Winning with the Left, Governing from the Center

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.


4 thoughts on “Winning with the Left, Governing from the Center

  1. This is a good analysis, clear-eyed, I think, about the politics facing Obama. So far, he’s advocating a basic Keynesian economic restoration, a smart thing, in my view, because Keynes, along with Marx, saw capitalism most clearly. Even though he was an aristocrat, Keynes produced the template for regulating capitalism because he thought that, given what he saw as human nature, it was the economic system that allowed people best to relieve themselves of their barbarity; but, precisely because its essential energy was rooted in the impulse to greed, lust, and pillage, capitalism needed close regulation or would collapse on its own. Thus, in these first days of Obama’s rule, the circumstances, rather than political rhetoric, might allow him to usher in another New Deal. I believe that those of us in favor of radical democracy could not, at this juncture, hope for anything more useful to our long-term aims. We should, I believe, rally around this Keynesian restoration because the progressive politics we want to nurture could easily result from the the huge public works campaign that Obama is antsy to get started.

  2. I have sen the same polling data you use to make the argument that there are more conservatives than liberals. But there are more registered Democrats. What do we make of that? I am sure the political scientists have many answers (I imagine different voting rates, higher party defections among Democrats, until 2006-2008, greater party discipline for Rs, more conservative Democrats than liberal Republicans).

    There is another difference to point out between political identification and governing. Pretty solid majorities of Americans support progressive POLICY like unions, universal health care, universal higher education, greater retirement security, clean air and water, national parks, and so on.

    So how come progressives won hearts and minds on policy issues, but keep loosing framing wars and elections?

  3. Also:

    I find the supposed “betrayal” of progressives by Obama laughable. He never promised much of a progressive agenda. Nor did he ever seem like a politician particularly interested in ideological consistency.

    Did progressives give ourselves over too readily to Obama? That is the topic for a longer response.

  4. I find myself in agreement with your analysis, especially the last two sentences. Should Obama have had to do more to earn the progressive vote? Progressives were desperate for a win–this time was not a time to flirt with Kucinich or Nader. If Obama can pull the country out of the ditch, we’ll see a big political swing toward the progressive side for the next 20 years. Voters have seen the full effects of the radical neocon agenda, and they now understand that they were swindled (in more ways than one). Rush Limbaugh will still have a job, but he won’t be addressing the incoming House majority any time soon.

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