Can Progressives Unite, or Will It Be the Same Old Bit-Politics Story?
By Theda Skocpol - July 11, 2008, 6:41PM
Michael Kinsley has an incisive opinion piece at TIME/CNN called "Divided They Fall" -- and I urge everyone to read it. Kinsley points out that Republicans are setting aside their gripes about McCain and uniting to do battle, but progressives and Democrats are up to the same old internal sniping: single issue people bashing Obama for moving to the middle or voting a certain way on FISA, when his vote made no difference at all to the outcome; Clintonites using media sexism in the primary as an excuse to threaten to stay home or vote for McCain; fat cats who backed Clinton complaining to the New York Times, along with the blustering egotists like Carville; Jesse Jackson sniping about the common-sense notion that black people might have to be good parents as well as expect help from government.
This leaves one very sad. The social and redistributive stakes in this election are enormous. McCain can easily win if this summer is wasted, if Democrats do not unite and go on the offensive, if funders withold their efforts, if gripers undermine. But that seems to be what we are all doing.
I look back over an adult lifetime of this, of identity-oriented and single-issue groups undermining any chance for a convincing message relevant to all working middle class people. This lack of discipline and inability to sort out the fundamental from the partial is what has made it so hard for Democrats to win -- and has cost the country terribly in terms of the undermining of middle class wellbeing. Why are we doing it again? Why are we playing along with all the diversions and distractions the media wants to pursue, rather than speaking loudly with one voice for Obama and in drumbeat criticism of McCain? The summer weeks are precious, as we should have learned in 2004 -- mistakes now cannot be fixed later. At a moment when a core, long-term econmic advisor to McCain, Phil Gramm, has revealed the true heartlessness and stupidity behind conservative economic doctrines, we progressives are still talking about Jackson and FISA and Clinton's debts and overwrought claims of sexism. We are not hitting McCain/Gramm/Bush again and again in ways that would force some of the media, at least, to give the Gramm revelations -- they WERE revelations, not a "gaff" -- half the attention and staying power of the Wright ravings!
About ten days ago, I was finishing breakfast at my favorite diner, when I was joined by a well-known 60s-something feminist friend. I won't name her, but people would recognize and respect her if I did. We got to talking about the election, and she left me utterly depressed some 45 minutes later (during which I kept my patience and my cool while arguing, but felt devastated). She probably won't vote for Obama, she says, because she has to "punish" the Democratic party for its sexist treatment of Clinton. "We cannot wait" any longer for a woman president, she says, and she won't accept an "unqualified" man who "cannot win." She barely listened when I told her I could hardly believe what she was saying, that women above all suffer from the terrible economic policies that have been followed the past two decades. It makes a big difference for most working women, most families, who wins this fall -- because, as the research of Larry Bartels and others shows, Democrats follow very different social and tax policies. This is not just about abortion law. It is about the wellbeing of the middle and working strata in this country, and when they suffer, women and children suffer the most.
My friend was so tied up in her identity-politics bitterness she could not see the larger issues. Generations of women in American public life would be aghast at the navel-gazing nature of this sort of feminism, I realized. The women I wrote about in PROTECTING SOLDIERS AND MOTHERS, who always thought about the more vulnerable and families, would never understand an early-twenty-first-century kind of feminism that privileges bitterness and revenge about Hillary Clinton (who entered public life as a political spouse) over the wellbeing of the working nation's families. Jane Addams would not believe this.
I have been kind of depressed ever since that morning at the diner, especially because the supposedly progressive blogs are full of similar kinds of diversions -- and Obama's campaign is clearly being hurt by the lack of unity and discipline, as well as by its own tentativeness. I am not so sure progressives are going to do what is necessary to win -- even in this year when all the stars should be aligned. Unity and practical realism are the order of the day, and the fire must be directed outward, not inward. Can we do It?