Katrina vanden Heuvel: Progressive action can move the candidates

June 19, 2012

After a rough few weeks, filled with disappointing economic news and distracting political gaffes, President Obama finally had a rare throw-down-the-mike moment. In a highly anticipated campaign speech in Ohio last Thursday, he clearly and unequivocally framed the November election as a choice, not simply “between two candidates or two political parties, but between two paths for our country.”

The choice is indeed a stark one: a return to the failed Bush policies of unregulated markets and antitax fundamentalism that served the 1 percent as they failed the country; or concerted government action to rebuild the middle class as the foundation for sustained economic growth. As Obama said, “this is not another trivial Washington argument.”

Mitt Romney is not, whatever the press might have people believe, a Massachusetts moderate. He is honestly proposing that we sustain massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and slash basic services and programs for working families. He is honestly proposing that the financial institutions that arrogantly sank our global economy and destroyed people’s lives be left free of any and all regulation. In short, he is honestly proposing that we turn this car around and drive off the same cliff again. (At least Romney is being honest about something. He spends most of his time telling unabashed lies about the president and his policies.)

Congressional Republicans, who seem to think that our national crisis is that millionaires don’t get enough tax breaks, have obstructed almost all of Obama’s efforts to create more jobs, invest in the future and reduce the deficit. They are holding our nation’s economic recovery hostage on the premise that if the president fails, and the economy fails, then Romney will win. Working families are just collateral damage.

In spite of the GOP’s cynical grand strategy, Obama still managed to make progress in restoring our economy. He made investments in education, put more money into the pockets of working Americans, ended two wars, extended human and civil rights to gay Americans, provide undocumented young people with relief from legal limbo, moved, admittedly diluted, health care and banking reform forward, presided over the largest expansion of anti-poverty programs and promoted a new energy economy.

And yet, there are limits — clearly — to what the president has been and will be able to achieve in the most ideologically polarized climate in recent history. In the face of the existential threat to our democracy posed by a rabid, corporate-sponsored right wing, progressive activists are told to swallow their disappointment and just get out the vote. In return, some throw up their hands at electoral politics, arguing that both establishment parties are so compromised that only independent movements can effect real change.

As professor and activist Frances Fox Piven has argued, this is a false dichotomy. “Electoral politics creates the environment in which movements arise,” while movements can force politicians to do the hard work they were elected to do. Electoral politics and movement politics operate on parallel, often converging tracks. It was the energy of the Occupy movement that compelled Obama to make the alarming growth in income inequality a central issue. And activists fighting for fairer immigration laws undoubtedly helped generate the conditions that led to last week’s executive order.

That’s why progressives must take the upcoming election seriously, while continuing to challenge the limits of the debate and hold elected officials accountable.

They can do this by supporting the Senate campaigns of progressives Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and championing progressives in state and local races across the country who will work to transform the Democratic Party into one of the 99 percent. At the same time, activists should continue mobilizing on the housing crisis, corrupt banking practices and jobs for working families. As those movements gain traction in swing states, national candidates will be forced to respond.

There is perhaps no more important issue for progressives to mobilize against than the establishment consensus around austerity as the answer to our economic difficulties. Progressives must continue pushing the president to show how Mitt Romney would return to the failed Bush policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

Moreover, they need to refocus the debate on common sense measures to increase growth and reduce the deficit that will actually work: getting people back to work — and raising the minimum wage – to stimulate the economy; fair tax reform that closes loopholes for corporations and the wealthy; and investing in our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. After we do this, we can focus on getting our books in order over the long-term, not by cutting Medicare or Social Security, but by fixing our broken health-care system. Indeed, Obama’s speech last week was a sign that the pressure from progressives to articulate the choice we face in this upcoming election is working.

This pressure, though, has to be about more than individual policies or an electoral agenda. It has to be about upholding the values that are now threatened by a system that tramples on the beliefs most Americans hold about their country. For too long, Americans have suspected, correctly, that the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful. That’s why progressives must also broker an honest politics, one that exposes where both parties have compromised.

Perhaps most important, it’s time for progressives to shift from opposition to proposition. They need to do more than just hold us back from a sharp right turn this November. Broad coalitions and campaigns are needed to lay out alternatives and fight for them. We cannot simply break free of a past that didn’t work — we have to create a future that does.

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