Holding Their Feet to the Fire: Are We or Aren’t We Serious?

Robert E. Prasch

The reelection of Barack Obama has induced two responses from liberals and progressives.  On the one hand, there is palpable relief that Mitt Romney and the Republican Party will not be running the show.  On the other, multiple voices are saying,  “It’s time to hold their feet to the fire.”  Liberals and progressives, it seems, are belatedly willing to admit a truth that was literally unspeakable before the election – that the record of the Obama Administration has not met expectations, and that Republican obstruction can account for only a portion of the shortfall.

Holding some person or institution accountable is an act of power.  Many liberals and progressives believe that the recent election has brought about some – as yet undisclosed — change in the American political landscape that grants them a measure of influence over the leadership of their party, including the White House.  This is a leadership, let us remember, that has resolutely turned its back on the entreaties of its own supporters for most, if not all, of the past decade.  In some way or manner – again undisclosed — we are to believe that the second Obama Administration will find itself obliged to adopt an agenda that more closely coincides with the people who voted for “hope and change” in 2008.  That is to say, those millions of voters who thought that they had restored their nation to a degree of sanity, but were instead disappointed to find George W. Bush’s foreign policy and surveillance state greatly enhanced, corrupt and failed bankers were granted a free pass at home, and whistle-blowers facing criminal charges even as the war criminals they exposed were excused or promoted to high office.

Were the Obama Administration to take up even a portion of its 2008 platform, it would certainly be a welcome turn of events.  Unfortunately, and despite the implicit claim of so many, I have yet to hear a single compelling reason why this Administration would wish to become responsive to the hopes of liberals and progressives.  After all, the elections are now done, so why change?  Let us recall that Robert Gibbs refers to liberal and progressive critics as the “loony left,” David Plouffe calls them “bedwetters,” and no family newspaper can print the adjectives favored by Rahm Emanuel.

So again, why would the Grandees of the Democratic Party suddenly change direction?  Why would they now turn to a more liberal or progressive legislative agenda?  What is in it for them?

Nevertheless, we are told that liberals and progressives will hold the Administration’s “feet to the fire.”  I applaud this new-found commitment to hold Democratic officials accountable, but would it be unreasonable to ask “how” they intend to accomplish this end?  Given that they have offered the party leadership, no matter how odious, unconditional support in the 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections, are they planning to change their strategy now?  If so, to what?  What leverage will they be bringing to the table?  Any specifics?

To clarify the issue, let us consider it from the perspective of those at the heights of the Democratic National Committee.  What lessons have they learned over these past five elections?  Specifically, what lessons have they learned from spurning the hopes of their liberal and progressive base?  Let me put this another way:  which penalty or penalties has the leadership of the Democratic Party incurred by knowingly, deliberately, and intentionally voting and governing in a manner that has been largely anathema to the party’s disproportionately liberal and progressive base?  Let us review:  their actions (as opposed to their periodically moving speeches) have been systemically pro-war, pro-drug war, anti-Civil Liberties, in favor of shameless pandering to Wall Street, in favor of any and all shamelessly pro-corporate “free trade” agreements, largely anti-immigrant, and indifferent (at best) to organized labor.  So, to ask again, what has been the penalty?

The leadership of the Democratic National Committee has learned, over and over again, that once they ascend to office that they will incur no penalty from liberals or progressives no matter how poorly they serve their supporters or the nation.  They have done more than learn this lesson, they have acted on it.  I suggest that they will continue doing so until the strategy ceases to work for them.

For this reason, I offer a suggestion.  If liberals and progressives would like to change the behavior of the senior leadership of the Democratic Party, they will have to modify the incentives.  It will be necessary to deny, or at a minimum threaten to deny, the DNC something they ardently desire.  What they desire is elected office and the perks that normally accrue to those who have used the offices they have held to serve well-placed firms and industries.  Yes, they talk about hope, change, and other ideals, but their record is long enough, and persistent enough, to reveal their true priorities.

Now, at this point in history, liberals and progressives do not have the ability to change the Party’s leadership as they are too entrenched.  But we can deny them electoral victories until they learn to grant us at least a portion of what we want.  In a previous post, I outlined an approach to strategic voting based on elementary game theory.  I am open to the idea that other strategies might be more effective.  The essential point is that liberals and progressives need to find a way to make their voices heard in the Democratic Party that promises a greater degree of success than compliantly voting for whatever right-of-center hack is currently being advanced as “the lesser of two evils.”  By now, our current predicament should be clear.  We may not be a majority of the nation’s voters, we may not even make up a majority of registered Democrats, but our voice is almost unheard in the national debate, and this must to change.  What we need is a concrete proposal to take us somewhere else.  That, and nothing less, will put us in a place to “hold their feet to the fire.”

