As President-Elect Obama goes about naming more and more of his cabinet and senior advisers, many of his left-of-center supporters are expressing increasing unease at the absence of certified progressives in the mix, and the prevalence of centrist Clintonites, including Hillary herself. This is very much in contrast with what happened eight years ago, when movement conservatives were very prominent in the initial appointments of the Bush administration.
This is a difference of long standing between the parties. While the Republican Party has come increasingly under the sway of extreme social conservatives, the Democrats have pretty much stuck with the conventional wisdom of staying close to the center where the majority of voters are to be found. Although Reagan-era Republicans successfully demonized liberalism, with the sole exception of George McGovern in 1972, the left wing of the party has not controlled the presidential nomination since the Populist William Jennings Bryan ran in 1900. By contrast, the right wing of the Republican Party has determined the nominee in at least four of the elections since 1980 (1980 1984, 2000, 2004), and has held veto power over the others (including this year, when John McCain never escaped the need to play to the party’s right wing base.
Public opinion polls show consistently that there are about twice as many people who declare themselves conservatives, as those who call themselves liberals. Thus it is easier for a right winger to get enough centrist voters to win: the bar is lower for conservatives. That’s exactly what happened under Reagan and George W. Bush. Obama’s achievement was to be sufficiently inspirational for the liberal/left base of his party, while eschewing real liberalism (much less socialism or social democracy!). He thus had a highly mobilized liberal base and a majority of centrist (self-described moderate) voters.
It should thus be no surprise that Obama’s first personnel decisions should be decidedly centrist. There will surely be “movement progressives’ in the administration, but they are not going to occupy the top posts. We don’t know yet what policies the new administration will adopt; we may hope that the policies will be more liberal than the personnel. But fundamentally, progressives should reorganize themselves to articulate and promote such policies. We should not wait for the administration to produce them.
In foreign policy, for example, it appears likely that Obama will move away from the unilateralist militarism of the Bush administration, but how far he moves toward antimilitarism will depend on how vigorous and thoughtful his progressive supporters are. Similarly, policy toward rectifying a generation’s slide toward obscene levels of inequality will reflect progressive priorities only to the extent that progressives can generate pressure in that direction.
Obama could not have won without our activism, and we should not let him forget that. He also could not have won without all those moderates, and we should not let ourselves forget that.