BHR Op-Ed: Pat O’Brien Describes State of the Progressive Movement in Arkansas

14 Feb

In the first of our new featured Op-Ed pieces, we get a very honest and inspiring assessment of the landscape for Arkansas progressives from former Pulaski County/Circuit Clerk and 2010 Arkansas Democratic Secretary of State nominee Pat O’Brien.

When I was majoring in political science at the University of Arkansas in the early 1990s, one unmistakable conclusion kept presenting itself: Arkansas was bound to become a two-party state.  After all, even at that time, we were an outlier compared to the rest of the South.  Arkansas was a right-of-center state ideologically, and I concluded that one day in the near future there would be a party realignment.  I just never imagined it would occur twenty years later and while I was the Democratic nominee for a statewide office.  Let’s call that bad timing.

So, where does our culturally conservative and economically populist state stand on progressive ideas given its seismic shift toward Republicanism in the 2010 elections?  Well, I think the jerseys might have changed, but the overall dynamics of the game are still the same.  In the past, Arkansans were willing to embrace progressive politicians such as Bill Clinton and Dale Bumpers as long as they did not go too far with their ideas.  I love both Clinton and Bumpers, but they never would have touted abortion or gay rights while in office.  Neither of them had prolonged battles against the gun lobby or took a position which offended the Chamber of Commerce over the long term.  They picked a few battles, but they did not change the overall dynamics they inherited.  Rather, they managed to survive the conservatism of our state by being personally popular and appealing to populist instincts.

If you are a true progressive in Arkansas you are taking the road less traveled.  It is a noble calling but not a politically popular one.  Therefore, you have to make a decision.  Do you want to spend your time fighting for overarching principles, or do you want to navigate the electoral process?  For example, America needs to allow for more legal immigration into our country.  I did not say illegal immigrants.  Rather, we need to stop making people wait eight years to legally become a citizen.  Eight months would be more like it.  I really like that whole Statute-of-Liberty-embracing-immigrants sort of philosophy.  This is the right stand but it won’t win you an election in 2012.

Gay people, with the possible exception of very few, are born that way.  They don’t learn to be gay.  Therefore, why do we punish them for being born a certain way?  At a minimum, we should be happy that they want to be in our military where they defend the right of other Americans to organize against them politically.  Now, that is noble.

One thing that progressives could learn from conservatives is that you don’t need to join a party so much as influence that party.  Conservatives focus their efforts on pushing the Republican Party as far right as possible.  They do a good job of it.  Republicans have to adapt or they lose their base.  Progressives need to start pushing the Democratic Party in Arkansas in the same way.  That does not mean we won’t have moderates anymore; it just means that moderates will be left of center instead of right of Glenn Beck.  That is a big difference.

I don’t have all the answers for progressives in Arkansas.  I do have a starting point, though.  Pick an issue, and give it everything we have.  Don’t relent.  Don’t compromise.  Don’t shut up about it.  Pick any progressive issue that you want, but I would suggest starting with the Equal Rights Amendment.  It is way past the right time for this to pass here.  It is the morally right issue.  Also, in the long term, it will be good politics.  After all, everybody loves a winner.  If Arkansas progressives start trumpeting issues that could go either way, there will be wins and losses.  Even the losses, though, will push the ball forward.  Over time, the game will change and become winnable.

Pat O’Brien


4 Responses to “BHR Op-Ed: Pat O’Brien Describes State of the Progressive Movement in Arkansas”

  1. Jeff Woodmansee February 14, 2011 at 11:40 am #

    I thought this was a very honest and inspiring assessment of where things stand. O’Brien is what I like to think of as a “pragmatic progressive” in that he’s highly skilled, on the right side of the important issues, but also brings a very deep understanding of the history behind our policy debates and looks at things in a very grounded and realistic way. He’s certainly someone who will be a leader for our movement and our party in the years to come.


    • keinenemo February 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

      Perhaps you would be so kind as to point me to the progressive movement here in Arkansas.


  2. kenadler February 25, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    The Green Party of Arkansas is the progressive political party in the state. As Mr. O’Brien pointed out, even when Arkansas was predominantly Democrat, it was predominantly conservative. That said, I think Mr. O’Brien is a pretty sharp guy, and he got my vote last November.



  1. Pat O’Brien on Arkansas progressives | Arkansas News | Arkasas Breaking News Headlines | Arkansas News Directory - February 15, 2011

    […] responsibility account-padding Republican authority in his competition for secretary of state has contributed an op-ed to a Blue Hog Report on a state of progressives in Arkansas. He pronounced his timing was off, that […]


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