Monday, June 19, 2006

The 'Whatever' and 'Do Your Own Thing' Party

A 'common knowledge' refrain in national political circles is that American voters don't know what the Democrats stand for. This is thought to hurt Democratic electoral prospects, because voters are hesitant to vote for a party that seems to be a muddle of voices and messages.

Stepping up last week to her leadership role as House minority leader was Nancy Pelosi who responded to quite reasonable questions about where the Democrats stand on Iraq. She responded (as reported by Linda Feldman in the Christian Science Monitor on 19 June 2006) thus:
We don't even have a party position on the war. We don't ask members to do one thing or another.

It was another leading Democrat, Bill Clinton, who adopted a similar stance on a military matter of his day: the "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military. Pelosi's version appears to be:
We don't ask party members their position on the war, and we certainly don't tell!

Linda Feldman quotes pollster John Zogby as saying,
The war is the elephant in the living room. The Democrats need to have a firm position.

How can the American people trust the Democrats to lead on national security issues if they don't have a party position on the most important current security issue of all? Pelosi should try harder to get a unified position even if it is a minimalist compromise. Otherwise she isn't doing her job.

Charles Knight

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.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Politics As If Epistemology Mattered or Who Is Still a Realist?

Advice Overload for the Democrats - This article by staff writer Michael Grundwald, published in the Washington Post on June 11, 2006, is a good summary of recent analyses of the Democrats' problems and advice given to them on how to win the midterm and future elections against the background of the Republicans' serious current problems.

The article makes a thoroughly constructivist argument, namely that the 'diagnoses of the party's ailments, and prescriptions for cures' tell us more about the biases of those analysts and 'advice-givers' than about 'the party's [and here one is tempted to add the word: 'real'] prospects of regaining power.'

This is an epistemologically and politically important point. Every observation always tells us something about the perspective the observer is coming from, and about his or her interests. Hence we all operate with what might be called 'interested constructs.'

Since, as constructivism instructs us, we don't have direct and - as it were - immediate access to 'reality', all we have are our observations. But if this is the case, how could we then, as Grundwald does (and along with him, many others) differentiate between the prejudices of intellectuals and consultants on one side, and the 'real' possibilities of the Democratic Party on the other?

Empiricists would respond that it's all a matter of using the 'right' methodology and research design when examining your data. To which constructivists in turn reply that given the complexity of the world and infinite cause-and-effect-relationships, any model by necessity is highly selective in its choice of variables. In short, data are 'man'-made.

If we have to abandon the correspondence theory of truth for epistemological reasons, perhaps it's time to adopt a pragmatist understanding of truth for political reasons. Since we cannot know 'reality' as it 'really' is anyway, why not finally give up this ancient 'quest for certainty' (John Dewey) in favor of an understanding of truth as that which is good for us, given our convictions. If we believe pragmatists like Richard Rorty, the choice for liberals/progressives should be easy: We should give absolute priority to reducing the suffering of others by becoming more sensitive to their pain, based on the realization of our common humanity. For this argument, see his Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, published in 1998.

At the end of the day, for constructivists, the challenge of course is how to be 'realistic' in a world whose 'reality' we cannot access; or better yet, inspired by Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities, how to become more interested in real possibilities rather than possible realities?

"'Reality' (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes)."
Vladimir Nabokov

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

'The Greatest Challenge Facing the American Center-Left'

In In Search Of a New New Deal: How Will the Good Jobs Of the Future Be Created?, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne identifies what he sees as 'the greatest challenge facing the American center-left', including progressives. Note the crucial distinction between tactics and strategy, highlighted below, that is made much too rarely in contributions to progressive strategy. Ironically, one would expect precisely political 'strategists' to systematically draw that distinction:
It's large enough that it should swamp all the silly arguments about whether Democrats need some sort of program for the 2006 elections. That is a tactical question -- of great importance to political strategists, but far less critical than whether progressives can, over the long run, keep their core promise to expand opportunities for the middle class and the poor.

