By Deepak Bhargava
(Editor’s note: Reprinted by permission from The Nation magazine [http://www.thenation.com]).
Much—perhaps too much—has been said about the president and the shortcomings and accomplishments of his administration over the past four years. The record is more mixed than either his cheerleaders or fiercest critics would like to admit.
On the positive side, under this administration we achieved healthcare reform that will provide coverage to 35 million uninsured people; a Recovery Act that represents the largest expansion of anti-poverty programs in more than 40 years; financial reform; student loan reform; the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; landmark executive action to protect more than one million immigrant youths from deportation; and an end to the war in Iraq.
On the downside, there were the failures to hold Wall Street accountable for crashing the economy; to do right by millions of homeowners facing foreclosure; to reverse the erosion of civil liberties in the “war on terror”; to halt an alarming increase in deportations; and to take bold action on climate change. Perhaps greatest of all was the failure to convey a compelling alternative to market fundamentalism—an ideology that, notwithstanding its disastrous track record, continues to dominate policy-making and the public dialogue at all levels.
Progressives may evaluate the success of Obama’s first term differently depending on how much weight they assign to each of these issues. But however we judge the past four years, it is crucial that we lean into this election without ambivalence, knowing that while an Obama victory will not solve all or even most of our problems, defeat will be catastrophic for the progressive agenda and movement.
We confront a conservative movement that is apocalyptic in its worldview and revolutionary in its aspirations. It is not an exaggeration to say that this movement wants to roll back the great progressive gains of the 20th century—from voting rights to women’s rights, from basic regulations on corporate behavior to progressive taxation, from the great pillars of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to the basic rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. After the emergence of the Tea Party, the 2010 elections, the extreme Paul Ryan budget proposal and the 2011 state legislative sessions (which featured voter suppression, nativism, attacks on reproductive rights and vicious anti-unionism), there can be no doubting the seriousness or the ferocity of our opponents. It is also important to note the deep racialized underpinnings of this movement, which seeks to entrench the power of an older, wealthier White constituency and prevent an emerging majority of color from finding its voice. The battles over the role and size of government, taxes, the safety net, immigration and voter suppression have become proxies for this underlying demographic tension. Should Obama lose this election, we can expect a ruthless effort to dismantle the social contract—including efforts to use state power to decimate sources of resistance by further restricting the franchise, destroying unions and attacking any remaining centers of power for communities of color and workers. All of this was clear even before, in a leaked video, Mitt Romney made plain his contempt for nearly half of the American people.
Immediately after the election, we will face one of the most important social policy debates of our generation. Before the end of this year, President Obama and Congress must confront the so-called fiscal cliff—the deep automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending that have been mandated by the last debt deal unless a new budget framework can be reached. This discussion of mounting debts and deficits will take place as the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire, setting the stage for a clash of ideologies from which the victor will enjoy the spoils for years to come. Winning the elections does not guarantee a progressive outcome to this debate—far from it—but losing certainly means that the dark politics of austerity will dominate the country, resulting in misery on a scale we can’t now imagine.
So the elections—not just for the presidency but for Congress and statehouses across the country—are job one. But we know winning those elections is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a revival of progressive politics. What’s next? In the period following the election, progressives must remain engaged and mobilized. Given the looming fiscal debate, we need to step up with an alternative to austerity that emphasizes three points:
- We face a jobs crisis. Creating millions of new jobs—by investing in infrastructure, the green economy, care jobs and, yes, the public sector—is not just a matter of reducing human suffering; it is essential to laying the foundation for long-term fiscal stability and shared prosperity. As progressives, we cannot buy into the “deficit first” frame. There is no winning if we do not begin to redefine the problem and break the elite consensus.
- We need to protect and strengthen Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other critical programs, particularly those serving the most vulnerable people. It has become conventional wisdom that we must “reform” entitlements—which is code for reducing benefits and raising the retirement age, since “we” are all living longer anyway, aren’t we? This is nonsense. As Paul Krugman has put it: “The people who really depend on Social Security, those in the bottom half of the distribution, aren’t living much longer. So you’re going to tell janitors to work until they’re 70 because lawyers are living longer than ever.” Simple measures such as lifting the cap on the payroll tax threshold would guarantee solvency for Social Security for more than 75 years and allow us to finance more generous benefits for low-income beneficiaries.
- To invest in job creation and preserve our social contract, we need to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
This agenda is not in the mainstream of the Beltway discussion. But we won’t break the austerity consensus without, well, breaking from it! We must shift the frame of the debate to the left without fear or apology.
One great lesson of Obama’s first term was that we made progress when we pushed, and we stalled out when we waited and watched. The LGBT and immigrant rights movements challenged both Republicans and Democrats and achieved significant policy wins. Healthcare reform would never have made it over the finish line without relentless pressure from the grassroots on moderate Democrats. Only robust campaigns operating independently of both parties have a chance at putting jobs, foreclosures, immigration reform and climate change on the agenda.
