Tuesday, July 17, 2007

It's the Emotion, Stupid!?

Will Drew Westen succeed George Lakoff as the new "guru" of the Democratic Party or is it just another unfortunate case of confusing tactics with strategy? Now that Lakoff supposedly has taught all Democrats how to properly "frame" issues, is it time now for them to learn how to talk more emotionally and passionately about issues as a new strategy and not just as a different way of talking about issues, as USA Today put it rather bluntly (see below)?

Drew Westen's new book, published in late June, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, is getting a lot of attention these days; some even hail it as some sort of panacea for Democrats. However, there are also some important criticisms.

Iterestingly, the original subtitle apparently was meant to be "How People Vote, and How to Change Their Minds," which of course sounds much less grandiose, if not to say dramatic, than the subtitle that was eventually chosen. Perhaps this illustrates the very message of the book, to use more emotionally appealing language. But perhaps the original subtitle more precisely expresses its purpose.

Westen is a psychologist at Emory, a guest blogger at HuffPost, and the founder of Westen Strategies, a consulting firm with the motto "Persuasion is about Networks and Narratives."

This motto is also the main thesis of his book. Essentially, Westen claims, Democrats have operated for too long with the wrong theory of mind. According to Westen, the mind is not disapassionate but passionate. Voters are primarily driven by emotions, and Democrats need to adjust their rhetoric accordingly in order to win elections. The brain is a highly complex network of associations, and Democrats have to articulate the kinds of narratives that most effectively activate those networks that get them elected. Democrats need to learn how to use a new language, one that is less laden with arguments, stats and facts, and instead filled with more emotion and passion. In short, Democrats have to become less intellectual and more passionate in their public rhetoric, especially on the campaign trail.

There are some rave reviews of Westen's book out there, with no shortage of superlatives. Some even suggest that all Democrats have to do is to read and act on this book, and the country will be theirs. See, this is how easy (electoral) strategy has become. So what's all the debate about? Just read the book and you are all set:
This is the most interesting, informative book on politics I've read in many years. - Bill Clinton
In 2008 we will win the presidency if our candidate reads and acts on this book. - Howard Dean
The Political Brain is the most illuminating book on contemporary American politics I've ever (my emphases) read. By explaining how voters actually process information, Drew Westen lays bare the connection between political technique, political conviction, and the Democrats' habit of bungling winnable elections. If every leading Democratic politician reads this book, we could have a decent America back. - Robert Kuttner
Praising the journal he writes for, Ezra Klein of the The American Propect says that Westen was "largely discovered" by Kuttner, who according to USA Today, also introduced him to key Democrats. Moreover, as Klein points out, it was the Prospect that first popularized Westen's work.

According to an article in USA Today, whose title summarizes Westen's book rather nicely, "Democrats get advice on how to talk about issues," Westen is also working with the progressive think tank, Third Way (see previous post), on a "strategy memo" (my emphasis), to get candidates to focus less on what they are saying and more on how voters understand what they are saying.

This is very similar to the main recommendation in Frank Luntz's new book, "
Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear." Luntz, a communications "strategist," has been a longtime advisor of Newt Gingrich and other Republicans.

I highlight how the term "strategy" is used because I find it problematic. In very widespread usage, certainly in mainstream media and political discourse, it is consistently confused with tactics. This is not only a matter of semantics. The fact that not even this most basic distinction is made reflects the rather mediocre state of strategic political reflection, especially when compared with much more advanced strategic thinking in military or business affairs. This fundamental problem is compounded when one takes the interdependence, divergence and variation of means and ends into consideration.

In any case, so if Westen's insights and recommendations are of such crucial importance for Demcrats, how come no less a commentator than Kevin Drum, in one of the earliest reviews of the book, formulates what seems to be a rather devastating critique of Westen's book that - if correct - would severely limit its applicability:
The problem is that his made-up speeches are practically parodies. They're so insanely belligerent that no politician in his right mind would give them. (my emphasis) Even the wingiest of the wingnuts doing their late-night CSPAN schticks don't give speeches as aggressive as Westen's.

