Reflections on an Important Year

I end the year with a complex set of thoughts and feelings about the year just passed.   Above all else I feel gratitude, and a sense of accomplishment.   Our democracy worked.  The American people, unhappy with their government, choose a different path.  It was an empowering election, one that allowed a whole new generation of Americans to learn for themselves that in our system of government the people are sovereign.  That at the end of the day our destiny is in our hands.  That it is up to us.  It is a vital lesson that I hope the Americans of the 21st century will take with them for the rest of their lives.  It has been, and will be, true that our nation will only be as great, and good, as the American people fight for and demand.   And this year they demanded more, much more.

The two main American ideological movements saw a year of accelerating change.  The great conservative movement of the late 20th century, a modern political machine that I’ve described elsewhere as an Information Age Tammany Hall, finally in total ideological and political control of our government, so utterly failed at the basics of governing in these past few years that it must cause a total reappraisal of the entire conservative experiment, and brought about an end to what we call the era of conservative ascendancy in American politics.

The progressive movement, on the other hand, is clearly going through a long-overdue modernizing phase and is poised for a period of possible ascendency.  We’ve seen the creation of vital new institutions and institutional capacities like America Votes, Blue Fund, Catalist, Center for American Progress, Change to Win, Copernicus, Democracy Alliance, Democracy Journal, Hispanic Strategy Center, Media Matters, Move On, New Politics Institute and many many blogs like Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo.  These groups joined venerable and still productive progressive institutions like DLC-PPI, Emily's List, NDN and the Sierra Club.  New elected leaders are are also emerging, with Cory Booker, Rahm Emanuel, Stephanie Herseth, Gavin Newsom, Barack Obama, Martin O’Malley, Deval Patrick, Kathleen Sebelius, Eliot Spitzer, Chris Van Hollen and Antonio Villaraigosa adding their modern voices to those of already established leaders like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Bill Richardson. 

But above all else what is transforming the progressive movement is the return of average people to the core of our politics.  Millions of Americans, disappointed by their government, became politically active in progressive and Democratic politics these last few years.  Their hopes, their labor, their passion and their money fueled the defeat of the conservatives this year.  It is a defining attribute of our age that an array of new technological and media tools are allowing many more Americans to participate in our politics in a more meaningful way, and allowing organizations much greater ability to manage and harness this latent activism for their ends.   In the 21st century Americans will be much less “consumer” and “donor” and much more “participant” or “partner.”  Whether progressive leaders can effectively harness this passion and energy with all these new tools, and whether with the great motivator of the Bush presidency waning our enthusiastic progressive partners will continue to give so much of themselves to the country and our movement, is one of the great questions of the day.  On this matter I am optimistic, for too many people in recent years have directly experienced that their own civic participation - voting, volunteering, contributing, blogging - can change the course of history for them to just walk away from politics.

I also end the year angry and frustrated.  The Bush Administration’s recent clumsy, confused and increasingly pathetic efforts to find a new approach to the great calamity of Iraq serves as a stark reminder of how badly we’ve been governed in this decade, and how much weaker he and his team have left this country than they found it.  We leave the Bush era with very little progress having been made on the extraordinary set of governing challenges facing America at the dawn of the 21st century, and lots of new ones created by their historic mismanagement of our government.  To me, these challenges taken together are the greatest set of challenges America has faced since the waging of WWII and the reconstruction in its aftermath.  Think about what must get done – restoring broad-based prosperity in a more virulent age of globalization, finding a new foreign policy path after the neo-con disaster, tackling the structural budget imbalances left by years of out of control Republican spending and drastic revenue reductions, coming to terms with global climate change and the continued environmental degradation of our planet, completing the standing up of the Department of Homeland Security so it can begin to fulfill its critical mission, restoring the integrity of our political system after years of the most corrupt team to ever run our government, re-imagining our health care system, shoring up a broken pension system, better aligning our immigration system to the needs of our economy – the list goes on.  But any one of these items on the list are big things, and yet we have to do all of them, simultaneously, and do them now – all the while trying to restore the nobility of the American experiment.

I end the year feeling that by tossing the failed conservatives from power, our nation has taken a giant step forward to accepting and meeting the obligations and challenges we face as we head further into the 21st century.  It is only a single step among many that must be taken, and as proud as I am of the role I and the entire NDN family played in this important year, I sense that our most critical battles lie ahead, and that they will be much more difficult than what we have faced in the sad and disappointing Bush years.  But as we’ve heard others say, I say “bring it on.”