This is especially urgent in the case of racial justice. The real unemployment rate for African Americans is now above 22%, including part-time workers who want full-time jobs and those who gave up looking altogether. That’s nearly twice the rate that White workers face, and it amounts to a catastrophic depression in cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo. People of color have seen a generation of progress in building wealth wiped out by the recession. Median White wealth is now nearly $100,000, compared with under $5,000 for Blacks and Latinos. Whatever the real or perceived constraints on the president’s ability to engage the confluence of race, poverty and economics, those constraints do not apply to us.
It is also critical that we push for an agenda to strengthen democracy in 2013 to combat the growing power of organized money. Measures to strengthen unions, expand the franchise and provide a path to citizenship for immigrants are not just good public policies; they also empower working people. The right used its takeover of state governments to shrink democracy, as in Wisconsin, which passed harsh anti-union and voter suppression laws. If and when we have a chance to use power to expand democracy, whether through immigration reform or executive actions to strengthen unions or enforce voting rights, we must do so—not just because these measures are important in themselves but because they are levers that can push the other changes we seek.
If 2008 was a time for the audacity of hope, the years ahead are a time for sobriety, determination, patience and resilience. The problems we face are deep enough that there will be no quick fix. The most important question for progressives is how to build a movement for economic justice—a people’s movement that can topple the elite austerity consensus and overcome the massive money and energized conservative movement on the other side. The real crises facing the country are barely being discussed inside the Beltway, and rarely are the solutions proposed commensurate with the problems at hand: more than 106 million people—one in three Americans—are facing material hardship (defined as living under 200% of the poverty line); 20 million are living in extreme poverty; 12.5 million are officially unemployed; and wages and working conditions are in decline for a majority of Americans. The new framework for shared prosperity developed by Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil, endorsed by a broad swath of labor, community and civil rights groups, spells out an alternative to austerity with the capacity to address these crises—but only an organized constituency can give such ideas life.
Part of the task before us is to build a deep alliance of movement forces—labor, community, women, faith, civil rights, immigrants and others—behind a broad social vision. No part of the movement has the resources or strategic capacity to solve its problems by itself. The other part of the task is to reach out to Americans who do not already agree with us, or who perhaps haven’t heard from us. An insular left that deludes itself into thinking we are stronger than we are, that talks mainly to itself and is not constantly creating new on-ramps to participation, will fail dismally to meet the challenges of this historic moment.
This recruitment challenge presents some hurdles for progressives. Most Americans hold complicated and sometimes contradictory views about the economy, but there has been a turn away from public solutions and toward private ones. As Ronald Brownstein observed in the National Journal earlier this year: “One theme consistently winding through the polls is the emergence of what could be called a ‘reluctant self-reliance,’ as Americans look increasingly to reconstruct economic security from their own efforts, in part because they don’t trust outside institutions to provide it for them. The surveys suggest that the battered economy has crystallized a gestating crisis of confidence in virtually all of the nation’s public and private leadership class—from elected officials to the captains of business and labor. Taken together, the results render a stark judgment: At a time when they believe they are navigating much more turbulent economic waters than earlier generations, most Americans feel they are paddling alone.”
Those changes in perspective, together with the attack on and decline of unions—where habits of community, reciprocity and collective action have historically been nourished—mean that we face a very steep climb in making the case for public, collective action. We will have to experiment with new ways of building power and giving voice to working people. Such experiments are, in fact, already under way in diverse settings around the country. What they have in common is reconstructing the role of paid organizers, putting volunteers front and center, aligning people behind deeply meaningful visions instead of short-term issue transactions, and combining deep education and relationship building with creative action. There is nothing new about any of these methods—they have powered all the great movements that have changed America—but we must recommit ourselves to them. The patient work of movement building lacks the seductive power of many of the strategies in vogue among progressives, but there is no substitute for it—and there is a huge appetite for it in working-class communities across the country.
Perhaps the most resonant line of President Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech was when he said, “So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you.” If we ever thought that an Obama presidency would by itself produce dramatic change, we are wiser in 2012. Our progressive history is a history of getting our hope fix from movements, not just from individuals. The extraordinary example of Brazil—which has defied world trends, lifted 40 million people out of poverty, reduced inequality and passed major affirmative action legislation—demonstrates the power of social movements today. Over many years, Brazilian leaders aligned key movement sectors around a transformative vision, focused on recruiting the unorganized, engaged in politics and changed a country. There are signs of movement right here at home—in senior centers in Akron, in housing projects in Charlotte and churches in Phoenix, where ordinary people are coming together to talk about how we got into this mess, what it has meant to them and the people they love, and what we can do to get out of it. They are working tirelessly in this election because they know just how much it matters, but they are clear-eyed about the organizing work that must continue after Election Day. That’s change we can believe in.
Deepak Bhargava is director of the Campaign for Community Change. This article appeared in the Oct. 22, 2012, edition of The Nation.