Who Is Responsible for the Progressive “Enthusiasm Gap?”

David Sirota Sep 21, 2010

If you believe there is an “enthusiasm gap” right now between a demoralized progressive base and a mobilized conservative base (and I certainly believe there is), then the logical question is why? This is a source of endless debate between two camps.

One one side are Democratic partisans who insist the gap exists because some progressive activists and media voices (ie. the so-called “Professional Left”) have been too critical of the Obama administration and too insistent that President Obama fulfill – or at least actually try to fulfill – his basic campaign promises. The underlying assumption on this side is that Democratic voters are largely stupid fools who simply follow voting orders from a handful of activists and media voices – and because those activists and media voices aren’t more enthusiastic, those lobotomized voters are reflexively reflecting that lack of enthusiasm.

On the other side are those progressive activists and media voices who say progressive voters are demoralized because the Obama administration hasn’t fulfilled – or even tried to fulfill – it’s most basic campaign promises (for a good list of those broken promises and positions where the Obama administration is worse than the Bush administration, see Glenn Greenwald’s recent post here). This side sees voters as fairly intelligent – or, at least intelligent enough to make voting decisions based on an analysis of concrete issues, rather than simply on orders from activists and media voices. As just one example, this side sees this story in the New York Times about union members being unenthused about the election as a reflection of those union members’ displeasure with the Obama administration’s weak economic policies and failure to champion the Employee Free Choice Act – not as a reflection of those union members being under the mesmerizing spell of the tiny handful of bloggers, columnists, activsts and MSNBC hosts who have dared to report the inconvenient truths.

I, of course, happen to believe that the latter side is correct, and I believe that because I think A) Democratic voters are pretty smart and B) the handful of progressive voices/activists that have substantively criticized the Obama administration have far less power to shape public opinion than the national Democratic Party machinery, the White House political apparatus, and the bully pulpit of the presidency. The idea that, say, Glenn Greenwald or Jane Hamsher or Bill McKibben or Rachel Maddow or me or anyone else slandered as the “Professional Left” is somehow responsible for public opinion trends among the national Democratic electorate – and the White House, the Democratic Party and others are not – is, to put it mildly, quite preposterous. Sure, it’s nice to imagine a world where principled progressive voices have as much or more public opinion power than the President of the United States and one of the two major political parties (not to mention their big corporate backers), but, alas, that’s not the world we live in.

That said, even if you believe otherwise – even if you, in fact, believe that a handful of progressive activists and media voices are responsible for the enthusiasm gap – we should all be able to agree that the White House is exacerbating that enthusiasm gap by telling Democratic voters that its demands for promises to be fulfilled are unacceptable.

That was the message from President Obama late last week at a $30,000-a-plate fundraiser at Greenwich, Connecticut home of (I kid you not) a fundraiser named Rich Richman:

Democrats, just congenitally, tend to get – to see the glass as half empty. (Laughter.) If we get an historic health care bill passed – oh, well, the public option wasn’t there. If you get the financial reform bill passed – then, well, I don’t know about this particularly derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that. And gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace and – (laughter.) I thought that was going to happen quicker. (Laughter.) You know who you are. (Laughter.)

As Firedoglake reminds us, the president campaigned on the public option and as president cited it as one of his three foundational principles for real health care reform. Let’s also remember that the White House quietly negotiated away the public option and cut deals with the pharmaceutical industry to weaken the health care bill. Let’s remember, too, that the White House openly fought progressive efforts to seriously reform the Federal Reserve bank – one of the key actors in the market meltdown. The president also abandoned the cause of the Employee Free Choice Act, and, of course, didn’t just fail to achieve “world peace,” he massively escalated the Afghanistan war.

It would be one thing if the president acknowledged all of those verifiable facts – and offered some sort of explanation, however tortured. At least then, there would be some narrative telling Democratic voters why all of this (supposedly) had to happen, and why we should continue to believe Democrats will, eventually, fight the good fight. In other words, there would at least be a story that might attempt to counter the enthusiasm gap and build a case for voters to go out and vote Democratic in November.

Instead, the president has decided to not even acknowledge the legitimacy of Democratic voters’ expectations – many of which he himself asked us embrace in his “real change”-themed campaign for the presidency. That’s right, just as White House press secretary Robert Gates attacked the “Professional Left” a few weeks ago, the president has decided to make fun of Democratic voters who dare expect him to fight for the policies he promised.

As I wrote in an earlier newspaper column entitled “Whither the Sacred Campaign Promise,” this tactic of denying the very legitimacy of expectations has become the standard political tactic of this White House. Rather than acknowledge expectations’ basic legitimacy, this administration seems to think it can just tell voters that it either never made promises it clearly made or that voters are immature children the minimal things they expect. The calculation, as mentioned above, is that voters are so stupid and lobotomized they will submit to pure historical revisionism and brainwashing – they will, in short, feel crazy for even thinking more could be done than the White House is doing.

Perhaps this “these are not the droids you are looking for” strategy will work. Maybe it’s true that effectively telling Democratic voters that they are idiots and are misremembering recent history will motivate those voters to vote in November. And maybe progressive activists and media voices are the idiots for saying that a better strategy to motivate Democratic voters (and, by the way, better public policy) is to simply fight harder for and deliver on the progressive policies promised in the 2008 election.

But I don’t think so. I think voters are smarter than this and, therefore, that strategy is a way to exacerbate the enthusiasm gap. And I think those who say – and act – otherwise are the ones who will be responsible for whatever Democratic losses occur in November.

David Sirota is a bestselling author whose newest book is “The Uprising.” He is a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network-both nonpartisan organizations. Sirota was once US Senator Bernie Sanders’ spokesperson. His blog is at

This article was originally posted on Common

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