Now What? A Cautionary Note, and an Invitation, to Progressives

Exploring the psychology of social change reveals warning signs and opportunities for progressives as Obama takes power.

Now that progressives have attained their goal of electing Barack Obama president and established the presence of a political mandate for change and, putatively, progressive ideas, what can we expect will happen next? What do we now need to learn to maximize our momentum in the wake of this exceptional, momentous reaffirmation of the democratic tradition in America?

Now that we have won the political argument, the next step is to work on creating the cultural and socioeconomic changes that must follow if we are to build a truly progressive society.

Consider the upcoming changes for the progressive movement from the vantage point of the psychological dynamics that any human organism undergoes when faced with the changes in identity that accompany any life transition. There are forces that seek change, and those that fear it and resist it.

This is what I expect will happen next, and indeed seems to have begun to happen already:

Now that Obama has been sworn in, progressives will go through a momentary backlash of self-doubt. Is this really happening? Can we trust that this is real? Are we able to do this? Are we ready?

This self-doubt typically can play out in a variety of ways. For example, the old guard Democrats of the DLC may try to take credit for Obama’s sweeping victory by positioning themselves in the new administration in a way that seems to undercut all the energy and commitment of “new” and younger progressives who were swept into civic engagement by Obama’s campaign. The media, in turn, tries to play this as business as usual among the Democrats and emphasizes disillusionment and disappointment among the previously hopeful new participants in the political process. The message is that the youthful energy, inclusiveness, and new ideas of the Obama campaign have turned out to be an illusion.

The important thing to remember when this happens is that this is a momentary and expectable development. It will pass. We must not allow the mainstream media to make too much of it, or believe that storyline ourselves. Remember: Obama’s victory was a ratification of change, and change – personal, cultural, or otherwise – does not happen in a straight line.

The most important development I anticipate for progressives, now that Barack Obama has been sworn in as the 44th President, is that our roles as progressives will have to change. Up until this point, we have been the underdogs, not just for the past very long eight years, but throughout the entire arc of the advent of modern conservatism, dating back to the election of Ronald Reagan. Although Bill Clinton held office for eight of those years, and represented a reprieve from staunch conservatism in a number of ways, the zeitgeist of the country was far from a progressive one. It has been a very long time that the progressive movement has been pushing Sisyphus’ rock uphill. We have been the underdogs for so long that many of the newly engaged foot soldiers of the Obama era have no recollection whatsoever of this country being any other way.

We’ve been the underdog for what has seemed like forever – and now, all of a sudden, we’re not. We won. We were victorious. But what do we do with the victory? And what pitfalls lurk under the surface in the transition from victor to whatever comes next?

From Underdog to Change Agent

First, we are going to have to get used to being victorious, to wielding power. At first blush, that does not seem to present any difficulties, but that would be a naïve position to take.

The progressive movement is about to be called upon to undergo a change in identity. A positive change, to be sure, but a change nonetheless. All changes, even positive ones, create stress for the party that is changing. Witness the fact that positive events such as marriage and getting a promotion register high on ratings of major life stressors, alongside negative events such as divorce and loss of a loved one. Moving to a new place to live is high on the list as well – an event that can be construed as either positive or negative, depending on the point of view of the relocating person.

The point here is that all change induces stress, regardless of whether we choose to view it as positive or negative, because we must manage shifting external demands just as we are learning about new capabilities in ourselves we may not have been aware of before, or practiced utilizing.

Progressives are about to experience this first hand. We are no longer the powerless underdogs fighting rear guard actions against the relentless rule of a regressive, repressive majority. Now we are in charge. And we are going to have to get used to it.

The second aspect of this change from progressive underdog to majority player and holder of power revolves around how we will wear our new role. This is a more optional change. But I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite the script of how victors behave in the American system, as part of the effort to bring not just political but cultural and socioeconomic change to our country.

If we are to win the cultural argument, and not just the political one – in other words, if we are to build the just, sustainable society that progressives have dreamt of and talked about for so long – then we are going to have to treat our victory differently than we would have under more “normal“ circumstances.

It is patently obvious that Obama’s victory was no ordinary victory; it was a sea change on numerous levels. It was the culmination of a lifetime of work for civil rights activists; an overwhelming statement of agreement with values of the progressive movement by a majority of voters; and a reaffirmation that our electoral system, and our democracy, despite voter fraud and the shredding of our Constitution by the Bush administration, can still function.

