Saturday, February 24, 2007

Toward a two-tier presidential campaign financing system?

This is just a brief follow-up on a previous post on the growing importance of money in politics. Yesterday, former Democratic governor of Iowa and chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, Tom Vilsack, dropped out of the presidential race. Here is why:
"It is money, and only money, that is the reason we are leaving today." (my emphasis)
Is this further proof of the emergence of a two-tier financing system, in which all the top candidates opt out of public financing, while the second-tier candidates are stuck with it? Some push this further and wonder whether this is still a democracy or whether we have fully entered the age of plutocracy. Apparently, Evan Bayh also quit for a lack of money. Can public financing, created after Watergate in 1974, be saved?
"Next week, the Federal Election Commission will rule on a special request made by Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). It would let him raise money for the general election, and still choose to return it and take public financing if he wins the nomination."

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A Vision without Power?

A Response to Sally Kohn's Presentation of the Movement Vision Project
by Ben Healey, Network Organizer, Public Policy Institute

The core pieces of the vision Sally articulated – active (or radically participatory) democracy, an inclusive economy, and international justice – strike me as very smart and truly do capture a broad spectrum of what progressive activists are trying to accomplish, each of us within – and sadly rarely across – our individual issue "silos." The language she employs is powerful and motivating, the values are clear, and overall there's not much within those pieces with which I'd disagree.

Nonetheless, I do take issue with what I see as one significant gap in what Sally presented: there needs to be a much more central place for a theory of power in this work. And by that I mean two separate things: 1) power as the thematic and philosophical linkage between the individual pieces of the shared progressive vision we are working to describe; and 2) power as a strategic goal that cannot be decoupled from the articulation of that vision.

1. Power as a thematic and philosophical link

What underlays – and fundamentally connects – the three big pieces Sally laid out last week is a radically different vision of power: who holds it, how it can be wielded, and why. Deeper democracy, in all aspects of civil society and in our relationship to the state; greater popular (or community) control over the economy; and a neo-cosmopolitan, rather than a nationalist or imperialist, approach to international relations – all of these ideas spring from a left understanding of who can and who should hold power, based on a serious (but underdeveloped, in my opinion) philosophy of personhood. Therefore, as a movement that must be (and at least rhetorically contends that it is) concerned with power, we should not be trying to represent a Kantian, individually-oriented view of autonomy as the end goal. Rather, let us imagine together a community-oriented, heteronomous view that considers all of us to be both mutually interdependent and also fundamentally valuable, as individuals, acting within the various spheres of our lives – where we, as individuals, should have real decision-making power within structures of democratic collaboration.

I use as an example Charles Knight's comments that evening: "We could get 50 Israelis and Palestinians – all committed to peace as an end goal – in a room to discuss what the internationally 'just' solution to that conflict would be, and we still probably wouldn't come out with an answer." He's right. And so I offer up this point: while the solution to the conflict matters immensely, what matters even more – in terms of our shared vision, at least – is that one side doesn't have the power to blow the other up, and thereby dictate the terms of negotiations.

Thus, I believe that we should share this common goal on the left and articulate it whenever we discuss our vision: that we work to transform relations of power so that human beings, working together in democratic structures, determine together how best we can create healthy communities; productive, meaningful and sustainable economies; and an improved quality of life for ever-increasing numbers of people.

2. Power as a strategic goal

Dale Bryan mentioned that Sally left out "conflict" in her analysis. His comment sparked in me this complaint, which is that Sally's analysis seems to operationalize the "progressive vision" only in so far as it is about how we tell our story, how we frame it, and how we seek to authentically actualize it in our organizations' work.

Maybe I'm missing something – but that just ain't enough, and I don't think I'm saying anything that we all don't already know. So why not say it? Our strategy has to be about gaining governing power, so that we can implement our vision. Not about opposition to power, but instead figuring out how our side is going to run the country.

In all facets of our lives, people do not choose to act unless they believe that they have some power (to influence, persuade, decide, etc.), and a movement won't grow unless those who share our goals (or, just as importantly, those who might come to share our goals if we present our vision in a compelling fashion and tell our values-based stories better) recognize that we are actively contesting for power – and that they will have more of it when we win! Sally's strategic trifecta doesn't seem to grapple with this reality, and I'm curious as to why.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Vision = Movement = Change

This is the summary of the presentation and discussion of the Movement Vision Project of the Center for Community Change with Sally Kohn, director of the Movement Vision Project. It was organized by the Progressive Strategy Studies Project and took place in Boston on February 21, 2007. The summary is based on Sally's handout and the notes that I took during the presentation and discussion.

