Like nearly all professed progressives, the editors of The Nation are disappointed with President Obama. The lead editorial in the latest issue complains that "Obama never played to win" during the debate over raising the debt ceiling. In the editors' opinion, the President might have seized the initiative by demanding a "straight up-or-down vote" on the debt ceiling, challenging Republicans to drop any linkage of the decision to a partisan agenda. And as progressives are wont to wish, Obama could have played the class card. They long for the language of 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt, himself a sort of American aristocrat, could rail against "economic royalists" and boast that he "welcomed their hatred." Perhaps it's still harder for a black man to welcome hatred in any context, but The Nation acknowledges that Obama, for whatever reason, "is not going to break the cycle on his own." He needs a push. To be specific, "he will need a strong push from progressive forces to implement" better policies. He will "also need a push from the progressive base that elected him in 2008 -- and that he will need to win re-election in 2012." The editors already see this push in motion in the form of the vaunted "American Dream Movement," but they are maddeningly vague when it comes to the actual physics of the push. I'm not sure they even know what they're writing about.
Part of the problem can be seen in Ilyse Hogue's article, "Downgrading Democracy." Hogue believes that the debt-ceiling debacle proved that "ordinary people had no real part to play" in government. She infers this from the government's failure to reflect the will of the people, as expressed in opinion polls, regarding the necessity or desirability of tax increases for the wealthy. She also notes the futility of "more than 600 rallies" held across the country -- by none other than the American Dream Movement in many cases. By comparison, she claims to have been aware of a single "sparsely attended" Tea Party rally during the same period. How did the TPs get their way? Hogue blames lobbying, corporate donations and the Citizens United decision, as well as a "centrist" bias (my word, not hers) in the media that "skewed coverage away from reporting the facts in favor of presenting both parties' claims equally, regardless of facts." I can see this last point, but don't progressives usually insist on "equal time" for all points of view? But the media is a side issue for the moment. Hogue's main complaint, and that of her editors, is that a lot of people held demonstrations, but didn't get their way. Somehow, a "push" will make a major difference -- but what will this push look like? I suspect it'll look like a lot of demonstrations and rallies. These people seem to think that democracy means that, if a critical mass of people make a lot of noise, they should get their way -- or that one interest group should prevail over another if it proves objectively louder and more numerous in the street. This is naive.
In any event, Hogue is wrong on one count. Ordinary people did have a part to play in the process. Let's not assume that every self-professed Tea Partier is a millionaire or somehow not of the grass roots, after all. The Tea Party exists on the streets, not exclusively in think tanks, corporate boardrooms or lobbyists' offices. Hated though they are, perhaps by a majority of Americans, they remain a popular mass movement. They remain a powerful mass movement because they know how to push. They are willing to primary unsatisfactory representatives at the slightest sign of compromise. They form a sufficiently large part of the Republican base to make their threats meaningful to many GOP officeholders. If anything, their all-or-nothing approach, their willingness to nominate "unelectable" Republicans like Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle for the sake of ideological purity, has probably given them more leverage with the party. Better for a Republican incumbent to make peace with them at least some of the time than to throw the seat away. The TPs have the courage of their conviction that things are so intolerable now that it makes little difference to them whether a tepid Republican or a radical Democrat holds power. I wonder whether progressives have either conviction or courage. Neither Hogue nor the Nation editors include a primary challenge to the President among the tools for pushing him in their direction. Nor, need I add, does a third-party campaign appear as an option. They really seem to believe that the President will be obliged to respond to them if they just yell loud enough like a mob of Whos. Are they not the People? Not quite. In a democratic republic, the People are the ones who show up to elect officeholders. In a partisan republic, they're the ones who show up to nominate candidates. Merely demanding stuff is powerless. Progressives won't be able to push Obama anywhere unless they convince him that they're willing to push him off a cliff.