Watching the growth of Occupy Wall Street solidarity protests around the country, it’s hard not to be reminded of the lost opportunity to mobilize a left-wing popular movement back in the winter of 2008–2009 and the spring of 2009. That was a time when Congress was psychologically prepared to address the issues of joblessness, the availability of health care and education, and the ecological sustainability of the global economy. But instead of hearing from a popular protest movement driving at roughly those things, the powers that be were faced instead with a mania for austerity and deregulation driven by racial resentment.
The problem at that point was the fundamentally paradoxical attitude of the Democratic Party leadership. On the one hand, they want to be in the center of American politics. On the other hand, they’re viciously opposed to the emergence of any kind of mass movement to the left of the Democratic Party leadership. This combination of preferences is simply not viable. I’m not saying it would have been smart for Barack Obama and Harry Reid to lead radical protest marches, but it would have been smart of them to see it as beneficial if someone was doing so. The dynamic in the House GOP where the Tea Party caucus sometimes annoys John Boehner but also repositions him as a moderate and reasonable guy and gives him leverage in the process. The giant puppet people protests against “globalization” in the late-1990s were, I think, always helpful to Bill Clinton.* They gave him the positioning he wanted — as a center-left mildly progressive neoliberal technocrat trying to take practical steps toward prosperity. People in the streets chanting about “corporate greed” is a useful reality check to the c-suites that could have helped restrain their fantasies about Kenyan anti-colonialist sharia socialism.
But Team Obama didn’t want progressive groups to put people in the streets back when he was powerful and prestigious enough that such protests could have given him a commanding position in the center of American politics. Instead the mass movement has arisen at a time when the president looks weak, mildly unpopular, etc. That’s no coincidence. But the same process that’s taken the shine off Obama has hurt progressive issues across the board and will make it much harder to make tangible progress on anything.
* This is, of course, complicated by the eventual emergence of the Ralph Nader 2000 campaign which was not helpful to anyone except George W. Bush.