Browsing the archives for the liberalism and progressivism category.


The Squabble Over Identity Politics

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Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, self-destruction

Or, Why We’re Doomed, Part the Infinity …

A few days ago, this happened:

In Boston on Sunday night, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders asked Democrats to pay close attention to the lessons of the election, arguing that the party needs to have a reckoning about why it lost.

“The working class of this country is being decimated — that’s why Donald Trump won,” Sanders said. “And what we need now are candidates who stand with those working people, who understand that real median family income has gone down.”

The Vermont senator spoke to a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000 mostly young people at the Berklee Performance Center, promoting his book, “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In.”

Asked by a questioner how she could become the second Latina senator in U.S. history, Sanders said a candidate’s gender or race isn’t enough.

“I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is going to take on big money interests,” Sanders said.

He added:

[H]ere is my point — and this is where there is going to be a division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.

In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American CEO of some major corporation. But you know what, if that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country, and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot whether he’s black or white or Latino.

Here are his extended remarks, in full:

Let me respond to the question in a way that you may not be happy with. It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans — all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.

But it’s not good enough to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on big money interests.

One of the struggles that we’re going to have right now, we lay on the table of the Democratic Party, is it’s not good enough to me to say, “Okay, well we’ve got X number of African Americans over here, we’ve got Y number of Latinos, we have Z number of women. We are a diverse party, a diverse nation.” Not good enough. We need that diversity, that goes without saying. That is accepted. Right now, we’ve made some progress in getting women into politics — I think we got 20 women in the Senate now. We need 50 women in the Senate. We need more African Americans.

But, but, here is my point, and this is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone to say, “I’m a woman! Vote for me!” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry. In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American head or CEO of some major corporation.

But you know what? If that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot if he’s black or white or Latino. And some people may not agree with me, but that is the fight we’re going to have right now in the Democratic Party. The working class of this country is being decimated. That’s why Donald Trump won. …

We need candidates — black and white and Latino and gay and male — we need all of that. But we need all of those candidates and public officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy. That is the fight of today.


Now, that seems to me to be clear and sensible. However …

Talking Points Memo — and I usually respect Talking Points Memo — published an article about this talk under the headline “Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics and Embrace the Working Class.” The article began:

In a speech Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) urged attendees to move away from “identity politics” and towards policies aimed at helping the working class.

And the shitfest was on.

If you’ve already read what Sanders said, you will know that TPM got it wrong. But the damage was done. Those predisposed by the headline to be angry seized on these remarks to claim Sanders is a racist who wants to favor the needs of white blue-collar workers over the cause of racial and gender justice. And, of course, that is plainly not what he said, but people in the grip of Righteous Outrage can’t read. Even when you patiently point out to them what he actually said, they still see racism.

Plus, a number of people took the quote  “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ No, that’s not good enough” to be a dig at Hillary Clinton, which set up another shitstorm from Hillary supporters who still blame Sanders for her loss.  (As this guy forcefully mansplains to a group of mostly women arguing in favor of Sanders’s position.)

See also: This, this, and this.

This is why we can’t have nice things. I’m sure part of the problem is that it can’t be easy for people of color to consider having to make common cause with working-class whites. But as this election ought to have shown us, if that common cause doesn’t happen, eventually the Democrats won’t be able to win elections outside of San Francisco and Brooklyn.

(Right now a lot of people are clinging to Clinton’s growing popular vote victory to assure themselves that the people really love her, and if it weren’t for Comey and a few other things she would have squeaked out an Electoral College victory, too. But I’m sure it’s also true that if the Republicans had nominated a less odious candidate than Donald Trump, the GOP would have won in a landslide. The real message of this election isn’t that racists elected Donald Trump but that way too many people didn’t vote at all. You could argue that both candidates lost the popular vote.

A few weeks ago Thomas B. Edsall wrote in the New York Times that the Democrats are no longer a “class-based coalition” with an economic agenda, but a loose coalition of “upscale well-educated whites” mostly cut off from the rest of America plus African-American and Latino voters in big cities. Clinton’s lopsided victories in urban liberal coastal states show us he was pretty much right.)

Sanders attempted to clarify his position in this article:

The Democratic Party is the party of diversity. We have proudly led the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and for the rights of immigrants. Especially under a Trump administration, we are not turning back. We are going forward. There can be no compromise on bigotry.

Our job is to expand diversity. We want more women, more African-Americans, more Latinos, and individuals of all ages, colors and creed to be involved in the political process. But to think of diversity purely in racial and gender terms is not sufficient.

Yes, we need more candidates of diversity, but we also need candidates — no matter what race or gender — to be fighters for the working class and stand up to the corporate powers who have so much power over our economic lives. We need all of our candidates to have the courage to stand up to the Koch Brothers, Wall Street, drug companies, insurance companies, oil companies, and fight for working families — not just the top one percent.

(Note that Talking Points Memo linked to this article under the headline “Sanders Doubles Down.” Arghhh!)

Sanders concludes:

Our rights and economic lives are intertwined. Now, more than ever, we need a Democratic Party that is committed to fulfilling, not eviscerating, Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial, social, and economic justice for all.

Clearly, he’s not saying that racial/gender issues must take a back seat to class issues; he’s saying that racial/gender and class issues are linked, and both must be addressed. Neither should be shoved aside in favor of the other.

Clio Chang at New Republic:

Post-election, there have been attempts to divide the left between those who support identity politics and those who support class politics. But the two are often inextricable, given the large percentage of minorities in the working class. In his speech last night, Sanders made an argument for both kinds of politics.

This is the shitstorm that’s been eating up social media this week.

