The Constant Challenge of Creating an Effective Left Flank
by Mike Lux Author, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in
HuffingtonPost.com - Posted: August 24, 2009 12:33 PM
I wanted to weigh in on this whole left flank for Obama
issue (the idea that Obama needs a strong progressive
movement pushing him from the left to get things done),
because I think getting it right is probably the single
most important thing in creating transformative change.
Let me start by talking for a bit about my personal
situation, because I think it has lessons from the broader issue.
I am blessed and cursed by this man-in-the-middle life I've created for myself.
One the one hand, I am a DC insider. I have served
inside of five Presidential campaigns, two Presidential
transition teams (sadly, the only two in my adult
lifetime), and the
hand, I have chosen to spend most of my life outside of
government and the Democratic Party, working instead on
helping to build progressive infrastructure and issue
campaigns. This being connected to both the inside and
outside has created some interesting dynamics.
Last week was in some ways fairly typical for me. I had
one senior White house official tell me I was
positioning myself in a fairly helpful way, and another
who people told me was referring to me as an
"(expletive deleted), (expletive deleted),
(particularly gross and disgusting expletive deleted)."
My blog posts prompted some of my responders to say
that I was way too pro-Obama, and what could you expect
from a DC insider like me, while the same posts caused
another friend to e-mail me, worried that I was being
too tough on Obama and was endangering my relationship with the White House.
I am sort of used to having at least some of my friends
pissed off at me almost all of the time (let alone what
my actual enemies -- there are a few -- think of me).
daily from people on the outside about (a) all the bad
things we had done to progressive causes, and (b) other
White House officials who said I was just carrying
water for all the lefties outside. My job there was
described by people as being the person responsible for
having all my friends yell at me.
This personal experience has made me reflect a lot on
what an effective left flank is for a Democratic
President. First, on the definition: my view of what is
effective is based on my understanding of history laid
out in my book, The Progressive Revolution: How the
pushes the more progressive party's President toward
big, transformational changes. The abolitionist
movement successfully pushed Abe Lincoln and the
radical Republicans toward ending slavery and other big
changes; the Populist and Progressive and suffragist
movements pushed Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson
toward making the big progressive era changes in the
early 1900s; the labor movement pushed FDR toward the
major achievements of the New Deal; and the civil
rights and other movements of the 1960s pushed the
Kennedys and LBJ toward the big achievements of that era.
Moving toward transformational change is especially
urgent when the nation is in crisis.
have won the civil war without the Emancipation
Proclamation, and FDR would not have led us out of the
Great Depression without New Deal economic policies. In
both cases, the country was too broken, and needed big
changes to fix it. And the reason that Buchanan,
they stayed with conventional wisdom and weren't bold
enough on the biggest crises of their times
(respectively, the lead-up to the Civil War, the Great
Depression, and the Vietnam War).
I believe we are at that kind of crisis moment now, and
that we can only get ourselves out of it with big,
bold, progressive policies.
civil rights all started out in more of a conventional
wisdom mindset, but the combination of progressive
movement pressure and the crisis itself moved them
toward making the major changes needed to solve things.
So how do we create an effective left flank? Given that
(per the above stories), I tend to get everybody I know
mad at me at some point or another, I'm sure there will
be a lot of disagreement on this, but here are some
principles I believe we ought to follow in creating
that left flank:
1. Understand that whether we like it or not, the
progressive movement's fate, at least for the next few
years and probably longer, is inextricably tied to
Obama's. As mad as many of us progressives get at Obama
over certain policy or strategic failures, we have to
understand that him failing as President hurts the
entire progressive cause. In case you didn't notice,
LBJ's and Jimmy Carter's failed Presidencies did not
usher in eras of progressive reform, they moved the
country inexorably to the right. As President from the
more left party, most Americans saw them as liberals
even though LBJ was decidedly un-liberal on
and Carter was the most conservative Democratic
President on economics since Grover
1800s. But progressives were struck with their failures
anyway and paid the price. People who think Obama is
failing because he's following a more moderate path,
and that eventually helps us move in a more progressive
direction, are fooling themselves.
If Obama fails on health care (and, by the way, I
consider failure to be either not passing a bill, or
passing a bill that doesn't work for the middle class),
we won't see another attempt at serious health care
reform for at least another generation. If he fails at
doing something big on climate change, we probably
won't be able to get anything done on it until it is
too late to make a difference. And if his economic
policies fail, regardless of demographics moving in our
favor or Republican extremism, all Democrats will be
punished at the polls, and the far-right that has taken
over the Republican Party will probably come into
power. And this isn't just about the long term, either:
for every percentage point Obama's approval drops, we
probably lose another two or three House seats in 2010.
