The haste with which Van Jones, the green jobs czar, and the only legitimate progressive within the Obama administration was summarily dispatched last week may shock a few of us, though it shouldn’t. Progressives have, regrettably clung to the belief that some “friend” might come along to see the rightness of our cause and stand up and fight for it.
Nothing could be a greater recipe for continued disappointment and loss. Nothing ever has. For decades progressives stood on the sidelines convinced that the Supreme Court would rule rightly from on high. Later on we believed that Bill Clinton would stand firm for us. In 2006 we thought a Democratic majority and a 24% approval rating for George W. Bush were sufficient grounds for the Congress to rally to our side. In 2008 we rallied our dollars, our votes, our feet and our hopes in the mistaken belief that Barack Obama might be the leader that we’d been waiting for, only to discover that like Clinton before him, Obama is much more akin to Grover Cleveland than Teddy Roosevelt.
John McWhorter, academic linguist, and hardly a liberal one, asks whether “Questions as to whether these people have any spine are becoming sadly legitimate. What, precisely, would have been wrong with letting Glenn Beck and the others keep screaming their heads off about Jones’ purported radical intentions? Why not do a Glinda and dismiss this nonsense with a breezy ‘You have no power here’”?
McWhorter should not be surprised by a lcak of fortitude. It is not a question as to quality of spine, but rather commitment to progressive values on the part of the President that we should be asking about. The truth is that Barack Obama, his administration, nor do most of the Democratic Party have any commitment to progressivism of any stripe. They simply make promises when seeking our votes on election day than dismiss us at the earliest opportunity as people who have no place else to go. We should have learned this lesson from Mr. Clinton.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should be bolting the Democratic Party or anything like it. Where in parliamentary systems, minority parties can be major players in the legislature, it is a peculiarity characteristic of American politics, largely due to the need for “winner-take-all” elections and legislative majorities, that we must fall down on one side or the other of the broad electoral coalitions and quasi-official political bodies we refer to as “parties.”
While we ought not be bolting the Party, we should not be tuning out of the process or acquiescing to centrists, either. If we are ultimately to win the day, and I believe we can, we must remain engaged and active, continue to put our demands before the Democratic Party leadership and, this is the most important part, continue to build our own independent institutions, and using our own strong and independent organisms to effect change.
In 2005, when progressives re-captured the leadership of the Democratic National Committee with Howard Dean as its Chair, the corporate wing of the party under the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) warned that we were leading the party to permanent minority status. DLC’s fundraiser-in-chief Al From told us he was withdrawing financial support. Instead, we won by huge majorities in 2006 and 2008, and no one ever missed Al From’s sawbucks.
The secret of organizing for a progressive future is not to withdraw, but rather to build strong independent organizations and fundraising mechanisms of our own and to demand, from Democrats who count on our support, real progressive change. This is in our DNA. Progressives throughout American history have built their greatest successes not on one or two elections, or on counting on some other leadership group to pave the way, but through participatory democracy and organization on the ground.
Let us get to work.