Forging a Winning Progressive Coalition


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, 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.

22 thoughts on “Forging a Winning Progressive Coalition

  1. It’s kind of weird reading what seems like a post mortem about the Obama campaign before a single vote has been cast. Maybe he will still end up with the demographics described above. But I do sense the frustration of watching what looks like a very questionable strategy of not offending Republican voters while running in a Democratic primary that has been the Obama campaign (and Senate voting record to boot) thus far.

  2. Anonymous


    I don’t understand. A few weeks ago you were angry because Obama wasn’t running like he wanted to be President of Black America. All your criticisms then were about how he didn’t show enough interest (meaning, I guess, he didn’t talk about it enough in IOWA) in urban issues for your liking. Now, you’re quoting Chris Bowers, of all people, as having the most salient analysis of the Obama campaign. And this, when Obama is clearly surging upward in Iowa.

    Well, it’s almost as if you wished he would go ahead and lose already, so you don’t have to keep repeating (and repeating…and repeating) all the ways in which he has failed to live up to your standards (I guess those would be your aggressive typing standards). Well, here’s a news flash for you. Obama will win Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. After that Clinton will fight like the dickens for California and New York which will split: CA for him and NY for her. But, he will win every other state on Feb. 5, including my home state of TN, and by a wide margin. He will go on to the nomination and the Presidency, and he will do it whether you’re typing or not.

  3. Anonymous,

    For your information, If you go back and check, I really didn’t want Barack to fail, I wanted him to persue the inside strategy to the Vice Presidency. He didn’t, nor did he create the coalition necessary for him to pull this thing out. Hillary has sent in another 100 staffers so that she can grind him into the dust. In the end, the brotha will end up with nothing but a bunch of dashed hopes. The one thing I know now that I never wanted to know was the extent to which he was capable of selling out.

  4. Anonymous

    Selling out how? To whom? And for what? If you think 100 staffers from DC sent into Iowa at this late date will overwhelm anyone, you can’t have watched the caucuses for the last 20 to 30 years. That’s just not how Iowans work. You wanted him to “pursue the inside strategy to the Vice Presidency.” What the hell is that? You wanted him to make nice with the Borg Queen, so in her infinite generosity she might let him kiss her queenly ring? This idea-that blacks are never ready enough to grab hold of power, that whites no matter how dissolute, always deserve it more-well that is more than a little surprising coming from this quarter.

  5. john in california

    John, the old white guy, here again. As I think I have said here before, I do think Obama is pursuing the inside stategy to be offered the vp spot. (whether he takes it depends on what power the jobs comes with) But, unlike you, skepticalbrotha, I do not think he is failing at it. I think he is succeeding. I take the body language and the resultant pictures much more seriously than the little dust ups at the debates, and all of the pictures have Hill and B. in everything but an actual embrace. And that is what people will remember. What progressives of any color want was never part of the question, only could Obama make it encumbent upon Hill to make him an offer. He has effectively frozen Edwards out of the popular press, and the few pictures of Edward make him look either hectoring or desperate. Of course my candidate, Kucinch, gets asked about UFOs. It is of no importance to the msm what they say, they will be presented as Washington’s new Power Couple, combining Hill’s experience w/ B.’s dynamism. Done deal. Oh, and progressive coalition, that is strictly for the church basement crowd. Hill and B. are with the money.

  6. mike in dc

    I see Obama trending upwards in Iowa, while Edwards and Richardson trend downwards. And the big ad push hasn’t really started yet.
    Hillary got knocked back on her heels a bit last night in the debate(a first), and now her opponents are going to get their first whiff of blood in the water(and the media will likely follow suit). If Obama wins or has a strong second in Iowa, then Edwards is probably finished. Most of his support will have nowhere to go but Obama, as it will be clear that Hillary isn’t an option. Obama will then either win or get a lot closer in NH than the current polling, and if he hasn’t won yet, he probably will in SC. So, it’s possible that the two of them split the first four primaries, going into 2/5/08. If Obama is seen as more appealing and less objectionable than Clinton, he’s going to win a lot of delegates.
    He can still win this thing.

    Hillary won’t pick him as veep. They’re going to go with the most boring southern or mid-western white male available, probably one with a DLC stamp of approval.

  7. Michael

    After the debates last night, if should be clear to everyone that Obama is done as far as the nomination is concerned. Hillary is running off with this (much to my disgust). It seemed to me that all of the other candidates were simply running for VP, being very measured in not going too far on the offense lest they ruin thier chances with the borg queen. Obama has much, much seasoning to do, 2012 or 16, but not now. Hillary doesn’t need Obama’s number’s to get the nomination so I doubt we’ll see her pander to Obama’s base. Well, then again she IS the great white panderer so why stop I suppose.

  8. Anonymous,

    He wanted to play the game and not run based on principle, the only way to play the game, in my view, is to play the inside game and try gettin’ on the ticket. He told Tavis that he wasn’t interested in symbolism. Somebody not interested in symbolism surely would have realized that knocking off the Queen is the ultimate symbolic move. The surer bet would have been to become a member of the Queens court. My thing is this, if you’re gonna play the game, make the right damn moves.

