There was a time that progressives in America were united around three core issues. Opposition to an ill conceived war in Southeast Asia, workers organizing and uniting for better wages and working conditions, and the struggle for Civil Rights were the great organizing themes of the progressive movement during the 1960s. Almost every progressive in the nation was of similar mind on these three issues and the unity that was demonstrated on those issues changed the fabric of American society.
The progressive coalition was diverse. Many of the groups that make up the current democratic coalition were involved in progressive politics. Minorities, college students, educators, women's groups, anti-violence advocates, labor all worked tirelessly as a united political movement. American progressiveness was held up as a beacon for the world to see and became a driving influence in the American political dialogue, influencing both the democratic and republican parties of that era.
Whether it was at the ballot box or in public opinion, we won. We moved this country forward. But we made a fatal mistake. We got complacent. Our lives moved on with those of us who were entering careers, refocusing on the non-political and those of us who won the spoils of the decades long fight, moved into the mainstream of American life. For some of us, we stayed involved in the arena of politics, but became increasingly mainstream. For many of us, our politics even moved to match our new-found wealth. The seventies passed and all of a sudden we woke to 1980 and the mood of the nation had changed. We had entered the Reagan years. The term progressive was a word not said in mixed company.
And so we disappeared. We went underground and started to call ourselves moderates or that we were center-left. We allowed the conservatives among us to dominate the conversation and the electorate. The eighties became a lost decade as the country lurched rightward. Not only was our body politic moving right but we started to see the rise of political religion, or evangelical conservatism. Mega-preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell began their movement toward the "moral majority". Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio personalities began the rightward drift of talk radio. By the early nineties, the progressive movement of the fifties and sixties looked to be extinct. Democratic politics looked dead in the water. But then came the election of 1992.
Bill Clinton was a new kind of democrat. A Harvard educated centrist, president Clinton brought many traditional democratic ideals and programs to his presidency. But as a centrist, many of his programs, especially as they related to labor and trade as well as programs for the poor were more closely related to republican conservatism than democratic progressiveness. What we had for the eight years of Clintonism was at least a slowing of the conservative express this nation was riding and a reset of some of the items of traditional progressive thought. It was a great help that we engaged in a tremendous dot com boom which placed us in the most robust economy in years. It finally brought us a balanced budget and a tax structure that made sense for the coming 21st century America.
And as the millennium turned, so did the occupant of the white house. The new operative phrase was compassionate conservatism and the new republican president was everyman George W. Bush, a down home country boy who married a low keyed school librarian, fought and conquered his own personal demons, and even owned a baseball team. Sounded like a great guy. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a lousy leader. His administration was populated by neo-conservatives such as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfewicz, and the like. His economic policy was almost completely laissez faire. His compassion turned out to be a sell out to the rich with an evisceration of the tax structure that moved us into fiscal sanity. Then the disaster of 9/11 occurred and the president took us into two unpaid for wars which were kept off the books. He also went ahead and gave a huge prescription giveaway to the drug companies. Almost overnight, the surplus became a massive deficit and the deficit began its' spiral out of control.
The problem that we faced during the Bush years is that it was again impolitic to be associated with progressive politics. The country was on a "war footing". Old prejudices bubbled to the surface. Hate crimes increased. The economy began to tank. We were quickly heading into a recession. By the election of 2008, the recession was threatening to become a depression. Unemployment was rising to outlandish rates. The debt ceiling was becoming a major issue. We were still involved in two wars. The nation was in it's worst shape since the great depression.
The democratic party, after a spirited campaign season coalesced their support around Barack Obama, an African-American senator from Illinois. Much of the traditional democratic coalition came back together to win that 2008 election. What had happened, however, was that the coalition had become somewhat more narrow. Many of the working and middle class white democrats had been convinced to migrate to the republican party during the Reagan years. President Reagan's ability to talk to them in a manner that made them believe that the republican party was actually looking out for their interests, had held this group together for almost forty years. They had now become one of the most reliable voting blocs in the republican party.
President Obama won that 2008 election. His first term was actually historic in some ways for progressives in this country. All we have to look at is the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act requiring equal pay for equal work, the Affordable Care Act which will require all Americans to have health care for the first time in American history, the end of the Iraq War and the phasing out of the Afghani War, the beginning of movement toward a Dream Act, increasing the number of and the interest on student loans, the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court all have been encouraging to progressives in this country. Unfortunately, the president has also governed much like Mr. Clinton in many ways. He has continued drone strikes and expanded them to American citizens, he has accepted the right of the government to tap in to our privacy. He has been lax in his enforcement of trade regulation and moves toward new regulation. He is still too close to the industries that he must regulate.
One of the things that President Obama has done is bring the voices of progressive politics back to the fore. It is no longer viewed negatively to be looked at askew for being a progressive. Our viewpoints are being taken seriously and are influencing policies once more. Our problem is that we are doing this piecemeal. We have all sorts of liberal groups that lobby and fight for specific rules. We also have increasing numbers of talk radio hosts who are espousing progressive philosophies and are being more and more successful. One only has to look at the success of MSNBC and the emergent Current TV to see that seed change.
The problem is that while the conservative movement is generalized and eclectic, the progressive movement tends to be specific and single issue driven. As an example, Ed Schultz is a passionate liberal, progressive radio and television talker. Throughout the first half of 2012, there were many major issues being discussed on the national scene. We saw debates over women's rights, the war in Afghanistan, unrest in Pakistan and the Middle East, the Republican clown show that was their primary season, continued obstructionism by Boehner and McConnell, etc. If you listened to conservative talk radio, you would hear their rants, arguments, suggestions and demands on each of these issues. If you listened to Ed Schultz during this period, you would have thought that the entire political world was circling around Madison, Wisconsin and the potential recall of Scott Walker and his cronies. Was this an important news story? Absolutely! But it was a news story among many. We have to be public advocates for all across the board if we are to truly affect public policy.
So how do we do this during the second term of President Barack Obama? First, we take lessons from our progressive forefathers and expand our progressive base. We work for the great majority of Americans and can demonstrate that. A five percent increase in our progressive base keeps this country moving forward for decades. Second, we take a lesson from our conservative friends and pull together our disparate organizations on a regular basis and work under a progressive agenda. We have to take our progressive heritage seriously and display it proudly. Third, we have to primary some of the democrats who think that they are going to win as conservatives. Our democratic party is a big tent. We don't require ideological purity, but we do require the candidate to work with democrats and not against them. Just a few real primary battles will get that point across. Fourth, we must continue to impress upon the white house that they must stick to their guns on taxes, gun legislation, and entitlements for the poor and working class who need those programs for survival.
I have always been and continue to be a proud progressive. We might live in a country where we have a political ebb and flow, but I truly believe that our progressive agenda is what has made our nation great. We take two steps forward for every step the conservatives send us back. They've sent us back about a half dozen steps, so we have a lot of moving forward to do.