The Enthusiasm Gap and You

hope revisitedA friend whom I’ll call David raised a ton of money for Democrats in 2008 and now tells me they can go to hell. He’s furious about the no-strings bailout of Wall Street, the absence of a public option in health reform, financial reform that doesn’t cap the size of banks or reinstate the Glass-Steagall wall between investment and commercial banking, and a stimulus that was too small to do much good but big enough to give Republicans a campaign issue. He’s also upset about tens of thousands of additional troops being sent to Afghanistan, a watered-down cap-and-trade bill that’s going nowhere, and no Employee Free Choice Act. David won’t raise a penny this fall and doubts he’ll even vote. “I busted my chops getting them elected, and they caved,” he fumes. “They’re all lily-livered wimps, and Obama has the backbone of a worm.”

Tea Partiers are getting all the press. But the anger on the Left, including much of the Democratic base, is almost as intense.

The pattern isn’t new. I remember a gloomy fall 16 years ago when as Secretary of Labor I traveled around the country trying to rev up the base for the 1994 midterms. I found anger and disillusionment then, too. Of course, Clinton hadn’t accomplished nearly as much as Obama. In fact, he’d pushed initiatives like NAFTA that infuriated the base.

When Republicans control Congress or the White House, their base can get restless but doesn’t seem to suffer the same disillusionment. Republicans stood by Ronald Reagan in the 1982 midterms and rallied enthusiastically for his re-election in 1984. They were out in force for George H.W. Bush’s 1990 midterm as well as George W. Bush’s in 2002 and his 2004 re-election.

Why the asymmetry?

First, the Republican base keeps the heat on after elections so Republican officeholders accomplish what they promise and are less likely to compromise in the first place. The Republican base fueled the Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts and penalized George H.W. Bush only after he reversed his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes.

The Republican base is part of a conservative movement. The Democratic base, by contrast, is a loose coalition that elects a new president and then goes home, expecting the new president to deliver miracles.

When I ask David what he’s done over the last 18 months to push for a more progressive agenda, he says he e-mailed senators in support of a public option and signed a Sierra Clubpetition for cap-and-trade. “On Afghanistan I even called the White House to tell the president not to send more troops. What else am I supposed to do?”

David thinks of himself as an individual with strong progressive views about specific issues rather than as a member of an ongoing movement with a larger vision of what America should be.

Washington’s network of progressive advocacy groups is just like David. Each has a narrow bandwidth (health, environment, labor, women’s rights) with a national constituency that donates money and sends members of Congress e-mails as requested about particular initiatives.

These groups are staffed by overworked 20-somethings and headed by people who enjoy being minor celebrities at Washington fundraisers and occasional visitors to the White House.

But these groups don’t mobilize people back where they live, and they’re no substitute for a broad progressive movement.

A movement connects the dots across issues and reveals a larger wrong that must be righted.

When it comes to misuse of power, Americans carry two deep-seated fears — of big government taking over and of big business and Wall Street running amok. Both are sometimes justified, but the political response is lopsided. The conservative movement adeptly fits almost every morsel of news to the first fear, giving its members an animating cause: Reduce government.

A progressive movement would focus on the second fear, seeking to protect average working people from the depredations of big business and Wall Street. Given what has occurred in recent years — from Enron and WorldCom through the devastation brought on by Wall Street, to the price-gouging by health insurers like WellPoint and Big Pharma, right through BP — there is no absence of dots to be connected.

Average Americans are hurting. But their pain isn’t coming from government. It’s coming from an economy whose benefits are concentrating ever more at the top, whose giant corporations are controlling ever more of our democratic process, and whose costs and risks are becoming ever more burdensome for the middle class and the poor. Public schools, parks, and libraries are closing or reducing hours and staff. Median hourly wages are dropping. Unemployment is at levels not seen in decades; long-term joblessness hasn’t been this bad since the 1940s. Social safety nets — unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare — are endangered.

Yet corporate profits are reaching unprecedented levels, and the richest Americans — CEOs, other top corporate executives, investment bankers, and hedge-fund managers — are raking in as much or more than before the Great Recession.

With the election of Barack Obama, many on the left found comfort in the belief that a single man could make transformative change without powerful tailwinds behind him. But that was a pipe dream. No person can do it alone.

I can understand your disillusionment with a president and representatives that seem to bend to the prevailing winds from the right. But if you and David and other progressives wallow in your cynicism we’ll be in much bigger trouble as a nation than we are now.

