Thursday, May 24, 2007

"Third Way is the Wrong Way"

This article by Guy T. Saperstein, a partner at the Democracy Alliance, which he describes as "a center-left organization that is attempting to build progressive political infrastructure," is a criticism of Third Way's strategy, an organization that calls itself "a strategy center for progressives."

His core argument is that centrism is a counterproductive and self-defeating strategy that undermines progressives' efforts. According to Saperstein, Third Way's political philosophy is best articulated in The Politics of Polarization, a report that was published in October 2005, and that was presented as a "new study of electorate [that] updates seminal work by Galston and Kamarck." It was written by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, with the assistance of Scott Winship. Kamarck and Galston also wrote The Politics of Evasion in 1989, which is said to have had a significant impact on Bill Clinton's campaign. Now similar things are being said about the new study's influence on Hillary Clinton's platform. Galston is a political theorist at the University of Maryland and at the Brookings Institution, and a co-editor (together with Stanley Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira) of The Democratic Strategist. Elaine Kamarck is a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government. Scott Winship is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, chief blogger of The Daily Strategist, and recently became Senior Policy Advisor at the Third Way. I only point this out to illustrate how tightly knit the centrist universe seems to be ...

In any case, according to Saperstein, Third Way's strategy
is predicated on one core premise - a premise that I think is not only utterly fallacious, but one which attempts to lead Democrats in the wrong political direction. The core premise of "The Politics of Polarization" is that more people self-identify as "conservatives" (32%) than "liberals" (20%), so polarizing the electorate favors Republicans, not Democrats. Thus, Democrats must trend toward the center and/or conservative positions to attract the "moderates," and avoid supporting clear, but polarizing, "liberal" positions.
Indeed, the writings of Galston and Kamarck emphasize this key premise again and again, and not only as a description of how things are, but also as a prescription of what progressives should do and what direction they should move in. The fact that more voters self-identify as conservatives rather than as liberals should come as no surprise, given the growing success of the conservative infrastructure in shaping the ideological climate according to their interests (which is precisely what the Democracy Alliance tries to counter by building progressive infrastructure). But since the center has thus significantly moved to the right, moving towards the center necessarily comes at the expense of more liberal positions and hence undermines the progressive agenda.

Instead of pandering to an elusive center by abandoning more liberal positions, progressives should do what conservatives have successfully done: Rather than accepting the status quo by essentially strengthening core conservative positions, they should challenge it in order to change the terms of the debate and its underlying assumptions. The way to do this is to unambiguously confront conservative positions by presenting clear progressive alternatives. It means mobilizing the base rather than pandering to moderates, which is precisely what Republicans have done, based on the advice of Matthew Dowd and Karl Rove. According to Saperstein, this is easier in ideological terms and more effective and sustainable in the long term.

Saperstein illustrates his argument with two examples, the Iraq War and public housing policy. On Iraq, Saperstein shows that by accepting "the fundamental assumptions that underlay Bush's war," Third Way "managed to lag behind the Democratic Party on Iraq," thereby adding to the public's confusion about where Democrats stood on Iraq. In short, by being too close to the center, Third Way "has been in the way, not leading the way."

On public housing policy, Saperstein refers to a presentation by Third Way's President, Jon Cowan, to the Democracy Alliance. In it, he emphasized that when he was at the Housing and Urban Development Department, he worked to "blow up public housing," and characterized it as "modernizing" progressive ideas. According to Saperstein, he failed to mention that much of what he blew up
was sitting on valuable urban land and was replaced, not by low-income housing, but by developments of mid and high-priced condominiums, while the poor were moved farther from cities, and that some of the blown up housing had been recently built and was in good condition. More significantly, Cowan failed to acknowledge that the number of replacement units did not match the number of housing units blown up and thousands of low-income tenants were left homeless by this "modernization." The next day, Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of Center for Community Change, an organization that works on behalf of low-income people, called this demolition of public housing, with the insufficient housing replacement, "immoral."

Blowing up public housing and leaving thousands homeless may be Third Way's idea of "modernization," it may even appeal to some Democratic real estate developers, but there is nothing progressive about it.
Saperstein concludes that the question for progressives is not whether but how to influence Democrats:
The question for progressives is not whether we want to influence the Democrats -- of course we do. The question is do we want to invest precious time and resources on inside-the-Beltway cautiousness, bad policy analysis that makes no waves, takes no chances and doesn't differentiate itself from the conservatives, or do we work to build something more real, vital, honest and progressive -- based on better policy -- ideas that change America because they change the terms of debate, not simply pander ineffectively to a mythological, out-dated concept of the "center." If we don't, if we think that type of ideological myopia is counterproductive, we better keep watch on Third Way.
This seems to be a step in the right direction; the question is, does it go far enough. According to Saperstein, the goal of the Democracy Alliance is to build progressive infrastructure in order to change the ideological climate and ultimately public policy in a more progressive direction. Again, as we do find ever so often, strategy in the final analysis is driven by the ultimate objectives it pursues, and varies according to them.

To put it differently, looking at the presidential elections, does it make a difference to "progressives" whether Hillary Clinton is elected, which most of the New Democrats, including Third Way, are said to support, or whether Barack Obama is elected, which some in the Democracy Alliance are said to be tempted to support? Or is perhaps John Edwards the most progressive candidate, at least among the electable ones? No doubt that Dennis Kucinich would be much more progressive, but of course he does not have any chance. Elections are prohibitively expensive, but progressive resources are notoriously and chronically scarce. Politics remains the art of the possible. Does that mean that progressives are necessarily stuck with no good options, only lesser evils? Depends on what you mean by "progressive;" that seems to be the crux of the matter.

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