“Doom and Gloom” on the Left

by Randy Shaw on October 26, 2009

As reports emerge of the Senate’s increasing support for a public option, it’s a tossup whether Republicans or some progressives are more distraught. After all, an article in the October 19 edition of The Nation states that the progressive agenda “has stalled,” and “key aspects of healthcare reform, like a public option, appear dead.” The writer even claims that corporate interests face “little outright opposition” in the legislative process, a remarkable statement in the face of the massive organizing and outreach efforts of labor unions and other progressive groups. Such negativity is not uncommon. It reflects a disconnection from political reality far less prevalent among activists actually engaged in social justice struggles, or those assessing politics in the leading progressive Internet sites. Nine months into the Obama era, it’s not simply the Right that is detached from the perspectives of everyday people, and not just the Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck crowd that express an “I told you so” attitude toward the President’s actions.

Reading The Nation, I am struck how much of its content reflects the “Same as It Ever Was” attitude of columnist Alexander Cockburn toward the Obama Administration. Add to this Naomi Klein’s April column on how onetime Obama fans are already “hopebroken and hopesick” – this is less than three months after Inauguration Day –and you have a steady stream of voices disconnected from the people whose activism and votes elected Obama and the Democratic House and Senate majority.

Progressive criticism of Obama and the Democrats is essential. But far too many progressives have created an alternative universe where nothing positive has occurred since January 20, 2009, and where progressive change will never happen.

It is a profoundly disempowering attitude. It enshrines corporate power and diminishes activism, particularly in saying that the greatest example of people power in modern United States political history – Obama’s presidential campaign – has already proved for naught.

The Public vs. “Doom and Gloomers”

The progressive “doom and gloom” camp is strikingly detached from political reality.

According to the most recent (October 21) ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama has a 67% approval rating outside the South. And in the Northeast, the progressive bastion where most readers of The Nation live, his approval numbers soar to 82%.

Clearly, those in the “nothing has changed school” are spending time with the other 18%. Or the 30% in the Midwest and 32% in the West who told pollsters they disapprove of Obama.

These remarkably high approval numbers send a strong message that the hope for change that brought millions of new voters to the polls last November has not been lost. While some pundits and progressives may feel betrayed, most people still trust the candidate they elected President.

Ignoring Progressive Progress

Last week, the Obama Administration announced that the Justice Department would no longer prosecute marijuana dispensaries that were in compliance with state “medical marijuana” laws. This dramatic shift from Bush Administration attacks on activists like California’s Ed Rosenthal was largely ignored by the progressive “doom and gloom” camp, likely because it greatly benefitted a gay and lesbian constituency toward whom the Obama Administration has been justifiably criticized for inaction.

To the “doom and gloom” camp, none of the major environmental policy shifts that have occurred since January matter because the President has failed to win passage of a major climate change bill. And new spending on schools, public infrastructure, and other progressive-backed programs means little in the face of steep unemployment and teacher layoffs due to state budget cuts.

Many progressives are understandably frustrated over the pace of change. But I think that amidst the excitement over electing the most progressive President since FDR, some forgot how the U.S. Senate operates to stall change, and how, while Republican presidents have passed sweeping tax cut measures, winning legislation that changes how major industries operate is much tougher and time consuming.

If there is one aspect of Obama that cannot be faulted, it is that he said from his earliest campaign speeches that change would take time. And while the “doom and gloom” camp interprets the lack of wholesale progressive change in Obama’s first nine months, his base better understands political reality.

Rooting for Failure?

Limbaugh and Beck make no secret why they want Obama to fail: they oppose progressive policies. But progressives in the “doom and gloom” camp also appear to want Obama to fail, seemingly believing that the sooner the public learns that he is not committed to progressive change, the better.

These critics exalt “the people” as the source of progressive power, but then denounce the politician that rallied “the people” toward progressive ends unlike any major candidate since FDR. If the doom and gloom camp really trusts “the people,” why are they so negative about “the people’s” – and this includes the core progressive constituencies of labor unions, African-Americans, Latinos, women, environmentalists – choice for President?

Activist pressure on Obama has already proven successful in many areas, particularly toward likely ensuring a strong public option on health care. But activists could not have succeeded in this and other fights unless the public believed in the possibility for real change – a feeling the “doom and gloom” camp regularly seeks to erase.

Its heartening to see such strong enthusiasm for change persist despite the health care debate pushing so much else to the side, and this key issue involving a level of complexity that is challenging to mobilize around. We could be on the verge of one of the great activist successes in decades, which will build the hope for change necessary for the future struggles ahead.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook.

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