Immediately after Barack Hussein Obama won a second national election, there were murmurs on the right about adapting to new political realities. The blustery coalition of conservative Christians, emissaries from the Old South, and the Chamber of Commerce that has blocked progressive change since the end of the last century now confronts its endgame.
Yet this protracted fight is far from over. Sensing the racial and ethnic trend-lines, the Right has attacked democracy at its core by seeking to suppress the vote under the false mantle of election integrity. And the conservative block on the Supreme Court has signaled it intends to cut out the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Those who thought the campaign to unravel the hard-won gains of labor had reached a plateau now have Wisconsin and Michigan to contemplate. And it’s worth remembering that the current platform of a major party denies women the right to make decisions over their own bodies and calls for a constitutional amendment to deny gay people the rights of citizenship.
It is always tempting to see all of this through the prism of race—as suggested by the overlay of the map of present-day red states with the map of pro-slavery states from 1845. And while the multi-culturalism of the new majority should warm the hearts of the generation that won the fight in Selma, this is hardly a post-racial moment if you reflect on how the basic indices of American life—employment, education level, income, public health—are still riven by race.
Yet coming out of this last election, there is an opportunity for an overture to voters in the South and in the middle of the country whom progressives have largely ignored. While Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan are busy fashioning a new cosmetics of inclusion, progressives should be communicating with those regional constituencies that are in many instances much closer to shedding their crimson tag than the simplistic portrayals on CNN would suggest.
The efforts of Labor and other progressive groups to educate voters and get out the vote helped tip the balance in the 2012 cycle, but change in the long term will not be achieved solely on the impetus of national elections. Occupants of the big tent of modern progressivism need to plant their flags in the counties that the McConnells and Cantors take for granted. The progressive base needs to support candidates of color at the state and municipal levels. During the Reagan years, the Catholic Bishops contributed to the national debate over poverty and the bankruptcy of nuclear weapons—where are the voices from communities of faith today on the pain inflicted by rightwing budgets, and the challenge to human survival posed by climate change? It didn’t hurt Sherrod Brown to stand up for working people in Ohio, and that radical principle will find plenty of receptive audiences in Texas and the Carolinas, where public and private pensions are under attack.
If you raise the volume on progressive values and ideas, you will move the political center.
Nor are Democrats off the hook. Any prescription for a new twenty-first century politics has to include new thinking from the center-left. As wealth inequality continues to grow, as the wages and pensions of working people stagnate or lose ground and incoming generations of Americans can’t find work, and as indifference to global warming takes a mounting toll, it won’t be enough for Democrats merely to be on the winning side of the rights equation, touting the digital information age while the outmoded carbon-addicted economy sputters on.
A generation ago, Polly Rothstein set out to build a pro-choice majority in Westchester County, an area of downstate New York heavily populated with traditional ethnic communities. She understood that women who were silent at the family table would vote their interest in the privacy of the polling booth, and over time she tenaciously moved the women’s rights agenda to a position of primacy in Westchester politics.
Polly and thousands of activists of her generation fought for progressive ideas that today have entered the mainstream, and you won’t find better evidence of their legacy than the exuberant tapestry of Americans who came together in November to give Obama a second term. While the Right scrambles to appear more sensitive to changes in public attitudes and demographics, progressives have the best opportunity in memory to build a permanent majority around a progressive agenda.
Hamilton Fish, the publisher of this newsletter, is a former publisher of The Nation magazine and a producer of the films of Marcel Ophuls.