So, is that the case? Is Westen going too far? Is the rhetoric he recommends excessively emotional, to the point of making it impractical? If so, would that really be a problem? Isn't there much more that Democrats need to do in order to not only win elections, but make policies genuinely and lastingly - and I would be tempted to say: progressively - more progressive? After all, according to many progressives, the realization of the Clinton/Gore slogan, "It's the Economy, Stupid!," did not go far enough. How far will and can the new slogan go, "It's the Emotion, Stupid!"?

For the answer to that question depends on where you want to go, not only on how to get there. Strategy asks, are we doing the right things? Tactics only asks, are we doing things right? Again, as we find so often in these pages, how you get there depends on where you want to go. In other words, strategies vary according to ultimate objectives, and these continue to diverge between and among progressives and Democrats. How far can "we" go, with or without Westen?

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Mark Schmitt on How People Can Organize and Aggregate Power

Yesterday, Mark Schmitt commented at TPMCafe on two other posts, one by Nathan Newman on campaign finance reform, and another by Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party on fusion voting (The Working Families Party is also included in our report on contributions to progressive strategy, "Finding Strategy").

He is not just agreeing with both of them, but uses his commentary to argue that they represent an important and new way of
thinking about the political process, and steps toward reform, that puts people back in -- people, and the possibilities of organized power.
His emphasis on how to enhance the capacity of people to organize and aggregate power is very relevant for our project. The question of how to aggregate power is of particular interest for our project, because most strategies rarely address it. How can progressives accumulate power over time?

I have included the below excerpts to illustrate his approach, and have annotated them from the perspective of our project:

Money, organization, collective debate and action is not bad for democracy but precisely what makes it work:
It's the fundamental hostility to politics that reformers of democracy are prone to. They tend to hold an implicit view of democracy as a process of isolated rational decision-making that must be shielded from bad influences -- money, organized groups, passion.

But those are the very things that make democracy work: participation, and the ability of people to exercise power collectively, to debate and act together. If you see the question in those terms, then things that enhance people's ability to organize and aggregate their power -- whether it is the Wisconsin Right to Life committee or ACORN or a union or the Sierra Club or a political party or moveon.org -- become the solution, not the problem.
Schmitt hopes that progressives will manage to build broader coalitions to move beyond "single-issue politics." But he cautions that such coalitions are fragile, whereas a party is "the ultimate coalition," with the ballot line being a key asset. Fusion voting appears to be an effective way of using that asset:
There will be issue groups, of course, on the right and left, trying desperately to use money and/or membership to be heard, and sometimes being effective. And there will be attempts at broader coalitions, like moveon.org and USAction, and I think (hope) the trend is toward broader progressive coalitions and away from single-issue politics. That's long overdue. But such coalitions, especially at the state level, are fragile, they demand continued energy and there are always as many forces pulling people away as pulling them together. But over time it becomes apparent that the ultimate coalition is a political party. A party is not a letterhead alliance; it's a substantive ongoing operation with a significant asset: a line on the ballot. With fusion, it can share that line or use it for its own purposes. The party can exist both within and outside of the other major parties, as the Working Families Party does in New York. It is a way of organizing people's political passion and power that, for a change, does not depend completely on money.
At the end, he makes a very important suggestion:
The first thing we should ask about any reform is, does it help or hurt the ability of citizens to organize themselves in a political context?
So the challenge for progressive strategy is to generate reforms that not only achieve their substantive goals, but do so in a way that enhances peoples' collective capacity for political organization. Strategy in this sense is as much about process as it is about objectives. This indeed appears to be crucial when it comes to aggregating power in the long run.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A New Blog to Advance the Conversation among Progressives

Mike Lux, a consultant for progressive organizations, today announced the creation of a new blog, OpenLeft.com, to advance the conversation among progressives. OpenLeft is not yet active, but will be launched next week. He will be joined by two of the leading progressive bloggers, Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller, who previously blogged at MyDD. In August 2005, they published "Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere: A New Force in American Politics," the first report on the role and potential of the netroots in progressive politics.

In his article, he expresses their intention to bring together his expertise within the Democratic Party and establishment with their experience of blogging and organizing to contribute to the formation of a lasting progressive movement and majority.

This is very similar to what we refer to in our report as "movement-electoral strategies," and what Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) call their "inside-outside" strategy. Likewise, Bill Domhoff also considers the transformation of the Democratic Party into a more progressive organization as the best option progressives currently have. It is striking how similar these approaches are. An In These Times article in May, "Dancing Into the Majority," reported primarily on how PDA, but also other grassroots organizations are making progress in working together with the Democratic Party. The current editorial of The Nation, "Get In It to Win It," suggests a similar approach.