There is no sturdier liberal or Democratic slogan than "Jobs, jobs, jobs." But liberals have a problem: The old capitalist job-production machine is not working the way it used to. The venerable promise that new (progressive) leadership will create masses of well-paying jobs is harder to make and even harder to keep.

In principle this is a larger problem for conservatives, whose main economic program involves reinforcing the status quo by giving tax cuts to rich people so they have more money to invest. Conservatives simply ignore the fact that fewer jobs are being created, particularly at home, for each dollar invested. But conservatives are expected to stand up for the rich. Liberals are supposed to expand the standard of living for everybody else. That is harder than it used to be.

To make his point, he refers to recent evidence, provided by Bruce Stokes, Ron Gettelfinger, and Alan Blinder:

In the National Journal of June 10 (article not [yet?] available online), Bruce Stokes, using data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), states that job growth in the current recovery is the slowest since the Kennedy administration, and warns that 'the global economy's job machine may be breaking down, again.'

At the beginning of this week's annual convention of the United Auto Workers (UAW), whose membership has dropped from 1.5 million in 1979 to less than 600,000 in 2005, its president, Ron Gettelfinger, issued a report arguing that the severe problems of the US auto-industry are not cyclical but structural and demand 'new and farsighted solutions.'

In Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution?, in Foreign Affairs of March/April 2006, Alan S. Blinder, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Studies at Princeton University, and former Federal Reserve vice chairman, warns that 'we have so far barely seen the tip of the offshoring iceberg, the eventual dimensions of which may be staggering.'

Given these somber prospects, and noting the public's strong desire for an improvement in their socioeconomic situation, Dionne suggests the negotiation of a new New Deal:
This week's UAW meeting is simply the most obvious harbinger: The old bargain is breaking down and is in urgent need of renegotiation. The most promising place to start would be in reforms of the areas where the old bargain worked best: health, retirement and schooling.

Because electorates are looking for a better economic bargain, the words "New Deal" never sounded more up to date -- though if the marketing specialists insist, A New and Improved Deal would do just fine.

Interestingly enough, Jeff Faux, founding president and distinguished fellow at the EPI, in his most recent book, The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future - and What It Will Take to Win It Back, published early this year, comes to a similar conclusion. Arguing that globalization has allowed the political and economic elite to abandon the social contract, he offers a strategy to democratize the global economy, beginning with a renegotiation of the social contract in North America.

Indeed, it seems to be the case that as long as progressives can't offer a convincing proposal of how to create a great number of good jobs, paying, at the very minimum, a living wage, any progressive strategy is bound to remain critically deficient.

While the problem is obvious, the solution is far from clear. Dionne cautions:
For the past 15 years, progressive free-market politicians have offered an appealing mantra about how to save the middle class: What's needed, they've said, is heavy investment in education and job training to allow people to make the transition from the "old" economy -- those auto jobs -- to the new. "What you earn depends upon what you can learn," President Bill Clinton said over and over.

There's certainly some truth to that still, but in the global economy, competition is fierce even for high-end jobs requiring great skill and education. To think otherwise is to deny the obvious: that the people of India and China, to pick just the two obvious examples, are gifted, energetic, ambitious -- and numerous.

Who Is Progressive?

Hillary Clinton's speech at the Take Back America conference (TBA) yesterday triggered a debate over who is a progressive. This is relevant for progressive strategy since while many centrists and leftists call themselves 'progressive', they don't seem to have too much in common. Likewise, many contributions to 'progressive' strategy, most notably The Politics of Definition (see previous post), don't differentiate between 'progressives' and 'Democrats' when they talk about the need for a common philosophy. By blurring what appears to be a crucial distinction, such analyses can lead to greater confusion rather than clarity.