The progressive movement is clear what it's against - but is it clear what the movement is for? Two years ago, the Movement Vision Project began interviewing social change leaders across the United States about their positive, big picture, long-term vision for the future. How should the economy be structured? What would a just foreign policy look like? Is it possible to end racism and what would it look like if we did? The project interviewed over 165 leaders, including national leaders as well as state and local leaders, from all different backgrounds, working on a range of issues. Informed and shaped by these conversations, the Movement Vision Project has developed a provocative proposal for the progressive community about our vision for the future and how we get from here to there.

We at the Progressive Strategy Studies Project believe that vision and values are central aspects of the 'objectives' component of a progressive strategy. They are a necessary starting place for strategic thought and planning. We are very pleased to host the presentation and findings of the Movement Vision Project in Boston. For more on the components of progressive strategy see our report, Finding Strategy, published November 2006.

Summary of the Presentation


Sally started out by noting that pessimism and pragmatism had seeped so deeply into progressives that they typically adopt centrist positions and don't even dare anymore to articulate a vision, a set of bold ideas for the future, which should be a priority. Too many progressives, after fighting primarily defensive battles for so long, have become so used to what they are against, that they have difficulties articulating what they are for.

The results of the 165 interviews with progressive leaders and activists in Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, and on the national level, do not represent a consensus, but naturally include gaps and contradictions.

A. The Progressive Vision for the Future

I. Active Democracy

Guiding principle: Replacing exclusive hierarchy with inclusive participation

The goal is to transform social hierarchies based on privilege and power into pluralistic, participatory structures by addressing issues such as structural racism, structural sexism, etc.

1. Political equality
Create a level playing field for political participation

2. Quality public education
We already know that it works well, if it's well funded. Teach all children to cooperate rather than to compete, to become learners rather than earners.

3. Democratic media
Must become much more diverse in ownership and content. Gave the example of the website Oh My News in South Korea.

II. Inclusive Economy

Guiding principle: Replacing the worship of wealth with the value of community

Wealth continues to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and progressives are complicit in this. On the other side, a large majority of Americans want more community in their lives. The progressive approach should be to not only raise the floor for the poor, but also to lower the ceiling for the rich. In addition, we should be able to work less so as to have more time to cultivate relationships and community.

1. New ownership structures
Progressives should move towards a stakeholder society. Land trusts are just one example.

2. Sustainability
Environmental considerations have to become an integral part of economic decision-making. Progressives should try to keep economies as local as possible.

3. Redistribution

III. International Justice

Guiding principle: Replacing nationalism and imperialism with equality worldwide

According to Kohn, nationalism and imperialism best describe US foreign policy. It is a policy of unilateral domination and exploitation. It needs to be replaced by multilateral cooperation.

1. Global citizenship
Progressives need to develop more comprehensive forms of citizenship. Citizenship in the European Union (EU) is a new form of regional citizenship. Already one third of Europeans between the age of 21 and 35 think of themselves first as Europeans, and only secondly as members of a national community. The UN has the potential to further global democracy, but would need to be significantly reformed for this, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

2. Economic balance
Progressives need to work for greater economic balance between countries. Global Exchange, co-founded by Medea Benjamin is one example; the World Social Forum is another.

3. Peace
Progressives need to replace unilateral domination with multilateral cooperation.

B. Strategies to get us from Here to There

Kohn proposes a three-step approach:
1. Analysis of the problem
2. Vision of the solution
3. Strategy to get from here to there

I. Discuss it

Progressives need to talk more about their bold and even radical vision and ideas for the future, in order to refine and better articulate it.

II. Frame it

Progressives need to articulate and understand their vision in terms of shared values of community and interdependence across every issue. Progressives need to emphasize shared values over selfish values. You can also build a movement if it is rooted in common values.

Our values influence how we process information, which in turn shapes our attitudes and behavior.

Progressives need to move from hyperindividualism, emphasizing individual rights and competition in a "dog-eat-dog" world to greater cooperation on the basis of equality and community rights. Education should foster cooperation, not competition.

To put this into practice, the formation of trans-issue coalitions is key.

III. Spread it

Progressives need to move from hypocrisy to authenticity and actuality. Progressives need to bring their vision to life, through authenticity in their organizations, and actuality on the ground.

Kohn concluded her presentation by giving a number of examples to demonstrate that these are not just lofty ideas, but that progressives actually have made progress in realizing them. Progress is possible only if progressives believe in themselves and believe in what is possible.

Summary of the Discussion

In the discussion of the progressive vision, participants emphasized the following:

1. There was genuine excitement about hearing such a radical vision; something that happens all too rarely these days.

2. There was unanimous agreement on the need to have more time to cultivate relationships and community in order to enhance the quality of life, instead of accumulating an ever greater quantity of things.

