Monday, June 19, 2006

On the Purpose of Progressive Power

Power is the ability to achieve a purpose. Whether or not it is good or bad depends upon the purpose.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Politics is the art of the possible.
Otto von Bismarck

This is a very cursory reflection on the relationship between power, strategy, ‘reality’ and contingency or in other words about what is ‘real’, what is possible, what is desirable, and how to achieve it. The problem, of course, is how to tell the difference between real possibilities and merely possible realities.

This post has been inspired by the recent launch of The Democratic Strategist: A Journal of Public Opinion & Political Strategy by Ruy Teixeira, Stan Greenberg, and William Galston. They describe their project as follows:
We are launching this publication because we believe Democrats must begin to develop political strategies that look beyond the standard two- and four-year time horizons set by the American electoral calendar. Democrats must develop a set of concrete and coherent political strategies for regularly winning elections and over the longer term - perhaps over a decade or more - winning new areas of support and creating nothing less than a stable Democratic majority in the country.
In his first post of June 16, 2006, Scott Winship, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist and responsible for its blog, The Daily Strategist, positions himself as follows:
Before I sign off, you deserve to know a bit about my own ideological predispositions. First and foremost, I am an empiricist, so I try to the extent possible to rely on evidence, data. My read of 20th-century American political history and the analysis I've done of electoral data lead me to believe that, unfortunately, there are not enough voters out there who are as secular or fiscally progressive as I am. And there are not enough who are as anti-nationalist as many of you are. As such, I am of the view that Democrats must make (modest) efforts to accomodate those who are to the right of progressives.

At the same time, I part ways with most progressives in a number of policy and political debates. I am essentially a chastened Peter Beinart hawk. I believe in a social policy that both promotes opportunity but demands responsibility. I'm sympathetic toward market-based policies. The point is, in some regards I have a real affinity for moderate Democrats rather than simply being pragmatic.

Can I win you back if I say that in my perfect world we'd have universal health care, a higher minimum wage, gay marriage, more progressive taxes, no creationism in schools, more generous family leave, more legal immigration, preschool for all, tougher fair housing laws, and - uh - polar ice caps? (emphases added)

Beyond the well-established debate between centrist ‘progressives’ and liberal ‘progressives’ or, if you prefer, between moderate and ‘progressive’ liberals, ‘position statements’ like the above raise a number of more fundamental questions.

Is politics about more than power? Many observers, especially those of a realist provenance, agree that politics essentially revolves around power: How to gain it, how to keep it, and how to use it. Politics in this sense can be understood as a technology of power. To this, so-called idealists object that if politics is not about collectively realizing certain values, it certainly should be. Pragmatists, finally, are most interested in what they think is possible, given what they see as ‘reality.’

However, this pragmatist and realist focus on power begs the question of its purpose: Yes, power, but what for? To do what? For its own sake (as in l’art pour l’art) or for a purpose other, and one is tempted to say greater than itself? Idealists insist that power first and foremost should be a means to and end, but must never become an end in itself. Among other reasons because, as we of course know from Lord Acton’s famous aphorism, ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – the truth of which is displayed daily by the current Bush administration, among others.

Hence, the million-dollar-question: What is the purpose of building progressive power? How we answer this question determines to a large degree the kind of strategy we are going to develop to achieve our goals. There seem to be two very different types of strategy.

If your ultimate goal is to gain power by winning elections, and if you identify as ‘progressive,’ you will devise a strategy that is most likely to help Democratic candidates win elections. If, however, your end goal instead is to achieve positive social change, you will develop a strategy that will build a base, if not a movement, that will work for social justice and environmental sustainability outside of the electoral arena, but which will also allow more and more of your preferred candidates to win elections. In each case, you obviously employ different tactics, including different spending priorities, various ways and means of organizing, different agendas and platforms, etc.

Which brings us back to the melting ice caps which – uh – are, according to a solid scientific consensus, most likely the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century. Climate change is indeed An Inconvenient Truth. To summarize Scott’s position, I think it would be fair to say that while he would really like universal health care, gay marriage, and polar ice caps, along with other such desiderata, ‘unfortunately,’ in his understanding of US politics, these goals are simply unrealistic, because the electorate is too conservative. Therefore, in order to win elections, Democrats ‘must’ move to the right, i.e. towards the center. It would be unfortunate indeed if we had to neglect the health and longevity of 45 million Americans and the rest of the world, just because some observers deem the US electorate as being too conservative, since, as everyone knows, health care and ice caps are vital to quality of life and chances for survival. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to convince US voters (if they actually are that conservative/centrist, which is controversial) in order to make not only the desirable (universal health care) but especially the necessary (mitigating the effects of climate change) possible.

