Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Zinn Criticizes Democrats and Gives Advice to Progressives

In an interview with Shelly R. Fredman in the May/June issue of Tikkun, progressive historian Howard Zinn criticizes the Democrats and makes some recommendations for progressives.

There is no 'magical tactic;' What succeeds is building up and escalating protest and resistance:
SF: Has the Left responded adequately to the kind of fascism we see coming from Bush’s people? Street protests seem to be ineffective; it’s sometimes disheartening.

HZ: The responses are never adequate, until they build and build and something changes. People very often think that there must be some magical tactic, beyond the traditional ones—protests, demonstrations, vigils, civil disobedience—but there is no magical panacea, only persistence in continuing and escalating the usual tactics of protest and resistance. The end of the Vietnam War did not come because the Left suddenly did something new and dramatic, but because all of the actions built up over time.

If you listen to the media, you get no sense of what’s happening. I speak to groups of people in different parts of the country. I was in Austin, Texas recently and a thousand people showed up. I believe people are basically decent, they just lack information….
Democrats not only lack a spiritual message, 'they don't even have a political message,' are dependent on corporations, and are incompetent when it comes to winning elections:
SF: Where do you see the Democrats in all this? What of their role, their responsibility?

HZ: The Democratic Party is pitiful. Not only are they not articulating a spiritual message, as Lerner says, they don’t even have a political message. The Democrats are tied to corporate wealth. And they are incompetent when it comes to understanding how to win elections. By the time Kerry ran, the public had actually shifted. Fifty percent were against the war. The Democrats should have been saying they would end the war, and make those dollars available for healthcare.
Hillary Clinton is too opportunistic, Obama overly cautious -- Marian Wright Edelman for President!

SF: What about the upcoming crop of presidential candidates—Hillary Clinton, for instance?

HZ: Hillary Clinton is so opportunistic. She goes where the wind is blowing. She doesn’t say what needs to be said. And Barack Obama is cautious. He’s better than Clinton, but I’d suggest Marian Wright Edelman as the Democratic candidate for president. She's the epitome of what we need. A very smart black woman who deals with children, poverty…. She’s in the trenches, and she ties it in with militarization. But she doesn’t come out of government.

That’s another problem—the Democratic Party is a closed circle. It may take a threatening third party to shake things up.
Will it really take a third party to transform the Democratic Party, which has become a 'closed circle'? How likely is that to succeed in the US political system? Bill Domhoff, along with many other social scientists, is highly skeptical and recommends to transform the Democratic Party by running more and more progressive candidates: Third Parties Don't Work: Why and How Egalitarians Should Transform the Democratic Party, March 2005.

According to Zinn, Michael Lerner overestimates the importance of spiritual values. Even Tikkun is too intellectual. Instead, progressives need to articulate the spiritual in more emotional terms and communicate a clear and coherent message in a language people actually do understand, along the lines of Barbara Ehrenreich's writings:
My differences with Lerner, though, reside in the proportion of attention he pays to spiritual values. These are important, but they’re not the critical issue. The issue is how are people living and dying. People are dying in Iraq and our wealth is being squandered on war and the military budget.

SF: Don’t you believe the Left needs to address spiritual needs to win? How else can we galvanize the heartland, people taken in by the religious rhetoric of Bush?

HZ: Yes, there are special needs and they need to be addressed. But after the last election there was a kind of hysteria among liberal pundits about a “failure” to deal with the moral issues. There is a hard core for whom religion is key. They are maybe twenty-five percent of the population. It’s a mistake to try to appeal to that hard core.

I define the spiritual in emotional terms—to the extent that religion can draw on the Ten Commandments (for example, thou shalt not kill), it is important. And I find the spiritual in the arts, because they nourish the spirit and move people. Artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, for example, and now Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. We need more of these.

It’s not that people are turned off by the Left. The Left hasn’t reached out to people with a clear, coherent, and emotional message. The Left often does not know how to talk to other people. Tikkun itself appeals to intellectuals.

I’ve never spoken the language of ivory tower academics. And there are other voices on the Left that speak in understandable language. For instance, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in which she took menial jobs across the country and wrote about those lives, was a bestseller. There’s an emotionalism to her message that makes contact and touches thousands. Michael Moore’s movies have been seen by all sorts of people. GI’s in Iraq watched his movie. We just have to do more along those lines.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Truly Progressive Alternative to Bush

According to Jeff Cohen, in his May 3 Common Dreams article "I'm Tired of Bushes and Clintons", the truly progressive alternative to Bush, an alternative that would lead to real social progress in the US, is not Clinton -- or, for the same reason, Kerry-style centrism, but even further to the left, closer to the 'old' (?) Dean and the 'new' (?) Gore.

