Yesterday at Shakesville, Paul the Spud asked the following question:
There are some problems with that question, and I think the primary one is in the very premise.
Why the hell should I be excited and agog about a Democratic Presidential candidate who is so goddamned eager to distance himself from "the left," progressives, and everything I value?
It's tough to be a progressive, in large part because it's lonely. Even if we count everyone who claims the label--and believe, me, all you have to do is google the word "fauxgressive" and you'll see tons of arguments about who belongs in the club and who doesn't--but even if we claim them all, progressives might make up somewhere from a quarter to a third of the country. Here's how I come up with that formulation: if we stipulate that the majority of people who call themselves progressives are found inside the Democratic party or left of there, and we note that people who identify as Democrats are about 40% of the population (now, thanks to King George the Lesser's disastrous reign), and that progressives don't even make up a majority of the Democratic party, we're left with the percentages I've put above.
One little caveat here--lots of people point to polling on individual issues and argue that Americans are more progressive than their politicians. The problem with that argument is that it doesn't point out overlap--it's very easy to be a gay-hating environmentalist who wants to privatize Social Security, for example, just as it's easy to fight for LGBT rights while advocating for drilling in ANWR. One issue does not a progressive make, and lots of people are willing to toss other groups to the side in order to get what they want. Politics is ugly. But a progressive should be one who wants at least a majority of those policies that the left agrees are important, and those numbers are small, even in a place as open to echo chambers as the internet.
Paul's question presupposes that a candidate he would be excited about would also be electable by a major party, but I think any glimpse at history shows that's just not the case. Lyndon Johnson may have been the last socially progressive President in terms of legislation (and that completely ignores his Vietnam policy) and he was elected 44 years ago. This country is not as progressive as I wish it were, and has not consistently elected, even to lower offices, progressive stalwarts in any great numbers. We can talk all year about the reasons why this is the case, but the bottom line is that this nation is, by global standards, conservative.
Which is not to say that we haven't made progress over the last 44 years--we have. The success of the Obama and Clinton campaigns are proof of the distance we've covered in racial and gender equality. LGBT rights have made astounding progress in the last ten years even in the face of tremendous opposition, and it's looking more and more like they will get full marriage recognition sooner rather than later. Et cetera. We are not at the point where we can say that this country is good, but it is better than it was. And that progress came, not because of Presidents, but because activists working at the margins convinced people, one by one, that progress was good.
But here's the other thing about progressives. We will always, by our very nature, be in the minority, because if we have a success, we'll move on to the next battle--because there's always a next battle. That means that we will never be mainstream, and when you're talking about national electoral possibilities, mainstream is what wins.
I don't think it's a stretch to say to Paul that it's unlikely that he will ever have a presidential candidate who represents a major party in the general election that he can get truly excited about, who will stand up and embrace his values, because Paul, like me, is on the edges, and edge candidates don't get 65-70 million votes.
About the best a progressive can hope for on a national scale is a candidate who will move a little bit in your direction, or in the direction of your allies. The place where progressives make the most difference is in local and state and Congressional races, and quite often we get candidates we can be excited about. It's important to support those people because they're the ones who can force change on a less-willing national figure. You want ENDA protection? Elect Democrats who will force President Obama's hand on it. You want Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives to go away? Congress is the key. And so on.
If you're not excited about the national candidate, I don't blame you. I might disagree a bit--I'm excited about the symbolism of electing an African-American, and at the potential for saving the Supreme Court--but not in terms of progressivism, because Obama was never that progressive to begin with. Know how you can tell? He's the nominee of the party.