« Ecuador Goes Left | Main | Dems' Stupid Positioning on Minimum Wage »

December 21, 2006

Obama and the Need for Large Progressive Majorities

I've been as disappointed as many other progressive bloggers with Obama's bad votes on tort reform and seeming trimming of rhetoric to "centrist" sensibilities. But in November Harpers, Obama is quoted as making an important point about why progressives can't replicate the narrow political majority strategies of the rightwing:

“My argument,” Obama says, “is that a polarized electorate plays to the advantage of those who want to dismantle government. Karl Rove can afford to win with 51 percent of the vote. They’re not trying to reform health care. They are content with an electorate that is cynical about government. Progressives have a harder job. They need a big enough majority to initiate bold proposals.”

This assymmetry of left versus right strategies is a key problem, since the Rightwing can fuck up government and destroy confidence in their leadership-- yet win the broader political debate if this leads to general distrust of all government solutions.

And destroying progressive programs can be done through narrow majorities-- either defunding programs in the budget process or just blocking changes needed to keep up with changes in the economy and society. The erosion of the minimum wage due to inflation from over $9 per hour back in 1968 (in inflation-adjusted terms) down to just $5.15 per hour today is a clear example of this rightwing success by just blocking updates to laws.

Progressives need sustained and filibuster-proof majorities to create bold new programs and keep them updated over time. No major progressive law-- from the minimum wage to Social Security to Medicare -- was created in its full-fledged form the first time around. It took sustained organizing and clear majority support year-after-year to make those laws fixtures of the modern state.

So while progressives need to fully mobilize their base, they also need to figure out how to appeal to the broader public that, if their cynicism in government can be overcome, fully support health care for all, challenging economic, racial and gender inequality, and support a more positive role for the government in raising wage standards for Americans.

The real challenge for progressives is not getting 51% of the vote for President or Congress but moving towards 60% plus across all voting groups. That is unlikely to happen with just Democrats, but will likely happen when we achieve enough support in the public that Republicans start running towards our issues to protect their incumbents. We've seen this happening in areas like clean energy and (with a bit of gamesmanship) the minimum wage, but Obama's point is that the core challenge for progressives is not the narrow political gamesmanship that has been Karl Rove and company's stock in trade but winning the public over to full support of our ideas and policy goals.

So if Obama can find new words and connections with different kinds of voters to win them over, I'm willing to give him some slack to see what kinds of inroads he can make.

Posted by Nathan at December 21, 2006 01:13 PM