The New York Times got into it, too, with a “Room for Debate” page asking the question “Is Criticism of Identity Politics Racist or Long Overdue?” One individual argued for the priority of identity by assuming that class/economic issues would necessarily drive out identity issues.

We have a long history in this country of responding to the suffering of “working class whites” not by leveling the playing field for everyone, but by maintaining their status above people of color and immigrants. The labor movement, the New Deal, the G.I Bill, are just three examples.

And of course those examples are valid, but they are also from several decades ago. Most people alive today weren’t yet born when those things happened. Our culture really has shifted quite a bit since then, race-wise.

And I don’t see anybody on the independent progressive Left or from within the Democratic Party arguing for compromising on racial and gender equality to advance economic equality. The argument is that we have to do both, or we’ll never accomplish either one.

Some of the other commenters in this New York Times section make the argument that increasing economic inequality combined with the Democrats’ consuming focus on identity politics is increasing racial resentment. It’s making racism worse, in other words. There may be some truth in that. Conversely, IMO, rallying working people of all races around a common cause might actually alleviate some of the racism. We really are all in this together.

Finally, journalist Michelle García wrote,

The attack on political correctness fits within the brand of identity politics Donald Trump exploited during his campaign. Mr. Trump’s victory relied on fusing a culture of racism and sexism with economic anxieties and the backlash against neoliberalism. Economic challenges are real, demographic changes are real. Mr. Trump seized them to peddle well-worn cultural myths of a nation under siege by the Mexican menace, “bad hombres,” Muslims and other cultural “outsiders.”

Victimhood was contained in the message that America was once great, but no longer. His message imbues victims with unquestioned virtue and obliterates the needs, indeed the humanity, of everyone else.

Ms. García is criticizing right-wing demagoguery and reminding us that the Right has its own version of “identity politics.” But it struck me that some on the Left and/or in the Democratic Party are in danger of falling down the same rabbit hole. Some have taken on the righteous mantle of unquestioned virtue that obliterates any perspective but their own. They trash the rest of us as racist, sexist troglodytes interested only in enhancing the status of white guys.

They aren’t listening, in other words. The lessons of his election are not being learned, I fear.

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The “Neos”: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism

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American History, conservatism, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, Republican Party

As long as we’re defining terms — see Liberal, Neoliberal and Progressive: What Words Mean — here’s a really interesting article by Corey Robin called “When Neoliberalism Was Young: A Lookback on Clintonism before Clinton.”

Now, neoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the right. But one of its meanings—arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurate—is the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society. The original neoliberals included, among others, Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Bill Bradley, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas. Sometimes called “Atari Democrats,” these were the men—and they were almost all men—who helped to remake American liberalism into neoliberalism, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

I confess I don’t remember hearing the term “neoliberal” before the Clinton era. This is from “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto” by Charles Peters, published in Washington Monthly, May 1983:

We still believe in liberty and justice for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.

Third Way, anyone? I haven’t read it yet, but I understand that Peters and his Manifesto are called out in Thomas Frank’s new book Listen, Liberal. And not in a good way.

Robin continues,

In the hands of neoliberalism, it became fashionable to pit the interests of the poor not against the power of the wealthy but against the working class that had been made into a middle class by America’s unions. (We still see that kind of talk among today’s Democrats, particularly in debates around free trade, where it is always the unionized worker—never the well paid journalist or economist or corporate CEO—who is expected to make sacrifices on behalf of the global poor. Or among Hillary Clinton supporters, who leverage the interests of African American voters against the interests of white working-class voters, but never against the interests of capital.)

What comes through clearly in Robin’s piece, and also in this 2006 interview of Charles Peters by Ezra Klein (reading between the lines, anyway) is that the main thrust of neoliberalism was and is to throw the working class under the bus in favor of investors and entrepreneurs. The original neoliberals were, above all, anti-union, especially public sector unions. Weirdly, they seemed to think that union members had become too advantaged and were somehow hurting people on the lower rungs of the ladder. But then they also turned around and wanted Social Security to be means tested.

It’s difficult to make sense of what truly drives this contradiction, whereby one liberalism is criticized for supporting only one segment of the population while another liberalism is criticized for supporting all segments, including the poor.

It could be as simple as the belief that government should work on behalf of only the truly disadvantaged, leaving everyone else to the hands of the market. That that turned out to be a disaster for the truly disadvantaged—with no one besides themselves to speak up on behalf of anti-poverty programs, those programs proved all too easy to eliminate, not by a Republican but by a Democrat—seems not to have much troubled the sleep of neoliberalism. Indeed, in the current election, it is Hillary Clinton’s support for the 1994 crime bill rather than the 1996 welfare reform bill that has gotten the most attention, even though she proudly stated in her memoir that she not only supported the 1996 bill but rounded up votes for it.

The neoliberals were and are devoted to an ideal of pragmatism:

Note the disavowal of all conventional ideologies and beliefs, the affirmation of an open-minded pragmatism guided solely by a bracing commitment to what works. It’s a leitmotif of the entire manifesto: Everyone else is blinded by their emotional attachments to the ideas of the past. We, the heroic few, are willing to look upon reality as it is, to take up solutions from any side of the political spectrum, to disavow anything that smacks of ideological rigidity or partisan tribalism.

That Peters wound up embracing solutions in the piece that put him comfortably within the camp of GOP conservatism (he even makes a sop to school prayer) never seemed to disturb his serenity as a self-identified iconoclast. That was part of the neoliberal esprit de corps: a self-styled philosophical promiscuity married to a fairly conventional ideological fidelity.

