Recently, I've traveled outside of Washington and met a lot of discouraged liberals. Oh sure, they're voting. Some have given money to or worked for Democratic House and Senate candidates. They all realized there was a need to buck up--as the president might say--and do what's possible to protect the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill and to keep Tea Party GOPers from exporting their extremism into Congress and enacting their vows of obstructionism. But the attitude of these progressives is one of obligation--think of it as performing a chore--than one of desire. They are no longer looking to make real a political fantasy.
That already happened for them. In 2008. On Election Day. For many Americans, Obama's victory was not a temporary development; it felt like the turning of a tide. The first black guy elected; the most progressive candidate in decades to take the White House. He had promised big. He had offered audacity, change, and hope. More to the point, he represented an entire political culture that treasured liberal values of communalism, tolerance, and multilateralism. For the thousands crowded into Chicago's Grant Park--and millions across the country--that night seemed like more than a significant political win; it was a sociological triumph. Obama America had vanquished Bush America. Mission Accomplished.
Yet it wasn't that simple. Entrapped in the messy business of governance--with its seemingly endless series of down-and-dirty calculations and inelegant compromises--and tarred by unrelenting high unemployment numbers, Obama and his crew sparked both a let-down and a backlash. Some supporters became disappointed that Captain O's performance was not as lofty as his campaign stylings. Opponents, though, were enraged by what he was indeed able to accomplish. And those citizens in-between these camps did not see a quick enough turnaround in the nation's fortunes. In his first year-and-a-half in office, Obama did rack up impressive achievements: a stimulus bill, health care reform, new rules for Wall Street, and more. But the political moment changed rather suddenly. (I called out Obama for his role in this here
.) Obama's approval rating fell from the high 60s to near 50 percent in his first six months at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Here was a tough (even if, in retrospect, obvious) lesson for Obama Nation: in politics, there is no permanent victory. And the Tea Party crowd learned that there is no permanent defeat. Republicans and conservatives were pronounced dead after the 2008 election. Inside less than a year, that prognosis appeared wrong and in hindsight recklessly absurd. It is now the tea partiers who are within reach of their political fantasy: emasculating Obama. These activists (backed by corporate money and guided by traditional GOP consultants and strategists) have been willing and eager to do the hard work of organizing, while the Obama White House and his backers, to a degree, let that slide after the 2008 election.
Which brings me to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's merged rally for--take your pick--sanity or fear this past weekend. Before the fact, I contended this rally was not good news
for Democrats. After I made that case, I had had plenty of progressives cry foul, declaring that the rally would provide a vehicle for fighting back against Tea Party and GOP extremism. Perhaps. But it wasn't billed in such precise or partisan terms. And observers and participants are probably still arguing now over what happened on the National Mall this past Saturday. A short-take: it was a long comedy-skit that ended with an impassioned plea for better media so the national discourse might improve and generate better solutions to the nation's problems.
I come not praise or bury Stewart. Maybe the most important aspect of his satirical spectacle was that it showed that the Obama faithful have yearned for an outlet to do battle with the forces of rightwing reaction. "At least Stewart's doing something, and that's more than the Democratic Party," one well-to-do California liberal who flew to Washington for the event exclaimed to me. No doubt, the operatives at DNC headquarters and the folks at the White House can cite all the ways they have attempted to combat the rising rush of the right. But it appears not all of that--or much of it--has registered with their natural followers. Many Obama-ites raring for combat apparently feel--rightly or wrongly--that their side did not man up.
Politics did not end with the last election. In fact, the political warfare intensified, with the potent anti-Obama backlash firing up the opposition. But Obama and his lieutenants never seemed to realize this fully. As they turned toward governing, they essentially disarmed, making little use of the 13 million foot-soldiers they had attracted during the campaign. (This action--or inaction--calls to mind one of Lincoln's memorable quotes: "If General McClellan isn't going to use his army, I'd like to borrow it for a time.")
The fight between the left and right is never over. I'm not referring to the cable news face-offs, but to the struggle between those who advocate communal government action to better society and those who consider such collective cooperation a threat to individual liberty, between those who question the prerogatives of powerful economic interests and those who side with forces of unrestrained capital, between those who champion tolerance and diversity and those who seek to protect or advance their version of fundamentalism. It's not always black or white, us versus them. There are issues and moments that transcend or defy the usual divides. But there are basic conflicts. Politics in America is a long war. On an Election Day 2010, it will get longer.
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