There is a narrative here that the U.S. electorate contains a silent progressive majority which is disappointed with President Obama. In this narrative, the reason Obama's approval ratings are down and that Democrats face a difficult 2014 election cycle is that Obama, and Democrats as a whole, have not fought sufficiently hard for progressive priorities. Apparently, if the party moves hard to the left, the mass of Americans who don't vote will jump on board, because what they're really waiting for is an alternative which is farther to the left than the current Democratic party.
This is wishful thinking compounded by the echo chamber effect of Daily Kos. There is no silent progressive majority. There are some issues where progressives have majority support and other issues where conservatives have majority support. Like it or not, we have to fight for progressive change on uneven ground, where we have the advantage on some issues but not on others. I'll discuss why and how to do that below the fold.
First, a review of the issues. A lot of people who argue for the Silent Progressive Majority Theory (SPMT for short) point, correctly, to polls that show the American people are with us on a lot of issues. For example, 60-70% of people think that rich people and corporations pay too little in taxes. There are similar numbers on the beneficial effects of Social Security; chained CPI is unpopular, though you can get people to support it if you frame the question in a certain way (at the link, see the Bloomberg poll from Feb. 2013). Other polls show widespread support for raising the minimum wage, and even for the general proposition that government should do more to combat income inequality (high 50s in the WaPo poll linked above).
Unfortunately, there are other issues where we don't have the same widespread support. Constructing the Keystone XL pipeline is enormously popular, supported 65-22. School prayer is extremely popular as well - it gains majority support even when the question is framed in a very friendly way ('whether state/local governments should be allowed to require the reading of the Lord's Prayer or Bible verses in public schools'). And on one of the most central ideological issues of the last 40 years, the role of government, people prefer a smaller government providing fewer services to a bigger government providing more services. And it's not close.
In the face of this polling, the SPMT does not stand up to scrutiny. In reality, there is no silent progressive majority. Rather, the silent majority in American politics is non-ideological. Their views on the issues are neither purely ideologically progressive or purely ideologically conservative; they depend a great deal on how the question is asked, and how the issues are framed. And sometimes they depend on what day of the week it is.
This is both bad news and good news. It's bad news in that the simplest solution - just moving to the left across the board - isn't going to work. But it's good news in that framing matters and public opinion is flexible. People can be convinced to support progressive priorities.
So how do we do that? How do we create progressive change in non-ideal conditions?
First off, we take the issues where people agree with us and push them. There's a reason the central plank in the 2014 Democratic agenda is the minimum wage. It's incredibly popular. We should be running on strengthening Social Security, rather than on chained CPI (fortunately, that seems to have sunk in). And we should darn well be running on a platform of higher taxes for the rich (we've actually been doing that for years - their tax rates have gone up substantially since 2008). And yes, we should supplement the electoral politics with activism to raise awareness of inequality. Overall, OWS was an important success in that regard.
Second, on the issues where we don't have majority support, we need a combination of activism, electoral politics where possible, and good-old-fashioned changing minds. Keystone XL is one example - putting outside pressure on Obama (who is not up for re-election and thus might respond to that pressure) seems to be working fairly well, despite the popular headwinds. As another example, consider school prayer (or government prayer in general). Pretty much anywhere in this country outside of a few big cities, running against school prayer is political suicide. The best we can hope for is politicians who say they're for school prayer but then turn around and appoint Supreme Court justices who make sure it doesn't come back (cough cough Kagan). In the long term, we need to make people realize why organized school prayer is a really bad idea, but we're going to have to fight that fight on a local level, without help from our politicians.
Ultimately, the biggest mistake of the SPMT is that it oversimplifies both the problems we face and the solutions we need. It's certainly convenient to believe that all that is needed to fix our problems is to stand up as strongly as possible for what we believe in. However, the reality is that we face a complex set of problems with an uncertain and sometimes unfriendly electorate. It's a tough fight. But if we don't fool ourselves about the magnitude of the challenges we face, it's one we can win.