Robin also discusses another self-identified neoliberal, Marty Peretz, who for many years was owner of The New Republic, another allegedly liberal publication. Robin points out that Peretz’s positions often seemed to be plucked from the Republican Party platform, including his adamant Zionism. Which allows us a nice segue into the other neos, the neoconservatives.

A little appreciated fact about neoconservatives is that the founders of the movement were mostly liberals and Democrats. Yes, liberals and Democrats. New Deal, Cold War Democrats. I understand a few of them were even ex-Trotskyites.

Neoconservatism began in the 1960s and 1970s in part as a reaction to the New Left, particularly the Marxist and antiwar factions of the New Left and the candidacy of George McGovern in 1972. They also opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs even though they were supportive of the older New Deal programs.

Make of that what you will.

The core membership of the original neoconservatives were a group of Jewish intellectuals who worried the U.S. would grow weak on defense, particularly against the threat of Communism. This was not atypical of Cold War liberals. One not-Jewish founding neocon was Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, something of a prototype of the Cold War Democrat. He was a good New Dealer and supporter of unions, civil rights and social welfare programs. He was also pro-military buildup and was a big promoter of military action against Communism, such as the Vietnam War. A number of neocons have cited Scoop Jackson as an influence. These include two of  his former Senate aides, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. (See also Andrew O’Hehir’s comparison of Scoop Jackson and Hillary Clinton.)

By the 1980s, most neocons had become Republicans, inspired by the tall-in-the-saddle rhetoric of Ronald Reagan.  And as the threat of Global Communist Domination faded away, the neocons came to be obsessed with the threat of Global Islamic Domination, or something.

How do we define “neoconservative” now? I like this discussion by Jack Hunter in The American Conservative.

The “neocons” believe American greatness is measured by our willingness to be a great power—through vast and virtually unlimited global military involvement. Other nations’ problems invariably become our own because history and fate have designated America the world’s top authority.

Critics say the US cannot afford to be the world’s policeman. Neoconservatives not only say that we can but we must—and that we will cease to be America if we don’t. Writes Boston Globe neoconservative columnist Jeff Jacoby: “Our world needs a policeman. And whether most Americans like it or not, only their indispensable nation is fit for the job.” Neocon intellectual Max Boot says explicitly that the US should be the world’s policeman because we are the best policeman.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) heartily champions the neoconservative view. While virtually every other recognizably Tea Party congressman or senator opposes the Libyan intervention, Rubio believes the world’s top cop should be flashing its Sherriff’s badge more forcefully in Libya—and everywhere else. …

… Rubio’s flowery rhetoric is worth noting because neoconservatism has always been sold through the narrative of America’s “greatness” or “exceptionalism.” This is essentially the Republican Party’s version of the old liberal notion promoted by President Woodrow Wilson that it is America’s mission to “make the world safe for democracy.”

If you think about it, this really is an extension of older, pre-Vietnam liberal ideas about foreign policy. It goes back to the great Teddy Roosevelt, who wanted to make the U.S. a great global power and increase its influence and prestige in the world. It goes back to Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in World War II. You could argue it has ties to the Truman Doctrine and John F. Kennedy’s attempts to push back Communism.

You could also argue that in neoconservatism the American exceptionalism thing has morphed, or maybe metastasized, into a caricature of itself. Instead of coming from a place of noble intentions, in the neocons it comes from a place of bigotry and fear. I’ve argued in the past that neoconservatism is pro-active isolationism, attempting to use force to spread American hegemony so the world won’t be so scary and foreign. This is nothing like the Roosevelts, or Truman, or JFK. But you could see how those earlier liberal presidents might have inspired it.

If, in the end, it sometimes seems the neolibs and the neocons are as much alike as different, it’s because they are both weeds that grew out of the same pot. so to speak. They both originated on the Left or Center-Left. Both movements were reacting to events in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Both movements moved right and either adapted Republican ideas while remaining in the Democratic Party (the neolibs) or else they just flat-out became Republicans (the neocons).

Somewhere in his seminal work The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr argued that political ideologies shouldn’t be thought of as just lying along one axle, from left to right. It’s more like a circle. Taken to extremes, extreme Left and extreme Right meet each other and end up in totalitarianism.  Similarly, I say that neoconservatism and neoliberalism are not at all polar opposites, but rather like two sides of the same coin. They aren’t identical, but neither are they all that different, and it’s not at all impossible for the same politician to be some of both.

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The Great Democratic Party Schism

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American History, big picture stuff, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, Sanders and Clinton

In all my years of being a voter I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alienated from the Democratic Party as I do now. In some ways, this year has been worse than 2008.

It has struck me for some time that the Clinton and Sanders supporters are not only disagreeing; we’re speaking different languages. We’re approaching the campaign with entirely different sets of assumptions and values. For this reason, it has been impossible to communicate with each other.

And, frankly, I don’t think this is some temporary blow-up that will be soothed over by Fall, for next year, or ever.

I already tried to explain some of this rift through Moral Foundation Theory (“The Clinton-Sanders Divide and Moral Foundation Theory“) without realizing that real social science types had done a more researched analysis already. See “The Moral Foundations of the Presidential Primaries.” There’s also a somewhat dumbed-down version of this with less detail at Vox.

