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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The relationship between Obama and the Progressives – is it a “battle for the President’s soul” or a “natural division of labor?”

Note: this item was originally published on November 25, 2008
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.
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.
In a widely read 1966 essay, “Non-violent Direct Action“, historian and civil-rights activist Howard Zinn clearly expressed this view:

“.What the civil rights movement has revealed is that it is necessary for people concerned with liberty, even if they live in an approximately democratic state, to create a political power which resides outside the regular political establishment. While outside, removed from the enticements of office and close to those sources of human distress which created it, this power can use a thousand different devices to persuade and pressure the official structure into recognizing its needs.”

This same traditional progressive movement view was recently restated in a Nation magazine editorial by Katrina Vanden Heuvel.

…it’s worth remembering another template for governing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to become a bolder and, yes, more progressive President (if progressive means ensuring that the actual conditions of peoples’ lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategically placed mobilization and pressure of organized movements.
That history makes me think that this is the moment for progressives to avoid falling into either of two extremes –reflexively defensive or reflexively critical. We’d be wiser and more effective if we followed the advice of one of The Nation’s valued editorial board members who shared thoughts with the Board at our meeting last Friday, November 21.
It will take large scale, organized movements to win transformative change. There was no civil rights legislation without the [civil rights] movement, no New Deal without the unions and the unemployed councils, no end to slavery without the abolitionists. In our era, this will need to play out at two levels: district-by-district and state-by-state organizing to get us to the 218 and sixty votes necessary to pass any major legislation; and the movement energy that can create public will, a new narrative and move the elites in DC to shift from orthodoxy. The energy in the country needs to be converted into real organization…
We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. I think this will be challenging for those of us schooled in the habits of pure opposition and protest. We need to make an effort to engage the new Administration and Congress constructively, even as we push without apology for solutions at a scale necessary.

The choice between this “natural division of labor” social movement perspective and the “battle for the President’s soul” perspective is important because the choice of the conceptual framework one uses has a number of very large consequences.

The “natural division of labor” viewpoint frames progressives and a Democratic president as playing roles that are different and parallel but not necessarily antagonistic. To be sure, progressives frequently and strongly disagree with particular presidential choices and action, but, if they choose, they can still conduct that debate within the framework of the particular political strategy that a Democratic president has chosen to pursue. There is, for example, a very compelling progressive argument that either Colin Powell or Sam Nunn would be better choices for Secretary of Defense than William Gates. But it does not necessarily follow that Obama’s choice of any of these three individuals would correctly be interpreted as representing either a victory or defeat for the progressive perspective itself. His primary reason for choosing one or the other would not be to reward or punish his progressive supporters.
The “battle for the President’s soul” perspective, in contrast, inevitably has several 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.

As a result, there are quite compelling reasons why progressives should try to avoid this particular narrative. It promotes confusion rather than clarity and foregrounds notions of progressive failure and demoralization even where neither really exist.
To be sure it is deeply unpleasant for rank-and-file progressives when, after an election, conventional politicians and cynical conservatives seem to push progressives to the sidelines in a way that belittles the scope of their efforts and diminishes the degree of triumph of their views. But the truth is that this is an inherent and unavoidable part of the process of progressive change and not a reflection of any specific failure or defeat.
There is a compelling piece of dialog that occurs in the HBO series Band of Brothers which deals with the 101st airborne division in WW II. When the division is ordered into Bastogne, the commanding general says to their leader: “you realize that once you go in there, you’re going to be completely surrounded.”
The officer replies simply: “we’re paratroopers, sir, we’re always surrounded”.
This is a marvelous illustration of the fact that what can often appear on the surface to be a dismaying problem or setback can actually be an entirely normal, natural and inevitable part of the situation itself.
Progressives can master the sense of frustration and loss of control that they are currently feeling by thinking about their situation in much the same way. They can say:
We’re progressives – we’re always betrayed by opportunists, we’re always abandoned by the faint-hearted and we always — always, always — fight outnumbered… and yet, although it often takes decades, in the long run, we also always eventually win.
There are many years and even many decades when this faith seems bitterly distant and painfully hard to sustain. This year, however, as in few others, progressives can see the truth of it right before their eyes.

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