Thursday, June 11, 2009

If Not Now, When? Progressive Change and the Problem Posed by the Democrats

Yesterday, I used Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi’s powerful documentary “Suddenly, Last Summer” to examine dysfunctional political (and ethical) dynamics that can cause a society which has chosen progressive leaders to lurch even further back than it had been before a progressive majority came to power, when those leaders do not decisively move forward with the platform of progressive change they promised when they received a majority of popular votes.

I noted that when a group of ostensibly progressive leaders enjoying a popular mandate for progressive change backsteps on the progressive changes it has promised, it is possible for a society to revert to an even less progressive cultural moment than the one out of which it elected a progressive majority promising change. I noted that the moral vacuity of leaders elected by a clear plurality pointing to progressive change can open the door to a savage resurgence of attacks on democracy and progressive change, which thwart the possibility of even the mildest social reforms for the foreseeable future.

I pointed to a test case that appears to demonstrate these conclusions, on which Hofer and Ragazzi’s film focuses: this is the case of civil unions in Italy. When the center-left government promising civil unions first came to power, strong indicators suggested that, if they moved immediately and decisively to enact what had by then become the norm across western European nations, there would not be a significant backlash against them. In fact, there were strong indicators that a majority of Italian citizens (who had, after all, placed the center-left government in power) wanted this and other progressive changes, and would support them if the government enacted these changes.

And then those elected by a majority, enjoying the support of the majority, reneged on their promises to that majority and found it impossible to do what other nations throughout western Europe had already found relatively simple to accomplish. And because the leaders of the center-left coalition undermined the moral foundations of their agenda of progressive change, their coalition frayed, the political and religious right reasserted itself powerfully, and the country stepped decisively backwards.

Today, I’d like to point to a number of recent articles that suggest (to me, at least) that something similar is very possible in the United States, if the current Democratic federal government continues its appeasement of a right that was decisively defeated in the last election, and continues to ignore its popular mandate for progressive changes in a number of areas.

In a recent analysis of the vacillations of our Democratic leaders on a variety of issues, William Greider argues, “The problem now is the Democrats, not the Republicans.”

Greider focuses on reform of our badly malfunctioning financial institutions as a test case—a significant test case of the future of the current Democratic government, since abundant indicators signal a strong desire of the American public for reform in this area. He notes that the current game-playing of our Democratic leaders around these issues, and their unwillingness to engage the power of the banking industry and Wall Street head on, do not bode well for any of the progressive changes those leaders promised us when we elected them:

The party's ideological intentions are being defined with greater clarity in these new circumstances, and so are the President's. It's still early, but the implications are ominous for other issues. If Democrats are reluctant to disturb the power of other major interests, it seems improbable that fundamental change will occur on healthcare, energy conversion or the restoration of work and wages.

What makes this craven (and immoral) behavior difficult to understand is that the Democratic party now has control of Congress and the White House. As Greider notes,

Congressional Democrats are responding to this epic conflagration with the same risk-avoidance tactics they learned during many years in minority status. In those days, they could always blame right-wing Republicans for blocking their good intentions. But whom do the Dems blame now that they have the White House and fifty-nine votes in the Senate and a seventy-eight-seat majority in the House? Their standard explanation for not doing more is, "We didn't have the votes." So when might we expect Democrats to achieve more? When they have eighty votes in the Senate?

Greider concludes, “Democrats are the party of safe incumbents, weak convictions.” He agrees with Julia Gordon, a lawyer with the Center for Responsible Lending who has called for major reforms in the finance sector, when she states, "We have reached the moment to ask ourselves Rabbi Hillel's question: if not now, when?" As Greider maintains, “If not now, when? That question ought to haunt the Democratic Party and President Obama, who has been missing in action himself on key issues.”

Greider thinks that, in the last analysis, any progressive changes in the nation and its institutions under the current administration will have to be spearheaded not by the White House or Congress, but by progressive “people at large who are more distant from power.” As he notes, “The Democratic Party ignores its left-liberal-progressive base with some regularity because it knows it can. Politicians understand they will suffer no consequences afterward.”

