Holding the Center
Source Dave Anderson
Date 10/07/12/00:32
Holding the Center
Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava
This article appeared in the July 19, 2010
edition of The Nation.

EIGHTEEN MONTHS INTO the Obama era, the progressive movement is
experiencing malaise, based on disappointment about what has been
accomplished so far and confusion about the path forward. The sense of
disappointment is, in our view, exaggerated. It is important to
remember that progressive campaigns and grassroots efforts have played
a major role in achieving reforms that are more substantial than
anything we have seen since the Great Society: provision of health
insurance coverage to more than 30 million additional people and
partial regulation of the health insurance industry; the largest
(albeit temporary) expansion of antipoverty programs in forty years as
part of the Recovery Act; student lending reforms making it easier for
young people to go to college; and legislation to increase regulation
of the financial sector. There is much to be proud of in the way
progressive organizations have risen to the historical moment,
educated and mobilized their constituencies, and helped to secure
major victories that will have a real, positive impact on people's

At the same time, there are legitimate grounds for disappointment with
the administration's policies on many issues, including the war in
Afghanistan, climate change, persistent unemployment, foreclosures,
civil liberties and immigration, to name just a few. The gulf oil
spill, the Arizona immigration law and real unemployment rates in the
double digits are evidence of Washington's continuing failure to solve
problems even when they become catastrophic.

As we head into a difficult and challenging period, with crucial
elections looming and prospects for further progressive policy
victories uncertain, the most important question for progressives is
not how Obama is doing but how we as a movement are doing. Our most
pressing challenge in this era is movement recruitment. This means
focusing on building a base and drafting new followers of a
progressive agenda as well as supporters for progressive politicians
and organizations. If the movement has fallen down in this assignment,
it is because we do not understand what Obama understands so well—that
most people are not ideologically driven and, in fact, the opinions of
most people are internally inconsistent. They should not be courted
and recruited as if they are "latent progressives" waiting to be shown
the truth. A sober look at the fluidity and ideological contradictions
of public opinion in the country may point a way forward.

For thirty years, journalists and political analysts have described
the polarized electorate as engaged in a "culture war." Though this
frame provides a handy way to communicate the dialectic between the
ideologies of the right and left, it is misleading and, to the extent
that we buy into the dichotomy, could be damaging to progressive
causes. The assumption that people are "with us or against us"
suggests that people can be arrayed along an ideological spectrum from
right to left, and that they will occupy their assigned spot
consistently. That is, a person will be a "moderate rightist" or a
"centrist" or an "extreme fundamentalist," or will occupy any number
of other slots.

There are elaborate charts that lay out the distinctions among the
many variations of each movement—the right and the progressive
movement. But there is very little discussion of the actual content of
the opinions of those in the center (not just voters but those who
may, at some point, decide to vote). Many of these voters chose Obama
in the 2008 election. They represent the potential for growth in the
Democratic Party and perhaps the progressive movement. Pollsters do
ask them how they rank their concerns and focus groups collect their
opinions, often noting that those opinions do not reflect the reality
of their material lives. But there is little research on their belief
systems. As we have traveled the country for the past twenty-five
years, we have observed that centrists are not ideologically
consistent but are very often internally logically inconsistent. They
do not adhere to any ideological belief system but are often all over
the map ideologically.

Battles in Congress that fall rigidly along partisan lines reinforce
the idea of two sides locked in a longstanding clash of worldviews.
But despite the political drama of the "tea parties" staged by the
right to oppose Obama, is the larger electorate similarly divided? And
can we afford, at this weighty moment in history, to use a theme in
our own work that was developed by the right to assist in its movement
recruitment? Or should we reject the culture war frame outright?

We have found a third "side" in our experience, especially among
nonactivists. Many people who are not ideologically driven (but who
may hold strong opinions on various issues) make up the vast "center,"
in journalistic parlance. They are also called "swing voters" or
"nonideological neighbors." They may identify with one party or the
other, or see themselves as independents, but they couldn't state with
certainty the major parties' stance on every position. This fluid
"center" is the determining vote in many elections and issue
campaigns. Obama ran as a thoughtful, modest, knowledgeable and
principled candidate who is not ideologically driven. It is precisely
because he was able to project a nonideological persona that he won.
This point is important for progressives to understand. Obama
attracted an odd collection of voters in his campaign, and not all of
them agreed with him on everything. In part, that's because so many
voters don't agree with themselves on everything.

