Last night was a wake-up call for those who saw the 2008 elections as ushering in a progressive realignment built upon expanded voting by young people, Latinos, and women. Democrats lost the U.S. House, and will likely lose the Senate after the 2012 elections. Instead of a campaign focused on increased public investment, green jobs, and greater social and economic fairness, Republicans and their media allies succeeded in framing the 2010 races around “tax and spend” Democrats’ moving too far to the left; even President Obama said he would focus less on government solutions to the economic crisis. Obama’s political team knew since Inauguration Day that there was typically a 33% drop-off in mid-term voter turnout, and that those least likely to vote were young people and other first time 2008 voters. It also knew that it could not count on the media to trumpet the success of progressive policies. Yet the Obama team failed to invest heavily in a grassroots organizing operation that could have kept young voters and the Democratic base connected to the Administration, abandoning the very strategy essential to progressives’ 2008 success.

It’s fair to say that most progressives saw the Democratic Party train wreck of November 2nd coming for several months, but felt powerless to prevent it. President Obama’s early and steadfast refusal to attack Republicans in fiercely partisan terms allowed the GOP to blame Democrats for the ongoing economic crisis, and by the time Obama hit the campaign trail it was too little too late to change the public mood.

I feel sorry for Joe Sestak, who was up against a Republican tidal wave in Pennsylvania and nearly pulled off an upset Senate victory. Other principled Democrats, like Florida Congressmember Alan Grayson, also fell victim to forces beyond their control.

And as I predicted, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prevailed over Tea Party hero Sharon Angle. A record Latino voter turnout – 12% of the electorate – gave Reid a fifth term.

Elections No Substitute for Ongoing Organizing

As progressives took back Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008, these victories may have misled many into believing that winning elections ensures progressive change. Yet despite the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson and the most progressive House Speaker ever, much of the core Democratic agenda – comprehensive immigration reform, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), climate change legislation, a massive and ongoing public works jobs program – never even came close to enactment.

It’s a tragedy of missed opportunity. One that last night’s election ensures will not come again anytime soon.

When Barack Obama evoked Cesar Chavez and the UFW’s fabled “Yes We Can” (“Si Se Puede”) rallying cry, I thought the former community organizer understood that the forces of big money and persistent conservative media bias can only be overcome by ongoing grassroots organizing.

Take a step back and think about what distinguished Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Was it massive radio or television advertising that built a movement for change, or a massive grassroots effort involving personal contacts with voters? Obviously, it was the latter.

It was personal contacts by grassroots organizers that enabled Obama campaign staff to talk with voters and refute Republican and media lies. You can’t do this through impersonal mail or advertising appeals.

President Obama’s political team thought they could dispense with a massive investment in organizing because their accomplishments would have their base rushing to the polls in 2010. Unfortunately, there is a major gap between what Obama believes he has accomplished for his base and the base’s perception.

But here’s the critical point: even if Obama had done everything his base wanted, Republicans and much of the media would have sung a sufficiently different tune that the 2008 voter base would need the type of shoring up that only is achieved through ongoing personal contacts.

That’s why Obama’s decision to disband his massive campaign organizing force was the single worst mistake he made, and one that progressives paid dearly for last night.

Obama’s Organizing for America is a dramatically scaled down version of what was needed to combat the right-wing media machine. It utilized far too few organizers to keep even the most fragile parts of Obama’s 2008 electoral base intact.

It’s not as if the Democratic Party could not have afforded to hire at least 1,000 fulltime organizers from Day One of the Obama presidency. The Party just got through spending hundreds of millions of dollars on unproductive television and radio campaign ads.

Therein lies the anatomy of a defeat.

How many times must Democrats learn the lesson that they cannot out-advertise Republicans and instead must out-organize them?

It’s not too late for Obama and Democratic leaders to learn from their mistakes, and to invest in at least 1,000 new organizers who would spend the next two years building grassroots resistance to Republican policies. But this will not happen.

Instead, Obama’s team will decide that the President and Democratic Party must move to “the center,” accepting Republican economic policies they once railed against. It’s a script that we have seen time and time again, and one that many of us thought had been discarded after the breakthrough of 2008.

Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century is now available in paperback.