Barack Obama’s relationship with American progressives is like a bad marriage. In 2008 he made all sorts of vows and promised to be faithful. Hardly had he taken office – brought there by our door-knocking, our phone calls and our votes – when he started jumping into bed with our rivals: the rich, the powerful, the warmakers, the reactionaries of all sorts.
Like so many unfaithful spouses, though, every so often he gives us a gift to try to set things right and keep our loyalty. Tom Hayden and Juan Cole are the latest major figures in the progressive movement who urge us to appreciate these gifts and keep the marriage alive. Like most influential progressives, they offer lists to prove their point: Obama supported health care reform, the stimulus package, bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, support for gay rights, curbs on deportations, etcetera, etcetera.
But this laundry-list approach misses the greatest gift that Obama is giving progressives, the one that’s on the order of the new car the philanderer gives the betrayed spouse for Christmas. It’s not a specific policy. It’s a narrative frame:
“Our destinies are bound together,” as Obama said in his acceptance speech. “A freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity, is unworthy of our founding ideals.” We “believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules,” he said.
“We travel together. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.”
Many progressives won’t appreciate that this narrative is a gift. Some will continue to press for a divorce. That’s because they judge Obama, and all the rest of the politicians, only by their specific policy positions. Few progressives realize how absolutely crucial narrative is to political success.
But professional politicians, who judge success by how many elections they win, know it very well. As the Democrats’ veteran pollster and strategist Stanley Greenberg once wrote, if you want to win a presidential election, “A narrative is the key to everything.” Candidate Obama proved that he understood that very well.
Strangely, once he entered the White House, Obama seemed to forget it, as he admitted to an interviewer a few months ago: “The mistake of my first term – [first] couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
That’s not just the nature of the presidency. It’s the nature of politics. Every candidate who wants to win, and every movement that wants to succeed, has to tell the American people that kind of inspiring story.
Ever since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, baffled progressives have stared at polls showing a majority of Americans agreeing with progressive positions on a host of issues, while at the same time a majority vote for Republicans or centrist Democrats who don’t support those popular positions.
“What’s going on here?” progressives ruefully ask each other. Then we go out and offer the public more facts and logical arguments to support their positions, with no compelling narrative to create the sense of unity and purpose and optimism that most voters crave. And the progressive impact in the political arena continues to be extremely modest, to put it politely.
But now, unexpectedly, we progressives are getting the gift of a chance to be effective. A president is putting a narrative that we can wholeheartedly embrace into the center of mainstream political discourse: it’s selfish individualism versus the common good – “You’re on your own” versus “We’re all in it together and we pull each other up” – and the well-being of every ordinary American is at stake.
Isn’t that the very heart of the progressive message, the message that Hayden spelled out in the Port Huron Statement exactly 50 years ago? It’s no coincidence that Hayden is now urging us to support a president who is staking his re-election on that story.
Franklin Roosevelt staked his 1936 re-election campaign on the same story. But it hasn’t happened since. In the intervening three quarters of a century, the progressive narrative has been largely ignored by presidential candidates, and by most Democratic candidates for lesser offices too. Now Obama has put it back in the center of the political stage. What a gift!
Of course that doesn’t mean that if Obama wins he’ll be miraculously transformed into a real progressive. He’ll probably be the same moderate Democrat he’s always been, cheating on the progressives who once loved him.
But if Obama wins, the political conversation in this country will hardly be the same. When a candidate wins, his or her narrative wins. If the progressive story triumphs on Election Day, mainstream politicians and the mainstream media will no longer be able to dismiss it as irrelevant “60s radicalism.” The narrative will be part of mainstream American politics. That’s the gift Obama is offering to progressives.
What happens after an Obama victory depends in large part on how wisely progressives can take advantage of the new political atmosphere that victory would create. That’s not Obama’s job. It’s our job.
And it’s not a very hard job. It’s no great challenge to tell the progressive story in a way that gives most Americans a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times. When Roosevelt did it, he was far from the first great American to do it. There was his cousin Theodore before him, and Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln before TR. After FDR, Dr. Martin Luther King did it more radically than any. And his birthday became a national holiday.
They all proved that progressivism is patriotic. The story of unlimited opportunity and endless new frontiers – a distinctively “made in America” story of a better future for all through cooperation and justice – is as American as apple pie. If we progressives get over our fear of patriotism and stop ignoring the power of a great story, our opportunity can be unlimited, too.
That’s the chance Obama is offering us.
A smart spouse who gets a lavish gift doesn’t expect it to signal a change of the giver’s heart. But a smart spouse takes the gift anyway, says thank you and makes the most of it. Let’s remember, though, that Obama’s gift is useless unless he wins on Election Day.
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