Five Thoughts on Managing Expectations for Pessimistic Progressives

On Dec. 11, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4173: The Wall Street Reform and American Consumer Protection Act.  The House legislation is intended to address the systemic risk in the financial services industry.  It specifically includes language strengthening government oversight of the financial derivatives market, and creates the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

The bill must survive the Senate before becoming law, but getting it out of the House was a significant accomplishment.  If not for the legislation, itself, but the fact that not a single Republican voted for a bill intended to get a grip on Wall Street could prove politically useful for Democrats down the line.

One would think that this would be cause for celebration on the left.  However, as Nate Silver posted Dec. 12, the response from the left, “particularly the online left,” was surprisingly lacking of enthusiasm.

Nate Silver,, posed the question, Dec 12:

If An Economy Recovers and No One Cheers It, Does It Make a Sound?

Silver finds it curious that those on the political-left are having trouble recognizing positive economic news when it occurs:

…there seems to be extreme reluctance among the left, and particularly the online left, to praise any economic successes achieved by the Congressional Democrats and the White House.

I do not expect Democrats, certainly, to be cheering the roughly 35 percent run-up in stock prices that has been achieved since Obama took the Oath of Office (we can pose an interesting counterfactual about whether Republicans would be touting the bull market if the roles were reversed). There have, however, been some other successes…

Careful not to appear too optimistic, Silver offers his objective analysis of the lowly state of present economic affairs and finds that the Democrats haven’t performed perfectly, but that their performance has been “pretty good.”

Be sure to read Silver’s post for his grading of the Democrats on “three policy imperatives that emerged from the economic crises of last year.”

For our purposes, let’s return to the original question: why the pessimism from the left?  Is it health care reform battle fatigue?  Or, rather, is it something less specific; for instance, have some on the left been persisting under a set of unrealistic expectations?  I’m hardly qualified to answer such questions, but since progressive positions are the ones I find most agreeable, I’ll venture a guess that its the latter.

The 2008 campaign season and the hard fight to get Barack Obama elected, in which the disparate progressive movement played a significant part, has left us with a hangover of sorts.  For me, what was most frustrating about advocating for Obama was refuting the accusations of idol worship from opposition on the political right.

When I think about it now, it seems silly.  Obama was merely a secondary target of the meme, his supporters were the primary focus.  But the notion that Obama walked on water was ephemeral; I, honestly, know of no one who actually viewed candidate Obama in this manner. Now, it appears some progressive factions want the president to, not only to walk on water, but to do so while juggling chainsaws left by his predecessor.

I don’t wish to overstate the matter.  For many on the left, optimism is still exists.  But, for those who’ve abandoned it, here’s a few random thoughts on managing expectations:

  1. We shouldn’t suffer under the delusion that, because the Democrats enjoy majorities in both houses of congress, there exists a rubber stamp for progressive initiatives.  Remember that in order to achieve those majorities the Democrats ran conservative candidates; additionally, even if the entirety of congress were Democrats, passing laws of any consequence would still look like herding cats.
  2. All of the time and effort that went into ensuring Obama’s victory was not misspent in any way, shape, or form.  Keep in mind, though, that for our efforts what we got was a pragmatist.  But this is not a bad thing.  Pragmatists are uniquely suited for cat herding.
  3. Don’t forget that our political opposition fights dirty and is incredibly well resourced.  Their skill in crafting perception is very effective among low information voters.  If you need a reminder of how effective they can be, read Joe Conason’s Oct. 5 Salon post, “The vast right-wing conspiracy is back.”
  4. Our fight is about swaying the political center, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  The two party system is the present reality of the American political landscape.  That reality dictates that whomever is able to sway the vast political center will retain the reins of government.  But, controlling the reins can be a frustrating task (recall #1 on cat herding), and it can also be fleeting.  Should progressives be inclined to overreach beyond the comfort zone of the center, they’ll likely have to forfeit those reins at the behest of a center-dominated electorate, drifting to the right.
  5. Every bit as frustrating is the speed at which Washington moves.  Pardon the cliche, but it truly is a marathon, not a sprint.  Even if the Democrats are able to maintain their majorities for years to come.  Just undoing the damage done by the Bush administration will be ongoing long after Obama completes his second term.

