Friday, April 28, 2006

A week full of contributions to progressive 'strategy'!?

In The Politics of Definition + Crashing the Gate = The Winning Formula?, Ruy Teixeira asks what are the major challenges facing the Democratic Party and how it should respond to it:

What are the two biggest things wrong with the Democratic party today? Sure, there are a lot of candidates, but I suspect the two that would top most lists are:

1. Voters and the party itself don't have a clear idea of what it stands for.

2. The party doesn't know how to fight--it's slow, unimaginative and ultimately ineffective at responding to political challenges.

Could it be, though, that we're actually starting to make progress?--that we now have reasonable approaches to righting these wrongs and therefore something close to a winning formula? I actually think so.

In response to the first challenge, Teixeira refers his and John Halpin's latest study, The Politics of Definition: The Real Third Way, that appeared in the American Prospect over the past week in four parts: Part I defines the major problem of progressives and Democrats thus:

After three consecutive losses at the presidential and congressional levels, progressives have been consumed with finding the strategies, tactics, messages, policies, media outlets, language and messengers to overcome their problems at the ballot box. Thinkers across the ideological spectrum battle it out over the wisdom of pursuing a hard populist approach versus a renewed focus on national security and cultural deficits with middle class voters. Philanthropists and elites focus their efforts on building new progressive “infrastructure”; grass-roots activists yearn for new organizational and media tactics and an aggressive public posture; and still others continue to long for the next incarnation of President Bill Clinton. (my emphasis)

Unfortunately, while each of these approaches offers important insights, the totality of the advice simply misses the mark and obscures the underlying problem driving progressives’ on-going woes nationally: a majority of Americans do not believe progressives or Democrats stand for anything. (their emphasis)

Part II focuses on their weaknesses; Part III discusses the limits of what they call 'the politics of mobilization' and 'the politics of inoculation', which is closely related to the centrism of the DLC and Galston and Kamarck's The Politics of Polarization, recently written for the Third Way: A Strategy Center for Progressives (sic!); Part IV finally sketches the 'politics of definition' as a viable alternative to both the politics of mobilization and the politics of inoculation, and which is supposed to close the identity gap by defining the identity of progressives and Democrats (my emphasis) more clearly in the eyes of the public, essentially based on shared sacrifice for the common good.

Interestingly enough, in his essay, Party in Search of a Notion of April 18, the Prospect's editor, Michael Tomasky, thinks along very similar lines to Halpin/Teixeira. He also argues that what progressives and Democrats lack most is a unifying philosophy that he also sees in the common good in the tradition of FDR, JFK and LBJ, and that we are currently living in a 'unique historical moment' that offers progressives and Democrats an opportunity that goes beyond winning a few elections, if they can only recognize and seize it.
He concludes:

But what if, as the CAP poll suggests, this is one of those moments? We are not in a Depression-like crisis, perhaps; but thanks to the efforts of the Bush administration we are on the precipice of several crises, and it’s not just liberals who recognize this. Many of our fellow citizens, bitterly disappointed by a leadership in which they had placed an extraordinary amount of trust back in September 2001, recognize it, too.

The Democrats must grasp this, kick some old habits, and realize that we are on the verge of a turning point. The Democratic left wants it to be 1968 in perpetuity; the Democratic center wishes for 1992 to repeat itself over and over again. History, however, doesn’t oblige such wishes -- it rewards those who recognize new moments as they arise. It might just be that the Bush years, these years of civic destruction and counterfeit morality, have provided the Democrats the opening to argue on behalf of civic reconstruction and genuine public morality. If they do it the right way, they can build a politics that will do a lot more than squeak by in this fall’s (or any) elections based on the usual unsatisfying admixture of compromises. It can smash today’s paradigm to pieces. The country needs nothing less. The task before today’s Democratic Party isn’t just to eke out electoral victories; it’s to govern, and to change our course in profound ways. I’d like to think they can do it. But the Democrats must become republicans first.