If you don’t remember Moral Foundation Theory, it basically is an analysis of the moral values and assumptions we carry around in our subconscious that causes us to make the political and moral judgments that we make. If you want to understand how Sanders and Clinton supporters differ, see this chart:

The colored bars that show positive or negative values represent six moral foundations, and you can see a stark difference between the two groups. An explanation of the colored bars, left to right:

  • Blue: Care/Harm – Being kind, nurturing and protective of other people.
  • Green: Fairness/Cheating, or Proportionality/”just deserts” – Treating people in proportion to their actions. The authors of the study say that in this case, “Sanders supporters also stands apart from Clinton’s supporters (and libertarians), in rating proportionality much less relevant to their moral judgments. This aligns with Sanders’ proposing greater expansions of government social welfare programs and higher taxes on the wealthy in comparison to Clinton.”
  • Orange: Liberty/Oppression – Individual liberty and protection from tyranny.
  • Red: Loyalty/Betrayal – Being patriotic and loyal to one’s group, family and nation.
  • Purple: Authority/Subversion – Respecting leadership, tradition and authority.
  • Gray: Sanctity/Degradation – Living in an elevated way and avoiding disgusting things, foods and actions; placing a high value on “traditional” sexual mores, for example.

In most Moral Foundations texts I’ve read, these six values also measure liberalism/conservatism, as shown on this graph:

The graph leaves out the “liberty” value for some reason, but you get the picture — liberals and conservatives value different things. And Clinton supporters appear to be more conservative, as a group, than Sanders supporters.

In particular the difference shown in the red, purple and gray bars has been really evident. Clinton supporters place much higher value on loyalty to the Democratic Party and to their candidate than Sanders supporters. I keep hearing Clinton supporters say of Sanders  “He’s not a real Democrat,” as if this was a trump card; but to Sanders supporters this is meaningless. Recently Clinton supporters have been shocked because Sanders has not been immediately forthcoming with an endorsement of Clinton, never mind that the primaries aren’t over. Clinton supporters also score much higher in authoritarianism and “sanctity” than Sanders supporters (although not nearly as high as most Republicans).

Reaction to this video reveals a lot. It’s like a Rorschach test. Sanders supporters (like me) basically heard Clinton brush us off as inconsequential maggots unworthy of her consideration. Clinton supporters were furious that Sanders is not jumping through the usual party loyalty hoops. But, as I’ve explained elsewhere, even if he did endorse Clinton that’s no guarantee his supporters would transfer their support to her. See above about authoritarianism; Sanders supporters aren’t wired that way.

And somewhere in here we might find the answer to the mystery of why African American voters so heavily favored Hillary Clinton, which makes absolutely no sense to me given her record. I’ve yet to hear an explanation that made sense, other than that black voters don’t think Sanders is electable. My hypothesis is that African Americans on the whole score more conservatively on the Moral Foundations scale, which would make them predisposed to favor Clinton, but I don’t know that for a fact.

But here is another chart to consider:

I picked this up from “Bernie Sanders Is (Still) the Future of the Democratic Party” by Matt Yglesias. The Clinton campaign has been trying — fairly successfully — to frame the Democratic contest as between white men and everybody else. But that’s a plain lie. It’s between younger voters and older voters. This data is from February; I understand that in the more recent primaries Sanders’s numbers have improved among young nonwhite voters to be at about the 50 percent mark.

And I say Democrats ignore this at their peril.

Much of Sanders’s support grew out of a long-simmering frustration with the Democratic Party itself. But a lot of us old folks stuck with it, because we remember what it used to be. (See “Why the Democratic Party Is in Bigger Trouble Than It Realizes.”) But the young folks don’t remember JFK or even Jimmy Carter. They are frustrated that neither party represents their point of view.

Quoting Matt Yglesias,

Hillary Clinton’s campaign — and, frankly, many DC journalists — has been repeatedly taken by surprise by the potency of some of Sanders’s attacks, because they apply to such a broad swath of the party. But this is precisely the point. Sanders and his youthful supporters want the Democrats to be a different kind of party: a more ideological, more left-wing one.

As Clinton put it in the most recent debate, “Under [Sanders's] definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street; Vice President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone [the pipeline]; Sen. Shaheen is not progressive because she supports the trade pact. Even the late, great Sen. Paul Wellstone would not fit this definition because he voted for DOMA.”

To Clinton, Democrats are the party of progressives, and so stuff that Democrats routinely do is, by definition, compatible with being progressive.

But though Democrats are certainly the more left-wing of the two parties — the party of labor unions and environment groups and feminist organizations and the civil rights movement — they’re not an ideologically left-wing party in the same way that Republicans are an ideological conservative one. Instead, they behave more like a centrist, interest group brokerage party that seeks to mediate between the claims and concerns of left-wing activists groups and those of important members of the business community — especially industries like finance, Hollywood, and tech that are based in liberal coastal states and whose executives generally espouse a progressive outlook on cultural change.

Sanders’s core proposition, separate from the details of the political revolution, is that for progressives to win they need to first organize and dominate an ideologically left-wing political party that is counterpoised to the ideological right-wing Republican Party.

It’s gotten so that when we use the words liberal and progressive we don’t mean the same things by them.  As Yglesias says, the more conservative Clinton supporters consider themselves to be “liberal” because they are Democrats, as if “Democrat” and “liberal” were synonyms, even though they might score as centrist or conservative on the Moral Foundation measure. In their minds, electing Hillary Clinton would be “revolutionary” and “progressive” because she’s a woman, never mind that she’s the insider’s insider and the Queen of the establishment.  To them, because they are liberal on social issues they are completely progressive, even if they are utterly unconcerned about income and wealth inequality and wouldn’t know Thomas Piketty from Tyler Perry.

Jeffrey Feldman thinks that the biggest cause of the Great Schism is class consciousness. I’m not sure it was really the healthcare debate that created this shift, but here is what he says:

… some version of economic class consciousness began sweeping through the Democratic Party in that debate on healthcare. That debate from 2009 focused people on the idea that policy was controlled by an elite class that has emerged in the neoliberal global economy. In prior class consciousness debates, this elite class might just have been called “capitalists,” but in the post-2009 version, it has become associated with something called the “Davos crowd” or just “Davos,” meaning: the group of powerful, wealthy, jet-setters who attend the Swiss economic summit and others like it, who believe in the free market ideology of globalized neoliberalism, and who are able to command virtually unlimited resources.

