Progressives Left Standing Alone

I voted for Barack Obama, with reservations, in 2008. I knew he wasn’t a progressive, but I’d hoped that, in the face of a near-economic depression, he might follow Franklin Roosevelt’s path and become more progressive when he entered office. I knew it was a long shot and I had no illusions.

But I’m a minority among progressives, with too many still making excuses for what has proven to be a failed presidency. Obama has, to date, done little to create jobs, little to reverse the nation’s economic decline and has, instead, opted to make Wall Street whole.

And while he blames Republicans for blocking more progressive reforms, it has been the president himself who has turned his nose to his left flank. He removed single-payer from the table before the health-care debate began, offered a stimulus plan that was too small by half even before it was watered down by Senate Democrats and moved to address deficit concerns well before it was economically logical.

But we still get defenders from the left and in the media of both his economic and national security policies. And we still hear the tired argument — if not Obama, then who? The argument is the flip-side of the Anybody But Bush movement that began percolating — unsuccessfully - in 2003 and 2004. It is based on the notion that the left must give its unconditional support to the president or someone like Michele Bachman or Mitt Romney will win the White House and things will really get bad.

We’re now two and a half years into the Obama presidency. We remain mired in the recession he inherited from his predecessor, with unemployment hovering at between 9% and 10% and the ranks of the long-term unemployed and underemployed being much higher.

Foreclosures continue to rise, the health-care industry remain in charge and our infrastructure is crumbling. We’re engaged in three wars in four countries (or is it four wars in five countries?) and have a growing national security state and expanding imperial presidency. At some point, the president needs to take responsibility for this.

I’m not advocating that the left not vote for Obama in 2012. But the left’s votes should not come cheaply. And it should not remain silent as the president drifts farther to the right. What we on the left need to do is create a vibrant politics that exists outside of the electoral arena, through the use of the media and the internet, through direct action and protest, through a very vocal effort to insert the left argument into the larger national discourse.

The left’s situation is, in many ways, analogous to that of the right pre-Goldwater. Conservatives, certainly, coalesced behind Barry Goldwater, but also – and this is key – developed new distribution methods (direct mail) and launched a campaign to take over the government brick by brick, capturing precinct and district slots, running for school board and town council and eventually working their way up through the electoral morass into state house and national positions.

It wasn’t primarily an electoral strategy, but became one once the larger movement’s infrastructure was in place. There have been efforts on the left to do this – this magazine and others like it, and internet publications like Truthdig and Think Progress and a handful of small think tanks – but nothing that could be said to rival the infrastructure put in place on the right.

Part of the issue, of course, is money, but it is more than that. We remain wedded to the idea that by electing a Democrat to the White House, we can solve our problems, that by capturing the House and Senate, we will create legislation that will make this a better nation.

The last three Democrats to hold the White House have proven how flawed that approach is.

What’s missing from the equation is the movement – the notion that all good things that have happened in this nation have happened because of the concerted efforts of an energized grassroots. Whether we are talking about the rights of women, blacks or workers or the insanity of our war-making bloodlust, it was the efforts of the grassroots that created a moral imperative.

Frederick Douglass was correct: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” We need to demand change and not just hope that by going to the ballot box occasionally it will happen.

Hank Kalet is regional editor for in central New Jersey. His book of poems, Certainties and Uncertainties, is available from Finishing Line Press. Email,; blog; Twitter, @newspoet41;

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2011

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