Liberals' paramount objective should be building a durable progressive majority. Although this is a fairly obvious point, the Democratic leadership over the last two years (and really dating back to the Clinton presidency) has too often settled for pragmatic compromises that do little over the long run to shift the political center of gravity leftward. What this moderate leadership -- especially in the White House -- has failed to appreciate is that progressive politicians are only as powerful as the constituencies they represent. That is why progressives must strengthen those groups that are their clear allies. This means that when the Democrats took control of the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2009, a central objective should have been to press through legislation -- like the Employee Free Choice Act and immigration reform -- that would have expanded and empowered the progressive base. Instead, they have avoided taking a stand on these controversial measures, worrying, on pragmatic grounds, that they would take a beating at the polls. But this short-term pragmatism is bad long-term strategy. Looking forward to 2012 and beyond, efforts that support key progressive constituencies must be at the top of any reform agenda.
The stimulus package and health care reform are important achievements, but there is a reason beyond the continuing economic recession why Democrats have failed to stir many Americans. Far too often, the primary approach of the leadership has been triangulation, where politicians have claimed the rhetoric of their opponents in order to appeal to the median voter -- be it on security, fiscal responsibility, or crime. The assumption seems to be that, in the short-term, Republicans will shoot themselves in the foot with their ideological positions. Moreover, in the long-term, it is assumed that changing demographics (the increase of minority populations and a younger generation of voters) and geography (the growth of suburbs where Dems have made huge inroads) will inevitably bring individuals into the Democratic camp. As a result, the strategy seems to be to appear reasonable and dramatize their own moderation against the extremism of the modern right.
Of course, it is an open question who the median voter is. And money has the ability to strengthen the influence of decidedly non-median ‘voters,' like big Pharma or defense contractors, especially when it comes to buying airtime to influence public opinion and winning face-time with politicians. Yet if money wildly distorts the democratic process, Democrats are not merely passive victims of this problem. Indeed, solely blaming the distortions on money has the unintended effect of giving progressives a pass on the ideological and political choices that they've made. And it ignores the way electoral pragmatism appears to have become a dominant progressive ideology in its own right.
On occasion, Democrats have taken clear stands -- with the health care debate being a partial example. Yet initiatives like health care, while critical to Americans from all walks of life, serve a diffuse and un-mobilized interest. They neither shape what the (increasingly conservative) median position is, nor do they guarantee the political power of those groups that can alter public opinion. Indeed, the Democratic Party behaves more like a "catch-all party," chasing an elusive middle ground that constantly seems to be shifting, without a strategic time-horizon that reaches beyond the two-year electoral clock.
Instead, what needs to be recognized is that progressive majorities are created. They have to be fought for and won over. They don't just result from long-term demographic trends, nor do they emerge simply because the alternatives are worse. To create a progressive majority would require articulating a core program that serves the interests of its most dedicated supporters. Thus, the reason to defend labor and new immigrants is because these are tapped and untapped constituencies who share common interests. Regardless of structural changes in the economy, labor continues to be an organizational backbone for progressive politics. The stronger unions are, the more leverage progressives have at their disposal in pursuing reform initiatives. For this reason, Democrats in 2009 should have done everything feasible to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it far easier for employees to join unions.
Similarly, immigration reform should have been a top priority. While immigrants have interests in basic progressive ideas like full employment, higher wages, redistributive social policy, and the right to organize, the Democratic leadership has done little to appeal to these interests in a stable way. Instead, the Obama administration assuaged conservatives by beefing up border enforcement, failed adequately to support the DREAM Act, and gave up on immigration reform. Real reform -- complete with amnesty, decriminalizing immigration status, and checking the harshness of border and deportation practices -- are not only good policies in themselves but would serve the long run goal of defending an important progressive constituency. However, as long as politicians seem uninterested in pursuing such commitments, many would-be Democratic voters will remain unconvinced about the party's credibility.
With respect to both bills, moderates argued that it would require spending too much political capital -- and possibly entail suffering legislative and electoral defeats. Yet this ignores the fact that political strength is not static; it ebbs and flows. Success would have meant dramatically improving the position of those groups able to organize on behalf of progressive goals. It may have produced short-term electoral weakness, but in the service of far more substantial and enduring future strength. The failure to appeal to these groups will only make it harder to pursue such objectives going forward. It's not enough to have good ideas. For progressives to succeed, two things must hold. Politicians must show that they're willing to fight for the communities they ostensibly represent -- even if it requires making short-term political sacrifices. And just as important, these communities have to be energized and equipped with actual economic and political power.
Understood properly, even legislative and electoral defeat can at times be positive. Democrats have too often in recent years been seduced by a false pragmatism that advises focusing on elections at hand and being wary of taking meaningful risks. But having a political strategy is different from having an electoral plan. It means thinking first and foremost of the long-term goal of building a popular base. Only then will Democratic politicians shape, rather than cater to, the political center.
Alex Gourevitch is a Harvard College Fellow and Aziz Rana is an Assistant Professor of Law at Cornell University and author of "The Two Faces of American Freedom".