The real lessons for progressives

By Mike Tudoreanu

I have been saying for quite some time that the Democrats were going to suffer a beating in the mid-terms because of their failure to take bold, radical steps to reduce unemployment and fix the economy. Now that the inevitable has happened, the first reaction from most of my left-leaning friends is to say that the Republicans are going to kill President Obama’s plans for progressive reforms. I am very puzzled at this. Please tell me: What exactly were the Democrats going to do in the next two years that they are no longer able to achieve because of the Republican House?

Were they going to stop foreclosures? Obama specifically said he wasn’t going to do it, back in September. Create jobs? That would require massive government spending on public works, like in the New Deal, and the Democrats have consistently been against it since 2009.

Increase funding for public education? No, the Democrats have promoted charter schools instead. Strengthen environmental protections? BP got away with a slap on the wrist for exterminating wildlife in the Gulf. Pass the Employee Non-Discrimination Act or end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” The Democrats fought tooth and nail against anything like that. Let the Bush tax cuts expire? Obama was discussing ways to extend them just last month. Repeal the Patriot Act? Obama signed a one-year extension of it last week. End the wars? Stop torture? Yeah, right.

So, what specific progressive initiatives will Obama have to give up? None, because he doesn’t have any. He did have two in the past: health care reform and restoring regulation of Wall Street. Both of those already passed – in a watered down, pro-corporate, mostly useless form, but they did pass. And that was it. There were no other big measures in the pipeline.

So cheer up, my progressive friends: we did not lose anything last Tuesday, because we had nothing left to lose. Obama had already betrayed most of his promises long before the election, and there was absolutely no reason to believe that the Democrats would suddenly wake up and start doing something about the economy if they won the mid-terms. Yes, the American left stands defeated today, but the defeat did not come on Tuesday. It came all the way back in 2009. And it did not come from the Republicans. It came from the Democrats and their obstinate refusal to adopt the progressive policies that were necessary to lower unemployment and stop the banks running wild over people’s lives.

The Republicans can scream all they want about Obama’s supposed “radical agenda,” but when asked to name specific pieces of legislation that are part of that agenda, the only two they can come up with are the health reform (which is more conservative than what Nixon wanted), and the bank bailout (which passed with Republican support, and was opposed by every group on the left of the Democrats). Obama’s agenda was centrist from the beginning. It failed. It failed to fix the economy, and also spectacularly failed to keep moderate voters in the Democratic camp.

The fundamental mistake of the Democratic Party was their belief that moderate voters are ideological, and want ideologically moderate policies (meaning policies somewhere in between those demanded by the Democratic base and the Republican base). That is not true. The vast majority of voters – the vast majority of working people – want a job, a decent life, good health care and affordable education for their children. They don’t care whether government policy is ideologically moderate, left or right. They just want it to deliver the goods. In this recession, the only way to deliver the goods would have been through strong left-wing policies.

The Democrats refused to enact such policies, under the absurd, mind-boggling logic that if you give public sector jobs and universal health care to moderates and conservatives, they will hate you for it. In reality, of course, showing moderates and conservatives that government can improve their lives is precisely the best way to persuade them away from conservatism. That was the secret to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s success.

But it’s too late for that now. The Democrats blew their opportunity, and the majority of voters quite reasonably decided that if one party can’t deliver the goods, they might as well try the other party. It wasn’t an ideological choice. The Tea Party didn’t win the election for the Republicans, ordinary people disappointed with Obama did. This election was not a defeat for progressive policies; it was a defeat for moderate policies wearing a progressive mask. The lesson is not that progressives should move to the center (that’s what got us here in the first place). The lesson is that the left must take a strong stance in favor of working people and against big business and Wall Street – or die. The lesson is that the left needs to campaign for more jobs (especially public sector jobs), higher wages, an end to foreclosures, more affordable education and strong measures against the extremely unpopular capitalists who caused this great recession.

But don’t rely on the Democrats to get the message. They will spend the next two years thinking that what voters want is for Barack Obama to sound more like Sarah Palin. If they are given a second chance in 2012, I see no reason to believe they will handle it any better than the first one. What the country needs is a strong, progressive, working class political movement to the left of the Democrats, and independent of their political machine. We need a labor movement and a Labor Party. That is the only way change will ever happen.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]