I continue to believe that the election of President Barack Obama provides a major opening for progressives to make significant gains towards shaping a more just and humane society in the U.S. The repudiation of George Bush and company and their greed driven, “free market” economic policies have opened the door for progressives to advance a progressive agenda for far ranging change. However, it would be a mistake to believe that the change we seek will be advanced by President Obama. Though he is clearly on the liberal side of the political spectrum, which is a welcome shift from the eight-year reign of the rabid right, Obama never promised bold “change” during the campaign. In addition, early indications are that the change President Obama believes he can achieve is incremental, not fundamental. For example, at his recent summit on health care, proponents of single payer had to fight just to get in the room to have their voices heard – a clear indication that the President’s idea of “reform” is likely to be well within the framework of the existing health care for profit system.
President Obama’s cautious, pragmatic, incremental approach is understandably infuriating to some progressives. The problem is that these progressives expect Obama to carry the weight for making far ranging change, rather than building a movement that will compel him to embrace and advance a more bold and visionary agenda. It is useful to remember that much of what was accomplished by progressives under FDR in the era of the New Deal was because of massive, unrelenting pressure from a multifaceted liberal-progressive movement. That lesson should not be lost on progressives at this potentially milestone moment in history.
Nevertheless, here progressives are confronted with another problem. To the degree that a progressive movement exists, it is incoherent and disjointed/fragmented. There is no overarching, inclusive umbrella organization with a broad consensus agenda to translate the desire for far ranging change into effective action. This does not mean that there are not groups, organizations, think tanks, publications, philanthropists, etc. that are advocating progressive policies and causes. I simply have no sense that there is anything resembling a functional united front among these various entities, particularly as it relates to the connection with and inclusion of African Americans and other people of color.
I make the latter observation because I believe progressives need something akin to the National Rainbow Coalition as a unifying vehicle to advance the progressive cause. Bill Fletcher and Danny Glover made this point a couple of years ago in an article they circulated on recreating a Rainbow Coalition type formation. Without question, the demobilization of the National Rainbow Coalition by its architect Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was one of the great failures of leadership in the latter half of the 20th century. Borrowing from Mel King’s weekly rainbow dialogues and initiatives in Boston, Rev. Jackson was able to utilize his presidential campaigns to build a formidable, progressive, multi-racial policy, advocacy and electoral coalition that captured the imagination of millions of people across the country. Unlike many movements on the left, African Americans and other people of color, constituencies disproportionately affected by issues of race, class and gender inequality, were prominent in the membership and leadership of the Rainbow Coalition. The opening presented by the election of President Barack Obama cries out for such a formation again.
To revive a term from another era, at a minimum, progressives should create a “third force” in American politics – an independent political organization that focuses on developing and advocating reformative and transformative policy proposals and actively educates, agitates, organizes and lobbies to enact its agenda. Such a formation should adopt an “inside/outside” approach, working to advance its agenda inside the major political parties while simultaneously promoting the agenda through liberal-left political parties and institutions/organizations outside of the major parties. In terms of electoral politics, a third force would support major and third party candidates based on its agenda as well as utilize the option to run independent candidates.
Moreover, a third force would not depend on electoral politics as the sole means of advancing a progressive agenda. It would employ non-electoral strategies and tactics such as mass protests, supporting strikes and labor actions, mobilizing/organizing around issues at the local, state, national and international level as a means of broadening the base of the progressive movement to effect real change. The creative use of the Internet to disseminate information, galvanize action and raise funds must also be part of the strategy if a third force is to be successful. There are several other elements I could propose but these ideas should suffice to make the case for the concept.
Beyond the idea, the crucial task is creating a third force as a 21st century version of the Rainbow Coalition. This is a major challenge because the left tends to be too fractious and contentious to build this kind of umbrella formation. Though the left legitimately bemoans the flaws of charismatic leadership, in reality it was the force of ideas and charismatic leadership of Rev. Jesse Jackson that motivated progressives to defy their “nature” to become part of the big tent – the Rainbow Coalition. Surveying the scene today, there does not appear to be a leader who can unite the left. In addition, I am skeptical that there is presently a collective or collaborative of leaders with the vision, skill and capacity equal to such a daunting task. Nonetheless, some of us will continue to articulate the vision in the hope that the idea of a third force will gather momentum and come to fruition. Capturing the opportunity presented by the election of President Obama may well depend on it.
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