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Beware the lure of moral purity and outrage

Americans often vote against their economic interests in favor of social issues.

In watching Ken Burns' three-part series on Prohibition on PBS, I was struck by the similarity between the Prohibition movement and the Tea Party phenomenon.

Both tap into the deep vein of the American public's cynicism toward politics as usual while appealing to the lure of moral absolutism and outrage. As Burns carefully dissects, the blend of social forces which brought about the passage of Prohibition were a combination of progressive and conservative values.

I'm beginning to wonder if something like the political tsunami of Prohibition is happening now with a confluence of a bad economy, the resurgence of the cultural right and those who deny evolution and global warming.

Up to this point I've assumed those who didn't vote in 2010 - youths, blacks, Latinos, women - will show up at the polls in 2012, all which 'should' favor Obama's re-election.

I'm not so sure any more.

If Americans voted their 'class' interests, the GOP nominee wouldn't stand a chance of being elected in 2012. But Americans often vote against their economic interests in favor of social issues that blunt any liberal or progressive tendency. In that case President Obama could be in serious trouble in 2012. And it doesn't really matter who the GOP nominate. It all depends on which party and grassroots coalitions get out the vote in 2012.

There is no doubt that the evangelical right will be highly motivated and the libertarian right will be highly energized by the anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric of the GOP. The traditional country club and corporate neo-cons will cynically go along with any candidate who promises to make Obama a one termer assuming they will pick up the pieces and return the nation to 'their' conservative values.

The key to this happening is to suppress turnout, through negative campaigning or other means. If Democratic, progressive and independent voters sit this one out given Obama's failure to live up to his hopeful 2008 rhetoric of 'Yes We Can,' the GOP/Tea Party machine will win in 2012 by appealing to our cynicism and fear.

Conventional wisdom is that if a president is facing the head winds of a bad economy that is a losing hand - just ask George H. Bush, who in early January of 1992 had a 90 percent approval rating only to lose to William Jefferson Clinton thanks to a sour economy and Ross Perot.

Could Barack Obama face such a fate? Yes, he could. Then again Harry Truman was a marked incumbent in 1948 and won.

In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a message of hope and the public's revulsion of the politics of corruption, greed and the big lie. Now the screw has turned on Obama and the Democrats who seem to be incapable of governing the nation - largely due to the GOP strategy of making Obama a failed president. Obama's effort to appease the GOP by bi-partisanship has only made him weaker in the eyes of his opponents and the public.

I recall what it was like in 1968 when the Democrats were divided because of the war in Vietnam. We allowed 'Tricky' Dick Nixon to rise from the political grave and beat Hubert Humphrey by promising a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. Sadly, the light at the end of that tunnel came with Saigon's collapse and Watergate!

The GOP and all of their candidates are operating from the same play book. Let's bring back the voodoo economics of Reagan and the cultural politics of the radical right. With unemployment over 9 percent, the DOW in a daily plunge, the Tea Party on the war path and litmus test cultural politics in resurgence, it would be a serious mistake for progressives to take anything for granted.

Can progressives re-energize the coalition that brought Obama to power in 2012 or is the game up?

I'm not so sure anymore.

To my progressive friends who say, 'We told you so,' my response is, 'So what?' This isn't a football game where you bet on the likely loser but win on points. We are talking about the fate of the nation - not the least of which is the collapse of the middle class into the ranks of the poor.

So my challenge to progressives is to get off your butts and help wake up America before it's too late for all of us - the winners and losers. If the GOP steals this election, we will all have 'buyers' remorse' in the days after.

Russ Dondero is Professor Emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, Pacific University and an adjunct professor of political science at Portland State University. Read his blogs at russdondero.squarespace.com.