News that the President’s campaign manager Jim Messina has been hired as a “strategic adviser” to U.K. Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron, although vexing to progressives in the U.S. (and conservatives in Britain), is probably not that important in the larger scope of politics. But it does indicate in a small way the lack of ideological transformation that has accompanied the political success of Barack Obama since 2008 and the continued strength of an elite political formula based on fiscal conservatism, pro-corporate policies, and social liberalism. Call it the triumph of cosmopolitan progressivism — a political philosophy that represents the social and economic beliefs of mostly wealthy, well-educated, and white professionals.
Progressives have long criticized the highest ranks of the Democratic Party — the level of political, strategic and policy decision making — for being overpopulated with unprincipled neoliberals who undermine the historical basis of the party as a vehicle for working class advancement in favor of the interests of businesses and the wealthy. The indictment is usually leveled by activists, union and civil rights leaders, and progressive journalists and bloggers against the class of policymakers, White House and Congressional staff, political consultants, think tank types, and media figures who claim to represent the Democratic Party but are insulated from any real accountability to its voters. They believe the once dominant pro-business centrism and social moderation of the Clinton era is outdated given economic and social shifts within the country. They favor an aggressive social and economic progressivism that represents the interests and needs of the coalition that elected the President rather than those of the elite donors who fueled it with money.
Ideological criticism from the left has been muted somewhat during President Obama’s tenure as a more unified progressive movement has focused its attention on the radicalized Republican Party. But it flashes its head at times on economic issues like austerity politics, corporate taxation, regulation of Wall Street, and more recently, on the selection of the next Federal Reserve chair.
Messina fits right into this split. As a former top staffer to neoliberal extraordinaire, Max Baucus, Messina’s job during Obama’s first term before departing to run his re-election campaign was to keep outside critics in line and help negotiate deals with corporate interests and drug companies to get them on board with the President’s health care bill. This brand of corporate-friendly, “get-it-done” liberalism — and the backlash against it — has a long history within the Democratic Party. Although difficult to imagine, populists and progressives in the 1930’s were harshly critical of Franklin Roosevelt’s perceived closeness to business and dismissive of what they saw as his overly timid New Deal recovery and reform programs.
Today, of course, progressives use FDR’s rhetorical and policy models as a template for what Obama should be pursuing to put people back to work, fight business corruption, support unions and workers, and reduce inequality. Happy with his strong embrace of gay rights, immigration reform, and reproductive health for women, many progressives maintain a skeptical view of Obama’s attachment to deficit reduction during a period of prolonged economic depression and his openness to corporate tax reductions and repeated offers to reduce social insurance programs as part of an elusive “grand bargain” with the GOP. The back-and-forth between progressives and the Obama administration over the past five years has produced no clear winner in the ideological dispute between economic centrists and progressives. They’ve learned to temporarily co-exist given the direction of the GOP and its insane assaults on the president.
Across the Atlantic, cosmopolitan progressivism is the default philosophy of Prime Minister Cameron’s reinvented Conservatives. Outside of his party’s reactionary stands on immigration and Europe, Cameron has sought to replace the socially exclusive Tory politics of the past by building a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, employing rhetoric about the big society and market-friendly policies serving social ends, and promoting ideas for addressing climate change and work-life balance issues. He’s constantly trying to run from the harsh, arrogant “nasty party” image the Tories had developed by the beginning of the millenium.
When Cameron’s in the U.S., he hangs out at basketball games with Obama and completely ignores the Tea Party side of the GOP. As his austerity agenda continues to drag down the British economy and the political fortunes of his party, Cameron is desperately trying to paint himself as a likeable, pragmatic guy who wants policies that work over ideological solutions from left and right. So it’s not surprising he’s brought on Messina to try to build an electoral machine for re-electing a centrist government during economically difficult times.
It remains to be seen whether this political marriage will work. Whether here or in the U.K., the base for cosmopolitan progressivism is very narrow. Ideological voters on either side don’t like the wishy-washy nature of this kind of politics. And many working class voters have a hard time seeing the benefits of neoliberal policies while others are put off by the cultural attitudes of modern elites. The two-party system in the U.S. enables cosmopolitan progressivism to flourish without a popular base. But in Britain, there are real liberal alternatives to the left of the Tories and more extreme opportunities to the right. Cameron and Messina will have their work cut out for them if they want to build an election campaign around an ideological agenda that has no real home outside of the confines of DC, New York, and London.