Washington, D.C. If you blinked, you probably missed it.  After an astonishingly strong performance at the polls in 2008, despite several significant legislative achievements, the new American progressive moment seems to be on the wane.  Despite arriving in Washington just over a year ago with a tide of goodwill, progressives now find themselves stymied at most every turn.  Recent polls show sharply diminished faith in the President, Congress, and the public sector more generally.

If this collapse seems bewildering, that’s because it truly is.  Some of this can be attributed to dire circumstances.  The economic and political obstacles facing American progressives are substantial—conservative intractability, the growing national debt, high rates of unemployment, and general economic uncertainty, to name a few—and not entirely within the current administration’s control, but their resources for addressing these were also significant.  This was a genuine opportunity to build what experts at the Center for American Progress called a “New Progressive America.”  Somehow, what seemed to be a strong political movement for change, premised upon hope for a more just America, is now slipping into broad-based cynicism and political despair.

So what’s going on?  Theories of the exigencies of ruling in democratic regimes offer only part of the explanation for progressives’ recent struggles.  It is true that the transition from campaigner to officeholder is never a smooth one, but the corresponding dips in public esteem are rarely this dramatic.  How did the national yearning for change convert into a reactionary fear of it?  How did hope so rapidly give way to despair?  Is there something inherent to progressivism that led to such disappointment?  In simple terms, the new progressive era was ushered in with promises that America’s problems could be solved at the federal level, instead of by addressing their broad-based roots in communities across the country.  Any substantial shift in the tenor of national politics requires committed grassroots support.  The current progressive moment lacks a reliable political movement.

Let me try to explain why I think this is so.  One clue to progressives’ current struggles can be found in their rhetoric, but their rhetoric suggests fundamental problems in their approach to politics.  During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama led progressives in the assault on President George W. Bush’s legacy.  There was much to discuss and little to appreciate.  American standing in international affairs had been significantly diminished, the economy was in the early throes of a massive recession, and Congress was largely gridlocked.  The country and its government were a mess.  Progressives highlighted mounting political and economic inequalities, and ran on the promise of political renovation.  They promised to restore hope to the United States and new levels of accountability to the federal government.  In one election, they reclaimed progressivism for the everyman.  Voters eagerly responded, flocking to Obama’s rallies and fanning out across the country to volunteer.

The trouble, however, was that Obama’s message of national hope and political change never really had a populist backbone.  Instead, his rhetoric was messianic and his politics were soteriological.  In response to the failures of the Bush Administration, Obama and other progressives promised to return responsiveness and responsibility to their government.  In return, they asked Americans to dare to believe in political progress once again.  The implication of this rhetoric was that the troubles of American’s politics would be fixed if staffed by trustworthy officials.  The promise was that this change would alter the tenor of American politics and help to deliver a slew of responsible progressive policies.  President Obama’s general unwillingness to manipulate American political procedures suggests just how deeply this sentiment runs through modern progressivism.  Since they believed the rules would work if only they were honestly applied, progressives asked Americans to have faith in the political system.

Don’t misunderstand me; this was no mean feat.  Nonetheless, this approach comes with costs.  Progressives promised national political salvation by top-down means, but asked very little of the American public beyond electoral support.  Should we be surprised that the Presidential inauguration in January 2009 marked the high water mark of public progressivism?  Progressives asked voters to trust them to change the country, and asked them for assistance in reaching positions of power to make these changes.  They never asked the public in any specific ways to take responsibility for political solutions.  They never called upon communities to work for themselves, always pointing instead back (to the Bush Administration) and up (to the federal government) for political solutions.

So—unsurprisingly—their expectant supporters have since remained passive spectators, waiting for the change promised them.  Current challenges were never presented to them as their fault, nor as their responsibility, so these have never seemed to them to be worth actively addressing.  Of course, the disorganization of the American Left is a truism as old as Will Rogers’ famous jab at the Democratic Party.  What is unique about the current loss of progressive momentum is its mercuriality.  The ascendant electoral strength of progressivism (circa 2008) was a house of cards because it has no corresponding popular movement.  It was built on a populism that promised better management by elites.  In the face of national crisis, progressives told Americans: “You’ve been badly treated.  Give us a chance to fix this for you.  We’ll take care of it.”  This is the politics of salvation, a politics of elites and management.  It is not populism in any sustainable way.