These figures exist in both parties. The healthcare debate, however, led many in the Democratic Party to rethink the basic dualism of the American political landscape. It was in that 2009 healthcare debate that many Democrats began to see themselves as engaged in a battle more urgent than the thousand year struggle against Republicans: a battle against the Davos crowd for control of “our” party.

…What happened in this Presidential primary between Sanders and Clinton is that the dynamic of the single issue debate–which led to new awareness of intra-party struggle in 2009–was elevated to a much broader debate by refocusing on the financial sector as a whole.

Now, more and more people underwent the same transformation because the arguments about the control of big finance over politics and government seemed clearer or more convincing. This was coupled with the clearest contrast to date of this kind of problem being described since 2009: a top tier candidate who went from having Middle Class wealth to having money on part with the Davos crowd almost entirely by accumulating honoraria from the Davos crowd. And this clear example gave Sanders a unique power in the Democratic Party: his explaining the problem in the Party–which journalists had been pointing out–suddenly had the power to reach a vast audience via an ongoing national campaign–and to turn him into a transformative figure.

In my experience, this issue with global corporatism or predatory capitalism or the “Davos crowd” or whatever you want to call it is not on the radar of most Clinton supporters at all. I never see them address it. They’re stuck in thinking about technocratic answers to particular problems, not about any sort of sweeping change to the status quo.  They’re in love with the word “pragmatism,” which in effect means ignoring the big problems while focusing on tweaking the little ones. And, unfortunately, a lot of the Sanders supporters on social media do not articulate this well beyond calling Clinton names like “corporate whore,” which really isn’t that accurate. So there’s no real exchange of concerns, just name-calling.

A lot of what’s happening in this primary season is the result of the abandonment by both parties of working-class Americans. Even more than that, it’s the abandonment by both parties of youth. All the meanness and greed and tight-fistedness and corporate-centric values are hitting them hardest of all. In today’s America, young people are a resource to be exploited, not invested in. And among the student loans, unpaid internships, disappearance of blue-collar jobs, on-demand and other insecure and exploitative employment, they are feeling the effects of global corporatism/predatory capitalism more intensely than us old folks.

And, rightly, they’re getting pissed. Sanders gets them. Clinton doesn’t. They know that all they’re going to get from her is tweaks and platitudes, and it terrifies them.

And they are pissed.

Unfortunately, you can get cats to march in formation before you can get young liberals focused on any kind of directed, disciplined long game.  Right now they’re all over social media planning a third-party run for Sanders (often with the People’s Front of Judea Green Party), which would be stupid on several levels, and which I am confident he will not do. The way forward is in taking over the Dem party at all levels, replacing the neoliberals and centrists with actual progressives. It will take a few election cycles (I keep making this speech every few years), but it’s do-able if people can work together to do it.

Otherwise, we may be looking at the Democratic Party’s last hoorah. I hate to think what rough beast might take its place.

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Why the Democratic Party Is in Bigger Trouble Than It Realizes

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American History, big picture stuff, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, Obama Administration, Sanders and Clinton, self-destruction

Regarding the perpetual complaint that young voters don’t turn out for midterm elections, which gives Congress to Republicans — yeah, I used to complain about that too. But try to imagine what the Democratic Party must look like to younger voters.

I’m old enough to remember when Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt were still alive and still influential in party politics. I was in middle school during the Kennedy Administration. For all his flaws regarding Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson initiated genuinely progressive domestic programs. I was in high school when Bobby Kennedy ran for President and was assassinated. I cast my first vote for POTUS for George McGovern. So that’s the Democratic Party I remember — flawed and messy, but still a vehicle for doing the right thing, at least part of the time.

But that party died a quiet death some time back. I’m not sure that other people my age realize this. The Democratic Party now is closer to where the Republicans were during the Nixon Administration than they are to being the party of Truman, Kennedy or even LBJ.

But at least the Nixon Republicans sort of stood for something. You knew where they were coming from. The current party Democratic Party stands for nothing.

I’m not sure when it happened, exactly, but sometime between the McGovern blowout in 1972 and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the party of FDR, Truman and Kennedy died. Clinton ushered in a fundamental change in the Democratic Party that made it about winning elections on the Right’s terms. It became the party of lowered expectations, learned helplessness and “at least we’re not as bad as they are.” But what does it actually stand for any more, as a party?

I recently got into a sad discussion about how the party abandoned the legacy of FDR. I mentioned FDR’s great 1941 State of the Union address — the “Four Freedoms” speech. This encapsulates what the party should still stand for, I said. A Clinton supporter dismissed this as ancient history. You want to have it both ways, she said. You keep saying it’s not 1972 any more, and now you want to go back to 1941. The Democrats have moved on.

So I quoted this portion of the speech:

Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world.

For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Personally, I think anyone who wants to call himself a REAL DEMOCRAT ought to memorize that passage and recite it daily.

FDR continued:

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement.

As examples:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

And we’re still working on that stuff. Maybe we’ll always be working on that stuff. As technological and economic conditions change, we’ll have to keep adjusting. But it’s hard to even talk about some of these things now, never mind work on them. We’ve done something about health care, although we need to do more. But looking ahead I don’t see any plans from most Dems except to try to stop what we have accomplished from being further eroded.

