A Progressive Call to Ardor

BY NATHAN RILEY | In the wake of their November defeat, Democrats should start kicking up some major dust and stop ceding the stage to Republicans and their theatrical politics.

Democratic insurgents, to be sure, will not be demonstrating outside presidential appearances armed with assault weapons, but it is time for them to demonstrate a zeal for democracy, decency, and fairness in their politics.

So-called “moderate” Democrats, including President Barack Obama, can no longer pursue an economic program based on cultivating Wall Street without alienating rank and file voters still waiting on that “change we can believe in.” The reformers are the realists. The middle-of-the-roaders who tip ever rightward in their utopian quest for bipartisan consensus are the dreamers. Democrats are living in a make-believe world if they think they can continue appeasing existing powerful interests without people concluding that theirs is a politics without commitment or principle.

Even after so many voters deserted the president, he stubbornly insists on trying to win over the Republican Party that despises him. Democrats must present an alternative. The pushback within the party against this moderation must grow and actually engage the people in a tea party not of reactionaries, but of progressives.

The health care law wasn't in and of itself a program that members of Congress ran away from; the debate was transformed by Republican activism. Aggressive appearances by right-wing rabble-rousers disrupted the customary low-key town hall format where the Democrats had planned to explain the bill's provisions. Obama and his allies had no response. The public's doubts increased, and by the time angry, if absurd, accusations about “death panels” seized attention, the death knell for the Democrats' real achievements had been sounded.

With the Democrats out of power in the House, the LGBT community is clearly, once again, on the defensive. If the effort to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell doesn't succeed in the lame duck session of the Senate, repeal will not happen over the next two years – and possibly the next decade. With Republican having made big gains in state legislatures around the country, just as local and federal reapportionment based on the 2010 census is about to be undertaken, the GOP – be warned – has the opportunity to write rules that could give it a huge leg up in controlling the federal and state governments through the remainder of the decade.

Passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act under Speaker John Boehner seems out of the question. The fate of the LGBT community is tied to the fortunes of Democrats and our allies among reformers. The restoration of a Democratic Party committed to progressive activism helps all of us.

Obama's obsessive quest for bipartisan consensus has blurred the lines between Democrats and Republicans and left the public confused and mistrustful. It is not only queers who worry. Labor unions, immigrants, environmentalists, civil rights groups, and good government activists have all been held hostage during the past two years by Democratic mistakes.

The era of George W. Bush, it turns out, wasn't just a dream or a nightmare -it is a reality that we will have to oppose one more time.

It is time for Democrats to get angry and get dramatic. The LGBT community, with a rich tradition of speaking up and acting up, should greet this challenge with enthusiasm. The activists who realized that a quilt is a meaningful way for people to show their solidarity with the sick and dying should be able to contribute something to the discussion of how we shape effective messages.

For our own good, the LGBT community must find more ways to go on the offensive. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently labeled the Family Research Council an active hate organization for repeatedly spreading false information about the LGBT community – especially in demonizing us with the falsehood that we are a threat to America's children. This organization has close ties to the Republicans and to right-wing churches, yet we fail to hold such people accountable for the bedfellows they choose.

Progressives need to become proactive across on the board.

On health care, activists should organize every time consumers are squeezed on cost and quality of service. The health care law remains largely a blank slate, and we should act from the conviction that health costs and the delivery of care are the responsibility of the government – and not the profit-hungry insurance industry.

We must challenge the notion that the deficit is caused by efforts to improve social supports for our citizens. We know where we want government to cut – from expensive programs to build new atom bombs, prison complexes that are filled by a failed drug policy, and military bases the world over. The financial crisis demonstrates that the US must chose between guns and butter, and it is butter we need.

A change in priorities is essential. The tax breaks that American corporations receive are proof that the sick, the unemployed, and the underclass are not making the US poor. The wealthy are every bit as dependent on welfare (if not more so) as the 95 percent of Americans who are not super rich. Let the Republicans and the president talk about perils of the deficit. Let our activists highlight the waste of government aid for the rich.

Consider a progressive idea that many long thought a political non-starter – legalization of marijuana. Young voters in California this year were motivated by Proposition 19. Only when it looked like it had a shot at passing did more establishment figures jump on the bandwagon. In October, George Soros, recognizing that the radical had gone mainstream, donated a million dollars. The measure fell short – but garnered 46 percent of the vote, far, far more than anyone imagined at the start of the campaign, and probably pulled out a lot of Democratic voters who otherwise would have stayed at home.

What Prop 19 gave voters was what Republicans have had in spades these past two years – ardor that is uncompromising.

As we look forward to the next two years, let's be creative. Anger over Obama's equivocations is growing, and some are asking if his renomination by the Democrats should be challenged. It's premature to think about a specific candidate to take on that task; anyone raising his or her hand would quickly face withering attacks.

It might, however, be worth exploring ways to send unpledged delegates to the 2012 party convention. After the shellacking the president took in November, perhaps he shouldn't run a second time. But, it's too soon to know yet. The delegates to the convention are our friends and neighbors, and it makes sense to ask them to go there with an open mind toward the possibility of choosing Obama or perhaps somebody else.

Right now, we need to remind the president that he is a Democrat and should represent the party that put him in office.