Credit: Dale Stephanos
The video shows a meeting of Barack Obama’s campaign staff. A progressive activist arrives to pitch in, but her eyes glaze over amid Democratic-establishment polling reports and move-to-the-center cliché-spouting. Not quite two minutes go by before she interrupts to explain Obama’s connections to big corporations and neo-conservative foreign-policy advisers. “He’ll promise to rock the boat, but he won’t sink it,” she warns, insisting that the campaign return to the strong, eloquent, principled stands Obama took in the primary.
Her argument wins over those in the room, but before switching strategies, one of the ex-establishment groupies has a question: “Do we still work for Obama?” The progressive’s answer: “No! He works for us. He always did.”
Sure, it’s just the opening skit of the most recent Liberty News TV episode, a progressive news-and-commentary program written and filmed in Portland and distributed on public-access cable channels nationwide. The Illinois senator and his campaign staff need to sit up and take notice anyway, not because it’s a suggestion of a path to victory, but because the clip lays out his only path to victory.
There are a lot of people giving Obama advice about what he should do to beat John McCain. (See “Winning at the Grassroots Level” for a list of books offering similar advice for progressive activists.) But only one of them is offering advice based on an actual analysis of long-term voting and polling data to determine what voters really really want. And what they want is not someone who follows the polls and gets pushed around by the media, but someone who knows what he believes, says so, and stands up for it even in the face of criticism.
In his primary campaign, Obama staked out the progressive, aggressive, principled high ground, and attracted millions of passionate supporters. Having created the movement, and having been selected as its head, he should now follow his people — which almost certainly means doing something more dangerous than any major candidate has ever done: ditching the party establishment.
The people who back Obama may be energetic young progressives, but they are not unlike the vast majority of Americans when it comes to what they look for in a candidate. Glenn Hurowitz, a longtime progressive activist, explains in his book Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party that a major factor determining any voter’s choice is whether the candidate fights well (a characteristic described in polling data as being a “strong leader”).
That trait, Hurowitz argues, trumps most other concerns — even differences of opinion on major policy questions (though not party affiliation). His book, based on a new analysis of 40 years of election and polling data, suggests that the reason the far-right conservative movement has risen to control the American political system is not due to any particular intelligence or ability on the part of right-wing activists, who espouse positions vastly divergent from most Americans’ values. The rise of the right has happened because Democrats and progressives refuse to stand and fight for what they believe in.
His book (for which Portland Phoenix staff writer Deirdre Fulton was a research assistant before she came to work here) debunks the surrender-prone “politics of fear,” saying Democrats cannot win by immersing themselves in polling data and shifting position as public opinion evolves. Rather, they need to show some backbone — by clearly stating Democratic and progressive values, and then standing up for them, over and over, even in the face of political resistance.
Sadly, Obama appears to be turning to the center — for example, with his vote to approve the Bush administration’s warrantless-wiretapping program, which he had previously condemned. That brought waves of criticism from progressive activists, bloggers, and even the New York Times editorial board.
Yes, his vote to give telecom companies immunity for their role in illegal spying on Americans was a major policy failure, and one at odds with most Americans’ expectations of privacy from government snooping. But its repercussions are far worse, in Hurowitz’s analysis, because Obama missed a chance to be seen standing up for what he believes.
With his vote on the wiretapping bill, Obama behaved like most Democrats, who surrender to political pressure, waver as polling data comes in, and wait until the last minute to declare their position on an issue — and take the side that was going to prevail anyway. Not only do they lose important fights on public-policy issues, but they simultaneously destroy their credibility with voters.
Hurowitz’s research shows that when progressives and Democrats take and hold principled stands on issues, they gain respect from voters (even those who disagree with the particular position) and emerge as popular leaders, even if their stand fails. So if Obama had objected, fought, and voted against the bill, people’s opinion of his leadership abilities would have increased, whether or not the bill ultimately became law.