Why did California progressives do so well in the midterm elections, in contrast to conservatives’ success nationally? A major reason is that the state’s activists pushed progressive policies without seeking approval from politicians.
California teachers, nurses and other labor activists were centrally involved in passing Prop 25 and electing Jerry Brown, environmentalists and students worked overtime to defeat Prop 23, Latinos focused on large voter turnouts to send a message on immigration reform, and this push for progressive change was entirely constituency driven.
California activists would never let Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger limit their agendas, but progressives working nationally allowed President Obama to restrict their activist campaigns. This deterred grassroots pressure around immigration reform, public sector jobs, climate change and other key issues. This inaction also demoralized the Democratic base. Will progressives ever learn not to subsume their agendas to Democratic politicians?
The contrast between California and the nation’s recent election results involves many factors, but none may be greater than the far higher level of voter enthusiasm demonstrated by California activists. These activists and their organizations had no influential statewide politician to defer to, and, unlike those working nationally, felt free to pursue progressive campaigns without regard to the agendas of politicians they had supported.
Activists Repeat Past Mistakes
In The Activist’s Handbook, I describe how progressive activists allowed Bill Clinton to violate the promises of his 1992 campaign, helping to pave the way for the Republican sweep of 1994. Progressives facilitated Clinton’s betrayals because they feared that holding him accountable would jeopardize their “access” to the first Democratic Administration since 1980. They also felt criticizing Clinton would empower his opponents.
By failing to hold Clinton accountable, activists contributed to the same type of Democratic voter “enthusiasm gap” in 1994 that we saw in 2010. Progressives did a far better job of holding Clinton accountable after the 1996 elections, and it was during his second term that the Clean Air Act was strengthened and other progressive gains achieved.
Unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama was elected as a self-identified progressive agent of change who took office strongly supported by key progressive constituencies. Activists did not think they had to use “the equivalent of a two by four” against Obama to get him to implement his campaign agenda (a term used by a Greenpeace activist about Clinton).
But even as it soon became clear that President Obama would not be a powerful partisan fighter for change, activists deferred their agendas to the President. This caused historic opportunities for comprehensive immigration reform and labor law reform to be lost without much of a fight – while national grassroots campaigns for green jobs, a sustainable energy policy, and massive new public investment never proceeded due to the absence of White House support.
Activists Need New Approach for 2011
Fortunately, progressives appear to finally be getting the message.
Activists are not waiting for Obama to fight tax breaks for the wealthy, and are mounting an independent campaign to prevent their continuation. While the AFL-CIO and SEIU remain strong backers of the President, the labor movement is pressing House and Senate Democrats on this politically winning issue (AFL-CIO President Trumka has called continuing the tax cuts “absolutely insane.”)
One now reads fewer and fewer defenses of Obama’s direction, with many commentators even questioning the President’s willingness to use power to achieve progressive change. With Obama shifting from leader to bystander, activists realize that it is up to them to reengage the base not only for 2012 – but for future action on progressive issues.
This is what California activists have realized for years under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. His inability to influence progressives meant that activists could follow their agendas without subordinating them to politician allies – and groups like the California Federation of Teachers, California Nurses Association, California Teachers Association, and CALPIRG will come out of the Schwarzenegger years politically stronger than ever.
The years of a Republican California Governor also created space for many new activist organizations like Strengthening Our Lives (which I discuss as emerging from the legacy of the UFW’s Latino voter outreach strategy) and Communities for a New California. These groups with real grassroots bases were not limited in their activism by politicians, and Democrats success in California during the midterms is testament to their success.
Will Jerry Brown’s election as a Democratic Governor backed by activist groups change this dynamic?
I don’t think so. California Democrats learned the importance of keeping Democratic Governors accountable during the ill-fated Gray Davis years (1999-2003), which ended in his recall and replacement by Schwarzenegger. This experience, coupled with activists’ disappointment with Obama, should ensure that grassroots progressives do not allow Brown to derail their goals.
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