Why We Fight (and why we won)
Oberlin students worked hard in this previous election. Campus-wide voter registration efforts were only the beginning of an effort that saw students, many of whom had never been involved in electoral politics before, work both on and off campus to persuade, identify and turn out progressive voters. Oberlin progressive activists put aside their individual causes that they felt very deeply about to join together and affect electoral change that would for the first time give them a voice in the American political mainstream.
Moving beyond Oberlin, activists from the party’s “progressive wing” were instrumental in this past election effort; unions ran incredible field programs, organizations pushing for raising the minimum wage gave their support and the gay community (often criticized for their lack of interest in electoral politics) stepped up to the plate. Prominent members of the gay community made a particular amount of noise, pouring millions of dollars into races through the DNC, the DSCC/DCCC and 527s such as Colorado Families First and swinging several key local races (Eleveld). Because of the help of a variety of progressive organizations, the Democrats ran the Republicans into the ground and now dominate the House and Senate.
I bring all of this up now to serve as a reminder: We did not win this past election because we promised tax cuts, or because we appeared tough on national security or because we convinced people that we were a slightly less crazy version of the Republican Party. The 2006 election was the first decisive democratic victory in quite some time and it was won on the backs of progressive activists. This is important because there is a danger that the party will forget this. The Democrats have spent so much of the last 30 years or so playing defense that an offensive position might not come easily. It is conceivable that the Democrats could spend much of the next two (and if we win in 2008, four to eight) years talking exclusively about the need to keep social security in a lockbox (thereby preserving one of the most regressive and hurtful taxes on working families: the payroll tax) and the importance of a new crime bill. It would be a shame if all of the excitement generated by the 2006 campaign gave way to the same old centrist, Joe Lieberman-inspired Democratic politics of recent years. This lack of spine will not only be hurtful on a public policy level but will render the Democrats ineffective enough that they will lose their newfound majority as quickly as they won it. It is imperative that the party turn to its base for new, bold ideas to take forward to the American people.
There is one problem with this, of course, and that is the progressive wing that so easily came together to defeat the Republicans during the midterms has a lot of work to do to coalesce into a coherent movement. We know that we want workers rights, universal healthcare, defense of civil liberties and an expansion of civil rights, but when put together, what does that look like? How can the gay rights activists talk to the union leaders and develop a messaging strategy that incorporates their interests while laying out a broader direction for this country? How can we make sure that in formulation, messaging and implementation we talk about issues (especially traditionally divisive ones such as abortion and gay marriage) in a way that isn’t going to fracture our broad coalition?
These are questions that we all need to begin to explore and thankfully we’re in the perfect place to do it. Oberlin is not only an academic environment but is also a microcosm of the larger progressive movement. Our generation is not that far off from being called upon to generate new ideas and messages for political organizing in the future and the process will only begin if we talk to each other in classes, forums, papers, columns, lectures and speeches. Given our success this last time around, we have an obligation to make sure that we’re heard and an even stronger obligation to make sure we have something to say.