Take a look back at Obama’s inaugural speech.  After an historic, grueling, soul-searching electoral season for the United States, the President claimed that the primary question going forward would be:

not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.  Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward.  Where the answer is no, programs will end.  And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account—to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day—because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Though he also noted that “as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies,” the President’s calls for public sacrifice were abstract.  He asked nothing of the people except “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.”  These are beautiful words, inspiring words, but they are not a call to action.  They are calls to national pride.  They remind Americans of the greatness of our common national dreams, even while making it clear how far we have fallen from them.  What these words do not do is call Americans to the “better angels of their nature,” nor do they outline what role the American public has had in causing their national crises.  These are not the words upon which to found a robust progressive political movement, and without such a movement, no amount of inspirational words can build a new political era.

This is all very much in contrast to received wisdom.  After all, “Obama for America” became “Organizing for America,” and there is no evidence that the grassroots activists involved in the Obama campaign have completely disbanded.  President Obama often gestured to populist mobilization: “I’m asking you to believe.  Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours.”  My point is that this is artificial populism, managed from afar and driven by talking points provided by a centralized institution.  It is possible (though I think it unlikely) that this is the best progressives can hope for at the moment, and that Organizing for America perhaps contains the seeds of a more robust progressive populism.  It aims at distant and powerful reforms, but it does not encourage real populist organization.  It may have been an effective campaigning tool, and it may yet be a powerful means for driving policy reform, but it is no match for a truly organic populism.  Witness the national media’s fascination with the Tea Party, a relatively small group when compared with the Organizing for America email lists.  Progressives should not emulate Tea Party activists for a variety of excellent reasons, but they should consider its vitality compared with other movements on the American Left.

If I am right about modern progressives, and President Obama in particular, this is not a new problem, nor is it simply a matter of rhetorical framing.  Its roots are deeply embedded in the progressive tradition.  Progressives since (at the very least) Claude Bowers have struggled to square their egalitarian ideals with their faith in bureaucratic solutions to political problems.  Like Thomas Jefferson, many progressives admired the civic republicanism and solidarity of strong, local, democratic communities.  In the early twentieth-century, scientific advances helped to fuel rapid economic and industrial changes that undercut the stability and existence of many of these communities.  Political institutions struggled to adapt to the new conditions.  Many progressives argued that the scientific study of politics would indicate potentially fruitful avenues for democratic reforms.  They simultaneously argued that the power dynamics of industrial capitalism were threatening the democratic principle of equality before the law.  In a word, they advocated reform by experts in order to reinvigorate the political participation of all citizens.  As many have noted, from John Dewey and Herbert Croly to Christopher Lasch and Wilson Carey McWilliams to E.J. Dionne and Patrick Deneen, this tension has been more or less pronounced in progressive politics since the early twentieth century, but it is clear that current progressives prefer technocracy to populism.

How might a progressive movement reignite today?  As I’ve implied above, any such attempt cannot be purely a top-down solution.  As such, progressive non-governmental organizations from labor unions to student activism networks are part of the solution.  The difficulty is that they were active in this work since before the 2008 election, and still no robust progressive political movement has emerged.  To activate, unify, and direct these disparate groups, progressives will need to reacquire populist language that calls for tangible and serious sacrifice from Americans.  FDR’s speeches during the Great Depression and Lincoln’s calls to action during the Civil War are certainly among the best examples of such appeals.  Of course, populism also thrives on aggressive language that highlights examples of injustice and corruption, and progressives should not shy away from shaming “great malefactors of wealth.”

More importantly, progressives must re-learn to advocate for community self-determination, and work to link political activity on this level to national politics.  As I’ve suggested above, this will necessarily mean much more than rhetorical repositioning.  Progressives need to do more than just talk about community strength and solidarity.  They need to begin looking for policy-driven ways to materially encourage the development of these local ties, and then they need to build links between local and national politics.  While progressives need not wholly abandon their traditional formula of a strong “Hamiltonian” national politics in pursuit of “Jeffersonian” egalitarian ends, they do need a renewed focus on the Jeffersonian side.  This won’t mean a complete re-invention of the progressive agenda, but it will require some introspection.