Without a deeper understanding of the misperceptions from the culture
war, progressives will fail to learn two important lessons from the
right's past success with centrists: (1) there is no movement building
without prioritizing recruitment; and (2) it is important to go
everywhere, even into hostile territory, to recruit those who agree
with you on one or more things. It is notable that the states that
have sent the most conservative Blue Dog Democrats to Congress, where
they have blocked progressive initiatives in the Senate and
House—Arkansas, Nebraska, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana and others—are
places where progressives have not been able to build a strong base.
To engage in effective recruitment, progressives need to understand
the political center. Understanding the center is the key to
understanding how Obama captured the election and how he has governed.

For many people, especially those not on the left or right of the
political spectrum, internal ideological consistency is not a
compelling duty. Many people hold strong opinions that are
contradictory, and they are not bothered by that. Bitter grumbling
about the US Postal Service is often accompanied by equally bitter
grumbling about rising taxes, which are needed to support postal
improvements. Many who are antichoice on the issue of abortion, saying
that it is "killing a human being," are also pro–death penalty. Those
who complain loudest about tainted peanut butter may oppose government
regulation of industry. These constituents demonstrate that social
traditions can trump financial self-interest, and that financial
self-interest can sometimes trump social traditions. Loyalty to
community practices, to family or friendship networks, to religious
training or to economic self-interest plays a large role in a person's
worldview, but nevertheless most people believe what they want to
believe. The ideological commitments of the average voter cannot
easily be categorized, as they can be in the case of ideologically
motivated activists.

Obama's lack of a clear, consistent ideology is appealing to many
centrists. Having endured eight years of George W. Bush, whose
ideology was seldom breached during his administration, the voters
were open to embracing a nonideologue. The "hope" and "change"
slogans, maligned by Obama's opposition and some leftists, allowed
many voters to assign positions to him according to their own
internally inconsistent preferences. And now we see Obama presiding
over an administration that is also internally inconsistent. He
brought on Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, two central figures in the
financial excesses of the past fifteen years, to fix the problems
those excesses have caused. He expresses strong support for unions and
also supports charter schools, which are notorious for barring
unionization of teachers. He wants to study the violations of the
Constitution under George W. Bush carefully but has shown a
willingness to use some of Bush's arguments to protect "state
secrets." These are not the positions of an ideologue.

In order to woo centrist voters, rightists and progressives have
debated whether to stay close to their core principles or to reach out
with compromise policies. If the progressive movement wants to succeed
in the Obama era, we must have a deep analytical understanding of the
country, be politically mature in realizing that a movement needs
above all to recruit new members and learn to live with those whose
beliefs contain inconsistencies while opposing those beliefs that
violate our core principles. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia and
certain other bigotry cannot be condoned in any way. But how we oppose
them is important. When Rick Warren, an explicitly antigay preacher,
was chosen to give the invocation at Obama's inauguration, the LGBTQ
community modeled an effective oppositional campaign to register their
protest and educate Obama. Rather than demonize and attack Obama, they
instead focused on demonstrating how insulting and hurtful the
decision was. This is an approach that community organizers know well.
Quite often, the challenge they face is to mobilize the community
around an issue that will draw the maximum number of people. Without
compromising their principles, organizers will often work with people
whose views on other issues are incomprehensible to them. If the
positions of supporters are abhorrent, however, recruitment could
become a betrayal of core principles.