On top of this, the magnitude of the problems that our nation and the world face at this moment in history is staggering: war, national and energy security, economic meltdown, and a raft of social ills that have festered for eight or more years without balm. That was no ordinary election, and this is no ordinary post-election. We have a mind-boggling array of issues to attend to. Creating the needed changes in our national infrastructure, commerce, and culture will require some heavy lifting indeed.

Ask anyone who’s ever built a pyramid – some genuine heavy lifting – and they will tell you – what’s needed is cooperation. We as progressives cannot fix the magnitude of problems in this country on our own, even if we are now putatively the majority.

So, the invitation that appears before the progressive movement is to shift our identity not from underdog to victor, but from underdog to, eventually, agent of change. If we are to ultimately do the work that has been set before us, we must shift from being adversarial to cultivating cooperation. We have to learn to work with the people who even recently may have strenuously opposed us.

Doing What is Needed

This will not go down easy for a lot of progressives. There are activists who have labored in the trenches for so long that relinquishing an oppositional stance in relation to conservatives may be functionally impossible, at least at first. And there are doubtless progressive political operatives and Members of Congress who have their own battle scars that will not fade any time soon.

Indeed, it is understandable – and I would encourage it enthusiastically – to enjoy our victory for a good long moment, in order to settle into the mantle of leadership we have worked so long to earn. But we cannot afford to bask in the moment for long.

My point here is that prior elections have kept Democrats and Republicans in a perpetual pendulum swing where one lords their power over the other after an electoral victory, because the battle is so hard won, and there is the perception, often quite accurate, that our opponents would not be especially gracious to us if the roles were reversed. And indeed, we are not especially generous when it is our turn, because now we want the other guy to know what its like to be on the bottom of the pile for a change.

The problem with this thinking is that, well, there’s not much thinking in it. It’s an emotional knee-jerk reaction – and one of the many reasons why citizens have been cynical about politics. There is a playground quality to making your opponent pay after you’ve won. In that sense, the Democrats (though they haven’t won as often) and the Republicans (who have held the upper hand a lot) are very much alike.

Given that this is no ordinary moment in time, and no ordinary victory at hand, there is an opportunity for progressives to find a way to be the better men and women, to take the high road and work to forge the partnerships we need with those who we know may not agree with us.

President Obama, no doubt, embodies this kind of graciousness himself. He serves as a model of how to move forward in working with our former opponents – even if his efforts have initially, and ultimately quite foolishly, been repudiated by Congressional Republicans. As our president is so fond of saying, he cannot do it all alone. Individual citizens are going to need to participate in the challenging work ahead of us that is necessary to rebuild our country. The likening of these times to the Great Depression certainly carries with it the implication that, in fact, all citizens will need to be called upon to pass successfully through this transition. In effect, we will all need to be ambassadors for progressive values in our own lives in order to enact en masse the creation of the vital and humane society we have held dear in our minds all this time.

Indeed, I would argue that, as progressives, it is our moral obligation to do better as victors than historically we, or our opponents, have. If we are to have the integrity of our beliefs, if we are to act in ways that are consistent with what we claim to profess as humanistic and creative thinkers who believe in the democratic experiment, we must strive to do this. Putting aside our differences and declining to vilify those who have vilified us is what we will be called upon to do in order to build the bridges and coalitions we are going to need to build.

The challenge moving forward is to learn how to engage our opponents in the larger work we must undertake together to repair our nation and society. Defiance, gloating, and animosity will not work. There are techniques that progressives can learn in order to do this, which is the subject of another essay entirely. But before we get to that, we must make the transition from enjoying the spoils of victory to transmuting ourselves into agents of positive change, into seeing ourselves as catalysts or midwives, if you will, of the new society and economy we must build.

Ignoring Feelings at Our Peril

How on earth are we going to do that?

Well. First I’ll tell you what we are not going to do – or at least what will very likely not work for the majority of progressives if we default into doing this. We are not going to float feel-good platitudes about how we are going to simply “let go” of our feelings of resentment towards neo-cons that have been developing over the past eight years. The conservative junta has trashed much that progressives hold near and dear, and have worked mightily to dismantle the fabric of our nation. They have institutionalized a nastiness and mean-spiritedness in their governing and their media that has shredded the ability of our nation to hold civil discourse on nearly any topic of substance. We cannot simply be asked to forget this. When the wolf is still standing at the door, you don’t invite him in for tea.