Here is how Lux articulates his credo and approach (in excerpts):
We are all strongly committed to building a strong and progressive movement and an enduring progressive (not just Democratic) majority. We are all weary of politics as usual and an elite political establishment that cares more about staying comfortable and less about really making most Americans' lives better. We are all believers in the ground-up and democratizing movement-building power of the netroots, and are excited about the innovative strategies of that movement. That unity in terms of values and mission will make OpenLeft.com a powerful place to do movement-building and strategic initiatives. (...)
I have always believed that the progressive movement needs both kinds of folks. I am convinced that when big changes have happened in American history, it is at the intersection of dialogue between insiders and outsiders, between the sympathetic people inside the party structure and the outside movement beating impatiently on the door, between blunt and angry agitators and diplomatic bridge-builders. (...)
When progressivism fails, it is a failure of both the party insiders and the movement -- political leadership that is too comfortable with the status quo, outside movements whose organizing is lethargic, and bad strategy for both. That is the story of the last three decades. Fortunately, things are beginning to change, and OpenLeft.com wants to be at the center of that conversation: how can the progressive movement best rebuild and revitalize ourselves? How should progressive institutions change? How should Democratic politicians make their party both more strategically effective and better at delivering on the things that will really make a difference in the lives of their constituents? Those kinds of questions, and more, with honest and open dialogue about what the answers are, will be discussed daily at OpenLeft.com.

We are happy to find so many references to strategic considerations, and are looking forward to participate in the conversation on how best to transform the Democratic Party into a more progressive and more powerful organization.

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Chomsky on Progressive Strategy

[Please note: This summary of an interview with Noam Chomsky on progressive strategy has first been published at Common Dreams on June 29, 2007. As of July 3, 2007, it has received 45 comments. I hope you join the discussion at Common Dreams and/or continue it here. To make it more user-friendly, I have added more links and references.]

Noam Chomsky is one of the key figures on the American and global left. He is said to be one of the most widely quoted intellectuals in the world. In 2005, readers of AlterNet voted him MVP (Most Valuable Progressive). And he remains very close to many activists.

For all these reasons, we were very excited when we finally had the opportunity in late May to interview Chomsky for 25 minutes about his thinking on progressive grand strategy for building political power on the American left. More specifically, and in keeping with the main interest of our Progressive Strategy Studies Project, we asked him whether he finds it useful to think about how to build power in strategic terms.

Glancing at the list of individuals and organizations that we included in our first report, “Finding Strategy: A Survey of Contemporary Contributions to Progressive Strategy,” he noted that there was more “extensive and far-reaching” thinking on progressive strategy than what was reflected in our report.

Throughout the interview, he mainly referred to the work of Gar Alperovitz, Michael Albert, and Robin Hahnel, and Joel Rogers (the latter is included in our report), on how to democratize the economy and the workplace through worker self-management, cooperatives, etc. In particular, he referred to Alperovitz’ latest book, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy (Wiley 2004), and a number of books by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel on participatory economics and broader sociopolitical issues. Hahnel's latest book on participatory economics is Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation (Routledge 2005), and Albert's is Realizing Hope: Life beyond Capitalism (Zed Books 2006). Chomsky considers their work to be very important, particularly for activists.

He started out by emphasizing that the US is “a one-party state with two wings, Democrat and Republican,” and claimed that both were “way to the right of the majority of Americans” on many crucial issues. According to Chomsky, social scientists like C. Wright Mills, Thomas Ferguson, and Bill Domhoff (who also is included in our report) are pretty much right: Corporations dominate the power structure and hence US politics. In the US this is even more so the case than in other countries because of the much more brutal suppression of labor. Quoting Dewey, Chomsky noted that in the absence of economic democracy, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.”

Since the state, having become so thoroughly co-opted by corporate interests, is part of the problem, it is difficult to significantly change it from within through elections or public policy reforms. While short-term, pragmatic change remains possible and desirable, systemic change would require a transformation of power relations within society through a democratization of economic decision-making.