This list could go on, but you get the point.  If progressives wish to continue to have a positive impact, they’ll have to manage their expectations; a measure of acceptance that what they believe to be politically righteous is not always politically achievable… yet.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not suggesting that those on the left should refrain from vociferously advocating for their numerous causes.  The voicing of opposition to escalating the war in Afghanistan, and advocating for health care reform, to name just two, go beyond advocacy, existing as moral imperatives for today’s progressives.  What I am suggesting is that when progress is made — like the passage of HR 4173 — it shouldn’t be ignored.

As Nate Silver concludes, “…you may have a robust recovery by the middle of next year, but with neither the White House’s conservative nor liberal critics willing to give them much credit for it. Voters may stay away from Democrats as a result, pushing the country toward more conservative economic policy and ensuring that liberal critics of the economy aren’t lacking for greivances any time soon.”


Image via user - K3nna, via


Ian MacLeod
Ian MacLeod8 years ago

Mr. Pendell,

Don't feel too bad; it happens to the best of us, and for some reason the muse often demands our attention when we're unrested and have little attention to spare from the effort of keeping our eyes open. I did read it this time, and I think you do have a point. Speaking for myself, in failing to notice this particular success, I don't think I classed it as a success. The battle fatigue idea has a LOT of merit. The right has managed to torpedo so many desperately necessary things right along with who-cares-type minor things and everything between and the Democrats all act like they've learned to enjoy the tire tracks up the front and down the back from being run over so often, fighting for anything sometimes feels like trying to stop the three storey high steel screw (propeller) on a super-carrier bare handed. The attacks on the populace and every cause that can be espoused are all simply part of the ancient "divide and conquer" strategy that has felled so many other nations, and it has gone so far with so damned much backing, the fight has really begun to feel useless to me. Call it a loss of hope.

I was pretty tired myself when I wrote that comment; I apologize if what was meant to be - or should have been - a tap on the shoulder felt more like a slap. I'll also admit to being inordinately annoyed by what sometimes feels like nearly a majority of commenters and even writers who have yet to master spelling and usages most of us mastered in the third gra

Aaron Pendell
Aaron Pendell8 years ago

Thanks be to the grammar police. I'm truly embarrassed. I'm finding that when I write something late at night, I tend to get sloppy. Apologies to all. I pledge to do better going forward.

Mervi R.
Mervi R8 years ago

Very intersting.

Ian MacLeod
Ian MacLeod8 years ago

Before I actually read the rest of the piece, let me add this here. I just closed this out without thinking about it, having decided in a very tired and pain-filled moment not to bother with reading the rest of it. After all, how much could a writer know about a complex subject who uses "manor" when he means "manner," or "reigns" for "reins"? Or "one's" when he doesn't mean a possessive pronoun? I found myself cringing, expecting to find the phrase "tow the line," or that he found himself "peaked" by someone's assertions (meaning "piqued"). I run across so much of this lately, and I've learned that the worst of it (though by no means all of it) is perpetrated by what I think of as the BJB crowd - BillyJoeBob. These are the eighth grade graduates or double repeaters of the fourth, fifth and sixth grades who finally graduate at the age of 24, thanks to an uncle on the school board, that I had so many run-ins with in my home - correct that to "natal" - town of Flour Bluff, Texas so long ago. They are ignorant and proud of it, which is my definition of stupid; "college boy" is a deadly insult there. Or it was. Too many errors like that make a piece very hard for me to read with an open mind, or when I'm this tired, to read at all.

