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Holding the Center: To build on the gains of Obama’s presidency, progressive activists must focus on recruitment

By Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava

Eighteen months into the Obama era, the progressive movement is 
experiencing malaise, based on disappointment about what has been  
accomplished so far and confusion about the path forward. The sense of 
disappointment is, in our view, exaggerated. It is important to remember  
that progressive campaigns and grassroots efforts have played a major  
role in achieving reforms that are more substantial than anything we  
have seen since the Great Society: provision of health insurance  
coverage to more than 30 million additional people and partial  
regulation of the health insurance industry; the largest (albeit  
temporary) expansion of antipoverty programs in forty years as part of  
the Recovery Act; student lending reforms making it easier for young  
people to go to college; and legislation to increase regulation of the  
financial sector. There is much to be proud of in the way progressive  
organizations have risen to the historical moment, educated and  
mobilized their constituencies, and helped to secure major victories  
that will have a real, positive impact on people's lives.

At the same time, there are legitimate grounds for disappointment with  
the administration's policies on many issues, including the war in  
Afghanistan, climate change, persistent unemployment, foreclosures,  
civil liberties and immigration, to name just a few. The gulf oil  
spill, the Arizona immigration law and real unemployment rates in the  
double digits are evidence of Washington's continuing failure to solve  
problems even when they become catastrophic.
As we head into a difficult and challenging period, with crucial  
elections looming and prospects for further progressive policy  
victories uncertain, the most important question for progressives is  
not how Obama is doing but how we as a movement are doing. Our most  
pressing challenge in this era is movement recruitment. This means  
focusing on building a base and drafting new followers of a  
progressive agenda as well as supporters for progressive politicians  
and organizations. If the movement has fallen down in this assignment,  
it is because we do not understand what Obama understands so well-that  
most people are not ideologically driven and, in fact, the opinions of  
most people are internally inconsistent. They should not be courted  
and recruited as if they are "latent progressives" waiting to be shown  
the truth. A sober look at the fluidity and ideological contradictions  
of public opinion in the country may point a way forward.

For thirty years, journalists and political analysts have described the  
polarized electorate as engaged in a "culture war." Though this frame  
provides a handy way to communicate the dialectic between the  
ideologies of the right and left, it is misleading and, to the extent  
that we buy into the dichotomy, could be damaging to progressive  
causes. The assumption that people are "with us or against us"  
suggests that people can be arrayed along an ideological spectrum from  
right to left, and that they will occupy their assigned spot  
consistently. That is, a person will be a "moderate rightist" or a  
"centrist" or an "extreme fundamentalist," or will occupy any number  
of other slots.

There are elaborate charts that lay out the distinctions among the  
many variations of each movement-the right and the progressive  
movement. But there is very little discussion of the actual content of  
the opinions of those in the center (not just voters but those who  
may, at some point, decide to vote). Many of these voters chose Obama  
in the 2008 election. They represent the potential for growth in the  
Democratic Party, and perhaps the progressive movement. Pollsters do  
ask them how they rank their concerns and focus groups collect their  
opinions, often noting that those opinions do not reflect the reality  
of their material lives. But there is little research on their belief  
systems. As we have traveled the country for the last twenty-five  
years, we have observed that centrists are not ideologically  
consistent but are very often internally logically inconsistent. They  
do not adhere to any ideological belief system but are often all over  
the map ideologically.
Battles in Congress that fall rigidly along partisan lines reinforce-  
the idea of two sides locked in a longstanding clash of worldviews.  
But despite the political drama of the "tea parties" staged by the  
right to oppose Obama, is the larger electorate similarly divided? And  
can we afford, at this weighty moment in history, to use a theme in  
our own work that was developed by the right to assist in its movement  
recruitment? Or should we reject the culture war frame outright?

We have found a third "side" in our experience, especially among  
nonactivists. Many people who are not ideologically driven (but who  
may hold strong opinions on various issues) make up the vast "center"  
in journalistic parlance. They are also called "swing voters" or  
"nonideological neighbors." They may identify with one party or the  
other, or see themselves as independents, but they couldn't state with  
certainty the major parties' stance on every position. This fluid  
"center" is the determining vote in many elections and issue  
campaigns. Obama ran as a thoughtful, modest, knowledgeable and  
principled candidate who is not ideologically driven. It is precisely  
because he was able to project a nonideological persona that he won.  
This point is important for progressives to understand. Obama  
attracted an odd collection of voters in his campaign, and not all of  
them agreed with him on everything. In part, that's because so many  
voters don't agree with themselves on everything.