Here are some excerpts:
But I believe that until we sweep away the Bush-Clinton era and transcend narrow Bush-Clinton debates (and non-debates), we won't be able to put our country back on the road to social progress.

Many Americans long for a strong presidential candidate in 2008 who will go beyond the tepid Bush-Clinton dialogue and chart a new course for our country -- including in foreign affairs. Aspiring Democrats who refuse to forcefully challenge a failed foreign policy in fear of being labeled "weak on defense" will fare no better than Kerry did. The backpedaling, "GOP-lite" strategy doesn't work.

Any Democrat who breaks from the Bush-Clinton consensus will become a target of mainstream media -- not just Fox News -- much like Howard Dean was in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. If Al Gore steps out to run for president on a platform derived from his recent speeches on Iraq, foreign policy and Constitutional liberties, brace yourself for the spectacle of elite pundits straining to convince us that the man who was vice president for eight years is now irresponsibly leftish and "out of the mainstream."

Among mainstream pundits, it's conventional wisdom that Bill Clinton and his centrist realpolitik saved the Democrats. But simple math tells us the opposite: Triangulation may have worked for Clinton personally (and for corporate backers seeking media consolidation and corporate-friendly trade deals like NAFTA), but far from saving the Democrats, the Clinton years represented a free fall for the party. When Clinton entered the White House, Democrats dominated the Senate, 57-43; the House, 258-176; the country's governorships, 30-18, and a large majority of state legislatures. By 2000, Republicans controlled the Senate, 55-45; the House, 222-211; governorships, 30-18, and almost half of state legislatures.

For Americans who want to turn our nation toward health, driving Bush-style extremism from the White House is essential.
But it won't be enough to replace it with Clinton-style vacillation and triangulation.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Progressives Need to Build a Political Identity

Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, just published his latest book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success, and writes about it today in his article “The Progressive Identity Complex”, at

He very much agrees with the idea put forward by Tomasky and Halpin/Teixeira (see below) that progressives need to put 'the common good' at the core of their identity.

While he substantively agrees with them, he emphasizes that progressives' main problem is how they present themselves, and he offers some advice on how to improve their presentation, and on how to better connect their agenda with their identity:

It isn’t enough to put a big idea before the American people; contrary to what the press corps would have people believe, the left has plenty of ideas. Progressives’ problem has been how they present themselves. In other words, their key challenge is to forge an identity the public understands and is attracted to.

So when progressives articulate their fundamental beliefs, they have to present a coin with two sides: the positive things they want people to believe about them, and the negative things they want people to believe about conservatives.

This is why I offer a variant of the “common good” idea, one that is likely to perform its political function more effectively. The answer to the question, “What do progressives believe at their core?” is this: Progressives believe we’re all in it together. (his emphasis)

Which brings us to the final benefit of having “We’re all in it together” as the core statement of progressive identity: it is, in fact, what progressives actually believe. (his emphasis)

He concludes:

In order for a fundamental statement of belief to do its political work, it has to be stated with conviction. When you stand up for what you believe in without fear and show how you’re different from your opponents, Americans come to see you as principled and strong. That’s what conservatives have been doing for decades, and as a result they’ve achieved success after success at the ballot box despite the fact that the public has been opposed to most of the policies they want to enact. If progressives can join their popular agenda to an identity based in courage, conviction and contrast with conservatives, there are few limits to what they can accomplish.

The Parallel Universe of Academia (or, Chomsky's last stronghold), Shadi Hamid, Democracy Arsenal, 06-05-03

Referring to Todd Gitlin's article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the Academic Leftthis post at The Democracy Arsenal blog is on the futility of the orthodoxy and protestations of the 'radical left.' Power is not in numbers, but in ideas and the ability to translate them into sustained action. This explains the rapid rise and fall of the neocons.


If the Left wishes to resuscitate itself, it might like to take a careful look at (and in) the halls of the academy. I was reminded of this by Todd Gitlin's perceptive essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. One cannot begin to count the endless numbers of young, otherwise well-meaning liberals obsessed with orthodoxy and ideological purity. It is, however, orthodoxy of a peculiar kind, one that holds post-modernism, anti-Orientalism, anti-imperialism, “deconstruction,” and other such things as self-evident truths immune, ironically, from criticism.