3. Several participants wanted to hear more about the conflicts involved. People will have to continue to struggle, all the more since their will be massive resistance against the implementation of such a progressive agenda.

In the discussion of progressive strategy, participants emphasized the following:

1. Several people wondered how people from different backgrounds would relate differently to these progressive proposals, and wanted to explore this further.

2. Some people emphasized the need to engage people if progressives want to persuade them of their vision; and they did not feel engaged by the presentation. People have to be able to identify with a vision and to know what they can do about it.

3. Some participants pointed out that the presentation did not sufficiently address how to address the power and resources necessary to realize this vision. Moreover, the presentation did not adequately reflect how fragmented the progressive community is.

Since many participants expressed their interest in continuing the conversation, we thought that posting a summary on our blog and inviting people to comment on it would be a good idea.

If you have a longer comment, it might be preferable to send that to me at so that I can post it as a separate post on the blog, to keep a better overview of contributions.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Is this a "liberal moment"?

Or is it a "conservative slump"? What is the momentum of this moment, and where will it lead? Is it just a phase or will it usher in a new era? Leftward, Ho? - The L Word, in the New York Times of February 18, 2007, gives a good overview of theses questions.

Others, such as the sociologist Bill Domhoff, think of the midterm elections not as a success for liberals, but rather as a return to the status quo, with mainly "moderate conservatives" now being in charge again: What Happened in the 2006 Midterm Elections, November 2006.

Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, and author of Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism (2006), calls it "an opening:"
"We’re at a moment where I think the disasters of the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policies are being appreciated" (quoted in the Times article).
Much will depend on which kinds of progressives (more and more of which now dare to call themselves liberal again) will prevail, and how fast conservatives will be able to recover.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

On the Primacy of Fundraising

Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), last December, after only two weeks, dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination for President (Rumor has it that one main factor was Obama getting ready to enter the race, attracting so much attention and money).

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered on February 12, 2007, Bayh spoke very frankly about how much time he had to spend on fundraising. A "non-celebrity candidate" (probably referring to "rock star politicians" Clinton and Obama), he said, without exaggerating, has to spend 80-90% of his/her time raising money.

He went on to describe a typical day: After getting up, his fundraising breakfast is followed by fundraising calls; then there is a fundraising lunch followed by - you guessed right! - more fundraising calls; and then, there is a fundraising dinner and/or reception, followed by yet more fundraising calls to the West coast, depending on where in the country he is.

All this of course is nothing new; but to hear someone who experienced this himself talk about it in such a calm and matter-of-fact way, is still sobering.

It is also well known that any candidate who wants to have a chance in 08, has to raise at least $100 million in 2007 alone. The year having 52 weeks, this translates to roughly two million dollars per week, almost $300,000 per day (assuming, realistically, a seven-day fundraising week), and about $30,000 per hour (assuming, admittedly, a rather short 10-hour fundraising day)! Welcome to contemporary US politics!

While small donations, especially raised online, are increasingly important, the bulk of the money still comes from relative few major donors and donor networks. What most donors are most interested in is whether their candidate can win, which is largely determined by how well he/she does in the polls, which in turn is largely determined by how much money they have to buy airtime to gain name recognition, get their message across, and build an appealing public persona. So there clearly is a circular relationship between fundraising capability and probability of success. Everything else, especially their platform, becomes a function of this absolute priority of having to raise $30,000 per hour.

Since 1976, it has always been the candidate who had raised the most money, who eventually was nominated by his party to run. This means that it's not the people who decide who is running, but a handful of donors. This will be the case all the more this time around because with several big states moving up their primaries, this will be the longest and costliest campaign in history. By this time next year, we will know who is running.

This also means that this pattern is all the more likely to hold in 2007. As of now, by most estimates, Hillary Clinton, together with her husband, and their whole infrastructure, will be able to raise the most. My big concern, like that of many, is that she will be nominated as the Democratic candidate, and then might not win - truly a worst-case scenario.

What does all this mean for progressive grand strategy? It can only mean one thing: It's the money, stupid! The logic is impeccable: You want to win; in order to win, you have to raise the most money; in order to raise the most money, you have to get the biggest donors on your side; in order to get the biggest donors on your side, you have to promise them the kinds of policies that they prefer seeing enacted once you win; etc., etc.

How can progressives even begin to break this vicious cycle, which systemically deforms the US political system?

Already 66 years ago, the liberal Supreme Court Chief Justice, Louis Brandeis, had a sobering answer:
"We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both." (Labor Journal, October 17, 1941, p. 18)
Unfortunately, this is precisely what has been happening in this country in the last 30 years, and especially since 2001: A greater and greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, who use this wealth to literally buy political power and influence. Money is power, and money talks louder than civil society; at least for now.

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