Progressives: Are You Out of Your Minds?

I have a question for my fellow political progressives.

Are you out of your minds?

You’re really thinking about sitting out this election? You really are migrating to a “what difference does it make” neverland?

Before you get too comfortable with that self-righteous position, let’s review a bit of recent political history.

Like 1968. Progressives were angry at Hubert Humphrey for not breaking sooner with LBJ over the war. And so we got Nixon and 5 more years of war, tens of thousands more deaths, Watergate, impeachment and a spiral of distrust in government that hasn’t bottomed out, even today.

Humphrey nearly won the popular vote that year and the states that would have made him president he lost by inches. But progressives were angry. Angry at the war. Angry that Humphrey beat Eugene McCarthy for the nomination. So we got Nixon.

Let’s move on to 1980. Progressives were mad at Jimmy Carter, mad that Ted Kennedy didn’t win the nomination, mad about a lot of things. And so we got Ronald Reagan and decades of tax cutting and deregulation that’s morphed into multiple banking scandals, and a budget so starved for cash that people are seriously considering cuts in social security and other programs that provide the glue for a stable society.

Then there was 2000. Remember? Tweedle dee and Tweedle dum? What difference did it make whether Bush or Gore won? Now we know, don’t we? Two wars, a meat cleaver to progressive taxation and agencies designed to protect the public turned over to a pack of greedy, hungry industry wolves. Thank you Ralph Nader and all of you who voted for him.

So now we’re all mad at Obama. He didn’t get us single payer. He didn’t take over and break up the big banks. He’s been slow on don’t ask don’t tell and suspect on cap and trade. He doubled down on Afghanistan. And where’s immigration reform?

Last year I sat in on one of the larger progressive conferences of the year, sponsored by the organization Campaign for America’s Future. You could feel the electricity of hope and change crackling everywhere. This year a lot of people stayed home. Some attended just to heckle Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi! The most progressive Speaker of the House ever. The Speaker who raised health reform from the ashes of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts. The Speaker who’s guided just about the entire progressive agenda through a House that by no means has a progressive majority.

If enough progressives pout long enough this year we may well wind up with John Boehner as Speaker and Jim DeMint as Senate Majority Leader. Yes, Jim DeMint.

Add Rand Paul, Sharon Angle, Mark Rubio, and a few others to the Senate Republican caucus, mix in a wave of media about Tea Party victories, and the intimidation that causes in Republican Senate ranks, toss in a dash of resentment and anger at Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn for using the Republican Senate Campaign Committee as a weapon against extreme right wing candidates and what do you have?

Or, maybe you think that can’t happen. I remember, vividly, how happy so many Democrats were that Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination in 1980. He was so far to the right he was unelectable. Right.

Progressives, Instead of focusing on a wish list of what’s yet undone, how about paying more attention to all the good stuff that’s happened since the 2008 election?

Let’s start with two fairly progressive Supreme Court nominees and the possibility of one or two more if the Democrats can retain a working majority. How about a nuclear arms agreement with Russia? That’s not important? The new health reform act may not be the plan of our dreams, but it’s a giant step down that road and establishes health as a right—no small achievement. There’s a revolution under way in education because of the billions stuffed into the original stimulus plan. And that plan is starting to disburse billions more for mass transit and green energy programs.

Move on to the federal agencies where so much vital work goes on, generally away from the front pages. The Obama FCC is going to get us a national broadband network despite resistance from the corporate giants. The SEC is working for the public again, not the traders. Across the board the Obama appointments have been excellent, public-minded professionals, not revolving door corporate hacks.

Financial reform’s not yet done, but likely. And a reasonably strong reform bill, too, given the infantry division of lobbyists arrayed against it. Energy policy is touch and go. But if Republicans controlled things or the Democratic majority was thinner energy reform wouldn’t even be under consideration. Immigration reform will be on the agenda and don’t count out its passage—-and not just money to complete the border fence.

And lest we forget, Bush’s tax cuts for the rich expire this year. Just use your imagination on how differently the votes on extension will be because Democrats run things.

Anyone active in politics, from the left or right, should know by now that you don’t score by throwing long bombs. Political gains, as exercised under the U.S. system, come in yards and inches. What’s important is to be on the offense and to be moving the ball.

For progressives to sulk this year is to hand the ball over to a 21st century Nixon or Reagan or Bush—-or worse.

To do that you would have to be out of your mind.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at


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