Posted by rflacks on:
Essentially what happened on Tuesday was that a large part of the progressive grassroots didn't go to the polls, especially in the Midwest. Young people, who favor Obama and progressive reform, sat it out (as they usually do in non-presidential elections). California may well have been a big exception. There is no sign in our results of any sort of conservative turn (I'll get back to this below). What may have helped was the pot legalization initiative: I haven't seen data on this yet, but that issue may have boosted youth turnout here (not enough of course to pass it, but close). Black voting participation was down from 2008 as well. An important demographic statistic: nearly a quarter of the voters in this election were 65+--the one age group that went for McCain in 2008 (when they were but15% of the electorate). The ‘enthusiasm gap' was real, and it wasn't overcome by the sanity rally, the Daily show appearance by Obama and other GOTV stuff aimed at the young.
Ponder this: the president's most committed base encompasses those groups most vulnerable in the economic slump. Yet all the brilliant voter mobilization efforts seemed not to have enabled many of those folks to see how voting might be a means to better times. Some of this mobilization clearly worked-e.g. Harry Reid's results, perhaps, were enabled by a reputedly superb ground level machine (combined, of course, with the fact that his opponent was recruited from a traveling circus).
There's a lot of blame for this being leveled at President Obama. Marshall Ganz, the guru of community organizers who helped with the Obama presidential mobilization, has been stressing that Obama in office has lost the voice that elected him, turning from what Marshall calls ‘transformational' to ‘transactional' leadership mode. Ganz, John Judis and others see the failure of the youth and minority vote as the result of the President's inability to deliver a populist perspective. It may well be that a more populist and impassioned president would have done something more to energize the young and the disadvantaged. And both Judis and Ganz emphasize the deliberate dismantling of the Obama for America grassroots operation (and folding it into the Democratic Party) as a major strategic mistake Obama and co. made at the start.
I share the critique emotionally (and I've just sketched its more detailed elements; see the articles these guys have written to get more depth). I think, however, that it underestimates the strategic dilemmas Obama has been trying to cope with. For example, I assume that he has been betting on the chance to win GOP moderates in the face of the extremist takeover of the Republican Party. Election returns don't make that sort of move seem promising, yet there is a logic to trying. How to reconcile progressive populism and rational centrism to forge a majority? And, by the way, if you watched any of Obama's stump speaking at huge rallies shown on line and on C-SPAN you might feel that there was a good deal of populist fire coming from him (but certainly late in the game).
There's surely a grassroots populist mood which all of us share. It's not historically unusual (it's really common) for populist energy to be channeled by the far right. "Illegal immigration" was rated as the most important issue by 8% of voters (who voted heavily GOP); but everyone knows that the economy was the number one issue for most-and the majority of those saying so voted Republican. Wall Street bankers got more blame than George Bush or Obama for the state of the economy-and fully 1/3 of those who blamed the bankers voted GOP (and interestingly, for those who gave health care as the lead issue, the majority were Democratic voters.)
But the central populist frame has to do with the debt, taxes, government spending. I think for most of us deficit rage is a mystery. After all, it seems plain enough that the real deficit is in private investment and consumer spending, and the first law of Keynesian policy is that government deficits help overcome that private spending failure. The need for pump priming has been understood for a few generations, we thought. Less well grasped is that public investments are crucial for the economy as a whole and that such investment (like private investment) gets repaid in many direct and indirect ways.
I think Obama's biggest failure has been his inability to explain these things. Instead, his main message tends to accept the anti-deficit line and talk regretfully about the emergency that forced him to do unpleasant spending. The administration claims, but fails to persuade, that the health care reform will in fact reduce the debt substantially in the long run. The President talks about the need to invest in infrastructure, but doesn't seem to have spent real thought in how to make us understand the difference between public investment and unproductive spending (since our retrograde budgeting process itself fails to make such distinctions clear). In his press conference yesterday, we could hear some pretty good efforts to say these things-but surely much more could be done to try to clarify the public mind.
The Tea party, the GOP and the deficit hawks are peddling what most economists consider poppycock about these matters. And their seriousness can be questioned given that it was W's administration that created a vast deficit without evident outcry. A serious anti- big government crusade would certainly focus on defense spending and expose gigantically wasteful weapons projects. It would deeply question whether we can afford the discretionary wars. And it would be willing to engage the possibility that ‘tax relief' for the wealthy and is a major cause of the long-term deficit. According to some leftwing writers who are soft on libertarianism, maybe such thoughts will emerge from the mouth of Rand Paul (whose pop has gotten fans because of his anti war and anti -empire stance).
But I don't think the anti-spending mania (which has infected the regimes of Europe as well) can simply be a matter of ignorance or ideology. What might be fueling it at the grassroots includes feelings on the part of aging well-off white people that the benefits of such spending go to the colored and/or undeserving poor (and to government workers as well). Given the demographics underlying the voting, we may want to ponder the persistence of what my colleague Howie Winant calls' racial formations'-i.e. the various ways that structures and polices that sustain racial disparity are rationalized and displaced in political consciousness.
Anyway-here's the main point I want to make right now and hopefully engage with as we struggle forward:
We progressives have spent the last number of years working hard to advance some semblance of equality and justice through the electoral process and national legislation. We've helped achieve at least the health care reform. Now we need to see that by focusing energy in those ways we have failed to do some crucial things that must be done if this country can hope to break out of the corporate dictatorship that now controls regular politics. We, like the President, have largely failed to provide the vision and the rationale that makes people understand and desire a social and economic democracy. So we need to spend more time on that rather than just the wonkery. We need to invest in creating grassroots public debate and help communities get the materials that can fuel that. We need to really engage the college campuses in such debate and not just see students as fodder at election time to fuel the campaigns. In future writings I'll try to call attention to the ideas and perspectives that we ought to be discussing (perspectives going beyond defense of government spending and campaign finance reform, as defining issues for our side).
We need to focus on the war issue not only for moral reasons but because this really is a way to connect to public anxiety (nearly 60% of the conservatively tilted voters oppose the war). Obama has given up fighting on climate change (except that he will try to reach common ground with the corporate and rightwing in favor of nuclear power). Instead of focusing on incomprehensible and dubious ideas like cap and trade, how can we take hold of what the California vote proved: people are coming to understand the value of the green economy?
The One Nation March is already forgotten by media-an amnesia greatly nurtured by John Stewart's rather infantile project. Maybe in the coalitional networks created for that march, and in the programmatic material it generated, a framework for the independent progressive movement can be developed.
As always---please weigh in. Register on this site. Use State Street as the name for Santa Barbara's main street. Tell us what you're seeing/feeling