Monday, January 19, 2009

Towards a Realistic Left Strategy

Last week, John Nichols, Washington correspondent of The Nation, published How to Push Obama in The Progressive.

Nichols recalls how he first covered Obama in the mid-1990s when he ran for the Illinois state senate as a candidate endorsed by the labor-left New Party. Nichols affirms that Obama self-identifies as a progressive, and quotes him:
I am somebody who is no doubt progressive. I believe in a tax code that we need to make more fair. I believe in universal health care. I believe in making college affordable. I believe in paying our teachers more money. I believe in early childhood education. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive.
According to Nichols, Obama knows 'the specifics' of 'the left-labor-liberal-progressive agenda,' but is cautious, 'because knowing the ideals and values of the left is not the same as practicing them,' which Obama certainly hasn't.

So here is Nichols' main recommendation of how 'progressives' should 'push' Obama to the left:

The way to influence Obama and his Administration is to speak not so much to him as to America. Get out ahead of the new President, and of his spin-drive communications team. Highlight the right appointees and the right responses to deal with the challenges that matter most. Don't just critique, but rather propose. Advance big ideas and organize on their behalf; identify allies in federal agencies, especially in Congress, and work with them to dial up the pressure for progress. Don't expect Obama or his aides to do the left thing. Indeed, take a lesson from right wing pressure groups in their dealings with Republican administrations and recognize that it is always better to build the bandwagon than to jump on board one that is crafted with the tools of compromise.

Smart groups and individuals are already at it. [...]
The examples he gives are critiques of the bailout, and advocacy for civil liberties and single-payer health care.

Now, unfortunately, but rather predictably, this is really nothing new, because the Left has been criticizing policies and advocating for alternative policies for decades, with very little success.

It reminds me of the famous definition of insanity as 'doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,' which is alternatively attributed to Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin.

One day before Obama's deeply historic and highly symbolic inauguration, it is high time for the Left to ask itself a very basic but also very important strategic question: Not only: Are we doing things right, but more importantly: Are we doing the right things? In other words, it is high time that the Left not only improves tactics, but changes strategy.

A good starting point for the Left is to remind itself that, in the words of Frederick Douglass,
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Effective strategy begins with a sober and realistic assessment of the current situation, including one's own position and resources. The sad truth is that the Left is simply not in a position to demand much of anything of Obama. It is simply too weak, if not to say marginal.

It lacks the leverage, and therefore the bargaining power to make demands on the Obama administration. Its 'threats' of withholding support lack credibility, because the consequences are simply not significant enough.

So the big strategic question the Left needs to answer is how to build power cumulatively and long-term, starting from a position of weakness, and how it can make use of the Obama administration in gaining strength, as opposed to the lost decade under Clinton.

Until the Left has adequately addressed this critical strategic question, it will simply continue doing what is has done for decades, with hardly any structural effect: It will criticize, complain, express outrage, suggest alternatives, etc. - but who is listening?

Obama will continue to tell leftists that he hears them loud and clear, and will, from time to time, give them the impression that he, in some ways, is really a leftie himself. But he won't listen to them, much less act on their recommendations, because he is constrained to operate in a very centrist if not conservative political and social structure.

To be fair, Nichols emphasizes the importance of changing public opinion. He could have used Lincoln's famous quote, which in recent months has been used ad nausea:
With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.
And indeed, the left-liberal every day is filled to the brim with critiques, advocacy, alternatives, outrage, etc. This is what publications such as The Nation, The American Prospect, Dissent, Harper's, Mother Jones, TPMCafe, Campaign for America's Future, AlterNet, Common Dreams, Daily Kos, OpenLeft, etc. do, frequently recycling materials quite a bit, which leads to quite some redundancy.

But who is reading these publications, and more importantly: Who is acting on all this information? I think it is likely that the readership for all these publications is small, is more or less the same for each one of them, and that they hardly have any influence on the mainstream, much less on political decision-making.

Further to the left, let's say with the CounterPunch crowd, the typical take on Obama is that he is a centrist and the best you can hope for is Clintonism 2.0. Instead of dismantling the empire, he will simply manage it more efficiently. Instead of shifting from neoliberalism and the failed Washington Consensus to neo-Keynesianism (or better yet: full-fledged social democracy), he will simply sell neoliberalism with a social touch. Obama represents a new style rather than new substance.

But where do all these unrealistic assumptions and expectations come from in the first place? I suspect the blinding effects of ideology and wishful thinking play an important role. It is also much easier to continue coming up with laundry lists of desiderata, of all the things that should happen, just like you have done for years if not decades, instead of asking yourself why the Left is still so marginal, and developing a strategy to become less marginal. Further to the left, the better can easily become the enemy of the good: Since Obama won't overthrow capitalism, why bother?

Nichols concludes, as is very typical these days, with FDR's famous response to labour leaders after his election in 1932:
I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.
In the case of the relationship between Obama and the Left, each of these three statements is questionable and problematic: What do Obama and the Left actually agree on, what does Obama really want to do that the Left wants him to do, and, most importantly: How should the Left 'make' Obama do the things it would like him to do, and why this way, and not another way?

Nichols' understanding of all three components of this statement are symptomatic of too many people on the left. Too many left-liberals actually believe the first two parts, and continue to think that essentially more of the same (more 'pressure,' more 'pushing') will nudge him to the left. Too many further to the left completely disagree with the first two parts, and therefore don't even need to try or do anything differently, because it is hopeless anyway, which of course if very convenient. They can just continue scoffing and sneering more or less cynically or become increasingly apathetic in what has been called 'sophisticated resignation.'

To better be able to analyze and characterize European foreign policy, Christopher Hill of the London School of Economics in the 1990s developed the concept of the 'capabilities-expectations gap,' which describes the relationship and gap between capabilities and expectations and how it has evolved historically. It might be useful to apply this concept to the relationship between the Left and Obama and to progressive strategy more generally.

There are two basic options. Either you maintain your high expectations, and try to strengthen your capabilities to better be able to realize them, or you reduce your expectations in the hope of better being able to meet them with capabilities that are likely to remain limited for a long time. The problem with too much of the Left today is that it maintains unrealistically high expectations and/or has still not found a viable way of strengthening its capabilities in a sustainable way. And so it continues to remain in lamentation mode as described above.

Just yesterday, Obama said again what he has said many times before, that in a country called America, 'everything is possible.' What is possible for the Left in the US under Obama's leadership? Such a realistic strategic assessment is fundamental for the Left today if it wants to stop squandering preciously scarce resources on both lamenting and dreaming, which are equally ineffective, and start concentrating its efforts on realistic goals. Above all, the Left needs to determine what not to do, and then actually stop doing it:
The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. (Michael Porter, my emphasis)

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