A Progressive Strategy for 2011-2012

For two years, Tikkun critiqued President Obama for not putting forward a consistent narrative or worldview. As of Obama’s State of the Union address, our view has changed decisively — inconsistency is no longer the problem; he has made himself clear. But the worldview he has adopted is unequivocally the one that Republicans have championed for the past eighty years: economic nationalism backed by a competitive ethos domestically and a strong military internationally.

Obama’s message is the opposite of the message that we urged him to adopt about seeking to build “The Caring Society” by caring for each other and caring for the earth.

By embracing the full message of Blue Dog Democrats and the pro-corporate agenda that follows from it, Obama has taken exactly the path of the Clinton administration of the 1990s. While the media claim that this path was imposed upon Clinton by his loss to Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections, we remember it quite differently. Hillary Clinton’s health care plan of 1993 failed not because it was too liberal, but because it sought to ensure the contradictory goals of reducing spending, guaranteeing universal care, and ensuring the high profits of health care profiteers (the insurance companies, hospitals, medical specialists, the drug industry, etc.). The result was an incomprehensible mish-mash of pro-corporate policies that Tikkun and most other liberal and progressive forces found difficult to support because of its absence of a moral core. This same failure characterizes the Obamacare legislation that was passed in 2010 — it had some very valuable parts, but the decision to mandate the purchase of health care without imposing any serious controls on the rising prices that insurance companies charge us for these government-mandated services was morally incoherent.

Over the course of the past two years, we’ve made the case that in almost every major arena, the Obama administration failed to develop policies that could significantly challenge the already existing status quo. It was this failure — not Obama’s alleged radicalism — that engendered deep cynicism about Obama and his policy direction. Yet the media and the Democratic Party pretend that it was his being too progressive that caused the loss of so many Democratic seats in Congress, and that the solution is to become more like the Republicans.

Obama’s Enthusiastic Expression of Conservative Ideology

Becoming more like the Republicans is what Obama has now set out to accomplish. His State of the Union address put forward conservative ideology as though it had been newly discovered by the Democrats. He breathlessly extolled the virtue of competition and our need as a country to win with big ideas! Instead of imagining a world in which we would cooperate with others to achieve shared goals (environmental sustainability, nuclear disarmament, human rights, and an end to global poverty and despair), we were told that the real patriotism consists in getting ahead and beating those other countries when it comes to international economic competition.

From that framework emerged his emphasis on education for success in the competitive marketplace. Gone is the idea that we might instill in students the desire to seek wisdom and knowledge for their own sake. It is the “information age,” and we are to seek information for the sake of global power and domination.

A powerful summary of what was wrong with giving primacy to competition as the central goal for Americans was included within a response by “Historians Against the War” to the State of the Union address:


Mr. Obama declared that “America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream,” but his focus on competitiveness means embracing corporate rather than democratic values and reflects Mr. Obama’s recent appointments of business executives and business-oriented advisors to crucial advisory and policy formation positions within his administration. The push for competitiveness is an attempt to reassert what historian William Appleman Williams called “open door imperialism,” the export of goods and investment of capital abroad with concern only for profits, disregarding the human consequences and paving the way for military intervention when needed to achieve political stability or cooperation. What we need if we are to advance as a nation is a spirit of cooperation at home and abroad. We need to organize our educational system not around competition but around personal rights, ensuring, as John Kennedy explained in his address to the country on civil rights, that all children have the right “to be educated to the limit” of their talents. We need to organize our society around meeting the basic needs of all and cooperating with one another rather than merely asserting everyone should have the chance to try to grab the brass ring. We need to create a world economy based on equality and friendship among peoples, not a competitive race to the top which often forces people from poorer nations and working people in richer nations to the bottom. Symptomatic of the mistaken idea that the competitive market solves all problems is the adoption of NAFTA and other so-called free trade pacts. Although several Latin American states have successfully rejected the International Monetary Fund model of austerity and privatization and put resources toward expanding social benefits and infrastructure development, NAFTA has increased profits for U.S. agricultural firms, flooded Mexico with corn and meat subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, and undermined Mexico’s rural economy. Workers in neither country have benefited and large numbers of Mexicans have been forced to leave the land, work in American-owned border town factories as cheap labor under the most deplorable working and living conditions, or to seek employment in our country.

