Since the 1830’s, America has been swept by progressive reform roughly every thirty years. Consider: social and economic reform movements emerged in response to industrialization in the 1830’s, the anti-slavery movement elected Abe Lincoln in the 1860’s, and rural populists and immigrant labor activists built a mass following against the mega-trusts and robber-barons from the 1890’s through WW1. The conservative 1920’s was followed by the New Deal programs of the 1930’s, and thirty years later came the civil rights, anti-war, and cultural liberation movements of the 1960’s. But since George McGovern’s landslide defeat in the 1972 presidential election, America’s economic, social welfare, and racial justice policies have largely moved to the right. I believe that 2006 marks the end of this long conservative backlash, and the start of a new progressive era.
Americans under 45 years of age have never experienced the nation during a period of sweeping progressive reform. If you have lived your entire life without witnessing more than isolated progressive victories on national labor, economic, and social welfare policies, skepticism is understandable about the prospects of a progressive wave sweeping America.
But history shows that progressive era’s typically emerge just as the prospects of such change appear most bleak.
Recall that in the 1950’s, prominent scholars argued that America had reached “the end of ideology.” The African-American civil rights movement’s lack of visible progress from 1957-62 left many activists disillusioned, with few anticipating that sweeping civil rights laws would soon be enacted.
Progressive waves must not be confused with Democrats winning Presidential elections. Bill Clinton ran a populist campaign in 1992, but the race was as much a referendum on George H.W. Bush as it was a triumph of progressive ideology. Newt Gingrich then showed with his “Contract for America” in 1994 that the conservative wave that began in 1966 as a backlash to the civil rights laws still framed the national debate.
While progressive waves are built and moved from the ground, momentum stalls in the absence of a willing President.
Abe Lincoln was such a President in 1860, and to a lesser extent, so was Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900’s. Franklin D. Roosevelt gave voice to the social movements of the 1930’s by enacting the New Deal, and while I am no fan of John Kennedy, his election in 1960 inspired idealism and a commitment to public service for the generation that led the 1960’s era movements. Lyndon Johnson destroyed his legacy over Vietnam, but his leadership brought landmark civil rights legislation and a presidential commitment to wage a War on Poverty.
It has been forty years since progressives have had such an ally in the White House.
Jimmy Carter won election in 1976 solely due to the Watergate scandal, and his incompetence and betrayal of progressive interests helped fuel the Reagan era (Carter did not begin speaking as a progressive until well after leaving office)
Because Bill Clinton was followed by the worst and most right wing President in history, his tenure is now viewed with rose-colored glasses. But Clinton was never progressive, never aligned himself with grassroots causes, and slowed rather than advanced the emergence of a new progressive era.
If you need a reminder of Bill Clinton’s betrayal of progressive interests during his first term, read my book, The Activist’s Handbook
Clinton’s progressive accomplishments largely occurred during his second term. But he was still “triangulating” with the Republican Congress during those years, and still resisted actively aligning with progressive movements.
The conservative era of 1966-2005 has run out of steam. It has accomplished its chief economic goals—wealth disparity between the rich and everyone else has never been greater, income tax rates on the wealthy have been slashed in half, and the percentage of the workforce that is unionized is less than 14%—and effectively controls the U.S. Supreme Court.
It has all but killed affirmative action, eliminating one of its best strategies for getting white middle and working-class workers to vote Republican.
It has lost the political battle over environmental protection, and has failed to stem the advancement of gay and lesbian civil rights.
And just as Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War undermined support for the War on Poverty and left Democrats divided in 1968, Bush’s Iraq war has splintered and alienated the Republican base to such an extent that conservatives can no longer depend on the issue of “terrorism” to fuel conservative election victories.
The sense of economic unfairness is so pervasive in America that we have newly-elected “moderate” Virginia Senator Jim Webb talking about how the nation reminds him of how things were back in the 1890’s. And with Republicans stepping up efforts to criminalize immigrants— contrary to media reports, last week’s brutal raids on Swift meatpacking plants had little to do with “identify theft,”— the steep increase in Latino voting that transformed Colorado into a blue state and defeated Republican incumbents in Texas and elsewhere will further boost Democrats in 2008 and beyond.
Central to a new progressive era is increased union strength. And 2006 may have been the best year for organized labor since the 1960’s.
UNITEHERE won huge victories across the nation in its contract fights, and its Hotel Workers Rising campaign has won concessions that will dramatically increase union membership in the years ahead. SEIU’s Justice for Janitors won historic victories in Miami and Houston, paving the way for future membership increases in the largely non-union South and Southwest.
While overall union membership is negatively impacted by continual layoffs in manufacturing, union political strength is clearly on the rise. That is not something that could have been said in recent decades.
With Bush committed to staying the right-wing course in Iraq and in his domestic policies, an already alienated electorate will bring even greater gains for Democrats in 2008.
Democratic primary voters will be fueling the appetite for change. So forget all the silly articles about Hillary Clinton—the Democratic nominee in 2008 will be either Al Gore, John Edwards or Barack Obama. All three would play the role of willing supporters of progressive movements from below.
Bob Dylan is still touring, but the times are changing. As unlikely as it appeared after the 2004 elections, America is at the dawning of a new era of progressive change.
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