In Thursday's New York Times, David Brooks offers his take on these two significant publications from the perspective of The Death of Multiculuralism, and summarizes:

Naturally, this approach has weaknesses. Unlike in 1964, most Americans no longer trust government to be the altruistic champion of the common good, even if they wish it could. And while writers and voters talk about the common good, politicians are wired to think about their team. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer will never ask their people to make sacrifices, but until they do, the higher talk of common good will sound like bilge.

Nonetheless, the decline of multiculturalism and the rebirth of liberal American nationalism is a significant event. Democrats are purging the last vestiges of the New Left and returning to the older civic liberalism of the 1950's and early 1960's.

Goodbye, Jesse Jackson. Goodbye, Gloria Steinem. Hello, Harry Truman.

From the perspective of the Progressive Strategy Studies Project (PSSP), we would probably not classify these publications as 'strategic' in a strict sense, but rather as visions and general orientations, since they are not specific enough in identifying what instruments should be employed and what resources need to be mobilized (and in what sequence) in order to achieve the objectives that they ouline. Also, these approaches clearly focus on how to win elections, and not on how to build power through the strengthening of progressive social movements. Hence, when Teixeira and Halpin identify the strenghts and weaknesses of progressives and Democrats, they exclusively analyze constituencies in an electoral perspective.

But perhaps the biggest problem lies in the seemingly inoccuous formulation that both Teixeira/Halpin and Tomasky employ in talking about both 'progressives and Democrats'. As the Prospect's Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein also noted in the discussion of The Politics of Definition, isn't it precisely the case that progressives and Democrats fundamentally disagree on a whole range of issues, and some would add irreconcilably so, at least for the foreseeable future.

If that is the case, how viable then is a 'strategy' that Teixeira and Halpin summarize as follows:

The thesis of this report is straightforward. Progressives need to fight for what they believe in -- and put the common good at the center of a new progressive vision -- as an essential strategy for political growth and majority building. This is no longer a wishful sentiment by out-of-power activists, but a political and electoral imperative for all concerned progressives.

Comparing Democrats and Republicans concerning their disagreements, their management, and their perception by the public, Klein notes:

Somehow, Republicans have sidestepped the reputation for internal disarray. Somehow, Americans apparently know what they stand for, and it's not deficits, ill-planned military adventurism, messy expansions of entitlement programs, increased federal control over the American education system, and environmental belligerence. Yet that, put shortly, is their record. So here's the question: Are the Democrats truly without core and in need of righting, or do Americans just think they are because leading progressives keep saying so? And, if so, aren't the aforementioned progressives right, and this is largely just a messaging problem? (my emphasis)

This is a serious question. If his analysis is correct, what would be the strategic implications?

In response to his second observation quoted at the beginning of this post, Teixeira agrees with the arguments made in Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics concerning the reform of the Democratic Party:

But I freely acknowledge that our paper has lttle to say about problem #2: the weakness and ineffectiveness of the Democratic party as a fighting political organization. That is where Jerome Armstrong's and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga's excellent little book, Crashing the Gate, comes in (if you haven't read it yet, read it!) Armstrong and Zuniga provide a compelling argument about why and how the Democratic party must change its losing ways, from the bone-headed politics of many single-issue organizations to the corrupt consultant culture that rewards failure to the threadbare and poorly-paid progressive infrastructure to the dinosaur-like insistence of relying on network TV in the new media universe. And above all, they argue that Democrats need a 50 state, from the ground-up, contest-Republicans-everywhere organization and culture if they hope to succeed.

Teixeira concludes:

I can only say "amen". And combined with the common-good based politics of definition sketched above, I really do believe it adds up to a winning formula. Of course, a winning formula still has to be executed. (my emphasis) But it's a good start and a clear improvement on where progressives were, say, just a couple of years ago.

Indeed progressives seem to have made progress. But the current challenge might not only be how to execute a 'winning formula' but - more fundamentally - how to determine whether this formula actually does have the potential to win, given the reservations expressed above.