Reform-killing Dems obstruct second progressive era

The enduring Progressive Era was astonishingly successful, presaging benefits of a Second Progressive Era: resolve widespread broken systems without violent civil insurgency.


Systemic Change Demands New Coalition Party

Though still in play, the redemptive, progressive movement to save American democracy — across economic, climate, structural and healthcare justice — is on wobbly footing. Great breakthrough ideas from Sanders (and Warren) aren’t dominating the primary forum, let alone competing with a profoundly uninspiring, default has-been. Biden is proof positive of party repulsion against facing, let alone fixing a spate of broken systems. The urgency of hope has shipwrecked, as if simply finding a Trump killer magically remakes the world. 

Sanders is right: first priority is to crush Trump and Trumpian authoritarianism. But does that happen without uplifting ideas, an impassioned candidate, intact organization and dedicated movement?  Certainly not by nominating a plodding figure whose minefield of career baggage approximates Hilary the loser.

And yet we can agree with NY Times essayist, historian Michael Kazin: win or lose, Sanders “has transformed the Democratic Party.” But skepticism remains: by what terms has Sanders alone “already won,” per his title? First, Kazin makes the simplistic error of reducing the entire progressive movement success to one candidate, however much he greatly expands public awareness. Second, coming up short (or now behind) two potentially unelectable Dem lackeys demonstrates ’16 strength was less about the sustained urgency of democratic socialist reform than disgust with a disgraced Clinton.

Thwarted Progressive Era?

Many hoped ’16 would spawn a new progressive era, especially with Sanders as nominee. Four years later that trajectory is blurred, and a decisive second loss now dims progressive prospects, at least within the Democratic Party.  Two strikes don’t mean we’re out, but wouldn’t an independent, coalition progressive party escape Democratic kingpin machinations? What evidence ties the modern Democratic Party with systematic reform (other than halfway healthcare), and how much reeks of reactionary resistance? As Sanders declares, his perennial targets are entrenched interests, within and without a party he never formally joined. 

Back to Kazin, who concedes, “the socialist [!] from Vermont” pushing 80 is likely “a more transformative figure” than actual winners. But real transformation deflected by the Clinton-Biden mindset won’t get to first base. Would not the progressive, Democratic 35% block be liberated, and more potent, by defining our own platform and narrative, then alone owning power to score legislative wins?

Predictably, the mix of implacable DNC establishment, fat cat party donors, and chicken little voters (fleeing cries of “socialism”!) refuse to talk up, let alone demand systemic reforms. Urgency remains, buttressing  2016 truths: 1) a decades-long New Progressive Era is existentially critical; and 2) today’s primary voters worship the status quo, resistant to save America (and the world) from self-defeating policies and backward creeds.

The Global Village

Clearly, the glaring lesson of today’s ominous pandemic comes a little late: no one is an island unto oneself, prospering by selfishness: we are all inevitably linked across a collective humanity. In this light, utter administration fiascos not only discredit Trumpian manipulation of bad news, but years of rightwing screeds on America First “self-reliance.” A joke presidency, whose craven delays shame itself and the country, looks for the first time in jeopardy. The parade of cowardly blunders is cracking Trumpery open — for me reminiscent of Humpty-Dumpty.

Not only will no one escape Covid-19 ravages, this Dumbo of Trumptys has trumped himself — paralyzed by any “crisis” more complicated than tax giveaways or emoluments. Can foolish and slavish king’s men put pieces back together again? With shocking volatility eviscerating markets and recession in sight, Trump betrays his own vulnerable crony capitalism with vast ineptitude. Wait until middle-class Trumpers are staggered by blows to shrunken retirements savings, lost wages, and sustained family disruptions.  What, no March Madness?  What, no NBA? No MLB?  Will smoldering Trump fans stay loyal and quiet when the opiate entertainment of the masses disappears? Coronavirus outreach outdoes much leftwing squawking.

Never was It Easy

The ennobling Sanders/Warren quest won key battleground, but not yet the primary wars. Because failure teaches more than success, time to imagine new rhetoric and new narratives.  If Sanders falls short again, shredding off-putting “socialist” trappings, so be it.  Most voters find “Medicare-for-all” less persuasive than “universal health care,” not alienating union supporters with hard-won healthcare. Ill-timed cries for “revolution” terrified more folks than it won over. If the targeted “establishment” is Democratic, let’s face it: the entrenched will poison progressive winners. Time to find another bar — even another (party) hill to die on. 

Trial and error defined the Progressive Era, certainly early FDR days, initially elected without promising big structural changes. Similarly, conspicuous progressive leadership must expand beyond old white people, with charismatic, trench-tested voices from minority, poor and disenfranchised populations. We need compelling media presences fed up with indignity and misery, not old elites. The grassroots Second Progressive Era must explode outdated mindsets (like “only centrists win”) while railing against gerrymandering, voting disenfranchisement and the dual tyranny of the Senate filibuster and Electoral College.

A Second Progressive Era needs decades to offset 40 years of rightwing economic, legal, military and healthcare hegemony. Will that happen in a party beholden to unenlightened wealth, sustaining inequality by crushing minority college options with high prices and backbreaking loans? The extreme urgency of climate pressures should facilitate — not challenge — systemic reforms, leveraging the Green New Deal as economic stimulant.  How else, without national progressive leverage (and liberal alliances), will we ever humanize and bring down crony capitalism and its kin, corrupt corporatism?

Stay the Course

Sanders must stay in the race, reinforcing his status quo-busting arguments, if only to expand consciousness.  Does anyone doubt with Biden at the helm, the ship reverses direction — backwards to half-a-loaf Obama-think? Over time, progressive reform must transcend celebrity/brand politics. Depressingly, voters this season didn’t just go for status quo Joe, but rejected fresher, more articulate faces with centrist politics but with far less baggage. A double whammy, in short, that makes a Progressive Party leadership a critical necessity.

For the record, early iterations of the Progressive Party, instigated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 when denied the Republican nomination, resurfaced, the latest in ’48 when Henry Wallace embraced this standard. The Progressive Era itself, begun in the the 19th C, boasts enormous gains, from monopoly trust-busting, child labor/workers rights, income tax, and minimum wage laws to direct Senate election, women’s suffrage, and anti-corrupt politics, especially against city bosses. Progress came from democratizing government, public education, medicine, finance, insurance, industry, railroads, and church organizations.  Crowning first generation reforms, FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s gains represent not only the salvation of the American democracy but enactment of deeply-held Progressive Era values. 

In short, many active decades saved capitalism from crushing, predatory Robber Baron excesses.  There were misses as well: (Jim Crow) racism, poll taxes and phony “literacy” tests were bluntly ignored until ’60’s civil and voting rights triumphs; ditto, improvements to federal health, safety, environmental and pension programs across the second half of the 20th C. 

Overall, the enduring Progressive Era was astonishingly successful, presaging what only a Second Progressive Era would do: resolve widespread broken economic and political systems without violent civil insurgency. That happens now when reform comes to climate, healthcare, immigration, job training, education, energy, transport, and infrastructure shortfalls. Admittedly, a formidable list, compounded by unspeakable rightwing negligence and gross failures of offset by weak Dem opposition. Frankly, today’s status quo stinks for the majority, dramatized by President Putz going through the motions of being in charge, National redemption demands a newly-empowered progressive party taken seriously in the halls of power. How many think sticking with stodgy Democrats is the way to go?


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.