'Yes, We Can' Progressivism

Then-Senator Barack Obama greets supporters after speaking at the "Yes We Can" rally at the Johnson Hall at George Mason University. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

'Yes, We Can' Progressivism

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are both progressives, but they draw on different traditions of progressive reform.

Though it is little noted in discussions of this year's election, Senator Bernie Sanders's campaign has brought back the essential message of then-Senator Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign of 2008. The core of that message is the word "we," in contrast with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's frequent use of "I." However this year's election turns out, the idea that the people -- not politicians -- are the most fundamental driver of change is back in the public discussion.

The contrast between "we" and "I" has old roots in the progressive tradition. Debates about "socialism" are a diversion -- both Sanders and Clinton have legitimate claims to be progressive. But they represent different strands of the progressive tradition: the expert tradition and the populist tradition.

"Whatever the outcome of the contest between Clinton and Sanders, the key to real change is the people."

Progressivism emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century as a movement to roll back the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism. Progressives believed in a positive role for government in taming the market. They believed in the principle of social change. They valued science. They affirmed the intrinsic worth and dignity of human beings.

But as David Thelen, past editor of the Journal of American History and a leading historian of progressivism, argued in his essay "Two Traditions of Progressive Reform" and other works, beyond these general agreements were two different tendencies. One was oriented toward bureaucracy and expert decision-making; the other was more populist, focused on grassroots democracy and participation.

There's something in the air...

Donna Shalala -- longtime Hillary Clinton confidant, secretary of health and human services during President Bill Clinton's administration and now president of the Clinton Foundation -- expressed clearly the tenets of the expert tradition back in 1989, in "Mandate for a New Century," a now-famous speech she delivered as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Shalala called upon higher education to engage with the problems of the world, from racism and sexism to environmental degradation, war and poverty. She also voiced the view that scientifically trained experts -- "a disinterested technocratic elite" -- should be at the center of decision-making. As Shalala put it:

The idea of society's best and brightest in service to its most needy, irrespective of any particular political philosophy ... is an idea of such great elegance... We all need to see our gifted researchers set about the work that will eliminate the cripplers we face now as thoroughly, if not as swiftly, as our research eliminated juvenile rickets in the past.

Hillary Clinton's "fighting for you" channels these expert-driven ideas. It places Clinton in the role of savior of the disadvantaged and marginalized -- Shalala's "best and brightest in service to its most needy." Clinton's calls for collective effort also suggest expert consultation. "We've got to get our heads together to come up with the best answers to solve the problems so that people can have real differences in their lives," Clinton said in her concluding remarks in a debate with Sanders on February 4, 2016.

However, the democratic tradition of progressivism has long been animated by populist movements: labor union organizing, civil rights, educational reform, the struggles of farmers to keep their farms and other such crusades. Progressive intellectuals with a grassroots democratic bent like Jane Addams, John Dewey, A. Philip Randolph and Alain Locke all had strong ties to these movements. So too did Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture and then-vice president, who in 1942 delivered a speech entitled "Century of the Common Man." Wallace's speech explicitly challenged Life publisher Henry Luce's "American Century" essay of 1941, which claimed warrant for America as global policeman. Wallace's tenure as secretary of agriculture also encompassed a little-remembered but enormous effort to democratize decision-making around how American farmland is used, from 1938 to 1941. Detailed in Jess Gilbert's 2015 book Planning Democracy, this movement showed how participatory democracy could take place with government acting as an empowering partner to its citizens -- neither savior nor enemy.

If we are to reverse the deepening mood of discouragement and powerlessness in the nation, we need wide civic involvement, amounting to a democratic awakening.

This populist, small-D democratic tradition of progressivism was revived in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It surfaced again in the community-organizing movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which fundamentally shaped a young Barack Obama in Chicago.

Obama took the message of grassroots democracy which he had learned from community organizing to the nation in the 2008 campaign, amplifying its themes and engaging millions of people. "I'm asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change," read the campaign website. "I'm asking you to believe in yours." The message was expressed in such memorable campaign slogans as, "We are the ones we've been waiting for," drawn from a song of the freedom movement of the 1960s. And it infused Obama's field operation. As Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson noted, the goal was "not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance."