Obama’s public praise of the Harlem Children’s Zone is a good example of how this might be done.  In addition to celebrating its success, he ruminated over how to expand the Children’s Zone’s model into other struggling communities.  Progressives should also look for ways to build up service-based movements for social justice, such as Teach For America or Americorps.  Modern progressives will need to think seriously about how to build links with such organizations to sustain a reliable progressive movement that can respond to these calls.  Without such a movement, the new American progressive moment will end as quickly and remarkably as it began, just a hiccup in a fundamentally conservative era of American politics.

Conor Williams is a proud son of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and an alumnus of Bowdoin College.  He served two years with Teach For America in Brooklyn, New York, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Government at Georgetown University.

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  1. “Soteriological Politics” is a phrase that doesn’t exactly trip lightly off the tongue but if you mean that Obama is another failing Tony Blair clone who fails to address the issue of broadening choice and dispersing the control of capital then you would be right.

  2. Debt-financed egalitarianism has a tendency toward rotten mornings in bad hangover. The Modern Empathic State, less interested in the welfare of its putative citizens than it is in the various lucre attendant to global trade…it uses sweet string music in the same manner an organ grinder uses to make his monkey dance for coins.

    We all have fond feelings for the betterment of mankind but one can only remain incredulous at the fact that people still rely upon the State, in its current manifestation to further human welfare when it has been so amply demonstrated that the State considers the citizen to be expendable and secondary or tertiary to the aims of the State. Unfortunately, the environment, our troposphere…life itself…. is even less regarded.

    The Modern State is the manifestation of a species that believes itself apart from and over its own habitat. It believes cant is productive. It is satisfied by vigorous movement and best intentions alone, regardless of whether or not the movements result in meaningful results.

  3. ~~~a strong “Hamiltonian” national politics in pursuit of “Jeffersonian” egalitarian ends.~~~

    Can’t work, in my opinion. The Hamiltonian side of the thing will always tend to devour the Jeffersonian side; any enforced egalitarianism will produce new inequities. They may be inequities that Progressives will be able to live with, but they will be inequities all the same.

  4. Why so incredulous,D.W.? What else do people have to rely on to further human development other than “the state?” The state is us. We came to this sad juncture, the current manifestation, through our collective participation in “the state.” If the state was ever a viable means to further human development, it can be that way again. The alternative is anarchy.

  5. You’d be interested in watching the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/sicp

    It’s a tiny drop in the bucket, but that seed money, to the right entrepreneurs, could go a long way toward sustainable (not government dependent) home grown social change in communities that need it most.

  6. ” If you blinked, you probably missed it.  After an astonishingly strong performance at the polls in 2008, despite several significant legislative achievements, the new American progressive moment seems to be on the wane”

    Thank Heaven – begone progressives. Whatever medicine our sad country needs, you ain’t it.

  7. No way Jeter’s a progressive. Hank and Hal wouldn’t hear of it.

    Conor – you’re a good sport, as I’m sure you knew the lions den you had entered before you posted this piece. And nearly 48 hours later, you’ve managed to entirely avoid engaging your detractors.

    What does a progressive mean when he speaks of community or “community self-determination”? How does a progressive reconcile her embrace of bureaucratic solutions to personal problems, or any faith in the State, really, and yet advocate for self-governance at the most basic levels of local organization and free association (a precursor to “community self-determination” by even the broadest meaning)?

    “Policy driven…links between local and national politics”. I suppose no reconciliation is needed.

  8. I enjoyed this essay. Its main point is intelligent enough. But my, things these days must be bewildering given a certain set of blinders and commitments.

    1) Progressivism/Liberalism was in big trouble from the 90s on. By then the idiocy and problematic nature of many New Left moves was obvious. Welfare had to be Reformed. Multiculturalism was proving Divisive. The Sexual Revolution had come with, er…Disadvantages, helping to make Christian-Conservative narratives Plausible. Communism fell, and books like Mona Charen’s Useful Idiots and events like 9/11 showed that liberals had more often than not been poor at foreign policy, linked to their having serious Patriotism/No-Enemies-to-the-Left Issues. Clinton at his best, was in fact, a policy-wonkish NEW Democrat critical of past liberal excesses. “Big government” was disowned, and liberal became an avoided word. Looking around the world, while a young idealist could peg a few utopian hopes on the EU internationalist idea and the gathering Green movement, full-throated Democratic Socialism had proven impossible for Britain pre-Thatcher, and even for France under Mitterand. Capitalism was Here to Stay.