Is this, one might ask, a risky strategy?  Yes.  Might it cost the Democrats a few elections because of disunity?  Yes.  Is it unpleasant to rebel against the leadership of a party to which so many have had, and so many still harbor, long-standing emotional and political attachments?  Yes.  But holding the powerful accountable has never been easy.  If it were, we would not be in this conundrum.  However, if the liberals and progressives are serious about “holding their feet to the fire,” they will be willing to take these risks and bear some costs, including some losses at the polls.  Over the next couple of years, we will find out if liberals and progressives are serious about changing their relationship to their party’s leadership by holding them accountable in the only way that matters.


Author: Robert E. Prasch

Professor of Economics, MIddlebury College http://www.middlebury.edu/academics/econ/facultyofficehours/prasch

3 thoughts on “Holding Their Feet to the Fire: Are We or Aren’t We Serious?”

  1. I’ve been getting several emails from all groups that put their energies and money behind the 2nd term (as well as the first) saying we need to push Obama to follow a progressive agenda – essentially ask for a very small percentage of what the expectations were for term 1.
    One that comes to mind is AFT – the union that represents teachers whose members in Chicago had to go on strike because Obama’s man as governor there was not listening to the teachers demands for themselves and their students. This is Obama’s city & this is the one that is to become the model of school takeovers by the city & conversion to charter schools.
    Hope died with this election if it wasn’t dead already – maybe it was – that’s why there was so much talk in 2008 about it. And Change – not possible in my view with our current system.
    Edward Bernays knew by repeating whatever you wished to “sell” you could get them to believe it was true or it might become true.

  2. Esteemed Mr. Prasch:

    First, it depends on what you mean by “we”: Those who made it clear, BEFORE the election, that the Dumbocratic National Committee did not own their votes were already serious about accountability from an administration as hell-bent on making unjust war as the Bush administration.

    You see, it will become Painfully obvious that “holding Obama’s feet to the fire” is just a verbal parry to keep people voting within the duopoly. [“Sure, Obama might have well committed war crims against innocent Pakistanis, Yemenis, and Palestinians, but once he’s safely re-elected we’ll hold his feet to the fire.” Of course, unionists and environmentalists will make the same argument about their favored causes.]

    How am I so sure? Try this test: Start asking all your liberal friends (and liberal non-friends) if now would be a good time to start efforts to radically transforming the electoral system to range voting (www.rangevoting.org) or instant run-off voting (www.fairvote.org). My hypothesis is that their willingness to start even discussing – let alone acting on – the need to do away with our current first-past-the-post electoral system will be inversely related to their ability to defend the new monstrosities that will come from Obama’s second term in office.

    No, I’m not a cynic; I just have faith. (Which is much more than Obama’s supporters from 2008 have been left with.)

  3. There is nothing to disagree with as far as the diagnosis goes – the cure I’m afraid is not going to happen. People who still continue to ride in the “O”mobile or “D”mobile in spite of the wheels having fallen off are too afraid of the alternative. Fear feeds on itself & in the end these folk are happy to accept whatever little they believe they get – essentially lip service to what has been asked for (not demanded after the vote but “if you will please” sort of asked for). It would be instructive to map the diminishing requests Democrats make of their party & leaders – you’ve given the history already.

    The cure will not work again because it’s like offering Aspirin to someone with Leukemia. The system is broke – there is no way to fix it we need to either start anew or build alternative movements to get the desired change.

    In India the people were able to change the political parties that run the nation but unable to get any real change. India has also tried a coalition government that included the communist party & yet when they took a stand the “rulers” found others to go along & deny the left their demand.

    The person who gets a lot of exposure who takes a similar position (system is broke) is Chris Hedges – anyone really interested in Real change could Google him.

    What has essentially happened is we’ve lost empathy & we’ve lost control of language – language is now a propaganda tool which robs it of meaning. The haves have lost the ability to think beyond their noses (in the end austerity will end up destroying the “rich”as well) . Ours has become an elitist culture where we believe degrees from “name” institutions guarantee ability & knowledge. What an example – Donald Trump – need I say more ?

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