Progressives' strategy, then, should not be to attack
Obama personally, to undermine voters' confidence in
him, but to shore up the backbone of progressives in
Congress -- and in his own administration, because I
guarantee you, policy debates between more and less
progressive staffers are held every day at the White
House. If Obama makes a bad policy decision, we
shouldn't hesitate to push back or encourage
progressives in Congress to do the same, and if White
House staffers are pursuing destructive political
strategies (see the "left-of-the-left" quote), we
shouldn't hesitate to bang on them. But our goal should
be to do all this while still holding up hope that
Obama will move in the right direction, and to praise
the hell out of him when he does.
2. We should value the different roles we all play. The
"we" in the previous sentence includes insiders and
outsiders, different players in the movement, and
people who work in that building at 1600
Avenue. We all have (hopefully) constructive and
important roles to play, even when we disagree
sometimes on tactics and strategies. I think it's a
mistake to assume anything about each other's motives.
These are big important policy debates we are having,
and it's natural that things will get heated. But we
have to respect each other's roles to make this work.
Frederick Douglass excoriated
slowly on abolition even while
to the White House for quiet conversations about how to
move forward, conversations that were critical in
loudly announced that no one, FDR included, was going
to get them to back down, even as FDR was meeting with
them privately and urging them to keep pushing.
Paul was chaining herself to the White House fence and
going on hunger strikes while other feminist leaders
were meeting with
leaders, and it took both tactics combined to get the
vote. King and other civil rights leaders refused to
back down on pleas to stop civil disobedience and the
House officials to keep things moving.
We all have roles to play. Let me throw out some specific examples:
DC coalitions tend, by their very nature, to be clunky,
cautious, and a little slow-moving. But they still have
incredibly important roles to play in terms of
coordinating lobbying, field, and communicating
tactics, and keeping a steady dialogue going on
important details of legislation with congressional and
White House staffers.
Some progressives chose to play an inside role so that
they can be at the table on the incredibly important
details of the legislative language. That is a really
good thing, but to be on the inside, you have to be a
team player, and you have to mute your criticisms. That
can leave you open to criticism by folks on the
outside, but it is an incredibly valuable and important
role. Jan Schakowsky (an old friend, so I am biased) is
a big example of this kind of person. She is both a
strong progressive and is a loyal member of the
Obama/Pelosi team. I am thankful every day she is
fighting for our cause on the inside, because I
guarantee you the important details of the bill would
be a lot worse without her.
The bloggers who have been demanding that Congressional
Progressive Caucus members stand firm on a public
option have annoyed a lot of insiders, but their
single-minded focus on the strategy of keeping House
progressives united is a big reason why the public
option is still alive. If the left didn't keep pushing,
this health care debate would keep shifting more and
more to the right.
The kind of silly attitude, that the "left of the left"
is the problem, hurts the White House. As I wrote the
other day, when progressives are being critical is
exactly the time the White House ought to be
cultivating them. If people are inside a tent, they
generally wee-wee (as the President would put it)
outward, and if they are kept out, they generally wee-
wee inward. And if you can't figure that most
progressives are trying to be your friends (even if,
yes, we are occasionally big pains in the butt), then
the White House has a very big problem.
Hopefully this discussion continues, because getting
this right is arguably the single most important thing
that will determine whether Obama and those of us in
the progressive movement are a success. When the stakes
are so incredibly high, tempers will flare, sharp
elbows will be thrown, and various players will be
critical of each other. All that's understandable, and
can be healthy. But we also all need to understand that
progressives and the White House need each other to get
anything big and important done. Abe Lincoln and
Frederick Douglass understood that. So did FDR and John
L. Lewis. So did Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King,
Jr. It's how big change happens in this country.
In the meantime, everybody feel free to keep yelling at me. I've gotten kind of used to it.
[Michael Lux is the co-founder and CEO of Progressive Strategies, L.L.C., a political consulting firm founded in 1999, focused on strategic political consulting for non-profits, labor unions, PACs and progressive donors. Previously, he was Senior Vice President for Political Action at People For the
other organizations including the Arca Foundation, Americans United for Change,
In November of 2008, Mike was named to the Obama-Biden Transition Team. In that role, he served as an advisor to the Public Liaison on dealings with the progressive community and has helped shape the office of Public Liaison based on his past experience working on the Clinton-Gore Transition, as well as in the White House.
On January 14, 2009, Lux released his first book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in