The congressional midterm elections are barely over and already the mainstream media, which profess to hate political spin, are placing their own spin on the proceedings. Political pundits all over the airwaves and print prognosticators throughout the mass-circulation newspapers and magazines have developed almost in unison what contemporary journalism calls a "narrative" (a story line) of the results. As they view it, liberalism didn't win and neither did left-leaning politicians; instead, the victory belonged to centrism and the forces of nonideological moderation.
The facts say otherwise. While the elections certainly didn't bring in a new class of officeholders with socially radical views -- no advocates of sweeping gun control, unlimited gay marriage, or expanding abortion rights -- neither did they herald the arrival of the sort of center-right Democrats beloved by the media. Oh, Joe Lieberman and a few stray Blue Dogs will be back, expounding their Republican lite philosophy and seeking bipartisan coalitions in favor of the status quo. But Lieberman will be more than balanced off in the Senate by the likes of Sherrod Brown, the firebrand Ohio Democrat, and Bernie Sanders, the (dare we say it) socialist independent from Vermont, who will caucus with the Democrats.
What the newly-elected senators have in common (and what the media mostly missed) is that they are, with few exceptions, supporters of economic populism and working-class aspirations. This includes not only obvious center-left figures like Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders, but also more centrist-appearing newcomers like Jon Tester of Montana, James Webb of Virginia and Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania. The Senate's Democratic Class of 2006 can be expected to hold corporate America's collective feet to the fire on a number of issues, including trade, tax, and wage policy, and to put the brakes on any administration notions of entitlement privatization. The new House Democrats are a bit harder to read, but according to Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, over two-dozen of them are anti-free traders who replaced pro-NAFTA representatives. That's as good an indicator as any.
From the start, however, the media mavens focused their attention almost exclusively on those new members of Congress, mostly from red states, who seemed to fit the established election narrative, if only superficially. Senate winners who didn't conform to the narrative, notably Brown and Sanders, as well as Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, were given short shrift or ignored completely. Whitehouse campaigned like an old New Dealer and dismantled a Republican moderate (Lincoln Chafee) of the sort the media love. As a result, he was barely mentioned on election night or after. The same treatment was accorded Brown, a crusader against free trade, who ran from the left and won with a textbook economic-populist campaign that, according to the conventional wisdom, can't succeed.
Perhaps the strangest case of neglect was that of Bernie Sanders, who carried Vermont overwhelmingly despite (or perhaps because of) being an unapologetic democratic socialist, the first ever elected to the US Senate. Shouldn't that have been a political story worth covering in depth? Apparently not, because it didn't fit the preconceived media narrative of moderation triumphant. Instead, there was an endless journalistic romance with Tennessee's Harold Ford, who did everything the media said a Democrat had to do to win in the Heartland: He campaigned as a warmed-over Republican, quoting the Bible and taking hard-line conservative stands on social issues and national defense. Despite projecting an image as a southern-fried Joe Lieberman, Ford lost anyway. But never fear, say the anointed members of the commentariat, he has a great future in politics. He's a moderate, after all, and the main message of the midterms, the establishmentarian Economist tells us, is that "America is weary of polarization."
On the other hand, perhaps America is really tired of a generation of conservative governance and ready to try something different. The domestic program already outlined by the Democratic leadership (increasing the minimum wage, revamping parts of the Medicare drug benefit, ending fast-track trade authority, instituting congressional ethics reform, terminating a variety of corporate tax breaks) sets the right tone. It's not overly ambitious -- there's no mention of national health insurance, for instance -- but without a Democrat in the White House, there's only so much the new congressional majority can accomplish. Any fundamental, far-reaching progressive legislation will face a Bush veto that can't be overridden, and nothing will happen on Iraq unless the president wants it to happen. Consequently, much of what the Pelosi-Reid Congress does will of necessity be symbolic and aimed at building toward 2008, when a raft of vulnerable Republican Senate seats (two-thirds of those up for renewal) could change hands, along with the presidency.
In the meantime, the slim Democratic majority will have to contend with a harping mass media constantly calling, as the Washington Post did recently, for "bipartisan cooperation." That will be in keeping with the punditocracy's consensus election narrative of a centrist mandate. It can't be forgotten that most of the communications network, print and electronic, is corporate in nature and in tune with much of what the Bush administration pursued over the last six years, especially on domestic economic policy. The days of the "liberal" press are long gone, right-wing conspiracy theories notwithstanding. This is a national media that will be suspicious at best and hostile at worst toward any broad-ranging progressive political program.
Committed progressives will have to be tactically astute for the next two years, recognizing the tenuous political position they hold in Congress and being ever vigilant about overreaching. In the short run, the game will be about perception and appearance, and providing neither the political right nor the skeptical media with any easy openings to short-circuit the nascent progressive revival. This means making progressivism work and achieving a record of practical accomplishment, with an emphasis on doable reforms. Without carefully laying the groundwork, no long-range triumph of progressive values will be possible.
Above all, the progressive community needs to counteract the emerging centrist narrative of the 2006 elections with a more truthful alternative narrative. The Democratic victory was really one of political "moderation" only in a stylistic sense. In substance, it was the unqualified triumph of a revived center-left politics enlivened by an invigorating dash of long-dormant economic populism. That's what voters endorsed, not some directionless and sterile bipartisanship.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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