The progressive dilemma at this time of political crisis is not one of vision. We have identified the key fundamental values needed to construct an alternative to the abundantly discredited neoliberal world older. But on a tactical level we have failed to translate these values into a political program compelling to those most affected by the global financial crisis.
Barack Obama’s young presidency neatly encapsulates this failure. Obama’s broad electoral base represented a promising coalition for progressive change, but the gap between the Obama campaign and the Obama presidency has widened into what appears to be an oncoming rout for his party in the upcoming elections.
Obama’s first mistake was to acknowledge some responsibility for a downturn made possible by his predecessors’ policies. Then, even while he was tepidly laying blame at the feet of Wall Street, these firms received major bailouts and suffered no personnel changes or cuts to their sky-high bonuses. The shortcomings of subsequent financial reform legislation did nothing to alleviate these contradictions of word and deed. Obama identified the problems of deregulation but demurred on the opportunity to educate the public on the more fundamental pathologies of market fundamentalism, an unsurprising failure given his choice of chief economic lieutenants.
Nor have facts on the ground offered any relief. Despite good advice from reputable Keynesians like Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, the $787 billion stimulus was never enough investment to roll back unemployment. But even better technocratic initiatives would not compensate for Obama’s greater failure to contextualize his initiatives in a broader agenda of social transformation. Obama’s once vibrant grassroots base craved an alternative to the dog-eat-dog neoliberal order. But at this late hour, what vision will be compelling for the base?
The right, in contrast, has better understood the dynamics of politics in a time of crisis. Eschewing Obama’s quest for bloodless bipartisanship, counterrevolutionary types in the Republican Party have framed the political moment in absolutist ideological terms, distancing themselves from progressives and upending traditional conservative elites.
The left would do better to remember that the art of politics requires using the contradictions, spaces, and ambiguities of the current moment to shape structures and institutions and create a critical mass for change. What is needed for progressive change is smart and skilled leadership.
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