Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on November 29, 2020.
Emotionally and politically, 2008 stands as a high-water mark for many American liberals—a year that brought both electoral triumph and national renewal as Barack Obama was swept into office and Democrats took the House and Senate. For those on the progressive left today, however, it should serve as a warning and case study in the way that popular energy and progressive agitation can dissipate when a Democratic administration takes power.
In purely electoral terms, 2020 is unlike 2008: The Democrats defeated Donald Trump but suffered unexpected losses down-ballot, failing to produce the highly anticipated blue wave. Political analogies are rarely exact. Notwithstanding their obvious points of contrast, however, 2020 and 2008 have several useful points of comparison, well beyond a shared context of economic calamity, global crisis, and the recent defeat of a Republican president.
The George W. Bush era once created a powerful constellation of grassroots organizations and progressive infrastructure around a variety of causes that spanned the fight for universal health care to opposing the administration’s foreign and domestic-security policies. United around their desire to see the Republicans defeated in 2008, a motley coalition of dissenters, bloggers, and activists helped give liberal politics the populist energy that would be so adeptly harnessed by Obama’s first campaign for president. Amid the euphoria of his landslide victory, much of that energy would fold into garden-variety Democratic partisanship afraid to issue even tepid criticism of its own side. As a result, despite all the initial talk of change, people power, and movement building, the guiding ethos of Obama-era liberalism would quickly become one of deference and disengagement.