As activists confront the disappointments of the Obama era, a troubling sense of malaise and despair has crept into some parts of the progressive movement. This political state of mind is arguably even more of an obstacle to progress than the very large policy challenges or specific failures we face, because it tends to produce either apathy on the one hand or unstrategic ranting on the other. While we are no doubt in a tough spot, despair is not warranted. And, if we learn the right lessons from organizing efforts over the last year, we can recapture the momentum for progressive causes.
The torrent of bad legislation coming out of Washington won't end anytime soon: an appalling budget; a throw-grandma-from-the-train Social Security proposal; hair-raising judicial appointments; bankruptcy, environmental, and tort-“reform” bills written by and for corporate patrons; and shredding what's left of the safety net.
Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, posed the question of how to define an adequate standard of living. “By necessaries,” he wrote, “I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for support of life, but what ever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.” We've been debating what's indispensable, what's indecent, and what it means to be a “creditable” person within the sphere of our common moral concern ever since.
The debate in Washington over welfare policy has taken an unfortunate turn: Republicans and many Democrats seem to be in a battle over who can be tougher on poor people rather than who can be tougher on poverty. It's too bad, because in the early days of the Bush administration there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that the president might follow up on the lofty words in his inaugural address. "In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise," Bush said then. And in fact, to the surprise of those who expected little from a Republican administration and a Republican Congress, some significant steps were taken in the fight against poverty.