Feeling Things Out

I think there’s a problem with the progressive online movement today. We came into existence under a bad Republican president and a strong Republican majority in Congress. The Democratic Party was in electoral decline. No Democratic message was effectively resonating in the face of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deregulation of markets, and a massive housing bubble that would later crush the American economy.

In an environment with very little oxygen, the best ideas began to flourish through the netroots.

People supported proud Democrats who didn’t shy from their principles when attacked from the right. Candidates ran as fighting Dems. The blogs truth-squaded the media and organizations like Media Matters, ThinkProgress, Democracy for America, True Majority, and Credo Action became key points of power for the left to influence politics and policy.

Additionally, elected Democrats had incentive for being strong advocates against the policies of the Bush/Cheney Republican Party. Strong, principled stands were rewarded. No one — with the possible exception of Joe Lieberman — was looking to get into bed with the GOP. There was a real space for activists in the progressive base to find timely partnerships with politicians who would be there advocates.

These forces combined to help give Democrats huge electoral victories in 2006 and 2008, including control of the White House and historic margins in both the House and the Senate.

That’s when the trouble started.

With a Democrat in the Oval Office and Democrats running the legislative agenda, the online progressive movement, which came into being precisely because our representatives lacked power, now had the people we’ve worked with over the last 8 years in control. Instead of being opponents, groups and individuals are forced to be proponents. But there’s something about this which hasn’t been a good fit: namely, imperfection of the people we put into office.

If Bush and the Republicans offered a bad bill on domestic surveillance, the response was easy. Oppose it. If it’s made marginally better, the response was easy: don’t give in, keep opposing it.

But now the tables have been turned. Legislation that doesn’t look so good is being offered by Democrats. Progressive groups can’t easily come out against things on whole, so there’s a focus on making small parts of legislation better. But even with these efforts, the Congress and the White House seem fundamentally inclined for less progressive legislation and caving to the requests from a few conservative Democrats. In essentially no cases are conservaDems being bullied to make room for more progressive legislation.

Groups, bloggers, unions, everyone it seems is having a hard time figuring out how to react. Do you put intense pressure unto opposition on key legislative initiatives? Do you only fund challenger candidates? Where is the right balance at a time when opposition to the President’s agenda is not a label anyone seems content to wear with pride?

My take is that this first year under Obama is part of the learning curve. There must be space for progressive groups, bloggers, and activists to stand by their principles, regardless of who is in office. There must be a way to effectively pressure those in power, regardless of their party. And there must be a balance that allows pressure campaigns on the ruling Democrats to be effective while simultaneously ensuring that the GOP doesn’t spend the next two to four cycles sopping up Democratic seats in government.

I don’t know what this sort of activism looks like. Experimentation must take place and risks must be taken. And in reality, while the hostile environment of the ascendant Republican Party from 2000-2008 was a natural environment for progressive activism to emerge, so to is the current environment a hostile one that must also breed a new wave of effective progressive activism.

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