Voters who lack ideological consistency are estimated to account for
between 18 and 25 percent of the electorate—more than the hard-core
members of the religious right. The importance of the Tea Party has
been vastly overstated relative to the importance of this swing bloc.
Like Obama, the right seems to understand the strategic value of
appealing to swing voters. For example, many born-again evangelical
Christians, most of whom are not part of the religious right, are
extremely generous and compassionate people. By teaching that poverty
is a "disease of the soul," the right has played to their
inconsistency. While criticizing government programs for serving both
the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor (the latter being poor because
they are losers, addicts or loose women), those on the right advocate
addressing poverty on a case-by-case basis. It is more difficult for
them to paint children with the "undeserving" brush, but the
Republican blockage of S-CHIP legislation in 2008, and the lack of
outrage about that from the center, demonstrates the power of
ideological inconsistency. Most evangelicals agree that child poverty
is certainly wrong and should be addressed, but often that position
does not lead to support for federal programs. To progressives this is
a blatant inconsistency, but to many evangelicals, who have been
courted, recruited and "educated" by the right, it is an acceptable,
even logical, position. While they do charitable work, often serving
as the first to lend help in a natural disaster and provide
desperately needed services on a daily basis, they see this work as a
"private" rather than government mission. Their religiously motivated
antipoverty work often places them close to people's experiences and
gives them an understanding of the life challenges of the average
person. But they do not trust government (also often based on their
own experience).

It seems unlikely that Obama will address this inconsistency on the
issue of poverty head-on, instead continuing his practice of quietly
improving government benefits for low-income people while not invoking
the words "poverty" or "welfare." But progressives can play a role in
appealing to centrists on the issue of poverty—while, at the same
time, beginning to recast the debate—by engaging in the age-old
tradition of making meaning and teaching: through traveling lecturers
(drawing on the history of populism); teach-ins (the antiwar
movement); citizenship schools (from the civil rights tradition);
consciousness raising (feminism) and popular education. These
practices are largely defunded and weak on the left. We seem more
regularly to ask people to take action on very specific policy issues
without helping them understand the larger context or make meaning of
their experiences through dialogue. The progressive movement needs to
create venues for this sort of self-education.

In its early stages, this education could appeal to the generosity and
caring of many hardline opponents of government programs. We could
approach the issue with an understanding of the inconsistencies and
not require an entire progressive ideological package—arguing, for
instance, that churches and private charities alone cannot effectively
address poverty. Such a campaign would not insist that its adherents
understand that private relief programs often provide services to
those with whom they identify rather than taking a universal approach.
Or that private relief is often racially discriminatory, demeaning and
inadequate. Rather, that a country that allows children and adults to
go hungry is not a caring country.

The progressive movement is often presented as fractured between those
"defending Obama's back" and those "rejecting him as inadequate to the
task he set himself (and he's no progressive to boot)." None of what
we have said about the importance of recruitment suggests that we
should not criticize Obama. As progressives, we are obliged, for
example, to confront the failure of the administration to respond
aggressively to the massive unemployment that is wrecking people's
lives, especially in communities of color. But this division between
Obama supporters and detractors is weakening the progressive movement,
as each side is increasingly intolerant of the other. Those who engage
in recruitment appreciate the need to work with people who are not
consistently progressive in order to open minds to new messages; those
who are fed up with Obama are pushing him to be more committed to
progressive principles and more willing to take risks for them. But a
mature movement can play both roles, because its members understand
there is a need for both.

It is unrealistic to believe that what stands between us and
progressive success is simply insufficient nerve or spine on the part
of the president. Our argument is for realism and a deep understanding
of the context in which campaigns are conducted in the United States.
We are calling for the progressive movement to put movement building
and recruitment at the center of its ambitions, without giving up our
principles or engaging in internecine conflict over who is most
ideologically pure.

The progressive movement entered the Obama era in a somewhat depleted
state. While we have large, well-funded think tanks and media
organizations, the grassroots groups so vital to a healthy movement
are struggling and closing in the midst of the financial crisis
affecting their donors and many foundations. Corporate power and money
still present formidable obstacles to the changes we seek. Equally
important, the movement lacks an overarching vision. But while the
United States in many ways remains a conservative country, changing
demographics and a maturing and savvy progressive movement could even
the political playing field as never before. With a clear and
realistic reading of the country and a humility not often associated
with the left, progressives could carry the day for decades to come.

Deepak Bhargava is executive director of the Center for Community Change.
Jean Hardisty is the founder and president emerita of Political
Research Associates, a Boston-based research center.

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