Here’s what I learned during my years in Washington: Nothing good happens there unless Americans outside Washington are sufficiently mobilized, energized, and organized to make sure it gets done.

robert_reich.jpgBe angry, but channel your anger toward constructive change. This fall, work for the reelection of politicians, or for candidates to replace them, who support a genuinely progressive agenda. And lend your hand to the creation and continued sustenance of a powerful progressive movement in America.

(Originally written for the American Prospect)

Robert Reich

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission


  1. Marshall says

    I have read all the posts here. The first and third are well written and sound like something that was pre-written, wonderfully worded, and hard to understand in some places. I have seen others from the left brag on how their thought processes differ from the masses and I agree. I am a well travelled person(Japan, Korea, Vietnam, West Germany, and East Germany)and have lived all over America but only have a degree in logic, so I might be the wrong person to write this. The second post was more easy to read and I liked it the most. I must tell you learned folks that we are not a democracy, we have another form of government so when you write that we are, I wonder about you. There is a democracy in Italy, perhaps you would like there better than here. Progressives are more numerous there and less than 20% here and such a small percent does not usually rule a country. viel gluck to all.

  2. says

    Reich is mainly correct, but he’s too inexplicit or too negative.

    Reich’s friend David is justifiably disillusioned by a Democratic ‘victory’ which put into top office – and thereby control of the federal domestic and international agenda – a guy and clique who turned out to have and offer almost no domestic vision – in economy, energy, environment, or anything. Admittedly for world affairs they do have a vision – a messianic vision of ‘peace’ (except in Afghanistan) according to which regimes and thuggeries (especially Islamic – other than Qaeda and Taliban) which promote terror, repression or genocide get the most respect and indulgence. Beyond our borders, this vision has little use for friendly and libertarian regimes, and none at all for stopping genocides or supporting individual liberties.

    Sure, as Reich notes, a progressive movement could center around a theme (a rather negative one) of somehow protecting us from big money corporations. But any such movement needs a clear agenda, not just a theme and sentiment.

    The faux-conservatives’ negative and naive theme of less government is unconditional, and thereby allows an easy (if scantily rationalized) agenda: any reduction in government (except for an automatic exemption for military top brass and weaponry, and exemptions for contracts to enterprises of top ‘conservative’ donors) is success, especially if it can help to victimize scads of poor or powerless folks.

    Does Reich urge a mirror-image equally naive and negative agenda whereby any reduction in corporate economic activity is a success – and maybe especially if it hurts powerful faux-conservatives and CEOs? Exactly what would be a good rational agenda for a NON-naive theme of protection from corporations?

    Why not a more galvanizing positive strategic agenda? – one wherein the theme is getting policy-making power (including power in regards policy to control corporations) broadly distributed into the hands of the people. In a word, ‘democracy’.

    Reich complains that ‘giant corporations are controlling ever more of our democratic process’. A truly democratic process – in particular, deliberative decision-making by many different citizen teams, rather than by a few special officers – cannot be so controlled.

    Reich’s complaint in effect amounts to a confession that constitutionally our present governance is NOT democracy at all. In fact and by our fed and state constitutions we have an oligarchic republic – all decisions over extended time are made by a relative few – a few who are obvious and profitable targets for corporate (or other) corrupters. Propagandists for this system keep loudly calling it ‘democracy’, in order to mask from us both the oligarchic truth and the truly democratic alternative possibilities.

  3. concerned in portland says

    I am amazed that you think President Obama has done nothing. He has stolen General Motors and Chrysler from the bondholders who invested in these companies. He has raised our debt to the level that other countries like Germany, France, Italy and others in the EU are clamoring for debt reduction. These countries have progressive governments and they are failing. They are running out of money, which is causing broken promises and disappearing retirement funds. The Progressive model DOES NOT WORK! Big government is about frightened leaders who want more control. If we were to execute redistributive wealth, everyone’s income would go down. The progressive model is global, which means your income would need to be offset by those living on $15 per day.

    I agree with you that this administration is a fraud. You were told that this country would be fundamentally transformed, and it is much different then when President Clinton was in office.

    I also agree that corrupt company leaders who steal from the stockholders (the owners), should be placed in prison for the rest of their lives and all of their personal assets should be seized and treated as stolen property. Sell they off and retune the money to the owners.

    You have missed the point about who is responsible for this poor economy. It is the government. It actually started back in the 1940’s. Both Republicans and Democrats have been making it harder on businesses to operate, make a profit and employ more workers at fair wages. Some of the regulation has been helpful, because we have learned more about the harmful effects of chemicals. But when you micromanage business owners, they are required to spend money on conforming to regulations and less time producing products, which provide profit, which can be re-invested into the company and hire more employees.

    I am sorry that your progressive system does not work for most of us, but you can take a vow of poverty and give away 70% of your income to worthy charities.

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