"We decided that we didn't want to train volunteers," Obama field director Temo Figueroa explained to Dickinson. "We want to train organizers -- folks who can fend for themselves."

After Obama took office, the democratic promise of his campaign remained largely unrealized. Indeed, after becoming president, Obama's language began to shift from "we" to "I." At the news conference marking the first 100 days of his administration, Obama was asked what he intended to do as chief shareholder of some of America's largest companies. "I've got two wars I've got to run already," he laughed. "I've got more than enough to do." This shift in pronouns paralleled the deactivation of the grassroots base of Obama for America (OFA), which had powered the campaign.

As of election night 2008, OFA included some 2.5 million activists in the My.BarackObama social network, four million donors and 13 million email supporters. After the election, the organization's name shifted to "Organizing for America," at which point a fierce argument erupted among campaign leaders. Deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand argued that the new OFA should become an independent nonprofit. Joe Trippi, campaign manager for 2004 Howard Dean race, observed that OFA and its supporters had many independents and some Republicans and shouldn't lose its cross-partisan qualities. Finally, David Plouffe, a key architect of the 2008 campaign was put in charge of OFA. He decided to incorporate the organization as part of the Democratic National Committee.

"The move meant that the machinery of an insurgent candidate, one who had vowed to upend the Washington establishment, would now become part of that establishment, subject to the entrenched, partisan interests of the Democratic Party," observed Rolling Stone's Dickinson. "It made about as much sense as moving Greenpeace into the headquarters of ExxonMobil."

Flash forward to 2016, and we find the Democratic campaign tapping into growing activism on many fronts -- from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter to action on climate change and local development. Bernie Sanders's core argument, that a grassroots movement will be necessary for real change, echoes the Obama 2008 message, both in its stress on participatory democracy and in its integration of a range of issues into a larger call for change -- "we" language, not "I" language. In his speech after the Iowa caucuses, Sanders said: "The powers that be... are so powerful that no president can do what has to be done alone... When millions of people come together... to stand up and say loudly and clearly, 'Enough is enough'... when that happens, we will transform this country." Should Sanders become president, he would pursue a broad activation of citizens. "Bernie Sanders has always identified with the populist side of progressivism," Huck Gutman, Sanders's chief of staff in the Senate from 2008 to 2012, told me.

It is still possible that Hillary Clinton could pick up themes from the Reinventing Citizenship project I coordinated with Bill Galston, deputy assistant for domestic policy to President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1995, now of the Brookings Institution. Reinventing Citizenship proposed a number of measures to strengthen government as a partner of citizens in public problem-solving and the work of democracy.

Whatever the outcome of the contest between Clinton and Sanders, the key to real change is the people. The issues that the campaign has raised -- the power of Wall Street, economic inequality and stagnant wages, college debt, mass incarceration, universal health care, campaign finance reform, climate change and others -- will require citizen power on a large scale if fundamental change is to occur. There are also many other, large-scale issues, crucial to the fate of the nation, that scramble partisan lines: revitalization of the democratic purpose of education; local economic development in the face of radical technological change; the drug epidemic; and reweaving the social fabric in a time of eroding community ties, to name just a few. These are enormous challenges. If the Democratic debate continues and deepens the call for citizen activation, it could well catalyze civic efforts beyond the issues of the campaign.

It is also clear that the idea of "we" has found a resonant audience especially among young people. "Sanders gives young people a place in his campaign," wrote Elisabeth Bott, one of my students from the University of Minnesota. "For so many people, politics is tainted. Sanders's campaign restores the idea that politics can be a source of change. He understands that we live in a time of change and extreme injustice and wants to change that with the help of us all."

This idea is not Sanders's alone. Politics -- by the definition of the term dating from the Greeks until the modern era -- has long involved citizens of diverse views and interests learning to work together to solve common problems, create common good and negotiate a democratic way of life. If we are to reverse the deepening mood of discouragement and powerlessness in the nation, we need wide civic involvement, amounting to a democratic awakening.

In this election, perhaps we see its beginnings.

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