Criticizing the recent health care reform in Massachusetts as overly complicated precisely because it has to respond to too many corporate interests, Chomsky noted that, even though a large majority of the population favors straightforward changes, the US can’t even achieve a real health care reform. While pragmatic change is better than nothing, it pales in comparison to the kind of change a country like Bolivia has been able to achieve, “something the US and other Western societies can only dream of.”

Serious progress towards a truly functioning democracy requires democratizing the economy. Traditionally, labor has been the main agent of change, but today it is, as Chomsky put it, “smashed,” and struggles to survive. Who can fill the huge gap that labor has left behind? Chomsky admits that other actors, such as churches and universities, are weak, if not marginal, though there has been impressive growth of popular movements, many of them quite new and promising. They offer considerable promise and opportunity for those willing to keep working hard at “building the cells of a future society.”

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Is the 2008 Presidential Election a Great Opportunity for "Progressives"?

In its latest editorial, Get In It to Win It, The Nation suggests that because of its "volatility" the 2008 election offers
perhaps the best opportunity in a generation to nominate a genuinely progressive candidate - a candidate who can win next November.
And that's precisely the crux of the matter: A "genuinely progressive candidate ... who can win." In the US of 2007, isn't this necessarily an oxymoron? Much of this of course depends on how you define "progressive." I have addressed this question in a previous post, Who is Progressive? For a more recent and more extensive discussion, see What does it mean to be "progressive"? at TPMCafe.

Just to underline the main point: Who is a "genuine progressive" and electable at the same time? For example, many believe that people like Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader are genuine progressives; yet few think it very likely that they could ever get elected. In fact, some think that their campaigns are counterproductive, because they take precious resources and votes away from better-placed candidates.

Likewise, many progressives don't consider Hillary Clinton to be really progressive, and some doubt whether Obama really is, all the more since his platform is not very well defined yet. (For a series of probing questions concerning Obama, see David Sirota's post from today). Yet for the past thirty-some years, whoever raised the most money was eventually nominated to run. Depending on where you stand, this is either a huge problem for "progressives" or not a problem at all.

Since hardly anyone dares to call him-/herself liberal anymore, almost everybody on the left is a "progressive" now. The problem remains that this includes a whole spectrum of "progressives," ranging from rather conservative centrists to pretty hardcore leftists, with very different and ultimately irreconcilable agendas. Since strategy is primarily goal-driven, and since "progressive" goals diverge so significantly, there necessarily have to be painful trade-offs when it comes to uniting behind a candidate and an agenda. There is no easy way out of these strategic dilemmas.

The Nation editorial further opines:

The point is not to organize for a particular contender but rather to assure that whoever wins is accountable to our stances against the Iraq War and for restoration of civil liberties, a robust response to global warming and universal healthcare.

Yes, but this is one of the key questions: How can progressives effectively keep candidates accountable to a progressive agenda once they are in office? One would think that the fact that they were elected with their support would help. It would help even more if they were "one of them," so to speak. Many had hoped that this would be the case of Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, only to be rather disappointed once he assumed office. Could that happen with Obama on a national scale? How deep does his experience as a community organizer in Chicago reach, of which he claims that it was the best education he has ever received (including Harvard Law School). Or is this an irrelevant question?

Finally, The Nation appears to advocate for what we call a "movement-electoral strategy" in our survey (pdf) of progressive strategy, which includes Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of America:

The progressive voice on these issues will gain traction only if MoveOn.org, Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of America, as well as unions, environmental groups and other issue-focused organizations, rapidly expand into a cohesive movement. New technologies make it easier than ever to organize voter lists and to communicate with voters about the candidates and the evolving dynamics of the race. In partnership with innovative state-based organizations, MoveOn.org, unions and other national groups should prepare interventions throughout the process. Such interventions are essential.

Interestingly, Dan Berger also identifies the beginning of a "mass movement" from his experience at the first US Social Forum. Yet if you compare the agenda of the Forum with those of the leading "progressive" candidates, you can measure the distance that separates very different understandings of what it means to be "progressive."

Very appropriately, the motto of the Forum is "Another World is Possible. Another US is necessary." But how do make the necessary possible, when the leading candidate is Hillary Clinton? Though it is hard for some progressive to accept, politics, it seems, stubbornly if not necessarily, remains the art of the possible.

And please don't forget to be "realistic" when it comes to political strategy.

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