Roosevelt went on to say that people would be required to pay more taxes to make these things happen. He was re-elected later that year anyway. And no, Pearl Harbor hadn’t been bombed yet.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Compare/contrast to right-wing calls for carpet bombing the Middle East to get rid of ISIS. For that matter, compare/contrast to Hillary Clinton’s “vision” of dealing with ISIS. It’s all about military and anti-terrorist options. There’s no vision there.

Now, some would say that Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war proved FDR hopelessly idealistic. I don’t think so. These ideals lived on in programs like the Marshall Plan, which helped secure a lasting peace in western Europe and which is the sort of thing that would never get past a right-wing Congress today, and which the current Democratic Party would never even dare propose. And FDR was a great war president and hardly a pacifist weenie, btw.

We have to acknowledge that FDR didn’t always live up to his own ideals — the Japanese-American internment, for example — but that doesn’t mean the ideals themselves were wrong.

As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a good argument to be made that in 1992, Clintonian “triangulation,” moving Right to finesse the Reaganites on their own turf, was the only way a Democrat could have won the White House. But it’s time to drop that strategy now, because it’s holding us all back. The current Dem establishment, never mind Hillary Clinton herself, is stuck in the past and ignoring the realities of the current political climate, which is that the Republican Party is falling apart and the young folks are hungry for a more assertively progressive left-wing party that actually stands for something other than technocratic responses to whatever problems arise. Which is all Hillary Clinton knows.

And when some of us start talking about a real progressive vision, the Clintonistas dismiss us as naive “purists” who don’t understand what’s practical. I guess by their definition FDR wasn’t practical (see: New Deal; victory in World War II).

But y’know what? We’ve complained for years about how younger voters don’t turn out for midterm elections and let the Republicans take over Congress. I’ve complained about that, too. But try to look at the Democrats through their eyes. They don’t remember Truman or Eleanor Roosevelt or even George McGovern or Hubert Humphrey.  They remember the Clintons. They see Democrats in Congress that sell out liberal values a large part of the time, and who can’t effectively push back against right-wing craziness. Even President Obama — who has done a lot more good than he’s given credit for — has disappointed them often by trying to make “Grand Bargains” with the Right that would have compromised essential “safety net” programs. And his foreign policy hasn’t been all that great, which is largely Clinton’s doing, IMO.

From that perspective — what’s there to vote for? Why bother?

Again, I always do trudge out and vote, if only because the Dems are not as bad as those other people. But the Dems have been coasting on we aren’t as bad as they are way too much and way too long. It’s like they’re using the Republicans to hold us hostage — vote for us or they’ll shoot your dog. And then most of them go about being way too compromised by money and lobbyists and not really responding to the people.

No, they aren’t as bad as the Republicans. But maybe the young folks are right for not settling. And if the Democratic Party doesn’t change, I wonder if it can survive.

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Help Me Out Here

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liberalism and progressivism, self-destruction

Please read this and then talk me down from the fear that we’re about to replay the 1972 Democratic Convention. I’d appreciate it.

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Bill de Blasio’s Crusade

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liberalism and progressivism

A profile of the New York mayor says he is working on a progressive Contract With America. Looking forward to that.

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Jesus on a Pancake

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liberalism and progressivism, Obama Administration, Republican Party

Every now and then somebody sees the face of Jesus on a pancake, or a sandwich, or refrigerator mold, and people get all excited about it. I’ve seen photographs of some of these wonders, and usually they don’t look that much like Jesus to me — Willie Nelson, maybe — but then, I’m not all that keen about seeing the face of Jesus on things.

I suspect that people who actually see Jesus on pancakes are people who deeply, deeply crave some kind of whoop-dee-doo mystical experience that will give them Hope, or Peace, or at least some cash from an eBay sale. They want to see Jesus on that pancake so badly that their senses arrange for them to see it. Senses tend to be more susceptible to suggestion/desire than most of us realize. You can see just about anything if you are raving desperate enough to see it.

This John Fund column titled “Liberals in Retreat” strikes me as the political equivalent of seeing Jesus on a pancake. He’s seized upon three unrelated elections in Colorado, Australia, and Norway, as evidence of Conservatism triumphant. All around the globe, he thinks, liberals have panicked and are scampering for the exits. Only conservatism speaks for the people now.

Sorry, Fund. I am not scampering. I don’t see anyone else scampering.

First off, the words “liberal” and “conservative,” when applied to politics outside the U.S., don’t mean quite the same thing as they do here. Although there might be general and fuzzy resemblances, the political dynamics of Australia and Norway are not the same as the political dynamics in the U.S. Frankly, I think a lot of what we’re experiencing here — in which a large portion of our government has been taken over by people who are stark raving bonkers and refuse to actually govern — is unprecedented in world history. Or, at least, unprecedented in an alleged first-world democracy.

Second, the Colorado recall election may be a blow to the gun control issue nationwide, or it may be significant in some regions but not in others. But gun control has been a back-burner issue for Dems for way more than a decade. We keep hoping its hour will come round, but until it does we are mostly unwilling to sacrifice progress on other issues to fight for it.

I see the Colorado recall, and the various batty secession schemes cropping up in rural America, not as harbingers but as last hurrahs. These actions are mostly coming from clusters of insulated, rural whites who are out of touch with where the rest of America is heading.

John Fund is so desperate to see Jesus on the pancake that he called forth Grover Norquist to back him up. Norquist is a man who can see just about anything on a pancake. But Norquist is a walking last hurrah if there ever was one.

It’s too early to know if Bill De Blasio’s big win in New York City is a harbinger or a freak lightning strike. The wingnuts are in denial about this, but I say it was de Blasio’s unabashed liberalism that made him stand out. The position of Mayor of New York has been filled by Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, a.k.a. Rudy Giuliani Lite, for more than two decades. And my sense of things is that New Yorkers are really, really done with that, and want something different. No more squishy, friends-of-business moderates. We’ll see.

