[I] think the main reason that Obama is having trouble is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket.This article sounds markedly less upbeat than an essay Judis wrote immediately following Obama's election victory. In that article -- America the Liberal -- Judis argues that the Democrats' success demonstrates that a new political bloc consisting of persons of color, women and liberal professionals could potentially engender longterm progressive reform.
Although Judis tries to temper his excitement, he believes that the 2006 and 2008 elections mark a fundamental leftward shift in the ideological makeup of the electorate:
The rise of [women, people of color, and professional liberals] within the post-industrial economy has brought in its wake a new political worldview. Call it "progressive" or "liberal" or even "Naderite". . . .[P]rofessionals are the vanguard of the new progressive majority. Their sensibility is reflected in the Democratic platform and increasingly in the country as a whole. . . .Professionals are generally liberal on civil rights and women's rights; committed to science and to the separation of church and state; internationalist on trade and immigration; skeptical of, but not necessarily opposed to, large government programs; and gung-ho about government regulation of business, especially K Street lobbyists.Judis also contends that:
Many are children of the 1960s and '70s--heavily influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Nader--but their views are clearly reflected in succeeding generations of college-educated Americans, particularly the "millennials" who grew up during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Ucla's annual study of incoming college freshmen across the country found in 2006 that 28.4 percent identified themselves as "liberal"--the highest percentage since 1975.
[S]even years removed from September 11, liberal views have re-emerged with a vengeance. Now, the coming recession seems likely to push voters even further left.Needless to say, this "push" has not occurred.
The Left Effusively Endorsed Obama During the Democratic Primaries
I have always been suspicious of liberal arguments which celebrate the demise of the GOP and conservatism and which welcome the advent of a liberal Utopia. I wrote many essays on this subject during the campaign and since the election -- including an essay which responds to Judis's "America the Liberal." I also created Dissenting Justice because often, the Left seemed like it was in a collective Obama-Vegetative State, which rendered progressives incapable of offering critical and balanced analysis of the Democratic presidential candidates. I hoped to shake things up with my own rigorous analysis.
And as gauche as saying "I told you so" seems, I can barely resist doing so. Nevertheless, I will attempt to make a critical contribution to this debate by reiterating some of the basic points I have made on my blog and elsewhere.
What the Political Left Needs to Understand
First, an election is not a social movement. Although many diverse people united to support Obama and to oppose the GOP, this does not mean that they shared a leftist political ideology. The invalidation of same-sex marriage in California -- where Obama won by more than 20% of the vote -- demonstrates this patently obvious point.
Second, progressives were so unnerved by Bush and the Clintons that many of them projected radicalism upon a moderate (or undefined) Obama in order to frame voting for him as a dramatic break from the past. Although "change" supports many meanings, for progressives, it symbolized liberal transformation of U.S. political life and policy.
Third, many liberals wanted so desperately to believe in the myth of a post-racial America that they treated Obama's electoral success as the ultimate triumph of progressive race politics. Despite the fact that strong racial cleavages shaped the vote for both Obama and McCain, many commentators, nevertheless, argued that Obama's victory would allow the country to move beyond race altogether.
Fourth, many self-described liberals are actually political moderates. They passionately support a set of symbolic liberal causes, but they do not favor more substantive societal transformation. Beating up Don Imus or Republicans who sing about a "Magic Negro" is a lot easier to do than creating good public schools that do not deprive poor children and children of color of a quality education. And passing the much-needed Ledbetter legislation does not resolve the substantive legal difficulties that civil rights plaintiffs encounter if they manage to overcome tough procedural hurdles. Yet, liberals cheered loudly for Ledbetter without even discussing (minus a few exceptions) the need for more progressive measures.
Liberal Regrets: Not Obama's "Fault"
Progressives cannot blame Obama for his effort to straddle the ideological center. Instead, they must look inward and discover why they chose to treat a politician (as skillful in that role as he might be) as someone who is mythological or larger than life.
They should also canvass history, as Judis has done, to learn about the critical role of passionate collective activism in the evolution of U.S. politics and policy. Moderate presidents have presided over great changes in the U.S., but they did so with the backing and agitation of engaged social movements. True social change does not result from effusive adoration and acquiescence; instead, it arises from criticism, collective activism, strategic compromise and political opportunity.
Conclusion: Silence and Defensive Partisanship Will Not Create Change Either
Many liberals have remained silent or have become defensive partisans in response to commentary that reveals striking similarities between Obama's policies and Bush-era practices that provoked sustained and angry criticism from the Left. Consequently, I am not hopeful that progressives will welcome dissent and self-criticism in the near future. Dissent and criticism, however, are staples of successful social movement activism, which is an essential component of progressive (or conservative) political change.
Ironically, I have found that political conservatives (e.g. Glenn Reynolds) often provide the most accommodating space for dissenting progressives. Admittedly, progressive dissent can serve conservatives' interest in hearing criticism of Democrats. But this process can also link nonpartisans across the political spectrum, who, despite disagreeing on many issues, can learn and benefit from open debate. I hope that progressives will begin to provide the same space for liberal criticism that some nonpartisan conservatives have already offered.