As Democrats approach the end of their first year of the 21st century in control of both Congress and the White House, we are reminded of a hard truth: progressive change is much more difficult than conservative retrenchment.
Throughout history change has always faced an uphill battle against the seductive forces of fear, hatred, dogma, and tradition. In fact, major progressive change is so difficult and occurs so infrequently that such victories are historical outliers. As Mike Lux points out, only four or five decades in the history of the United States have proved to be fertile ground for such change.
Some believed that the 21st century would be different, that the proliferation of technology and the internet would be a panacea. However, this view ignored those aspects of this century that make change more difficult. While it is true that the internet has enabled more public participation and government transparency and allowed people to compete with the media power of corporate television and radio, it also allowed people to self-select their news, information, and facts. No longer can a Walter Cronkite turn the tide of American public opinion against a war with a single statement. The internet is a value-neutral platform and it spreads conservative messages just as effectively as progressive ones. Life expectancy is dramatically longer than in the past, slowing generational change and keeping old prejudices and fears alive (this is where conservatives will convince themselves that I am arguing for death panels as a progressive conspiracy). Change today will be just as difficult as it has been in the past.
Also extinguished a year in is the naïve belief in bipartisanship, that we can convince Republicans to join with Democrats to do the right thing for the American people. Bipartisanship only exists when there is a Republican in the White House, and such bipartisanship has had devastating consequences (see Iraq War, Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthy, deregulation).
Republicans view government as a zero-sum game. Health care is not a service for the American people but a battle to be fought for political gain. Helping the uninsured and those who have had the American dream shattered by health care costs is nothing compared to the potential to recreate Waterloo. The conservative platform is dogma, with their evangelists castigating those who do not show proper devotion to the faith. To them, legislation is but a chessboard where black and white move their pieces through amendments and procedures to ultimately topple the opponent’s king.
Change takes time. The Presidency, control of the House, and a 20 member majority in the Senate is not a sufficient condition. Democrats need candidates that are not just electable but also effective, as well as the courage to believe that standing firm for our ideas can actually be a winning strategy. We need to enlarge the electorate by putting serious effort into engaging Millennials and minorities. Progressive victories have proved us to be on the right side of history–ending slavery, universal suffrage, the New Deal, and Medicare–and we need representatives that will make the right decision now and not worry about whether history will move fast enough to prove them right before the next election.
Change requires sacrifice and effort, new strategies, more profiles in courage, and a dream that will never die.