A couple of days ago, a friend was telling me about two competing rallies that took place in Washington, DC, last weekend. In the first, about 50 people attended a Tea Party rally calling for drastic cuts to the government. Meanwhile, a progressive rally against a sell-out debt deal that would slash services and endanger programs such as Medicare and Social Security drew a larger crowd, made up of 450 to 500 people.
My friend, like other progressives, complained that the Tea Party rally got more press coverage, despite being far smaller. I understood her frustration.
But, at the same time, I said that I thought she was missing the bigger picture: If only 500 people are showing up for a rally, it's because the public doesn't care. In this case, it doesn't care about politicians bickering over the debt ceiling. America has a different agenda and Washington is missing it entirely.
As has been often noted, we are not facing a debt crisis in our country. We are facing a jobs crisis. Working people desperately need the economy to improve and to start generating well-paying jobs.
Less often noted is the fact that taking on America's real problems will require the president to behave differently, and it will require us to behave differently.
First, the president.
There are not simple and easy answers to our country's economic difficulties. The truth is that the challenges we face as a nation are far more complicated than our elected officials would like to acknowledge. To solve them, our leaders must act with an entrepreneurial, can-do spirit and put forward innovative solutions. To do anything less, is to forget the best of what our country represents - its capacity to pull together to solve problems.
The essence of presidential leadership is being able to pull together diverse interests and to find solutions that serve the common good, as opposed to policies that play to extremists at the margins.
Let's give President Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that he wants to get re-elected so that he can take on the real challenge of jump-starting the economy and getting America back to work. He is asking us to give him a second chance, so that he can lead without being encumbered by the need to gauge his actions against campaign polls. But for us to give this benefit of the doubt, to operate based on good faith, Obama needs to put something substantive on the table between now and the elections.
This means that, if President Obama is going to cut an ugly deal such as the compromise on the debt ceiling - which is sometimes necessary, given the intrinsic ugliness of politics - he must demonstrate that he is getting real gains in exchange for concessions. In this case, the right framed the range of choices available in public debate, and President Obama conceded to operate within the framework of austerity. His utter failure to produce any real benefits for the Democratic base makes it hard for us to retain good faith. There is a very clear difference between what the Republicans want and what the American people want. Our president ought not be confused.
Now, what is our role?
Those of us who identify as progressives, as labor activists, as people of color, or as working Americans must recognize how important the job ahead of us is - not only in the coming election cycle, but also starting the day after the elections. Our role cannot once again be to simply elect the lesser of two evils. It must instead be demanding - as a condition of our enthusiasm, our financial donations and our ground forces in any campaign - a massive investment in jobs.
Those of us who are going to walk our neighborhoods or open our pocketbooks to elect President Obama or any Democratic members of Congress, should see our real work as beginning after Election Day. The success of our electoral strategy will be gauged not only by results at the polls, but by whether or not we have created structures through which people can remain engaged. Because if they do not remain engaged after the elections and if we're not putting forward our demands in the clearest fashion, we will be setting ourselves up for the same cycle of disappointment we have experienced so many times before.
Those of us who are a part of the labor movement say to union members each election cycle that the stakes have never been higher and that's why we have to vote. This time, let us say: There has never been a more important time to stay active after the elections in shaping the future of the country. We are not gearing up to mobilize voters for one act of political participation; we are building a movement to create the change we need after the polls have closed.
It's clear that, currently, Republicans know what they want, but that those on the other side of the aisle - those who are supposed to be our friends - are confused. In the future, we should let them have no excuse. In her recent Washington Post column, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote:
The vast majority of Americans want Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid protected, not cut. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly three-fourths of Americans oppose cuts in Medicare. Majorities reject raising the eligibility age for Medicare or cutting the Social Security inflation rate, two reforms President Obama has apparently embraced. For Americans, the most popular reforms to deal with the deficit are increased taxes on those making more than $250,000 (72 percent), hedge fund operators and oil and gas companies.
Katrina also noted, "The Tea Party captured the populist anger in 2010, representing a small fraction of the population. In 2012, legislators in both parties may just encounter a populist uprising that represents an American majority."
Already, we are seeing grassroots efforts emerging that could form the basis of a lasting progressive infrastructure at the state and local levels. Those involved with the budding American Dream Movement have held hundreds of rallies and House meetings in recent weeks to strategize about how to push policies that will allow us to end corporate dominance in politics and rebuild the American middle class. Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate established 8 years ago, has been joined by newer efforts like SEIU’s Fight for a Fair Economy, in driving “open source” initiatives to enlist working people - whether or not they are union members - in an effort to create an American economy whose benefits do not go only to the wealthy.
These are excellent starts. But regardless of who takes office in 2012, if these efforts end on Election Day, we will have lost. On the other hand, if we reinforce these drives and give legs to others like them demanding that progressive constituencies assume a role in governing, we will have begun the work of transforming our country.