I confess, I’ve been guilty of it too — of expecting or at least just wishing and hoping that President Obama would voluntarily embrace a bold progressive vision for America.  There was nothing about his character or resume to suggest he was anything but a pragmatic centrist.  Most of the ideas he put out during his candidacy were tepidly liberal at best.  And since taking office, from ramping up war engagement to withdrawing the public option in health care reform and more, Obama has tended toward such caution and compromise.  But… still… maybe because he was an organizer and self-consciously co-opted the “si, se puede” language of social movements, or maybe just because, frankly, there wasn’t much real leadership or energy on the left to feel hopeful about — I, and many others, followed Obama at precisely the moment when we should have been leading him ourselves.

This struck me while reading a great article by NYU Professor of Sociology Jeff Manza (h/t John Jost for pointing it out to me).  The piece, “Liberalism’s Inevitability?” which appeared in the Society journal last year, unpacks the comforting and commonly held assumption that, despite setbacks of conservative backlashes, our nation is marching consistently toward liberal ideals.  In fact, Manza argues, the past successes of liberalism may impede on future success rather than facilitate it.  Specifically, Manza notes that conservatives have effectively co-opted much of the framing of the left — using, for instance, concepts like “freedom” and “choice” to try and unravel Civil Rights legislation and undermine public schools.  In addition, Manza raises very real concerns that liberal programs to alleviate poverty and injustice may not have been as successful as we like to imagine — that the failure of the New Deal and public assistance programs to fix our nation’s deep problems let alone achieve utopia casts a cloud of skepticism on liberal proscriptions in general.

But what I most took away from Manza was the observation that the crisis of liberalism in America may have most to do with the lack of a vibrant, vocal left flank — thus rendering liberalism as the “vital center” of American politics, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once put it.  Historically, Manza writes:

In the moments of grand reform, such as the 1930s/40s and again in the 1960s, liberalism could plausibly stand between the forces of conservative traditionalism and the demands of social movements from below (or resurgent left-wing thought from the intelligentsia). In the New Deal era from the 1930s to the late 1940s, the presence of strong unions, a visible Communist and other left organizational presence, and open public debate over the relative virtues of left-wing ideas in the face of a sea of trouble, gave liberalism a powerful source of centrist purpose. Similarly, in the 1960s, the civil rights movement brought pressure from below that emboldened liberals positioned in the center. To be sure, the growing tensions between older liberals and an increasingly militant student left in the late 1960s would eventually tear the Democratic Party apart, but not before some of the most sweeping and important expansions of the public sector took place, spearheaded by liberals.

But now?  We can see Manza’s point in the way the Tea Party has exerted profound gravitational force not only on the Republican Party but, arguably, on the President and the Democratic mainstream — as the Tea Party can be given the credit for the fact that we’re debating the federal deficit and spending cuts at all in this moment, rather than spending more money to create jobs and stimulate the economy.

As activist and thinker Amy Dean notes in writing about the need for a labor movement functionally and ideologically independent from the Democratic Party, union activists — like progressive activists in general — that we are “charmed by access”.

We are invited to sit on White House roundtables, or we are impressed that top officials will answer our calls. But what has this gotten us?

Instead, Dean argues, we have to “give up our current illusion of influence” and re-imagine not only the labor movement but the left in general as a strong, independent and, yes, left-wing force for change in America.

For starters, that means some on the left not attacking others on the left when they seem “unreasonable” or “out-there” or “overly anti-corporate” or whatever barb you want to hurl.  The Tea Party wasn’t concerned with seeming reasonable or legitimate.  It was concerned with building real power and influence.  We on the left need to stop expecting so much from the President and instead appreciate the need for a broad progressive ecosystem that includes radical voices, ideas and actions that create the political space to increasingly liberalize the mainstream establishment.

Yeah, I’ve certainly joined the chorus in critiquing President Obama and trying to hold his feet to the fire.  But the larger reality is, if radical activist forces and grassroots social movements were ten times larger and more visible, then that fire would be all the larger as well — and Obama’s feet couldn’t avoid it.


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