Forging a Winning Progressive Coalition

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Chris Bowers of Open Left has an excellent piece on Barack Obama’s failure to recreate the progressive white and African American coalition that catapulted him to national prominence.   Read it and tell me what you think.   I think he’s dead on.

Hat Tip: By Chris Bowers of OPEN LEFT

I want to make an addendum to my post yesterday about Obama’s campaign. In particular, I want to say that one of my longest-running visions in progressive politics has been for a strongly progressive Democrat to win the party’s presidential nomination, and then the Presidency, based on a coalition that, at its core, combines African-Americans and the white progressive “creative class.” Loosely speaking, as I articulated in one of my very first blog posts ever, it would be a combination of the Jesse Jackson coalition in 1988 and the Howard Dean coalition of 2003. In a more recent formulation, I have referred to it as the coalition of non-whites and non-Christian Democrats. That isn’t to say that other demographic groups wouldn’t be involved in the coalition, just that its two largest demographic groups would be people of color and whites who do not self-identify as Christian.

Why do I focus on these two groups? Several reasons. First, they tend to be the most Democratic-leaning of all demographic groups in terms of voting patterns. Second, because members of congress who come from these districts tend to be the most progressive Democrats around. Third, because non-whites and non-Christians are both high growth demographic groups, and represent a potential long-term governing majority. Fourth, because they already make up a majority of Democratic voters nationwide. Fifth, the 1988 and 2004 elections demonstrate the willingness of these groups to support non-establishment candidates. In short, this is a coalition that could dominate Democratic politics and even national politics for a long time to come, with the result being an electable, progressive governing majority if formed. I see this coalition as the Holy Grail of progressive electoral politics.

In early 2004, while living in Chicago, I saw a candidate who explicit strategy in the Illinois Democratic Senatorial primary was to forge that very coalition: Barack Obama. I thought that, if he won a Senate seat using that strategy, it would then become possible for him to use that strategy to become President either eight years down the road (was banking, of course, on a Democratic presidential victory in 2004). If a state Senator could do it on a statewide level, a US Senator could do it on a national level. Obama seemed like a potential solution to a long-running electability problem for progressives on a national level. And given that many people I talked with had considered him a possible future President even when he was in a distant third-place in the Senatorial primary, his potential to pull this coalition off, even before his 2004 DNC speech, appeared enormous and very believable.

Because of this, I leaned toward Obama for a long, long time in this campaign. Despite events like the Edwards blogger controversy, or Richardson coming out in favor of no residual forces, I kept waiting for Obama’s campaign to put this coalition together. Once it started happening, and his early lead among the progressive creative class was matched by an advantage among African-Americans, I was ready to jump on board. Given how long I had looked for such a coalition to form, I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines once it actually did. However, it just no longer seems to me as though Obama is going to pull that coalition together. He never overcame Clinton’s advantage among African-Americans, and as I documented in yesterday’s post he started losing ground among the progressive creative class. If, as the campaign progresses, a candidate is losing ground, and is behind overall, among the two main of this potential coalition, I have a very difficult time seeing that candidate as the leader of the progressive governing coalition I have sought.

I don’t know why Obama has been unable to make any dent in Clinton’s overall advantage among African-Americans. I have my theories on Obama’s struggle with the progressive creative class that I articulated yesterday. Frist, he kept attacking extremist liberal strawmen, which is basically an attack on the progressive creative class. Second, he kept talking about unity and reaching across the aisle during a time when conservatives and Republicans were repeatedly shooting down consensus legislation in the Senate, where Obama himself holds a seat. It seemed as though he was determined not to pursue his 2004 primary strategy on a national level, and instead take a more traditional, establishment route. I don’t know for certain how accurate my analysis is, but for one reason or another Obama has now failed to bring either of the two main components of this coalition together during the campaign, and current trends make it seem like the situation is only going to get worse.

I still hope that this coalition will one day come together, but I no longer see Obama as having real potential to pull it off anymore. I also don’t think that the coalition can be successful if it forms on its own, and then endorses a candidate without being endorsed by that candidate. Voluntarily offering your support to a candidate that hasn’t endorsed you is a good way to become irrelevant once that candidate is in office. See, for example, the way that congressional Democrats went along and condemned MoveOn.org, now that, once they are in the majority, they can use corporate PAC money instead of netroots money. If you give it away for free, people can find other sources of support once they are in power. Also, it is hard for any coalition to come together without a unifying cause for it to come together around.

I see this as a big missed opportunity in 2008. I don’t know what happened to the Barack Obama of the Illinois Senate primary. Maybe nothing did, and I simply misjudged his potential as the leader of this new progressive coalition.  Either way, it is very disappointing, and it has me searching for answers much like I was after Dean’s defeat four years ago.