  9. Anonymous

    He is trying to get on the ticket; he’s trying to win the nomination. That you think he should be trying to become the valet to power instead of becoming the powerful is a sad commentary on the horizon of your mind (i.e. it is very limited).

  10. Anonymous,

    Why do you insist on attacking me for mourning the corrupt nature of our politics and the effect it has had on a politician I once admired, or was at least intrigued by?

  11. Anonymous,

    There are at least two people in my head: the spirit of the preacher my great-grandfather once was, and the repressed politician I have always longed to be. One sees the power and majesty of God, and the good works that we are supposed to do to further the kingdom. The other examines the essentially corrupt nature of man and the futility of combating evil. One is angry and the other is righteous. One is hopeful and the other is sometimes hopeless. I guess what I am saying is that I am human and that I feel tremendously let down by our collective imperfection as human beings and the profound imperfection of our political system.

  12. Anonymous


    I get you. I guess I don’t find it fruitful to “be let down by our collective imperfection as human beings.” Those imperfections have been with us since we became Homo sapiens sapiens, and those imperfections actually generate the imperfections in our political system. And our political system doesn’t, in reality, condone or combat evil. People do that. Our job is to learn to work the pulleys of power to our putatively better ends.

    That’s why I think Barack has done yeoman’s work in this country, making it possible to see an African American politician as the more honest, straightforward progeny of the nation, as deserving of a chance to right the wrongs of the past 7 years as anybody. He is taking the great last step to full enfranchisement, and I am enormously proud of his doing so while refusing to become someone he doesn’t recognize. It takes courage to run for any public office; it takes extraordinary courage to do so without self-caricature. Having met him twice now, I am fully confident he is real enough to be a good and dangerously honest president. I for one will cast my vote in my state primary, for once, with a rather rounded understanding of whom I elect.

  13. To paraphrase Kanye, the “creative class” don’t care about Black people. Sen. Obama is in more trouble with the two constituencies he needs to jack from Sen Clinton to win; moderates and Black voters. Once Black voters actually get to see/hear him outside the debates, they come around. Obama, in terms of winning Black support, is running against Bill as much as Hillary.

    That said, the concept of bringing those two classes you’d hoped he would bring together is a nice thought. There are a few issues that will continue to divide the two, issues where Black folks are mostly conservative and the “Creative class” have a take no prisoners stance in opposition.

  14. Denise,

    Until he gets married, don’t bring up the Alabama Governor’s Race, because it would be a moot point. But, just in case he does get hitched, then yes, folks SAY he is running, and if so, he did himself just fine with this vote. I’d like to know what the other votes were from the delegates from Alabama.

  15. Denise

    fyi – this is my 2nd attempt to respond.

    I hear you, Rikyrah.

    I’m going on record with my opposition to the idea that it’s okay to deny employment protections to people based on sexual orientation.

    It’s just wrong.

    Trust me, I have met or worked with my fair share of racist, sexist, and/or heterophobic gay folk. But I also have hard-working gay friends and relatives who deserve protection under the law.

    I’m standing up for them.

  16. Barack Obama, an equal opportunity candidate

    It’s obvious that Obama is not white enough and certainly not black enough. He does however presents himself as an equal opportunity candidate.

    There’s a piece of him for the white color conscious voter and a piece of him for the black color conscious voter. It would be nice if race was not a factor but let’s not kid ourselves; we are all not so blind.

    For the first time, African-Americans are presented with a candidate who shares their heritage and has a legitimate chance to be nominated and eventually elected president of the United States.

    Obama is not an ordinary candidate. He is specially gifted and standing head to head with Hillary, is far superior both in judgment, character and intellectual endowment. He also has sufficient relevant experience to make good decisions where others like Hillary failed. Moreover, he will do more for blacks than Hillary will ever do.

    Blacks should not allow themselves to be held back by fear and self doubt and be misguided into voting for Hillary instead of Obama. If Iowa can do it, why can’t they?

    Blacks are intelligent enough to know that simply being black is no grounds to be supported. Heaven knows there are enough ineffective black individuals parading as leaders out there. Obama without a doubt is as qualified a candidate for the White house as there is on the campaign trail.

    The tag teams of Bill and Hillary Clinton have mounted a serious negative campaign to diminish the stature of Obama. They have introduced the race and gender cards in an effort to bait and destroy him.

    They have also turned loose all the big media dogs to intensify their attacks on Obama. In other words, the Clinton machine is in full war mode and will take no prisoners.

    This is the moment for African-Americans to stand for something. This is the time to make their vote count. If they capitulate to the Clintons and allow themselves to be duped into selecting Hillary, then they will be for a long time relegated to the bottom. The Latinos are coming.

    Blacks should not allow themselves to be pimped by the Clintons. They should free themselves from mental slavery and exercise wisdom by giving Obama victory. They should reject any so called leaders who may try to persuade them from doing the right thing.

    Blacks should cease this moment and set a new course for their future. Let’s face it; Obama is the closest blacks will ever come to having a black president. Bill Clinton is not black and never was. Remember also that Hillary is no Bill and therefore, doesn’t deserve any blind allegiance.

    Help defeat the Clinton machine, select Obama and set the stage for change. That’s the challenge to blacks

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