Was Rahm Right (about Progressives)?

rahm emanuelIn 2009, then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel infamously said that progressives are “fucking retarded.” Lately I’ve begun to think he was correct–though not for the same reasons as Emanuel, who thought that progressives held unrealistic expectations for his boss, President Barack Obama. Progressives are chumps because they had those expectations for Obama to begin with, and poured so many of their hopes and aspirations–not to mention dollars–into electing him.

Sure, Obama was way better than his opponent John McCain, though it was always questionable–and still is–whether Obama was going to be better than Hillary Clinton. But the course of progressives’ “relationship” with Obama–from infatuation to letdown to spurned–shows a bewildering level of “drink the Kool Aid” naiveté on the part of some otherwise sharp people. How could this have happened? Are there lessons to be learned for the future?

During the presidential campaign, while Obama deployed the lofty rhetoric and vision in his speeches that became his stock in trade, some of us were pointing out that there was nothing in this former state senator and then-U.S. Senator’s unremarkable record that indicated he was a strong or reliable progressive. Sometimes he had progressive tendencies, other times not. A friend of mine from Chicago who had Obama as a law professor presciently predicted that an Obama administration would be characterized by “ruthless pragmatism,” not progressive idealism.

But many progressives believed, quite fervently, that in the course of finding that ruthless pragmatism, Obama would cleverly figure out how to lean strongly progressive. There was always a nod and a wink coming from the Obama movement that seemed to say, “Don’t worry, he’s more progressive than he’s revealing. That’s what you have to do to get elected president in the United States.” When some of us continued to express doubts, these Panglosses got upset. Very upset. “It’s time to get on board,” they said. And I felt like Bongo, the one-eared rabbit in Matt Groening‘s Life in Hell cartoon, shut up and gagged in a detention room.

How can so many brilliant people have fallen for so much hokum? That question is not an easy one to answer. Perhaps at some point Arianna Huffington, Robert Kuttner, Michael Moore and other left-ish pundits will engage in a bit of self-criticism and enlighten us as to how they were hoodwinked so easily. Because here’s my fear: Progressives don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes. Right before Obama’s inauguration, Huffington wrote, “Now, more than ever, we must mine the most underutilized resource available to us: ourselves… It is not just the Bush Years that should be over on January 20, but also the expectation that a knight in shining armor will ride into town and save us while we cheer from the sidelines. Even if the knight is brilliant, charismatic and inspiring. It’s up to us–We the People.”

Yet that’s exactly what so many did–they invested their hopes and aspirations, their passion, activism and money, in a shining knight for whom there was scant evidence of his progressivism or legislative accomplishments. Was it their desperation to see the GOP run out of town and the Bush legacy overturned? And the Clintons too? Was it their desire to see an African American elected president? Kuttner, author of Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative PresidencyEconomic Conditions Books) and co-founder of The American Prospect, wrote about a friend who said, “I so wanted to be supportive of a great progressive president this time instead of being back in opposition.”

So does the despondency of the struggle explain progressives’ massive miscalculation? How do they account for the stunning failure of their leadership? It is time for some major self-criticism within the progressive movement, especially among its leadership. At the very least, we should note how the “netroots” failure to keep its knight galloping in the right direction shows the stark limitations of a movement that does not have a strong enough ground component.

New rules
Yet a progressive future is not only contingent on a genuine grassroots movement. Structural political reforms are needed for that movement to transmit change through government at all levels. We would never have had this latest meltdown of our economic system if our political system had not melted down first. The two-party system is sclerotic. As Obama’s presidency shows, more than ever, there is no room for progressives at the table of highest political power. The reason for this is that the rules of the game that elect our representatives actually hurt progressives.

A truly democratic electoral (and thus political) system would include:

  • Public financing of campaigns.
  • Free media time for campaigns.
  • Universal/automatic voter registration.
  • Direct election of the president (abolition of the electoral college).
  • Instant runoff voting to allow voters to express their true preferences and prevent spoilers.
  • Proportional representation (allowing more than two parties).

Together these measures would serve to both expand the electorate and broaden representation in our legislatures. cont’d on Page 2

Published by the LA Progressive on May 19, 2011
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About Steven Hill

Steven Hill is Director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, which seeks to identify and develop the best opportunities for political and electoral reform, educate opinion leaders and the public about electoral alternatives, and encourage the formation of a broad-based coalition for reform. Mr. Hill is the former senior analyst and cofounder of the Center for Voting and Democracy/FairVote. He is author of the recently published Ten Steps to Repair American Democracy (PoliPoint Press, May 2006). His previous books include Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (Routledge Press, 2002) and Whose Vote Counts (co-author, Beacon Press, 2001). Mr. Hill's articles and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, and other leading publications. Mr. Hill has appeared on national and local radio and television programs, and has lectured widely in the United States and Europe. He was campaign manager in San Francisco for the successful effort that passed instant runoff voting for electing local offices, and was one of the organizers of successful efforts to pass public financing of elections for local campaigns. Mr. Hill received a B.A. from Yale University.