Regrets, I’ve had a few.
Regret is hanging thick in the progressive community these days, sort of like a morning fog in New England — or that deep black cloud that always envelops Dick Cheney as he moves from one undisclosed location to the next: regret over one war that won’t end and another that seems only to be beginning; regret over an economic bailout that favors Wall Street over Main Street; regret over a health care bill that may be (barely) good enough to justify passage, but not close to good enough to justify any sense of satisfaction.
In light of this regret, not surprisingly, some old Hillary Clinton supporters, folks like Paul Krugman, are starting to offer up the “I told you sos,” but that’s silly. There’s absolutely no reason to believe progressive priorities would be doing better now in a Clinton administration. Besides, such arguments miss the point.
The truth is that the political cards are still massively stacked against the kind of profound change needed in this society. This remains true despite two landslide elections in favor of the Democrats. And if 60 Senators in the Democratic caucus aren’t good enough to bring about true change, would 61, 62 or 63 of them really do the trick?
Sure, we’d probably get a little better health care bill and a few other improvements here and there (it would certainly be great to have those extra votes). But would that be enough to bring fundamental change such as a single-payer health insurance system? Or a serious effort to confront the growing economic inequality in our nation? Or even effective action in the face of the approaching apocalypse of climate change?
Don’t count on it. The sad reality is that fundamental change simply can’t happen in an environment in which politics is all about big money. Or at least it won’t happen absent a sustained public groundswell demanding such change: the kind of groundswell that sweeps aside all that’s in front of it — with the power to overturn the money changers’ tables. And all of the public unhappiness of today notwithstanding, we are nowhere near seeing that sort of progressive public uprising. In fact, there’s good reason to fear that the political right will ultimately benefit, at least in the short term, from the mess they themselves created during the Bush Administration.
Nobody ever said that politics is fair.
What this means, of course, is that it isn’t good enough to win votes. Progressives also need to change minds.
Take, for example, the subject of taxation. Right now, thanks to 30-plus years of right wing brainwashing, the idea of raising taxes (which, of course, was never popular) has become absolutely toxic. No one will touch it. Even liberal politicians who know in their hearts and their heads that the Bush tax cuts aren’t sustainable can’t, for the most part, bring themselves to publicly suggest wholesale repeal. At most, they’ll propose nibbling around the edges a bit — a slight increase in corporate taxes here, or closing a small “loophole” there. Yet, to think we can meaningfully improve public services — things like public education, healthcare and the like — without raising taxes is, quite frankly, a fairy tale.
Part of being progressive, therefore, if that word is to have any meaning in the “real world,” needs to include fighting for greater public acceptance of the fact that the public good occasionally calls for some sacrifice. Politicians, who naturally tend to be most concerned about their own political hides, can’t be counted on to do this. We have to do it ourselves.
It takes liberal think tanks. It takes liberal advocacy groups. It takes online fundraising organizations like MoveOn.org. It takes the netroots in all their diverse glory, from the unique mix of hard news reporting and commentary at Talking Points Memo, to the discussion groups of Democratic Underground to the often humorous rabble-rousing and information sharing of this web site’s “mother ship” BuzzFlash. In short, it takes a movement — and not just for one day or for one or two election cycles, but a movement lasting decades.
The right wing figured that out decades ago (they had the huge advantage, of course, of a small cadre of super rich conservatives willing to fund the conservative infrastructure). But while progressives got into the game late, they made impressive progress during the Bush years.
What our regrets tell us is that this work isn’t over now that the Democrats are (supposedly) back in charge. It has barely begun.