Norman Solomon asks Why Pretend that Hillary Clinton Is Progressive? He questions why TBA, which promotes itself as the largest 'progressive' gathering of the year, invites Clinton to speak, but not Jonathan Tasini, who is running against her in this year's Democratic primary in New York, and who, as a longtime union activist, is considered by Solomon, Howard Zinn and many others as a 'true progressive':

But the people who "do consider Hillary progressive" could mostly be divided into two categories -- those who are Fox-News-attuned enough to believe any non-Republican is a far leftist, and those who are left-leaning but don't realize how viciously opportunistic Sen. Clinton has been. Today, in keeping with her political character, she welcomes the fund-raising support of reactionary media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
He concludes:
In the interests of truth-in-labeling, shouldn't Hillary Clinton be described as anti-progressive?

Even Teddy Roosevelt ran as a 'progressive' in 1912. (The pictured Progressive Roosevelt Battle Flag now hangs in 3rd floor hallway of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA.)

It is also well known that the vast majority of the netroots are highly critical of Clinton. Markos Moulitsas has been very explicit on this in his recent article for the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton: Too Much of a Clinton Democrat?

The focus of the current debate is the growing conflict over Iraq policy among Democrats and 'progressives.' For a good background on reactions to her speech, see Clinton Booed on Iraq in today's The Hill. Today's New York Times highlights the division between leading Democrats: Clinton and Kerry Show Democratic Divide on Troop Withdrawal. While Medea Benjamin, cofounder of Codepink, complains in Counterpunch that the organizers of TBA did not keep their promise to let them criticize her, Shawn Macomber of The American Spectator downplays the importance of the 'antiwar protesters' in today's National Review Online (NRO). John Podhoretz in yesterday's The Corner, the NRO's blog, even went so far to assert:
There's a lot of talk about how Hillary's rep on the far Left has taken such a hit that she's going to have trouble getting the Democratic nomination. Come on. How does sounding responsible and sober about America's policy in Iraq hurt her? Scenes like this, if they continue through the campaign season, are going to get her elected.

If a co-founder of the Weekly Standard and contributor to Fox News compliments 'progressive' politicians on their Iraq policy, it ends up making more than a few other 'progressives' suspicious.

But the crucial differences are not only between individual candidates and single issues, but also concern organizations and overall political strategy. This critical difference between different types of progressives is well documented. Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future (CAF), which organizes TBA, sees CAF and its allies, such as MoveOn and USAction, as a 'winning counterweight' against the DLC and other centrist groups:
The lesson we drew from the Clinton administration is that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party … needs to be better organized in order to be heard, especially given the influence of groups like the DLC and corporate influence in general.
And he adds:
The Democratic Party is a big tent, but the vast majority of Democrats are progressives. (my emphasis)

In direct contrast, DLC senior fellow Marshall Wittmann warns:
The danger to the Democratic Party right now is, they’re lurching to the left and leaving behind the middle. It’s to Hillary’s credit that she’s steering a centrist course even if it upsets some on the left, because that’s the only way the party is going to be back in control of Congress and win the White House. (my emphasis)

The time-honored battle between different types of 'progressives' over primacy in the Democratic Party seems to intensify. How much potential is there to build bridges between them for the sake of greater integration, unity of purpose, and hence effectiveness?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Can the 'Movement' Challenge the 'Establishment'?

The Struggle Between the 'Status Quo Establishment' and the 'Progressive Movement' over Primacy in the Democratic Party in the 2006 and 2008 Elections and Beyond

There seems to be an increasing conflict between what is alternatively called the 'democratic wing of the Democractic Party' (Paul Wellstone; Howard Dean), the 'MoveOn wing of the party' (Robert Borosage) or the 'progressive movement' (David Sirota) and what is referred to as the 'establishment' of moderate and centrist liberals, not only over Iraq, social, economic and a host of other policies, but also over how to win the 2006 and 2008 elections, and ultimately over the long-term primacy in the Democratic Party beyond the necessarily short-term perspective of elections and legislative periods. What appears to be at stake is the future of the Democratic Party, contested between the centrists and moderates revolving around the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) who would like to maintain the status quo, and the 'grassroots' who intend to transform it into an effective instrument for truly progressive political and ultimately social change.

