Just over a week ago, about a thousand activists from the Christian right gathered in Washington to pass verdict on the Republican presidential candidates. At the Family Research Council's Values Voters summit, the values most cherished did not sit well with most Americans. Polls show that a consistent and substantial majority in the US are pro-choice, supports stem cell research and opposes amending the constitution to ban gay marriage. All these issues figure low on the list of national priorities and high on the agenda of the FRC. None the less, all the leading Republican contenders showed up.
The more out of touch with mainstream America they sounded, the greater the applause. "Sometimes we talk about why we're importing so many people in our workforce," said Mike Huckabee. "It might be, for the last 35 years, we have aborted more than a million people who would have been in our workforce had we not had the holocaust of liberalised abortion." Huckabee was rewarded with a strong second-place showing in the summit's straw poll.
At the weekend, well over 100,000 anti-war protesters gathered around the country to protest about the occupation of Iraq. The demands of the demonstrations chimed with the views of most Americans. Polls show a consistent and substantial majority oppose the war and want the troops withdrawn immediately or soon. Indeed, at 34%, the proportion of Americans who support the war is identical to the proportion polled last week who believe in ghosts and UFOs.
Despite Iraq remaining the number one priority among voters, none of the leading Democratic presidential contenders appeared at any of the marches.
Primary season is an ideal moment to examine the relationship between the different parties and their core supporters. Come the presidential elections, both sides will have to tack to the centre in a bid for coveted swing voters. But in the primaries, the candidates' task is to preach to the choir and, maybe, give them a new and better song to sing.
Republican candidates dedicate considerable effort to galvanising their base. At the FRC summit, the thrice-married and twice-divorced Rudolph Giuliani, who is pro-choice and insufficiently anti-gay, made a bid for their trust and understanding. He came in second last with just 2% of the vote. But he was there.
The Democratic candidates, meanwhile, seem embarrassed by their own supporters. Although they are perennially absent from anti-war rallies, they will show up at black churches, trade union fundraisers and the occasional gay event. But when it comes to articulating support for those causes or communities, they lose their voices.
But if the Democrats have an abusive relationship with their supporters, their supporters are complicit in that abuse. Democrats overwhelmingly support troop withdrawal from Iraq yet back candidates who favour keeping troops in the region indefinitely. The gay community continues to give the main candidates huge amounts of money even though all of them oppose gay marriage. They seem to like it this way. For even though Republican candidates have lavished far more attention on core supporters, it is Democratic voters who are far more satisfied with their candidates.
There is an important lesson in this apparent paradox for those who seek progressive social change. Republican politicians continue to court Christian conservatives precisely because they are not happy - they might do something about it, and the party cannot do without them. There are two reasons for this. First, Christian conservatives are well organised and can deliver votes. Second, those votes are contingent on the Republicans delivering political results.
The progressive left can claim neither of those qualities. A national anti-war movement - one that meets, decides, acts and lobbies effectively on a national level - has never truly taken shape. There are tens of thousands of anti-war activists, who have heroically kept a presence and the conversation going in their communities. This is also true for feminists and gay activists, who once formed the bedrock of the Democratic base. But Latinos and black activists are better organised on a national level.
A new coalition of interests and forces that could play that role may be in the making. The web-based MoveOn.org has done brilliant work on single issues, but has been unable to cohere enough people around a coherent enough agenda to make an electoral impact. Netroots has also notched up impressive achievements (the Labour left could learn a great deal from both), but its work is largely confined to getting better Democrats elected. There is nothing wrong with this - indeed, it is crucial. But, strategically, it has its limits.
Christian conservatives have always made it clear their primary loyalty is to their agenda, not to the party most likely to support it. They may work hand in glove with Republicans, but they feel free to take their hand out of the glove at any moment. The morning after the last presidential election, a White House aide called Focus on the Family's founder, James Dobson, to thank him for his support. Dobson replied with a warning: if the administration snubbed conservative Christians, particularly with respect to supreme court nominations, the party would "pay a price in four years".
Although it's difficult to see how George Bush could have delivered more, this is precisely what seems to be happening now. According to the Pew Research Centre, Bush's support among white evangelicals has slumped.
All politics is a negotiation. It goes without saying that if you set your price too high, or walk away too soon, you could miss out on a great deal. It is equally self-evident that if you set your price too low, or your counterpart knows you will never walk away, you will sell out far too cheaply. But there are few as powerful in a negotiation as those who understand their value and are prepared to walk away. For decades, progressive activists have been hocking their agenda as though at a fire sale. The Bush years have been so disastrous they have forgotten that many of the things they are campaigning against now - Nafta, the gay marriage amendment, greater economic inequality, the ban on photographing soldiers' coffins coming home - were introduced under Bill Clinton. Their fears that things could get worse overrides any confidence that they could improve. So they settle for candidates who will make things get worse at a slower pace and on a less dramatic scale. Sometimes, as in 2004, these low expectations make sense. But as an overriding strategy it is a recipe for perennial disappointment and disaffection.
The Christian right has shown that there is sufficient democratic space for movements to play a role in shaping the political narrative, regardless of who the electoral protagonists are, so long as those movements can prove their clout and exercise their independence.
"Some might compare the religious right to a snake," a Wichita evangelist, Terry Fox, told the New York Times. "We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time." It's time for progressives to get out of their hole and find some teeth.
Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the Guardian and the author of No Place Like Home: A Black Briton's Journey Through the Deep South (Mississippi) and Stranger in a Strange Land: Travels in the Disunited States (New Press).
© 2007 The Guardian