In the meantime, expect conservative pundits to keep seeing liberals in retreat — “Jesus on the pancake,” if you will — because they are raving desperate to see it. But I’m not seeing it.

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WaPo Still Running from the “L” Word

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liberalism and progressivism, Obama Administration

Political commentary that makes me wonder if anyone at WaPo has a measurable IQ (from about five days ago, but I’m just now noticing it) — Zachary A. Goldfarb writes,

If there was one word that was used most often to describe President Obama’s second inaugural address Monday, it was “liberal.” Obama supposedly tossed away the post-partisan efforts of his first term and embraced big government, fully committing himself to the cause of gay rights and showing a Gore-like dedication to the climate-change fight.

Yet the next day, the White House expressed surprise at the notion that the president’s speech amounted to an affirmation of liberalism. Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that he rejected “the idea that this was an ‘ism’ speech.” He added, “It’s on behalf of ideas that represent who we are as Americans.”

In a narrow sense, Carney was right. Opinion polls show that on almost all of the major positions Obama espoused in his speech — entitlements, immigration, climate change and same-sex marriage — a majority of Americans agree with him.

By that measure, Obama did not advance a liberal agenda.

Or maybe, dimwit, by that measure we see that Americans are coming back around to embracing liberalism, the way they used to. Let us consider the words of President John F. Kennedy —

President John F. Kennedy on being a liberal (via)…

“I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, the faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith. For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves

I believe also in the United States of America, in the promise that it contains and has contained throughout our history of producing a society so abundant and creative and so free and responsible that it cannot only fulfill the aspirations of its citizens, but serve equally well as a beacon for all mankind. I do not believe in a superstate. I see no magic in tax dollars which are sent to Washington and then returned. I abhor the waste and incompetence of large-scale federal bureaucracies in this administration as well as in others. I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well. But I believe in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and full responsibilities. Government is an art and a precious obligation; and when it has a job to do, I believe it should do it. And this requires not only great ends but that we propose concrete means of achieving them.

Our responsibility is not discharged by announcement of virtuous ends. Our responsibility is to achieve these objectives with social invention, with political skill, and executive vigor. I believe for these reasons that liberalism is our best and only hope in the world today. For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society. Its strength is drawn from the will of free people committed to great ends and peacefully striving to meet them. Only liberalism, in short, can repair our national power, restore our national purpose, and liberate our national energies.

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

Deal with it, Goldfarb.

BTW, here’s my new roomie, Sadie, courtesy of Bill Bush. Someday maybe I’ll get a photo of her when one of us is no t moving.

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Vanity Politics

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liberalism and progressivism

There’s a must-read post by Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money called “Ralph Nader and the Structure of Progressive Change.” It’s not actually about Ralph Nader, but rather, Ralph Nader here is emblematic of why progressives never seem to get a movement going.

What we might call “Goldwater” conservatives, he said, began organizing at a local level in the 1960s. Eventually they took over the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, progressives have responded to the country’s rightward shift by running vanity candidates like Ralph Nader for president every four years. In 2008, progressives changed strategies when Barack Obama seemed to capture their dreams and then were shocked when he turned out to be the centrist he always was. But even in 2008, it was still a simplistic analysis of progressive change offered by his supporters that hadn’t learned much in the previous 8 years.

I oversimplify, sure. But the trajectory of the conservative movement should be teaching us many lessons. Not that we should be crazy extremists. But that party structures are actually not that hard to take over if you really want to do it. Yet progressives seem to almost NEVER talk about localized politics. We complain about education reform but don’t organize to take over school boards. Conservatives outflank us in part because they seem to understand that the presidency is not all-powerful. Perhaps local offices like county clerk and elected judges are as or even more important than the presidency, at least from a long-term perspective. Too many progressives believe in Green Lantern presidencies. Elect Obama in ’08 and he can force through all the changes we want.

No. That’s not how it works.

What Loomis is calling “Green Lantern presidencies” I’ve called the “magic candidate,” which is the syndrome that makes people believe all we have to do to counteract 50 years of relentless wingnut organizing is elect the right guy to be president.

Right now, the Dems appear to have embraced progressive populism more than I’ve seen them do since the 1960s. I don’t think progressive activists can take much credit for this, though. And we won’t know if the Dems really mean it until we get a real majority in both houses, instead of a majority that includes a mess of Blue Dogs. Still, the fact that so many are running on progressive populist themes is heartening. A strong populist progressive movement would reinforce this, if we had one.

But this takes us back to Why Progressives Can’t Organize. I can think of several reasons.

First, we look bad in comparison to the Right because the Right has always had deep-pocket sponsors installing astroturf wherever the grass roots weren’t sprouting. The media-think tank infrastructure, now decades old, that supports movement conservatism is all funded by a relatively small number of family trusts, for the purpose of manipulating public opinion to support whatever will make more money for the trustees. What George Soros has contributed to the Left is not even a drop in the bucket in comparison; more like a drop in Lake Erie.

Second, in spite of the fact that we’re supposed to be the “collectivists” and conservatives the “individualists,” when it comes to organizing it’s the other way around. If you were to tell one hundred conservative citizen-activists to show up on Fifth and Main Street at 9 am Tuesday wearing red, white and blue T-shirts to rally for X, I’d bet you’d get about 8o percent compliance. Do the same thing with progressives, and maybe 20 people would actually follow directions. You’d get at least 30 other people showing up (early or late) with signs and fliers promoting an entirely unrelated cause. And Code Pink members would organize a separate rally two blocks away to grab all the attention.