    2) The response of Liberals to the Bush years was deeply Manichean. Increasingly bereft of ideas and principles themselves, or at least ones they could openly campaign on, the dominant response to the post 9/11 scene was to DEMONIZE Bush once his war ran into troubles, and to decide that it was the New Democratic moves, and the TNR-like dialogue with the neo-cons, that had got them in trouble. So, whatever Bush was for, our Progressives would be against (as Leon Weiseltier notes in the latest TNR, Democratic foreign policy has actually become determined by Bush, albeit negatively)and just about whereever the New Dems had compromised, the Progressives would move agressively.

    3) Obama seemed to take this reactionary mode in a positive direction…he would take the gaseous fumes of Boomer-bitterness, Chomkyite-insanity, and Young Idealism-via-Ignorance, and use them to charge his own engine of Progressive Technocratic Competence. And campaign-wise, he obviously had some serious Competence. But, there was no there there, and precious little competence for Legislating or Governing. This would have become evident even without the financial crisis. Note the absolutely auto-pilot approach to the health-care bill.

    4) Thus, the let-down was inevitable, and much more is to come. It is the natural payback for years of Manichean talk shorn of long-term policy substance on the part of the Dems. Worse, just at this time, the Chickens have come to roost on certain long-term trends in government growth (esp. state-level) and on the EU dream. Be ready to be disillusioned. And, I can’t say that my conservatives are going to be able fix all that much all that quickly come 2011 and 2013.

  9. All of the above is to say, Conor, that the facts of the situation are less bewildering than you think. Lots of folks Left and Right let their anger at Iraq and Bush and Christian-Conservatives send their minds haywire in the mid-aughts, and we’re all paying a price now. The moderate critique of Republican/Bush failures, the one that would keep in mind things that New Dem theorists like Galston and Spraegens would have, the one that would have recognized the financial crisis as largely a bipartisan failure and one that required very careful thinking, the one that would have faced the tough choices on Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran ahead of time and thus avoided bullshit promises, and the one that would have translated Obama’s faux-olive-branch-empathy for the concerns of fiscal and cultural conservatives into real policy and thus avoided bullshit promises on taxes, etc., was not to be had.

    But now the main points of the essay. You are wrong that the current downfall of Progressive prospects is largely a function of a rhetoric that was too top-down. Rather, it is largely a function of being in denial about a number of salient facts. The rhetorical problem that has been at work is more in the area of implicitly promising way, way, more than can be delivered, and on the false and easily falsified foundations of Not What Bush Did. You’re right that the top-down implicit promise of trust-us technocratic reform is linked to the Manichean presentation of Bush and the Republicans. THEY were SO OFF, that WE can easily get it right if the American public lets us. But you a) downplay the fact that Obama did try to muster into existence a “populist” movement to support him, and you seem to b) assume that such a movement could be stirred up and allied with his progressive policies. Morever, you cryptically (and I must say disturbingly) say that

    “President Obama’s general unwillingness to manipulate American political procedures suggests just how deeply this sentiment runs through modern progressivism. Since they believed the rules would work if only they were honestly applied, progressives asked Americans to have faith in the political system.”

    You might want to explain what these “manipulations” of our system are that you think Obama should have attempted.

    But in any case, perhaps the Porchers will allow me to articulate more fully the basic case they must have against what you’re saying.

    I’m not so solid on the Porcher “line” on what counts as real Populism in our day, but obviously the basic model is a grassroots movement like the classic Populists acquiring and developing national leaders, rather than the model of the national progressive Leader of Men largely calling into being, or at least largely sustaining, a mass movement via Rhetoric.

    Conservative me, I’m happy to have eras in which no national grassroots something-or-other is afoot, so long as a healthy level of political participation, especially local, is occurring.

