was actually their sole form of progressive activity. As such, it made sense for them to feel that a victorious campaign naturally ought to deliver a very clear and explicit ideological "payoff" to progressives after the election, one properly proportionate to the effort they invested during the campaign and the degree of their success.

Yeah, this is what I call "the keys to the store" approach: "Great, we won, here's the keys to the store, the cash register and the checkbook, good luck, see you in four years!" In order to work, our system requires an informed, active electorate all the time, fighting on every progressive issue.

But during past eras of major progressive social movements – the trade union movement of the 1930's and the civil rights movement of the 1960's -- there was a very different perspective. It could be called a "natural division of labor" point of view. A Democratic President was basically assumed to be a ruthlessly pragmatic centrist who would make all his moves and choices based on a very cold political calculus of what was necessary for his own success and survival. He might have private sympathy for some progressive point of view but there was generally no expectation among social movement progressives that he would "go out on a limb" for progressives out of a personal moral commitment to some social ideal. As a result, the most fundamental assumption of progressive political strategy was always the need to build a completely independent grass roots social movement, one that was powerful enough to make it politically expedient or simply unavoidable for the political system to accede to the movement's demands.

Yes, in order to get progressive policies enacted, we have to create political power outside the party establishment. The Republicans get it - now it's time for progressives to get it, too.

As Vega points out, the "battle for the President's soul perspective has some serious negative consequences:

1. It inherently makes the President the chief protagonist of social change and reduces the progressive movement's role to that of a supplicant. It makes the progressive movement's success appear to be fundamentally dependent on what the President does or says rather than envisioning the movement as an active and independent force for change.

2. The "battle for the president's soul" perspective leads to a personalization of the disagreement between the President and progressives to an almost soap-opera level of melodrama and triviality. In this perspective, the President is described as "betraying" progressives, or "insulting" them, or "turning his back" on them – all of which are purely and entirely journalistic inventions and not accurate descriptions of the President's actual personal emotions. Conservatives gleefully leap in to this miasma of pseudo-journalistic literary fiction to exploit and hopefully exacerbate a split within the Democratic Party. At the same time, they also trumpet any decisions that displease progressives to their supporters as being "victories" won by conservatism when they are, in fact, actually nothing of the kind.

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