Without a deeper understanding of the misperceptions from the culture  
war, progressives will fail to learn two important lessons from the  
right's past success with centrists: 1) there is no movement building  
without prioritizing recruitment; and 2) it is important to go  
everywhere, even into hostile territory, to recruit those who agree  
with you on one or more things. It is notable that the states that  
have sent the most conservative Blue Dog Democrats to Congress, where  
they have blocked progressive initiatives in the Senate and House- 
Arkansas, Nebraska, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana and others-are places  
where progressives have not been able to build a strong base. To  
engage in effective recruitment, progressives need to understand the  
political "center." Understanding the center is the key to  
understanding how Obama captured the election and how he has governed.

For many people, especially those not on the left or right of the  
political spectrum, internal ideological consistency is not a  
compelling duty. Many people hold strong opinions that are  
contradictory, and they are not bothered by that. Bitter grumbling  
about the US Post Office is often accompanied by equally bitter  
grumbling about rising taxes, which are needed to support postal  
improvements. Many who are antichoice on the issue of abortion, saying  
that it is "killing a human being," are also pro-death penalty. Those  
who complain loudest about tainted peanut butter may oppose government  
regulation of industry. These constituents demonstrate that social  
traditions can trump financial self-interest, and that financial self- 
interest can sometimes trump social traditions. Loyalty to community  
practices, to family or friendship networks, to religious training or  
to economic self-interest plays a large role in a person's worldview,  
but nevertheless most people believe what they want to believe. The  
ideological commitments of the average voter cannot easily be  
categorized, as they can be in the case of ideologically motivated  

Obama's lack of a clear, consistent ideology is appealing to many  
centrists. Having endured eight years of George W. Bush, whose  
ideology was seldom breached during his administration, the voters  
were open to embracing a nonideologue. The "hope" and "change"  
slogans, maligned by Obama's opposition and some leftists, allowed  
many voters to assign positions to him according to their own  
internally inconsistent preferences. And now we see Obama presiding  
over an administration that is also internally inconsistent He brought on Larry Summers  
and Tim Geithner, two central figures in the financial excesses of the  
past fifteen years, to fix the problems those excesses have caused. He  
expresses strong support for unions and also supports charter schools,  
which are notorious for barring unionization of teachers. He wants to  
study the violations of the Constitution under George W. Bush  
carefully but has shown a willingness to use some of Bush's arguments  
to protect "state secrets." These are not the positions of an ideologue.

In order to woo centrist voters, rightists and progressives have  
debated whether to stay close to their core principles or to reach out  
with compromise policies. If the progressive movement wants to succeed  
in the Obama era, we must have a deep analytical understanding of the  
country, be politically mature in realizing that a movement needs  
above all to recruit new members and learn to live with those whose  
beliefs contain inconsistencies while opposing those beliefs that  
violate our core principles. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia and  
certain other bigotry cannot be condoned in any way. But how we oppose  
them is important. When Rick Warren, an explicitly antigay preacher,  
was chosen to give the invocation at Obama's inauguration, the LGBTQ  
community modeled an effective oppositional campaign to register their  
protest and educate Obama. Rather than demonize and attack Obama, they  
instead focused on demonstrating how insulting and hurtful the  
decision was. This is an approach that community organizers know well.  
Quite often, the challenge they face is to mobilize the community  
around an issue that will draw the maximum number of people. Without  
compromising their principles, organizers will often work with people  
whose views on other issues are incomprehensible to them. If the  
positions of supporters are abhorrent, however, recruitment could  
become a betrayal of core principles.

