Here's how we beat the right: How progressives withstand Fox News, the last Obama defenders, and chart a new future

Democrats are going to lose the Senate. If progressives get a wake-up call, it'll be the best thing for the party

By Bill Curry
Published November 3, 2014 12:00PM (EST)
Elizabeth Warren                            (AP/Timothy D. Easley)
Elizabeth Warren (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

I was born to parents who believed if you didn’t vote Democratic you couldn’t be buried in the Catholic Church. A family joke is that my first word was "vote." The Church would later switch parties. Not me. On Tuesday I’ll stand at the polls as I do every year and say that if Democrats win, people’s lives will be better.

Each year it’s a harder case to make, even to other Democrats. Each year the middle class grows smaller, the democracy grows more corrupt and the chance of stopping global warming in time to save ourselves or our planet grows dimmer. You can’t run forever on the slogan "Die Slower! Vote Democratic!” Time’s running out on the democracy and the middle class, just as it is on global warming.

In the words of political upstarts everywhere, it’s time for a change. If it comes, it will be from within the Democratic Party, or rather from the progressives who still reside there. But for all the talk of a "populist revolt," progressives have yet to spark one. If Democrats win the Senate on Tuesday, that’s unlikely to change. If they lose, progressives might wake up, which would be the best thing to happen to the Democrats in a long time. It may not feel like much consolation, but it’s true.

Let me be clear. There may be scant evidence of it lately, but it matters who runs the Senate. You don’t throw away a race on a theory; who knows if even losing the Senate would be a shock sufficient to revive Democrats? But we do know our politics grows ever more vicious and empty and that we are in desperate need of serious political debate. We know Wall Street colonized the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party colonized the left, and that we’ll have no such debate without a stronger, more independent progressive movement to help set its agenda.

This election has been an insult to democracy. The $4 billion spent on it has tightened the grip of the powerful without moving the needle on a single issue. Its ceaseless squalor has startled a public that thought politics hit rock bottom in the last election. The explosion of Super PAC and 527 "dark money" is one cause of it, but it only strengthened what is by now a 40-year trend.

Rail all you like against the Supreme Court or the Republicans. It isn’t just them. If you ever gave money to a Democrat you get the emails that read like pleas from phishing "friends" robbed in Majorca who need only your bank routing number to get home: “Bill, it’s seconds till our filing deadline. Our extreme Tea Party opponent has Congressman Bob locked in a basement. They’ve shot Fido. So much is at stake. Please send…”

Most days that’s all you get. October marked the first anniversary of the last government shutdown. Ashamed to find themselves tied with a party so recently found in the throes of lunacy, Democrats kept mum. They routinely fumble issues they once owned. Their spring crusade to raise the minimum wage petered out by fall. They can’t talk about corruption on which they feast. They can’t talk about climate because they shun topics that require any explanation. So they talk of saving the sensible center from extremists, a familiar line for being the central trope of the Obama administration and the very same promise Republicans make.

Democrats call the election historic but can’t say why. It’s hard to enlist people to an agenda you can’t articulate, or make them care who runs a government that has stopped working. Voters see politics as a cesspool and Congress as a sideshow. So do progressives, yet they act as if the next Democrat in line will get us where we need to go. Here’s some really good news: the merry-go-round on which they’re trapped can’t run without them. Not only can they get off, but if they do, it stops for good.

Regardless of how Democrats do on Tuesday, many progressives will rush to hop on another horse. Someone should stop them. The time has come for progressives to hit the pause button on electoral politics, to take some time to reexamine their agenda, rethink their strategy and recognize their power. Some thoughts for them to ponder if they do:

Focus First on Policy

Policy precedes message. First, figure out what you think, then how to tell people about it. By conflating these two sequential steps, or skipping the first altogether, Democrats have come to the place in which they find themselves: clueless, rudderless, unable to win an argument even with a Republican Party being piloted by angry juveniles.

In their years spent cohabiting with Democrats, progressives picked up many of their bad habits. One is an obsession with storytelling. Obama persists in believing that if only he were better at it, all his troubles would be over. But every vision needs a blueprint. Democrats used to get their blueprints from progressives. That was before progressives joined them in their endless hunt for the perfect savior and the perfect slogan.

This rule implies another: No more impulse shopping. Sad to say, it’s the key lesson of the Obama experience. In our political ecosystem it’s the progressives’ role to hold Democrats to account. Engrossed as they are in picking winners, they do it poorly. They should stop acting like political consultants, which means no more tactical voting. I’ve a hunch John Kerry won those late 2004 primaries because liberals who didn’t like him looked at his résumé, his hair and his lantern jaw and thought someone else would. When the marketplace of ideas is consumed by second guessing, it becomes, like the stock market, just another casino.

When progressives do their homework they’ll know their bottom lines. Only then will they be able again to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. When Obama quietly dumped the public option it should have been a deal breaker. When he decided in his first term to maintain radio silence on global warming, it too should have been a deal breaker. Instead, progressives let political consultants lecture them on the politics of the possible, as if oblivious to the stark truth that nearly all Obama’s deepest wounds were self-inflicted in the name of pragmatism.

