As it became increasingly clear that Barack Obama was poised to make history as the first African American President of the United States, it was also clear that this was potentially a big moment for the progressive movement – a time to articulate a vision for a new America and to organize to advance an agenda for reform and fundamental change. As the Obama presidency unfolds, the question is whether the progressive movement is prepared to seize the opportunity presented by this remarkable moment in history.
In my view, the major theme of America’s history is the perpetual struggle to define the ultimate nature of “a more perfect union.” When George W. Bush proudly proclaimed himself a “strict constructionist” during his campaign for President in 2000, he was associating himself with a political tendency within the conservative movement that has sought to narrowly/literally interpret the Constitution in ways that would restrict democracy to White men with property, power and privilege. Indeed, the system, which was birthed in 1787, was essentially “democracy for the few,” with women, Blacks, Native Americans and White men without property excluded from the franchise. The fate of the infant nation was placed in the hands of White men with property.
The genius of the Constitution, however, is its “elasticity.” Through social and political movements, it can be stretched or constricted to include or exclude constituencies and categories of rights based on how it is interpreted. Historically, arrayed against the strict constructionists has been liberal-left-progressive movements which have sought to stretch the Constitution to include those initially locked out and to expand civil liberties, civil and social rights in the quest to achieve a “more perfect union.”
The Bill of Rights to the Constitution, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, anti-trust laws and other statutes regulating business/corporations, and labor rights, the reaffirmation of civil rights for Blacks and minorities, are a direct legacy of women and men, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Communists, independents, elected and non-elected leaders – the liberal-left-progressive forces that have struggled to expand democracy. As are, the expansion of rights for women, consumer protection, environmental protection and recognition of rights of lesbian and gay people. Taken together with the social safety network created during the New Deal and expanded by subsequent moderate-liberal administrations, a fragile “culture of rights” was emerging to protect workers, poor people and the middle class against the rapacious nature of unbridled Capitalism.
With the election of Ronald Reagan, a strict constructionist, we witnessed the opening salvo in the strategic effort by the conservatives to turn back the clock, to reverse the minimal gains achieved by liberal-left-progressive forces because of generations of hard fought, often-bloody struggles. With the firing of members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO), Reagan declared outright war on labor while unabashedly advocating economic policies to benefit corporations and the wealthy. He launched a ferocious attack on affirmative action and race based remedies and began the process of undermining the culture of rights by ripping huge holes in the social safety net.
Reagan gained substantial popular support for his anti-labor and pro-corporate policies by persuading a sizeable segment of the American electorate that social programs were a heavy burden on the backs of the people. Employing race as a tactic to divide and exploit, there was the suggestion that Blacks and minorities were the exclusive beneficiaries of social programs. The rise to hegemony of the right gained momentum in 1994 when Republicans took control of both Houses of Congress. The rightward tide was so strong that Bill Clinton governed as a centrist who embraced some of the Republicans’ flagship initiatives, e.g., downsizing government, ending “welfare, as we know it” and lobbying for the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The march to rightwing supremacy was consummated with the seizure of power by George W. Bush in the flawed 2000 election – ushering in one of the most reckless, corrupt, greed driven and dangerous eras in American history.
Consequently, in my mind, there was no doubt that defeating the forces of the right was an absolute imperative in the 2008 election. The first order of business was to stop the damage and create space for progressives to maneuver. That an African American named Barack Obama was capturing the imagination of the nation and the world with his pledge to bring “Change” we could believe in was all the more promising. However, we should never have had any illusions that Obama was committed to nor could he alone have the capacity to foster the kind of major reforms and fundamental change progressives would envision for a new America. This is not to say that what President Obama is doing is insignificant. The policy recommendations he is advancing mark a decided shift from the catastrophic policies of the Reagan-Bush era. However, his incremental approach lacks an overarching vision and the bold policy prescriptions necessary to expand the culture of rights severely constricted by the reign of the conservatives.
At a time when the Republicans, with their mascot “Joe the Plumber,” are accusing President Obama of leading the nation down the path to Socialism or the “Europeanization” of America, progressives should be seizing the opportunity created by the greatest crisis since the Great Depression to educate the American people about the urgent need for far ranging and fundamental change. Nevertheless, progressives seem locked in a mode of critiquing and refining Obama’s incremental agenda. This may be due to the utter relief of being rid of the horrific years under George W. Bush. However, relief from Bush is not enough. Now is the time for the progressive movement to boldly articulate its vision and program for a more perfect union. If we fail to act, we may miss our moment!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com . He can be reached via email at email@example.com.