Consequently, it is important that progressive groups form “many ‘independent formations’ free to ignore Washington's insider routines and mobilized by citizens on behalf of their own convictions, their common-sense ideas of what needs to be accomplished. Only in this way can the “moral awakening” that needs to undergird a platform of effective and long-lasting progressive change in our culture today take place—a point Greider explains at length in his book Come Home, America (Rodale, 2009).

Chris Bowers is equally incisive and equally clear-eyed in his analysis of where the obstruction iis arising with the agenda of progressive change we thought we were getting when we elected our current leaders. In a recent article at Alternet, he uses healthcare reform as his litmus test for the current government’s commitment to the agenda of progressive change it has promised us. And like Bowers, he comes to the conclusion that it’s the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are now the problem:

Stop telling me how bad Republicans are--we don't need a single one to pass the public option. In fact, not only do we not need any Republicans, but a public option can become a reality even if nine Senate Democrats, and 39 House Democrats, defect. This should be a slam dunk.

As Bowers notes in an article he posted recently at the Open Left site, to which the Alternet article links,

The bottom line is this: if we can't get our most popular major agenda item, during the peak in Democratic popularity, when we need only 50 Senate votes, and on the issue where we have given our strongest lobbying and activist efforts, then we aren't going to pass meaningful progressive legislation on anything else.

And I’m afraid he’s right: we are seeing now the start of a process by which the entire platform of progressive change we thought we had chosen by electing our current leaders—from reform in the financial sector to provision of healthcare for all citizens—is going to be blocked. And not by those whom many of us expected to try to block these reforms, the enervated, defeated Republican minority.

But by Democrats, by “progressives,” by those who have promised us hope, change, a renewal of American ideals and American democracy . . . . In my view, one of the clearest indicators of where our current administration is now headed (and that “where” will, I believe, turn out to be much like where the center-left government of Italy ended up when it played immoral games re: civil unions for gay citizens) is what we see going on with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT).

Remember that policy? The one brought to us not by a Republican administration but by a “progressive” Democratic one, by President Clinton, when he caved in at the very beginning of his administration to groups resisting gay servicemen and servicewomen in the military and so undermined the moral foundations of his entire platform of progressive change? The one that takes only the stroke of a presidential pen to abolish now? The one under which one fine soldier after another has now been booted out of the military—many of these soldiers we can hardly afford to lose, because some of them have more competence in languages like Arabic than anyone left in the service?

As an editorial in the New York Times calling for the abolition of this discriminatory ban notes, both many members of the military and the public at large are much more receptive now to the service of openly gay citizens in the military than at any time in the past. A USA Today/Gallup poll whose results were released at the end of last month shows a whopping 69% of Americans in favor of ending DADT.

The current administration will pay no political price if it ends DADT today. And yet what is the administration doing? Despite President Obama’s promises on the campaign trail that he would end DADT quickly, despite his repeated statements that DADT is discriminatory and cannot be defended, the administration now indicates that ending DADT is not a priority.

And like the center-left government in Italy which promised civil unions and suddenly found that civil unions were not a priority and the whole matter needed further “study” once they came to power, the administration is calling for further study of DADT. And trying to boot to Congress (which is showing signs of similar spinelessness about this issue) a decision that can be resolved by executive privilege—by the stroke of a pen.

It was precisely such behavior that caused the demise of the center-left government in Italy in 2008, and the demolition of that government’s entire platform of progressive change. It was precisely such morally indefensible behavior that opened the door for the resurgence of the right in Italy, and the return of the entire nation to an even less progressive stance than the one out of which it had emerged when it chose the center-left coalition.

And it may well be this behavior vis-à-vis DADT on the part of the White House and Congress that sends the whole house of cards tumbling here, and paves the way for the rise of an even more draconian right-wing politics than we have seen in a long time in this country. We thought we were getting leadership and change when we elected our current government. What we seem to have ended up with instead are jellyfish who have nary a moral sinew throughout their whole amorphous bodies.