Academia really is, in a way, a parallel universe, the only place left in the
United States where Noam Chomsky is still quoted as an authority.

For their part, significant segments of the Left have chosen to disengage from the System and to complain and criticize at every turn, oblivious to the fact that their protestations provide yet more proof of their heightened irrelevance.

It is worth noting that in the run-up to the
Iraq war, more than 10 million people throughout the world protested, presumably united against the perils of unwise intervention. They may have been right, but history has the final say, and it happens to judge outcome, not intention. Despite overwhelming opposition, the war still happened and we have had to live with the many consequences. On the other hand, 10-15 people – once Leftist graduate students, now “liberals mugged by reality” (i.e. neocons) – were able to provide the intellectual ammunition for a small but effective movement that would steer US foreign policy in rather interesting, and often destructive directions.

Thus, power is not in numbers, but in ideas and the ability of convert them into tangible, sustained action. This is the both tragic and empowering lesson of neo-conservatism’s unlikely ascendancy, as well as its sudden demise.

Grand Strategy for Progressives, Lorelei Kelly, Democracy Arsenal, 05-04-06

This short post from the Democracy Arsenal is about what progressives and the military can learn from each other, and how they could become allies by forging a new civil-military relationship post-9/11. Democracy Arsenal, 'a blog devoted to opinion, commentary, and sparring on US foreign policy and global affairs,' is part of the Security and Peace Initiative, which is a joint project of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the New Century Foundation.

The military can learn from progressives' inclusive and liberal understanding of society to improve their new types of post-Cold War missions, involving important aspects of nation-building:

First of all, progressives, with their populist bent and their intuition about the benefits of broadly inclusive liberal society -- have much to contribute to the kinds of missions that the military has embarked upon since the end of the Cold War. Even the Weekly Standard embraces nation-building in this week's cover story.

Conversely, progressives could learn from the military on how to improve their strategic thinking, by systematically drawing the crucial distinctions between strategy, tactics, and operations, that constitute grand strategy only if coherently articulated:

Progressives, on the other hand, could use a few lessons in thinking about battle plans and the military conceptualization of Grand Strategy with its subdivisions of strategy, operations and tactics. Grand Strategy is a broad and long-term theme -- like containment during the Cold War. Strategy, operations and tactics breaks this theme down into more manageable pieces. This way of thinking, both broad and simultaneous, might be helpful for a group of citizens who often mistake tactics (public protest) for strategy (600 page outline on world peace) and vice versa.

Indeed, what we at The Progressive Strategies Project have found in our review of contributions to progressive strategy, is that - with few exceptions - most authors and organizations use the term 'strategy' synonymously and interchangeably with goals and vision or simply with policy, typically without even addressing tactics and operations, much less resources and the likely response of adversaries.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Winning the West, PPI, April 2006

Winning the West (full text in PDF) was published earlier this month by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), and written by David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior during the second term of the Clinton administration. The PPI describes itself as part of the 'third way' that seeks to modernize 'progressive' (sic) politics beyond the left-right debates of the 'last century'. It is a project of the Third Way Foundation, chaired by the Democratic Leadership Council's Al Frum. ' Its “progressive market strategy embraces economic innovation, fiscal discipline, and open markets, while also equipping working families with new tools for success.' I often wonder why a number of centrist individuals and institutions insist on calling themselves 'progressive.' Maybe because they feel that 'liberal' is discredited and they are trying to reclaim 'progressive' from more leftist understandings of it? Be that as it may, the eleven-page report deals with what 'progressives' need to do in order to win more elections in the West.

The background to this is that the West boasts six of the 10 fastest growing states in the country, and that Democrats have done better in Colorado and Montana in the past few years.

Focusing mainly on the crucial importance of agriculture in the West, the report concludes by recommending that 'progressives' need to follow the following four principles:

Progressives need to lead the way toward win-win solutions that satisfy environmental imperatives and meet landowner needs. They have a shared interest with Westerners in conserving landscapes and protecting water supplies. This is a sensible path that will lead to success at the polls.

If progressives follow these four principles, they will find allies among Western voters who want sensible resource management and are troubled by the Bush administration’s over-the-top pursuit of more logging, drilling, mining, and the like. To win the West, they must reclaim the mantle of pragmatic, principled leadership.