No, instead, I would recommend that we acknowledge openly and vociferously the damage done by the neocons to us – not as a media event to be parsed and misinterpreted by pundits – but as a sort of within-group purge, an opportunity for progressives to speak among ourselves about what we have been through in order to relinquish it and become ready to assume the responsibilities of leadership.

It is not unlike the shift from Apartheid in South Africa – there was a need for the Truth and Reconciliation Committee to hold open hearings on the injustices of the fallen regime, in order for citizens to let go of the pain of that era and move on to something new (although in our model there is no power to grant amnesty from prosecution for perpetrators).

The danger is, if we skip this step – if we move directly to pushing the progressive agenda forward without reflecting on how we feel about what toll it has taken to get here – we risk the dark impulses of revenge and unconscious anger tearing apart the coalitions we need to build. The emotional energy around the Presidential election, and by extension, the cultural transition we are about to enjoin, is considerable. Do not underestimate the importance of emotion in the political equation. If we do not acknowledge our quite understandable desire to make the Republicans and neo-cons pay for the damage they have done, they will sense this unbidden energy and exploit it as our weakness. They will help us self-destruct on it. We must not let that happen.

The advantage of intentionally addressing the lingering animosity that progressives quite understandably may feel towards the conservatives we are now tasked with working with to rebuild our country is that making conscious the desire to express anger towards conservatives and seek revenge against them gives us the power to decide what to do with these feelings. These feelings will not ambush us if we take the time as a group to acknowledge them.

Acknowledging in a collective setting that many progressives feel the same on this score will allow us to set these impulses aside. And in so doing, it will allow us to reclaim a strong and even fierce voice that we can use to work with the conservatives in a way that holds them accountable for their transgressions without seeking blame or retribution.

Accountability and Cooperation

Note that the endgame of working through our negative feelings towards the conservatives is not to roll over, Neville Chamberlain style, and forget everything that was done to us at the hands of the conservatives. Rather, it is to open a way to gather our strength and determination as we hold the conservatives accountable for the errors of their ways, past and present, as part and parcel of learning to work together in coalitions with them. If we are angry, subconsciously or not, we are not empowered; we are reactive, and letting fear of being overpowered again decide what we are to do. If we have a handle on our darker feelings, we can make conscious choices about them, can set them aside and can confront wrongs in clear conscience, even as we reach out to our former opponents.

Once we have moved through this process, we will be ready to assume the mantle of power that we have earned. We will be in a position to choose whether we will act as victors rubbing our former opponents noses in their loss, or as intentional catalysts for change, both building coalitions and requiring accountability and responsibility from our selves as well as our opponents. Once lingering negative feelings have been aired, we will be ready to try on our new identity.

Enjoining the progressive community in an intentional discussion of where we have been and what comes next as part of forging our next collective identity also addresses the fact that progressive forces are now the majority in the executive and legislative branches. Without a permanent stalemate, without an enemy to push against, progressives may be unnerved as to how to act. We no longer need to be locked in combat. This is not to say that we are suddenly free of opponents – or that we are free of the need to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire and demand they act on their progressive promises – but there is no longer a need to be constantly in a state of battle. This will probably be unnerving to many a progressive. And yet this gives us an opportunity to change the terms of the game, to allow at least some of what we contract with our conservative opponents to be less oppositional and adversarial. There is not nearly as much to push against. We will have to figure out how to remain engaged with moving ahead the issues under these radically different circumstances. A forum such as the one I’m suggesting may help to engage activists who would otherwise not have an easy time finding a place in the next phase of progressivism.

And so I suggest the creation of a forum for progressives to discuss the impending changes in our identity, our relationship to power, and all that has come before, in an effort to get ready for what comes next. A place to safely relinquish the battle scars, call them what they are, and begin to collectively create our next identity as makers of change. The time, shape, and scope of this is up for debate, although certainly sooner rather than later (say, within the first 3-6 months of Obama’s presidency) would be advisable. But that it should take place is clear. The dynamics of change are in play, and we would do well to attend to them.

There is a wonderful future to be built. Let’s go.

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