Voters who lack ideological consistency are estimated to account for  
between 18 and 25 percent of the electorate-more than the hard-core  
members of the religious right. The importance of the Tea Party has  
been vastly overstated relative to the importance of this swing bloc.  
Like Obama, the right seems to understand the strategic value of  
appealing to swing voters. For example, many born-again evangelical  
Christians, most of whom are not a part of the religious right, are  
extremely generous and compassionate people. By teaching that poverty  
is a "disease of the soul," the right has played to their  
inconsistency. While criticizing government programs for serving both  
the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor (the latter being poor because  
they are losers, addicts or loose women), those on the right advocate  
addressing poverty on a case-by-case basis. It is more difficult for  
them to paint children with the "undeserving" brush, but the  
Republican blockage of S-CHIP legislation in 2008, and the lack of  
outrage about that from the center, demonstrates the power of  
ideological inconsistency. Most evangelicals agree that child poverty  
is certainly wrong and should be addressed, but often that position  
does not lead to support for federal programs. To progressives this is  
a blatant inconsistency, but to many evangelicals, who have been  
courted, recruited and "educated" by the right, it is an acceptable,  
even logical, position. While they do charitable work, often serving  
as the first to lend help in a natural disaster and provide  
desperately needed services on a daily basis, they see this work as a  
"private" rather than government mission. Their religiously motivated  
antipoverty work often places them close to people's experiences and  
gives them an understanding of the life challenges of the average  
person. But they do not trust government (often also based on their  
own experience).

It seems unlikely that Obama will address this inconsistency on the  
issue of poverty head on, instead continuing his practice of quietly  
improving government benefits for low-income people while not invoking  
the words "poverty" or "welfare." But progressives can play a role in  
appealing to centrists on the issue of poverty-while, at the same time,  
beginning to recast the debate-by engaging in the age-old tradition of  
making meaning and teaching: through traveling lecturers (drawing on  
the history of populism); teach-ins (the antiwar movement);  
citizenship schools (from the civil rights tradition); consciousness  
raising (feminism); and popular education. These practices are largely  
defunded and weak on the left. We seem more regularly to ask people to  
take action on very specific policy issues without helping them  
understand the larger context or make meaning of their experiences  
through dialogue. The progressive movement needs to create venues for  
this sort of self-education.

In its early stages, this education could appeal to the generosity and  
caring of many hard-line opponents of government programs. We could  
approach the issue with an understanding of the inconsistencies and  
not require an entire progressive ideological package-arguing, for  
instance, that churches and private charities alone cannot effectively  
address poverty. Such a campaign would not insist that its adherents  
understand that private relief programs often provide services to  
those with whom they identify rather than taking a universal approach.  
Or that private relief is often racially discriminatory, demeaning and  
inadequate. Rather, that a country that allows children and adults to  
go hungry is not a caring country.

The progressive movement is often presented as fractured between those  
"defending Obama's back" and those "rejecting him as inadequate to the  
task he set himself (and he's no progressive to boot)." None of what  
we have said about the importance of recruitment suggests that we  
should not criticize Obama. As progressives, we are obliged, for  
example, to confront the failure of the administration to respond  
aggressively to the massive unemployment that is wrecking people's  
lives, especially in communities of color. But this division between  
Obama supporters and detractors is weakening the progressive movement,  
as each side is increasingly intolerant of the other. Those who engage  
in recruitment appreciate the need to work with people who are not  
consistently progressive in order to open minds to new messages: those  
who are fed up with Obama are pushing him to be more committed to  
progressive principles and more willing to take risks for them. But a  
mature movement can play both roles, because its members understand  
there is a need for both.

It is unrealistic to believe that what stands between us and  
progressive success is simply insufficient nerve or spine on the part  
of the president. Our argument is for realism and a deep understanding  
of the context in which campaigns are conducted in the United States.  
We are calling for the progressive movement to put movement building  
and recruitment at the center of its ambitions, without our giving up  
our principles or engaging in internecine conflict over who is most  
ideologically pure.

The progressive movement entered the Obama era in a somewhat depleted  
state. While we have large, well-funded think tanks and media  
organizations, the grassroots groups so vital to a healthy movement  
are struggling and closing in the midst of the financial crisis  
affecting their donors and many foundations. Corporate power and money  
still present formidable obstacles to the changes we seek. Equally  
important, the movement lacks an overarching vision. But while the  
United States in many ways remains a conservative country, changing  
demographics and a maturing and savvy progressive movement could even  
the political playing field as never before. With a clear and  
realistic reading of the country and a humility not often associated  
with the left, progressives could carry the day for decades to come.

Jean Hardisty is the founder and president emeriti of Political Research Associates. Deepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change.