There’s work to do and choices to make. Or we can wait for policy scraps like dogs at a kitchen door. We yearn for a president to tell us the truth about current global chaos: that our security doctrines are defunct, that militarism and unilateralism can’t save us and that our safety lies in multilateral conflict resolution and the rule of law. It means reining in drone strikes, submitting with everyone else to international courts and fixing the U.N. Late in his life Ronald Reagan embraced elements of that agenda. There’s no reason Obama can’t, but he won’t if we won’t.

Talk to America

Quakers rightly admonish us to speak truth to power. The problem is power’s a little hard of hearing. It takes many voices speaking in unison just to get its attention. To enlist those voices progressives must talk to America with clarity, specificity and conviction. This requires them not only to clarify their thinking but to withdraw from the many fruitless discussions in which they are now engaged.

First on that list is the feud with Fox News. It gets harder every day for me to listen to MSNBC. As when reading those Democratic emails, I too often feel handled; "Tell me, Congressman, doesn’t this prove just how out of touch Republicans are with average people?" There’s no one in the public arena I admire more than Rachel Maddow. But many nights I want to shout that there’s no one left to persuade of Republican insanity whose vote we don’t already have. People long for adult conversation about the real problems in their lives. If we did our best to ignore Fox and other Republican propaganda we could give them one.  

Another conversation progressives should quit is the one in which they’re always defending Obama. It’s hard for them. One reason is the degree to which progressives have become partisans. Another’s the vicious nature of the attacks made on him which elicit a reflex response of protect and defend. Liberal pundits call on them to defend Obamacare and Obama in this election. It’s bad advice. Better to tell the millions of small business owners and self-employed who were losers under Obamacare that we know it and have a plan to fix it.

Progressives should in fact deepen their critique of Obama, but that will be even harder. Democratic elites have them snowed into thinking it’s never the right time for criticism. You can’t do it in an election year, or just before one (the cycle starts so early now) or just after, (Give us a chance) which leaves a brief window in odd-numbered years running roughly from Groundhog’s to Saint Swithin’s Day, unless you count local elections, in which case there’s never a time.

Progressives who shielded Obama from criticism did him no favors. Entering the post Obama Age—it would be premature to say it if he himself didn’t seem halfway there—it’s still a conversation we need to have. If we don’t know what went wrong we won’t know what to fix. Many say it was only the brokenness of the system that kept him from doing all they’d hoped for. My own research suggests that his policy choices were often other than they seemed. It’s a question worth asking: What did the president want and when did he want it?

Another bad habit you can pick up from politicians is rationalization. Watch for it this week. Even if they pull off a Houdini-like escape and keep the Senate, Democrats will lose seats in both houses to the scariest, craziest Republicans ever seen. Democratic analysts will cite the sixth year election and the luck of the draw and remind us that Republicans are on the wrong side of history and demography so we can all just sit back, relax and wait for the good times to roll. Progressives must hold themselves more accountable, recognize their own flaws and not fear change.

Build a New Movement

Through most of its history America has been blessed with strong, progressive reform movements: independent, largely nonpartisan and truly democratic. In the 1980s they entered partisan politics and evolved into far more bureaucratic institutions. A question for progressives is whether they can reclaim their strength, independence and grassroots identity while remaining in politics, a pursuit they’re unlikely to forsake.

Assuming they answer yes, a second question is whether they should continue to align with the Democratic Party, as most now do, or engage as many do in third-party politics. The number of activists involved in third-party politics is small, but so is the total number of activists. There can never be unanimity on this point but there can be movement.

One questions whether the Democratic Party can be reformed. It would be some feat to educate or depose so many career politicians in thrall to moneyed interests. But the Tea Party proved you can work within a party and be fiercely independent. Republican leaders fell. Why not Democrats? In some ways the party’s structure—its committees and nominating processes—is like a factory abandoned by its owners. Its workers could buy it cheap; maybe get it back on its feet. Of course it isn’t actually for sale; they’d have to fight for it.

My guess is if you can’t take over the Democratic Party you can’t take over the country, so I’d give it a try. But it need not be the primary task of progressives whose focus must be on developing policy and a grassroots base to advance it. One organization fitted to the task is, the group founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben. In September its work was on public display.

In the midst of the "historic" midterms a Woodstock-sized chunk of the Democratic base headed off to New York City for the People’s Climate March. Politicians weren’t allowed to speak. It had to be the first time ever that more than 300,000 people got together without anyone giving a speech. For a micro-fraction of the wad blown on the elections, sponsors did what no party did all year--raise awareness of an urgent and vital issue.

Organizer Jamie Henn thanked the big environmental groups for helping out, but this was the work of grassroots activists. Like the marches of old--the ’82 Nuclear Freeze March, the ’63 March on Washington--it was a gathering of communities, people who came on buses filled with friends. Knowing politicians count heads even better than they do money, they chose to speak by their mere presence and numbers: a silent tableau of a new and better politics.

Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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