According to David Sirota, author, political strategist, and co-chair of the Progressive States Network, 2006 is the year the progressive movement became a movement. As evidence, he points to the growth of grassroots organizations such as MoveOn and the Progressive States Network (originally launched as the Progressive Legislative Action Network, PLAN), the 'huge' numbers of people buying recently published books like Crashing the Gate and his own, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Have Conquered Our Government - and How We Can Take it Back, the emergence of the progressive blogosphere and its associated writers (see yesterday's post), 'overcrowded' events such as the recent YearlyKos Convention and the currently ongoing Take Back America conference (TBA), and the increasing number of 'progressive' candidates, such as Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Jon Tester (D-MT).

Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future (CAF), which organizes TBA, points to similar evidence in The Turning?, which was posted in The Nation on June 8 (June 26, 2006 issue). Both Borosage and Sirota make a similar argument, namely that the current weakness of the Republicans represents a unique opportunity not only to win the 2006 and 2008 elections, but to do so by offering a 'populist' and 'real politics of the common good' (Borosage), and thereby moving the country in a more progressive direction in terms of politics and policies. Borosage makes this alternative clear by distinguishing in his article between 'the debate we will have' and 'the debate we need to have.' For a good summary of his main ideas, you can also watch his opening statement yesterday at the TBA.

Indeed, a new poll suggests that this opportunity does in fact exist, but cautions that it will take a great effort of persuasion on the part of progressives. These debates highlight the long-standing conflict between those whose ultimate goal is to win elections and to govern on a more or less neoliberal platform, and those who whose ultimate goal is to bring about progressive social change, among other means by winning elections. Interestingly enough, both the 'centrists' and the 'progressives' are concerned that the other's strategy will fail to win elections, just like in years past. Is the US really ready for a full-fledged progressive alternative to politics-as-usual and is the 'progressive movement' strong enough to bring it about?

Monday, June 12, 2006

How Powerful Can the Progressive Blogosphere Become?

The first annual YearlyKos Convention just took place in Las Vegas, June 8 – 11, 2006, named after its main organizer, Markos Moulitsas, of the most successful progressive blog, the Daily Kos. Its main purpose was to bring together leading bloggers (about 1000 attended) and Democrats (Dean, Warner, Vilsack, Reid, Richardson). For a general background on the conference, see Blogger’s Convention Draws Democrats, in yesterday’s Washington Post.

As far as progressive strategy is concerned, two of the most interesting questions concern the potential power of the blogosphere, and the relationship between bloggers and candidates. While most bloggers ultimately want nothing less than to fundamentally transform the way politics is done, many politicians still seem to ask themselves how they could ever become more than a new and useful fundraising and organizing tool. In trying to challenge the Democratic ‘establishment’ consisting of moderate and centrist Democrats, major corporate donors, and consultants based in Washington, DC, the netroots will have to be careful not to be co-opted or worse even instrumentalized in the process. For indications for this uncertainty and tension, see Gathering Highlights Power of the Blog and A Mixed Bag of First Impressions by Democrats at Blog Rendezvous, that appeared this weekend in the New York Times.

The bloggers’ record of success so far is not very impressive. Their first major ‘success’ that can be attributed to the model they envision was Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, and Dean appears to remain very supportive of them. The DNC apparently just established an Internet Department to track the blogosphere’s development. Of the leading Democratic candidates for 2008, Mark Warner seems the closest to the netroots, while Hilary Clinton is very much criticized, mainly because of her support for the Iraq War. Jerome Armstrong, who together with Moulitsas co-authored Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, is a senior adviser to Mark Warner.

In this context, Byron York, National Review White House correspondent, warns in his article today, What Fame Will Bring to Daily Kos: With Recognition Comes Scrutiny, that with all the attention Moulitsas has recently received, his statements and positions will be examined more closely, which could cause problems for those politicians too closely associated with him.

For a good background on the netroots, see the report by Chris Bowers and Matthew Stoller, Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere: A New Force in American Politics, published last year by the NDN's New Politics Institute.