In the two decades since The Washington Post described evangelical Christians as “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command”, we’ve seen sea changes take place within both political parties as certain parts of the base have been rewarded or denied the reins of power. On the right, social conservatives have achieved significant victories on the abortion issue even as their stance on marriage has crumbled; fiscal conservatives found themselves embraced under Clinton, then ignored under Bush, then resurgent in reaction to Obama; and the rise of a populist and libertarian strain of new leaders and organizations has roiled the established order of things.
Even as the media has focused on these dramatic shifts, less attention has been paid to the incredible transition that has taken place on the left, where we’ve seen an equally dramatic change. Over the past two decades, the forces who favor technocratic corporatism have subjugated the ideological core of progressivism under a new strain of elitist authority-based transactional politics, built on false promises of systemic change and sustained by shallow appeals to hot button social issues.
Ever since the Nixon era, the Democratic Party has faced its own internal tug of war over fiscal matters, as the party has replaced white working-class voters in the South with upscale voters, especially in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, who are mainly drawn to the party’s social liberalism. This has placed political constituencies that desire more redistribution of wealth and view corporations and Wall Street with suspicion if not outright animus at odds with those who seek to protect their interests and use the levers of power to gain advantage – typically with the taxpayer paying the price for their cartel-like activity. With the dominance of Bill Clinton’s post-1994 approach to triangulation and the pro-war, pro-surveillance push of the party after 9/11, the progressives have been shoved aside again and again – their positions ignored if not denigrated in matters foreign and domestic. This has continued and even expanded under Barack Obama, whose approach to fiscal and regulatory policy has led to an America where corporations thrive, wages stagnate, the surveillance state expands, Too Big To Fail lives on, and Wall Street grows fat and happy.
In this understanding of what’s taken place over the past twenty years, the Obama campaign of 2008 takes on a new and more tragic depiction. It reads as the death rattle of a political movement that traces its lineage to Robert La Follette, Samuel Gompers, and Ida Tarbell: a charismatic, appealing candidate who gives verbal endorsement to the frustrations of ill-treated progressives, promising a rejection of traditional political quid pro quo, the end of wars and privacy invasion and Gitmo and lobbyists in government, and a new aspirational and transparent communitarian approach to policies that achieve positive change… and then, once elected, reveals these to be words, just words.
Consider the health care issue alone as an example of where Obama’s progressive promise vanished once he got the White House. The inspired liberals who flocked to the Obama who rejected an individual mandate as the encroaching bailout it is – a requirement that makes it illegal not to buy a corporate product – now, with the dutiful nature of paid insurance representatives, defend the further bailout of insurance company “risk corridors” as companies fear the mandate will fall flat. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.
The latest Battleground poll revealed the opposition to Obamacare for what it is: just 20% said the law took the right approach, while 49% said it went “too far”. What of the 23% who said it was “not far enough”? Who will that 23% look to for leadership in 2016, when Democratic candidates will promise to fix Obamacare’s failings and moderate it rather than pursue the single payer approach favored by the progressive base?
It won’t be someone building on Obama’s approach. Priorities USA, the biggest liberal super PAC, built to re-elect Obama and staffed by Obama and Clinton insiders, has already announced it’s backing Hillary to the hilt. Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, is co-chairing the group even as he remains chairman of Organizing for Action. For OFA, he’ll be sending out appeals based on hot-button issues to the small donors who gave Obama $26 million last year to push his agenda on gun control and the environment. For Priorities, Messina will be seeking big dollar checks – six and seven figures only, according to the New York Times – from people who want to get in early on a sure thing. Messina says the groups have the same priorities – but I wonder which constituency will get theirs noticed first?
The Elizabeth Warren strain of the Democratic Party may inspire plenty of articles, and support from true ideologues and union backers, but she is rejecting calls to challenge Hillary Clinton for the same reason others will as well: they recognize that the other side has won, that the Party’s views on drones and spying depend entirely on who’s issuing the orders, and that you can’t beat the firm grip of the corporatists on the money, power, and media that drives politics. And as a practical matter, the road to electoral success is only harder today for progressives – after winning his insurgent campaign, Obama and his allies changed the Democratic primary rules and process to make it harder for similar insurgents to pull off such upsets in the future. Bill de Blasio may inspire the left – but the Andrew Cuomos of the world are the ones who prevail.
A decade ago, Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas argued that it was heartland social conservatives who were being bilked by party elites to support policies against their own self-interest. For the progressives, the uncomfortable truth is that they’ve been the ones strung along by leader after leader within a party that pays lip service to their views on social issues – matters such as gay marriage, which are decided by the courts anyway – while largely ignoring their views on virtually every other area of policy.
Today, it’s clear progressives have turned out to be as easy to command as their caricatures of backwards evangelicals. Today, one out of three of Millennials aged 18-31, the young progressives who gave Obama’s campaign its inspirational heart and voted for him overwhelmingly, are living at home with their parents. They put their heart and soul into campaign after campaign, believing they could change the country and the planet. And after all their effort, what do they have to show for it? “Free” birth control that you have to pay for in higher premiums to big insurance? Talk about a cheap date.
Congratulations, progressive Millennials: you’re more like Jerry Falwell than you ever imagined.