The Harsh Costs of Competitiveness

The picture of a life built on competition is closely associated with another part of the capitalist worldview: that the outcome of this competition is to the benefit of all, because competition brings to the top positions the smartest, best, and most deserving, and that wherever any given individual (like you or me or the person facing mortgage closure or losing her job) ends up in this competition of all-against-all is a reflection of his or her inherent worth.

The Institute for Labor and Mental Health created Tikkun magazine in part to challenge that idea. The psychotherapists and union activists who worked with me on the major research grants that I managed in the 1970s and 1980s studied the psychodynamics of American working people and discovered that this idea of a meritocracy was one of the most crippling and pathogenic beliefs in American society.

Rather than understanding that in a class society such as ours most people will never “make it” because there are only a small percentage of jobs that offer adequate pay and an adequate sense of meaning and purpose, most people believe that their failure to have a satisfying and fulfilling work life is a reflection of their own personal inadequacies. Almost all people carry with them a “self-blaming” story of how they screwed up and are or were x, y, or z (e.g., “not smart enough,” “not hard-working enough in high school or community college,” “not charming or attractive or energized enough,” or some other combination of faults or personal weaknesses) and therefore have an unfulfilling life because that is what they “really deserve.” The pain of holding those beliefs contributes to a frenetic search for ways to bury these self-blaming feelings in alcohol, drugs, sexual conquests, endless hours on the web, tweeting or other online diversions, religious or political extremism, or in activities that are themselves quite healthy except when engaged in a frenetic way (e.g., sports, politics, religion, or socializing).

Now we have the president, perceived as a liberal (and even labeled as a socialist by some on the Right), sounding the very themes that lead to self-blaming and that will energize people around economic nationalism and the idea of “looking out for number one.”

We accomplish little by dwelling for the next few years on how dishonestly Obama manipulated us into believing that he would use his bully pulpit in this way (and please, don’t tell me he didn’t, because I met face to face and alone with him in 2006 and that is exactly what he did do) or by focusing on how much he has subsequently betrayed the hopes he raised. All that blaming Obama is only relevant for helping people understand that the 2010 victory of the Right was not a choice between right and left worldviews, but of hard right worldviews (Republicans and Tea Party extremists) and soft right worldviews (the Democrats). Understanding that is important for overcoming the depression (and the tendency to blame the American majority for being stupid or reactionary) that is paralyzing many progressives today. But it doesn’t get us very far toward a strategy.

So what can progressives do?

In a column I wrote in the Washington Post in December, shortly after the Winter 2011 issue of Tikkun went to press, I suggested that progressives should run a candidate against Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries. I stressed that the value of such a candidacy would be its potential to create a new power alignment in the Democratic Party, answering the right-wingers in the party who counsel elected officials that there is no pragmatic reason why anyone should pay attention to the left wing of their party, given that such liberals and progressives “have no place to go.” It’s time to counter the idea that no matter how much elected Democrats abandon liberal and progressive voters in the Democratic Party, they can be sure that those on the left will always return to the ranks no matter what, for fear that the alternative to whatever centrist or right-wing Democrat is running for office is certain to be worse for liberals and progressives, whereas those on the right of the Democratic Party might be tempted to vote for the Republican.

