The Problem With Building A “Progressive Movement”

Robert B. Reich had a column in the New York Times today about building a “progressive movement”. Here are a few excerpts that’ll give you the gist of column…

“The dismal fifth-place showing by Senator Joseph Lieberman in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday serves as both reminder and motivator to the other Democratic presidential candidates on what it will take to win in November. For so long now, everyone has assumed that recapturing the presidency depends on who triumphs in the battle between liberals and moderates within the party. Such thinking, though, is inherently flawed. The real fight is between those who want only to win back the White House and those who also want to build a new political movement — one that rivals the conservative movement that has given Republicans their dominant position in American politics.

…(T)he Democratic Party has had no analogous movement to animate it. Instead, every four years party loyalists throw themselves behind a presidential candidate who they believe will deliver them from the rising conservative tide. After the election, they go back to whatever they were doing before. Other Democrats have involved themselves in single-issue politics — the environment, campaign finance, the war in Iraq and so on — but these battles have failed to build a political movement. Issues rise and fall, depending on which interests are threatened and when. They can even divide Democrats, as each advocacy group scrambles after the same set of liberal donors and competes for the limited attention of the news media.

As a result, Democrats have been undisciplined, intimidated or just plain silent. They have few dedicated sources of money, and almost no ground troops. The religious left is disconnected from the political struggle. One hears few liberal Democratic phrases that are repeated with any regularity. In addition, there is no consistent Democratic world view or ideology. Most Congressional Democrats raise their own money, do their own polls and vote every which way. Democrats have little or no clear identity except by reference to what conservatives say about them.

…As we head into the next wave of primaries, the Democratic candidates should pay close attention to what Republicans have learned about winning elections. First, it is crucial to build a political movement that will endure after particular electoral contests. Second, in order for a presidency to be effective, it needs a movement that mobilizes Americans behind it. Finally, any political movement derives its durability from the clarity of its convictions. And there’s no better way to clarify convictions than to hone them in political combat.”

I’ve heard similar sentiments to the ones Reich expresses in this column, quite often from the left. You know, it’s “All we have to do is get a few think tanks going, break into talk radio, get a liberal television network, and then we’re home free”.

But, I think there’s a simple reason why conservatives have been gathering strength since 1980 or so as liberal influence has slowly waned. Simply put, conservative ideas have worked a lot better than liberal ideas. Free trade produces economic growth and protectionism hurts it. Tax cuts have spurred economic growth. Government is too big, its spending is too high, and the deficit is having a negative impact on our country. Getting tough on criminals does reduce crime. American military can produce results international law never has and probably never will. I can go on and on with this.

Given that and the fact that conservatives have broken the liberal stranglehold on the media, I don’tthink there is ever again going to be a “progressive movement” that matches conservatism. If the left wants to beat the right, they’re not going win long-term campaigning as politically correct, big government, protectionists, who want to hand over much of our sovereignty to the UN. However, ironically, because of triangulation, the Dems may actually get more of their agenda implemented by REPUBLICAN Presidents looking to “take issues away from them” than they would by a liberal President who would face vehement opposition from Republicans in Congress. Just to name two examples, if we had a Democratic President, I don’t think campaign finance reform or the prescription drug act would have become law because the GOP would have been true to their instincts and fought them all the way.

Last but not least, the left is going to find it very difficult to have the kind of open debates, that actually lead to “clarify(ing) convictions”. I say that because despite what you hear many left-wingers claim, on the whole, the left is much more dogmatic and less open to debate about ideas than the right. Conservatives may be hard on RINOS for example, but the left will practically excommunicate people who take certain positions. For instance, think of how Christopher Hitchens has been treated because of his stand on the war. As another example, simply agreeing with Bush on just about anything is enough to get you called a “Rove plant” or a “disruptor” at hard core left haunts like the Democratic Underground.

Without that open debate, without that changing of ideas, there isn’t going to be a new “progressive movement” that takes on the right. So unfortunately for the left, I think they’ve had their heyday, and slowly, but surely, they’re going to continue to lose ground.

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