In short, the point is that the ‘real’ is only one version of the possible (see the post on Epistemology As If Politics Mattered). In other words, any observation of ‘reality’ is contingent, i.e. neither necessary nor impossible. You can see things a certain way and therefore deal with them accordingly, but you don’t have to, and no one can force you to. While you may be able to empirically prove that the US electorate is not sufficiently receptive a more ‘progressive’ agenda, this view, given the infinite complexity of the world and our very finite models, is necessarily highly selective. This also might be the majority view these days, but so what? This is what life and politics is all about, different people and groups coming from different perspectives and therefore having multiple and often sustained controversies. Social life consists of a multitudes of perspectives in conversation with each other, none of which today, at the beginning of the 21st century, can pretend to have any kind of privileged access to reality and therefore superior insight. Since we cannot know ‘objective reality’, might as well concentrate on changing it. To only slightly paraphrase Marx’ famous thesis: ‘The pollsters have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’

This is why Robert B. Reich, former Labor Secretary under Clinton and currently professor at Berkeley, in his 2004 book Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, criticizes ‘centrist leadership’ as a contradiction in terms:
It takes no conviction and less courage to move to the political ‘center,’ as defined by prevailing polls of likely voters. If you want to be a malleable politician, you campaign from the center. But if you want to be a leader, you define the center. [his emphasis] You don’t rely on polls to tell you where to go. [Here, in a footnote referring to polls in the appendix, he wants to reassure candidates that ‘Americans are able to hear a liberal message.’] At best, polls tell you where people are, and it’s pointless to lead people to where they already are. The essence of political leadership is focusing the public’s attention on the hard issues that most would rather avoid or dismiss. We know the problems that need fixing. (emphases added)
As Hacker and Pierson cogently argue in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (2005), one of the biggest challenges facing progressive strategy is precisely the fact that what Reich calls ‘radical conservatives (radcons)’ have managed to move the political system, but not the public (!), significantly to the right, which of course means that the center has also shifted to the right. To counter this, the goal of a meaningful progressive strategy can only be, at a very minimum, to ‘re-center’ US politics, and ideally to move it back further to the left. To accomplish this, it is not enough for progressives to build their base and win elections; it requires leadership. This, in the end, is why I have chosen King’s quote as the motto of this post and of my blog.


At Thu Jun 29, 11:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, and thanks for discussing my opening blog entry. I'm definitely a pragmatist, but I'm uninterested in power for power's sake. I want to achieve the same things you do (for the most part). But pure idealism can backfire.

For instance, I support gay marriage rights. But it's possible that strident advocacy of marriage rights today might be worse for gays and lesbians than incremental moves that bring the public around gradually. That would be the case if, for instance, prioritizing gay marriage would leave Democrats in the political wilderness for a decade instead of being competitive in national elections.

Note that this is a question of facts, not values. Now often the situation is more complicated and involves values. By supporting civil rights in the 1960s, Democrats ceded southerners to the Republicans and *were* left in the political wilderness to some extent. I think this was the best approach for African Americans. I'm not sure it was the best approach for Americans in general, but even if it was shown that it wasn't, I certainly wouldn't be comfortable saying that Democrats shouldn't have supported civil rights as strongly.

Also, appealing to swing voters doesn't *necessarily* move the political center to the right. The assumption there is that voters can just keep drifting rightward without end. But that's obviously not true. Lots of people are against "partial birth abortion" but in favor of abortion rights in principle, but that doesn't mean that if Democrats came out against the procedure then those people would shift to the right and oppose abortion. The same is true for any other issue.

I agree that the long-term work of changing minds is vitally important, I'm just skeptical that politicians at the federal level have ever really been agents of change (or can be). I think opinions are fairly stable and respond more to secular trends (greater tolerance of gays and lesbians) than to political appeals.

That's ultimately an empirical question, and I guess the point of this response is that everything I've discussed here involves empirical questions. That's why I'm excited to be a part of The Democratic Strategist -- we hope to answer some of these questions in time. Best, Scott


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