How to Use the Primaries for Progressive Politics

Far more important than who the candidate should be is simply this: a progressive candidacy ought to be formed around a progressive program. The most important contribution progressives could make at this time to American political life is to introduce and popularize a new vision of what America could be, as well as present examples of specific programs that manifest this vision at work. Normally mainstream media agencies do their best to keep such visions and ideas out of public view, but in the primary elections we “ordinary Americans” (those of us without much in the way of financial resources) have a last remnant of true democratic process on the national level — a unique opportunity to project a coherent picture that might excite Americans who have never even heard a progressive program and who have come to believe that Obama’s pro-corporate agenda is actually “socialism.” Progressives should use these opportunities to put forward an agenda that normally never gets heard by most Americans.

But I soon realized that there are two big problems with that strategy. The first problem is that as soon as one fixes on a candidate, the media focus all their attention on whether that person “could win” and of course, since the media are the judge of who is or is not a “realistic candidate,” they quickly dismiss and then ignore the content of what such a candidate says. That is exactly what happened to Dennis Kucinich and other progressive candidates in past Democratic Party presidential primaries. As a result, the goal of popularizing a worldview gets obscured as its proponents try to defend a given politician.

Here’s a solution. We can make creative use of the fact that when we vote in a presidential primary, we don’t actually vote for any given candidate, but rather for a slate of potential electors who will be sent to the national convention of the party we choose with instructions to vote for the candidate to whom these electors are pledged. (For example, if you voted for Clinton or Obama in the last primary, you actually voted for a set of people who were chosen by the candidates’ campaigns to go as representatives to the convention.) Our alternative is simple: progressives need to put forward a slate of Uncommitted Progressives who are “uncommitted” to any given candidate but who are committed to whatever progressive agenda we work out in a national convention of progressive activists in the summer or fall of 2011. A vote for that slate becomes more than a symbolic protest against Obama, it becomes an endorsement of the worldview to which the slate is committed. Such a slate could be assembled in each state that allows an “uncommitted” slot in its primaries. Simultaneously, while not naming any particular candidate, we could name a cabinet of individuals who would be able to serve the slate of Uncommitted Progressives should they (in the unlikely event of actually winning) be able to select a candidate at the national conventions of any of the political parties to which they were elected. Not every state will allow this, and the Democrats would fight hard to prevent it, but it could be a powerful way to let the media and the Republican and Democratic Parties know that many of their members would actually prefer an alternative to the current status quo — and yet do it in a way that would not hurt Obama in the actual election (remember this is only the primaries, not a repeat of the mistakes made by Nader in 2000). Imagine a convention in which these uncommitted delegates had enough of a presence to force real issues onto the agenda instead of the public relations shows that have characterized conventions of both major parties in the past forty years.

There is, however, no point in doing this if the outcome is a progressive program that merely restates the laundry list of left issues. We support those issues, which include ending the war in Afghanistan, creating a new New Deal to end poverty and economic suffering in the United States, imposing a carbon tax to lower atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, passing Medicare for All, defunding the military, and jailing those who ordered or facilitated torture, along with twenty to thirty other demands likely to emerge from any gathering of progressives. But all this will not rejuvenate the hopes of an American people so badly quashed and humiliated by the Obama betrayal — more is needed as well.

What a Progressive Platform Must Include to Win Broad Support

What is needed is a whole new way of speaking — rooted in the ideas that we’ve developed in Tikkun’s politics of meaning and what we now call the spiritual progressive vision. That progressive worldview is summarized in the notion of “The Caring Society — Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Planet” (if you are looking for a seven-second sound bite for the media). This new way of speaking would involve talking about a New Bottom Line of commitment to love, kindness, generosity, caring for everyone on the planet, compassion, forgiveness, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and celebration, awe, and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.

To gain broad support, a progressive platform must include some sort of Global Marshall Plan to eliminate domestic and international poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care. And it must retain the central message of our Global Marshall Plan: that homeland security can best be achieved by replacing military funding and military actions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan with a strategy of generosity in which we are able to demonstrate real and genuine caring for the peoples of the world. It must include electoral reform and the ecological concerns articulated in our Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ESRA), and a plan to hold corporations accountable by forcing them to prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of randomly selected ordinary citizens every five years.