My irritation with the Occupy “movement” that was never a movement stemmed from my long frustration with leftie vocational demonstrators. Occupy seemed to be the ultimate in vanity demonstrating; truly, rebels without a cause. It was people showing up to vent personal frustration at the system, but with no clue about how to fix the system. And, sorry, standing outside a police station with a megaphone, yelling “F— the police” over and over again, is not “activism.” It’s a tantrum.

On the other hand, I understand some of the Occupy groups that formed around the country last year have morphed into community activist groups focusing on local situations, such as foreclosures, which is great.

This takes us to a complaint about organizing locally. Conservatives get elected to school boards to block teaching evolution, for example, whereas progressives are more focused on national issues. Beginning with takeovers of local Republican party structures, wingnuts eventually owned the entire Party. However, I don’t know what would keep liberals from running for school boards to keep evolution in science class.

It may make a difference that we’ve been playing defense and they’ve been playing offense lo these many years. We’ve been working to preserve Roe v. Wade and other civil rights gains; they’ve been working to strike them down. We’ve been working to preserve the New Deal; they’ve been chipping away at it. But the Right has chipped away so much stuff that we’re going back on offense now. For example, they’ve chipped away at reproductive rights enough that women finally are getting riled up about it. Go, team.

Maybe because they are better at trusting leaders, rightie issues organizations all these years have been better at long games. Even after they don’t get everything they want — and they don’t always, even though it seems otherwise sometimes — they come back in the next election cycle supporting the same candidates and hoping to build on whatever they did get.

Too many progressives don’t do long games. No public option? Kill the bill! Dump Obama!

Finally, there’s been a vacuum in leadership. Too many of the icons of progressivism have been more about grandstanding for the glorious cause than about making realistic progress toward achieving that cause. Ralph Nader is one such person; so is Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich served nine terms in the House with no substantive legislative accomplishments, but he was good at sound bites and introduced a lot of no-chance resolutions to impeach Dick Cheney, and progressives swooned. Why are so many of us so easily distracted by shiny objects?

Who are the real national leaders of progressivism? The only name coming to mind is Barney Frank.

Well, that’ today’s rant. What am I missing?

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The Problem With Purity

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liberalism and progressivism

Adbusters analyzes OWS:

Hey all you wild cats, do-gooders and steadfast rebels out there,

Our movement is living through a painful rebirth… “There has been a unfortunate consolidation of power in #OWS,” writes one founding Zuccotti. “This translates into ideological dominance and recurring lines of thought. We are facing a nauseating poverty of ideas.” Burned out, out of money, out of ideas… seduced by salaries, comfy offices, book deals, old lefty cash and minor celebrity status, some of the most prominent early heroes of our leaderless uprising are losing the edge that catalyzed last year’s one thousand encampments. Bit by bit, Occupy’s first generation is succumbing to an insidious institutionalization and ossification that could be fatal to our young spiritual insurrection unless we leap over it right now. Putting our movement back on track will take nothing short of a revolution within Occupy.

The article goes on to say that various groups around the country are engaged in local, community-based actions under the banner of Occupy. So the spirit of Occupy itself is not dead, even though the original Zuccotti Park crew has broken up. Adbusters also is promoting “a global cascade of flash encampments” this summer as the next phase of global Occupy.

I want to go back to the bits about consolidation of power, ideological dominance, lack of ideas, and the corruption of old lefty cash, whatever that is.

The idea that a large, amorphous, leaderless movement that refused to be boxed into an ideological or partisan nook could maintain some kind of uncorrupted state always was a childish fantasy. Human nature doesn’t work that way. Group dynamics don’t work that way. And especially when the group is challenging entrenched money and power and is fueled more by zeal than central planning, it’s going to be put under enormous pressure, and it’s going to be a mess.

But let me address the idea of maintaining purity. We snark at the Right for favoring ideological purity over reality, but you see something similar on the Left as well. There’s an ongoing fantasy that we must be pure of partisan attachments to the parties, or else we are selling out. Or maybe we can find the magic candidate(s) who will be absolutely pure of the corrupting influence of money and power, and will not compromise progressive ideals just to get bills passed, and we can send him/her/them to Washington, and then everything will be fixed.

Anyway — it seems to me you can take one of two roads. You can stay out of the mud and engage in symbolic actions that may affect public opinion, which can be a valuable thing over the long haul. But you will have absolutely no influence over the powerful people in charge of things, so you’re not going to see anything actually change except at pre-global-warming glacial pace. This is assuming your symbolic actions do not involve an armed takeover of government, of course.

If instead you try to push for real change and force the movers and shakers to bend to your will, you’re going to have to get in the mud with them and make deals with people who are a lot less pure than you’d like. One pure person standing alone can’t do beans. That’s the truth of it. The system is what it is, and you can’t change it without dealing with it as it is.

There’s plenty of room for both approaches, of course. But mutual respect is in order. If the purer-than-thou symbolic action-takers disparage the work of inside-the-system activists, and vice versa, then everyone loses.

OWS always was a lot more like the old New Left than they were willing to admit. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the New Left worked outside the system against the New Deal coalition that used to support the Democratic Party, and helped break it up. Labor unions were a huge target, for the understandable reasons that they tended to have racist and sexist policies at the time, not to mention the mob connections.

But now we’re all looking around and saying, geez, isn’t it a shame about unions dying off? And how did the Democratic Party get so dependent on corporate money? And the New Left has to take a lot of the blame for that. And the moral is that if you have a revolution to break up the old system, you’d better have something ready to replace it with. Just being pure of heart isn’t enough.

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