    To my mind the tea-partiers are grassroots and national, and they’re responding to opinion leaders and the facts of their own lives. Why is there no corresponding populist push for, say, health-care, and, say, cap-and-trade, or say, the latest finance reform bill? Because all of these bills are extremely complex, disingenuous, and the wrongs they only semi-plausibly claim to correct do not hit most people on the nose. We are no more a nation of verge-of-impoverishment-but-for-health-care persons in 2010, than we are a nation of small farmers. Our middle-class is huge, and it is increasingly terrified of your Progressive panaceas, the more it sees the NUMBERS.

    But in any case, a basic plank of the current conservative (and yes, tea-partier) case against “statism” is that liberals have a far too-complacent and wish-away attitude about the continual growth of administrative government. Or as you put it, “[liberals/progressives] advocated reform by experts in order to reinvigorate the political participation of all citizens. As many have noted, from John Dewey and Herbert Croly to Christopher Lasch and Wilson Carey McWilliams to E.J. Dionne and Patrick Deneen, this tension has been more or less pronounced in progressive politics since the early twentieth century, but it is clear that current progressives prefer technocracy to populism.”

    Now, what’s amazing here is that you know your Deneen and McWilliams, and yet you’re willing to quote them alongside Dewey and Croly, in a way that suggests that they are all in agreement on this relevant point! McWilliams and Deneen tend, in my reading, to stress that this “tension” is an outright CONTRADICTION or DELUSION of Progressivism. And central to the error is the lack of serious effort promote LOCAL SELF GOVERNMENT, and to trim the “New Nationalism” ambitions for the sake of this.

    Want some examples of Progressives in the grips of this delusion/tension? Stay tuned.

  10. As a leftist (or a progressive if you will), I am continually frustrated with the failures of the progressive movement in the United States. Mr. Williams, you offer and interesting and enlightened opinion on the problems we are faced with. Another aspect of the problem, in my opinion, is that the Democratic party is a centre-right party pretending to be a progressive party (the UK Conservative party is even more progressive in many areas). That way, even if the base is stirred up, the politicians are not willing to enact progressive policies. Additionally, progressive need more down to earth rhetoric, when addressing a mass audience, instead of cerebral, intellectual rhetoric.

  11. The huge error is people seeing the “politicians” they vote for from either the Democratic or Republican parties as politicians elected to improve the lives of the majority. The electorate is misguided the majority of the “politicians” are now lobbyists for big businesses who have a very different agenda from taking an interest in the well-being of the majority.

  12. John Gorentz, I was responding to D.W. Sabin’s statement “…one can only remain incredulous at the fact that people still rely upon the State, in its current manifestation to further human welfare.”

    Perhaps that was just a tossed off remark that was not meant to be taken literally. But if we take D.W. seriously, and he and others are indeed incredulous at the fact that some benighted people still rely on the state, what is the obvious alternative that we unenlightened are missing? Maybe it all hinges on the qualifier “in its current manifestation,” and I will readily concede that our state in its current manifestation leaves a lot to be desired. I’m wondering which manifestation of the state, if any, D.W. and the rest of you are arguing for. Has there ever been a manifestation of our state that embodied the virtues you’re arguing for, and if so, is it really plausible to expect 350+ million of us, in all our cultural and technological diversity, to peacefully reorganize around some decentralized communal fantasy?

    Don’t get me wrong, I admire Wendell Berry and his ideas as much as the next guy on the porch. I just can’t imagine what changes, what process, what event would move all 350 million of us collectively toward that small-town, agrarian ideal without some involvement of a new-and-improved state.

  13. Artie, in case you have failed to notice, we have anarchy already. It is Designer Anarchy….the kind of thing that paints a gloss of governance over a general plundering of everything on behalf of the children. I really would hate to see anything “evolve” out of this entrenched dysfunctional cleptocracy.

    Local Government and strong local economies with an appropriate Federalism not concerned with prosecuting the White Man’s Burden at gunpoint while carrying water for malignant financialism is something I might ponder with admiring grin but it is nowhere…NO WHERE on the horizon. Actually Artie, the groundwork toward an anarchic event is being laid as we speak, by default.

    A well spewing oil relentlessly into the waters of the United States is nothing if not an anarchic event.

    Getting a letter from one’s insurance carrier cancelling your policy because of the “new realities of the recently passed Health Care Bill” is a form of Designer Anarchy.

    But yes, we must learn to swallow the bitter pill of reduced expectations in a crowded world. Ho Ho ho.

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