In short, the new progressive platform must transcend the continuing division between those driven to the Right because it is the only place where they hear spiritual concerns addressed and a language of love, caring, and generosity explicitly affirmed (in right-wing religious communities if not in Republican policies), on the one hand, and on the other hand the secular, often mechanistic-sounding, and too often religophobic Left with its nonetheless indispensable focus on economic entitlements, political rights, and personal liberties. Creating the synthesis we need is what Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have been about these many years!

When have we heard that kind of combination of spirituality and politics before? Well, in the voices of our prophets, from Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, and Micah to Jesus and St. Francis; in the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz; in the spiritual practices of Buddha; in the Hasidim and Christian contemplatives; and in contemporary spiritual directors. But this is a legacy that most progressives have not yet integrated into their consciousness, so calling for a national convention to produce such a politics would likely turn out something so far from these ideas we’d be uninterested. We at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives can’t spearhead an electorally oriented convention because we are a 501c3 nonprofit and have no intention of becoming actively involved in a campaign since such involvement is prohibited to nonprofits in the United States.

But if you understand how the only way the progressive forces are going to recover is if they adopt a whole new framework for their thinking, then you can see why the most important work for us in the second decade of the twenty-first century is to spread this way of thinking. We’ve developed seemingly utopian projects such as the Global Marshall Plan and the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution precisely because these campaigns lead directly into talking about the strategy of generosity replacing the strategy of domination, and about the need to build an environmental consciousness that goes to the deepest level of challenging the ethos of selfishness and replacing it with an ethos of love, generosity, and awe and wonder at the mystery and majesty of the universe.

So this is what Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives is really about — trying to forge a cadre of spiritual revolutionaries along the lines of, say, the Franciscans or the Chabad Hasidim (though with a different content, of course).

The As-Yet Unfulfilled Promise of Local Organizing

The only alternative to this strategy that one hears from the Left is the following mantra, which we’ve been hearing since the collapse of the New Left in the early 1970s: “What we really need to do is forget about the elections and build a movement by supporting local organizing projects.”

Well, duh. Of course we need a movement, and of course we should support local organizing — precisely what the Obama campaign never did. But these local organizing projects have been going on for forty years or more and have not ever spontaneously turned into a powerful national movement capable of significantly restraining corporate capital, military interventions, or the destruction of the global environment. And the reason is not that they don’t try or not only that they are underfunded, but that there is no mechanism for building upon whatever local victories take place in a way that achieves a new national understanding. The amazing work of ACORN was destroyed by the Republicans and the capitulation of the Democrats because most liberals and progressives had no idea what ACORN was doing or how much it was connected to their own local organizing. The good efforts on the local level need to be connected to each other and to a unifying spiritual progressive theme capable of exciting Americans who today think the Left is only a conglomeration of self-interest groups.

Only a new national strategy — one that encompasses but is not restricted to the smart and sophisticated use of elections, the creation of independent and widely listened to or viewed progressive national media, and a national convention every four years to bring together the disparate elements of the liberal and progressive forces to develop strategies and programs that share a common theme of the Caring Society — could transform local or sectoral organizing projects into a powerful enough force to capture the imagination of the American people.

It is not too late to make this happen, so please spread these ideas! At this moment in 2011, the most practical thing you can do is bring this kind of thinking to others.

If these ideas excite you, please do consider joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives as a dues-paying member so we can continue to print the magazine (to which NSP members get a free subscription). Please also explore our newly redesigned web magazine site, which contains new articles each week that you won’t find in the print version. Those who do subscribe or join the NSP will also get access to exclusive articles online that are not available to casual readers. So join now.


One thought on “A Progressive Strategy for 2011-2012

  1. I found this editorial, “A Progressive Strategy…” the most insightful and enlightening report and direction I have read recently. It expressed my own dissatisfaction with the Obama administration and a way forward through caring and ethics.

    I am passing it along.

    Thank you,