A progressive surge

2012-11-10 13:24

A nation reeling from one disaster has dodged another. While President Barack Obama’s re-election inspires varying degrees of hope among progressives, it has evoked one common sentiment: relief.

Democracy may not be reborn, but a living symbol of plutocracy was defeated by the voters on November 6.

It’s worth remembering, before Republican Mitt Romney settles into a comfortable 1% retirement from politics, that his victory would have imperilled the security of all but those insulated by extreme wealth from concerns like being able to find safe, warm housing in the wake of a hurricane.

A Romney-Paul Ryan win would have been viewed as a validation of a radical individualist worldview that runs counter to every value progressives hold dear.

It would have collapsed the space the left needs to gain strength, and it would have empowered social forces – from the religious right to the Tea Party voter-suppression machine to Wall Street and corporate elites – that form an intractable bloc of opposition to progress for all those struggling for equality and opportunity in today’s US.

This right-wing coalition was defeated at the polls by a “rising American electorate”, a coalition of women, African-Americans, Latinos, the young and unionised blue-collar workers in Midwestern battleground states.

These voters not only provided Obama with his margin of victory, but carried several stalwart progressives in high-profile senate races to exhilarating wins: Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who emerged as a champion in the fight to regulate the financial sector, took Scott Brown’s seat despite a furious effort by Wall Streeters to stop her;

Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who despite a deluge of negative Super PAC ads, overcame his Republican rival with his populist labour-based campaign;

and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who prevented a vulnerable Democratic seat from being snatched by former governor Tommy Thompson, will become the first openly gay person to serve in the senate, where she will join the ranks of a record number of female senators.

Thank you, voters, for that fitting response to the Republican war on women.

As a result of outcomes like these, the new Democratic majority in the senate is not only slightly larger but decidedly more progressive than the one it will replace. Some of the Democratic victories resulted from the missteps of right-wing Republicans:

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill was surely aided by Republican Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comment, as Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly was buoyed (despite his own anti-choice stance) by the outrageous remarks of Tea Party favourite Richard Mourdock. But other winners, such as Connecticut’s Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine of Virginia, simply won hard-fought races against enormously well-funded Republicans.

The senate’s newly invigorated progressive caucus provides majority leader Harry Reid with an opening to respond to pressure for reform of senate rules, ending filibuster abuses and making the Democratic majority a functional force that can hold its own in negotiations – over everything from social security’s future to ending the George Bush-era tax cuts for the rich – with a House that will remain in Republican hands.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi will have a harder time of it, but she has a fighting caucus, strengthened by the additions of newcomers like Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, New Hampshire’s Ann McLane Kuster and Alan Grayson of Florida. Democrats would do well to take a cue from Grayson, who lost his seat by

18 points in 2010 but stormed back this year with a promise to serve, among many others, as “a congressman who’s going to fight for full employment and a congressman who will fight for justice, equality and peace”.

It was heartening to hear the president note in his victory speech that America’s electoral system is in need of repair. But grass-roots activists know by now that counting on the president’s sympathy is not the most effective strategy.

Desperately needed change on clean money and other fronts – like the immigration reform that Obama promised but failed to deliver in his first term – will come through independent movements, fusing grass-roots mobilisation and progressive electoral power, which the White House and Congress cannot afford to ignore.

The challenge for progressive movements begins not in January – when the president is sworn in again and the next Congress convenes – but now. Thanks to the debt ceiling deal, the nation faces a “fiscal cliff” at the end of this year that could trigger devastating cuts to social programmes while risking a slide back into recession.

In the absence of a massive popular mobilisation, only those government programmes and agencies with richly funded Washington lobbies are likely to emerge unscathed from a panicked lame-duck Congress.

Unfortunately, as Robert Borosage wrote bluntly just weeks ago: “In the fundamental struggle over the ‘dark politics of austerity’, a re-elected President Obama will likely lead the wrong side”.

The president still displays an interest in a “grand bargain” that will end up dealing out the most pain to the people Romney disparaged as the “47%” – in reality the majority of Americans who rely on government programmes and services to make ends meet.

Progressives therefore can’t afford to lose a day in fighting for our own independent agenda. We need to put the jobs crisis first, shifting the frame of national discussion away from deficit fearmongering and towards the investments in education and infrastructure that will truly protect our nation’s future.

Perhaps the ferocious winds of Sandy will sway the nation towards a renewed appreciation of government and public employees, towards the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure and towards taking climate change seriously at long last.

We are glad the 1% were rebuffed at the polls. We are glad the racist minority that still poisons this nation’s politics failed to get their way. We are glad that progressive politics – small-dollar donors, early voting, an expanded and diverse electorate – made the difference. We are ready to help – or to push – President Obama to have a successful second term.

But we do not need tweaks; we need deep structural change.

It’s up to the organised people who defeated organised money at the polls in this election to make that happen.

» The Nation editors, The Nation 2012

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