Prospects for Progressive Politics

elizabeth warren

Elizabeth Warren

Dreier: Can you give an example?

Blum: Last fall, many of us worked really hard to extend the federal unemployment benefits another year. (They generally kick in after state benefits of, roughly, 26 weeks). This is a critical safety net for unemployed workers. But by talking about the need to extend unemployment benefits, we also get to talk about the need to create jobs. People are out of work because there aren’t enough jobs, not because they don’t want to work. We organized the first mass demonstration of unemployed folks since this recession began. We went to Capitol Hill. Thanks to aggressive work by the AFL-CIO, that fight allowed us to engage some building trades unions that are not the “usual suspects” in progressive organizing. We found some of our best spokespeople through on-line organizing by groups like Progress Ohio, affiliated with USAction and Progress Now networks. Lots of groups had been working together for a year promoting Rep. George Miller’s bill to create a million public or community jobs. We couldn’t move it, but that fight created some organizational ties for a two-month sprint on jobless benefits.

To be believable on job creation, we have to be comfortable explaining how the public-private partnership is just how large capitalist economies function. The private sector can’t and won’t do it all. Government can’t and will never have the public support to do it all. They have to swim together, or we’ll sink as a nation.

Dreier: Are you saying, we need a Tea Party of the Left?

Blum: We need something new. The Tea Party learned from us, we can learn from them. But I don’t agree with the notion that crops up periodically, “If only we on the left had something they have on the right. The Christian Coalition. The NRA. The Tea Party.” History doesn’t work like that. We can’t go backwards to what already was, we need to go forward to what will be.

The Tea Party seemed to speak to a lot of people who are hurting. Of course, it is funded and got a lot of organizing help from institutional right-wing forces like Dick Armey’s Freedomworks and funded by the Koch brothers and others in the corporate world. But our side has not organized middle Americans well for decades. Labor used to, but it has shrunk so much, it can’t do it alone – as the most visionary labor leaders like Rich Trumka, Mary Kay Henry, Maria Elena Durazo, and Larry Cohen say clearly.

Liberal foundations and big donors have mostly funded organizing efforts among narrow constituencies — groups who have not been able to get a stable path into the American middle class. I’m talking about women, people of color, young people, and immigrants. These are critical constituencies and there’s some good organizing going on as a result. But the key funders have rarely been willing to focus on the 100 million Americans who are the middle third of the country – families making roughly $30,000 to $60,000 a year. Those are a lot of the swing voters, and some of them are attracted to the Tea Party. Men and women. We need to find a way to join these forces together. Do the math. That’s how we gain a majority in a democracy.

To take on a task that big, I think progressive organizations should explore new ways of cooperating. We’ve done a lot with one-issue coalitions, or even bigger groups with a specific purpose like the political coalition America Votes or even HCAN, which I co-chair. But I think the times demand that we, as leaders of organizations, look at how we are going to be able to wield more power and have more sustainable organizations. Because the job in front of us is huge.

Dreier: Can you give examples of how we’ve combined the defensive and offensive fights?

Blum: Sure. In 2005, President Bush proposed to privatize Social Security, and we created a big coalition to stop him. But we also had some internal fights. Some wanted to just say, “don’t cut our benefits.” USAction and others instead agreed with Rep. [Nancy] Pelosi, who said, “Social Security is a sacred promise, passed down from one generation to the next, to take care of each other.” That lays out a bigger vision while defending – long-term and short-term together. And that vision moved people all across the country – including in places like Fargo, North Dakota, Omaha, Nebraska, and Greece, NY.

Right now, a lot of Democrats just want to hammer the Republicans about Medicare – that’s how Kathy Hochul, a Democratic, won that special Congressional election in upstate NY last May in a so-called “safe” Republican district. Medicare matters a lot. So does Medicaid. Put together, they provide nearly 100 million Americans with public health insurance. And Medicaid will be a giant building block when the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – takes effect in 2014. Medicaid may be harder to defend, but it’s critical. And the story we can tell of them together is a bigger story.

Dreier: Isn’t President Obama’s decision whether or not to appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau a real test of progressive’s power?

Blum: It depends on whether it’s a fight with lots of people involved. We have to be humble about the difference between the way we think about politics and the average American, the person we’re trying to organize. Elizabeth Warren has deservedly gotten a lot of media attention. She’s an incredible advocate for consumers and that’s why Wall Street and banking industry fear her so much. But the truth is that few people have actually heard of Elizabeth Warren. We need both a big vision and a lot of humility to remember that people are really stressed to make ends meet and try to make life better for their kids. They aren’t following politics the way you and I do. That said, the campaign to get Obama to appoint Warren is an important one.

Dreier: Some also argue that the Republicans will fail because they are better in opposition than in governing and they don’t have a positive legislative agenda. They are the party of “no.” Is this analysis correct?

peter dreierBlum: Well, it’s definitely easier to say that the solution to everything is “less government” and “fewer taxes”. That’s a crowd-pleaser. As a progressive movement, we have set ourselves a higher standard, to propose real solutions, but we’ve set ourselves a lower standard of effective communications. The best Republicans actually propose legislative and policy solutions. We may not like them but we’d better take them seriously, because they have a lot of levers of power, and they intend to use them, because they understand that power is fleeting. As they say, use it or lose it.

Peter Dreier

Republished with the author’s permission from Huffington Post.

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