Obviously I recalled it from the history of my browser, and I will save it for another time. Consider this a friendly suggestion though: proof read your writing a bit, but don't trust the spell check app too much. Like the BJB crowd, they g

Craig Chmiel
Craig C8 years ago

Look people let's say you are the new ceo of a company, just replaced the old one because they were driving down the stocks, and possible had to close the doors. Now do you want to keep spending and saying the last one left us with all these problems is that what you want to hear? Or do expect them to pull up the boot straps and quite blaming the last C.E.O remember they brought you in to fix the problem. Now you add 12% more to your staff, plus some to your aunts and uncles and say well guess what we are now broke. What happens then? Well that's where we are at in this period of time people, some will have to do without but in order to keep going that is what needs to be done PERIOD.

Paul Puckett
Paul Puckett8 years ago

Christian R, and in fairness don't speak for me when you attribute Past Members comment as a "right wing" comment. It may be, but I'm not a rightwinger and I agree with their comment.

As to the banks, I worked in banking for half my career and have no love for large bloated banks. That said, I was amused today when the President said something to the effect that he didn't become President to watch the fat cats give themselves big bonuses. Getting bankers to share their political opinion is almost impossible, since they have clients of all political persuasions, but the President managed to generate something.

The CEO of US Bancorp replied that lowering lending standards is what got us here and that he has no intention of lowering theirs. The role of Congress in the banking fiasco is under reported. The repeal of Glass Steagal was relevant but not the cause. The Gov't changed home lending regs to allow banks and mortgage companies to offer no down, interest only loans and the banks complied. Not wanting these loans on their books, they sold them to Wall Street who made a mint repackaging the loans and selling them to investors. The first leg of that stool was Congress.

The steps that they and the new administration are taking now are exactly what led us to this lovely place in economic history. Just my opinion, and no offense intended.

Christian R.
Christian R8 years ago

@ Past Member, you wrote: "I think the problem is...we don't trust the government anymore...right or left!"

This is a right wing talking point that has no basis in truth.
Please, speak for yourself, don't speak for me or anyone else here.
I recently needed action taken and called my state senator Teresa Conroy (D) and she took care of the problem that I was having with a governmental agency.
Republicans routinely say that government not only doesn't work, but can't work. Not true.
Government works when we have good and responsible people in it. Returning to regulated banking would go a long way to restoring our economy because we have had to do this before in 1930.
The difference back then was that Republicans also recognized the problem and worked *with* Democrats to fix the economy that was broken by Hoover and Coolidge and years of unregulated banking theft.
It's time to do that again, because Reagan/Bush dismantled all of the rules governing banking, starting with the Deregulation Act of 1980, and here we are again with a second Great Republican Depression. Democrats did not take us here.
Democrats and Republicans are not the same.
Republicans are against restoring order to banking, *all* of them, every single one is against the American consumer. They want us to fail.
Dennis Kucinich and Rosa Delauro (my representative) are but just two examples of people in Congress who are not sold out to big corporations. Check their voting records and see for yourse

Jeffrey W.
Jeffrey W8 years ago

Because the left habitually insulates itself from those not of like mind, this must be hard for some of you to understand. But the fact is America is a center-right country, and Obama won primarily because he presented himself as a moderate to the independents, who are mostly center to center-right. Since the grotesquely wasteful spending bill, and attempts at government control of health care and cap and trade, Obama has lost the independents. This leaves him unable to implement your progressive agenda because he doesn't have the political capital it requires.

The House currently is able to pass progressive legislation, but that means very little. Most observers expect that to change dramatically with next years election. And more importantly for now, there are enough Democrat Senators up for re-election next year that moving progressive legislation through the Senate is next to impossible. Especially after the stimulus bill.

victoria h.
victoria h8 years ago

oh yes, one more thing
When I am unhappy with Obama and the current Congress I just think how it would be to have had McCain/ Palin choosing the next Supreme Court that makes me shiver!

victoria h.
victoria h8 years ago

Obama and the country inherited a huge mess. And the corporations hold so much power and influence. Wrenching that away from the corporations will take a while, and so progressives must get over the whining, note when good things happen and keep pushing the good things into better things. When bad things happen, like escalation of the war, take Obama to task. Politicians respond to pressure, and so we must keep the pressure on. Change can take a long time.