Vanity Politics

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?

13 thoughts on “Vanity Politics

  1. Bernie Sanders. But point well taken, while we were wringing our hands in 2010 the repugs took over many state houses, including mine. And they are pushing through their agenda at this level. WI votes for Dems in presidential elections, but state and local is a pretty mixed bag, I would even say we trend toward republicans.

  2. The right has its “Green Lantern” candidates too – Ross Perot and Ron Paul come to mind. But these white knights appear in a culture that has been turned overwhelmingly conservative. They’re not out to really overturn the status quo, they’re out to finish the job.

    What the right has is leadership and money. Early on, this leadership realized, through the think tanks it created, that it had to build a Mighty Wurlitzer to mobilize the masses. They managed to flip the previously liberal religious culture and create what we call today the Religious Right. Through pastors or on their own, these people saw it as their Christian duty to inject themselves into local politics, to take over school boards, etc, in the name of restoring this Christian nation. When you can get God on your side, bearing down on the souls of millions of people, that’s powerful.

    This leadership realized that the universities were key. By eliminating or marginalizing liberalism from the academy, this effectively destroyed the major incubator of progressive leadership.

    And so, with the resulting lack of leadership on the left, it’s no surprise that people gravitate toward “Green Lantern” candidates, or toward tactics that may have worked years ago, but which have been drained of their effectiveness, leaving only the ego kick (which was always there) behind.

    Living inside a culture that has moved so far to the right, is isolating for anybody not so inclined. This is by design. Their media machine is so powerful that it destroys language, rendering the ability to connect and communicate difficult. Words like “liberal” or “progressive” have been demonized. The meaning of “class warfare” is inverted, making it difficult to talk in anything but right wing frames. Talking about “God” and “morals” or even “freedom” is difficult because the right has implanted its own, by now, commonly understood meanings for these words, which requires anybody who thinks differently to cogently explain their terms first, before communication can proceed. None of this is necessary for those on the right, who have all of these terms and frames predefined, and reinforced daily through the Mighty Wurlitzer.

    There is a great deal of power when two or more people who believe the same things come together. This is a huge headwind that people on the left face. I will never forget how I stumbled onto the blogosphere – including this very blog – during the dark and frightening time known as the Bush years – when practically nobody I knew thought like me. I have heard this same remark many times from others.

    Finally as American culture has been stepped up, as it’s become more competitive, people have less time or energy to engage in participating in Democracy. It’s all part of destroying the middle class. Politics, beyond merely voting, becomes a luxury when you’re just trying to survive.

    And so I don’t get too down on movements like Code Pink or Occupy. They have their place – apart from the vanity aspects. They are a training ground for the handful of committed people, who hopefully will learn the leadership and organization skills necessary to take a movement to the next level. This used to be what happened more broadly in a university setting, but that has been denied us. Implicit in this is the belief that change by conventional political movements is mostly hopeless or extremely difficult. I wish it weren’t so, but a Code Pink or an Occupy is the natural result when money and leadership from the right has choked out effective participation from its opponents.

    • And so I don’t get too down on movements like Code Pink or Occupy. They have their place – apart from the vanity aspects. They are a training ground for the handful of committed people, who hopefully will learn the leadership and organization skills necessary to take a movement to the next level.

      First, they aren’t movements, because they cannot articulate where they are moving. That’s part of the problem. Too much of our energy is being taken up by non-movements that keep us stuck in the same place, and we mistake them for movements.

      Occupy has potential, especially at a local level, but I’ve had too many dealings with Code Pink to think of it as anything but a collection of attention-seekers.

  3. What passes for modern Conservatism is a mix of the Old School Corporatists, the John Birch anti-Communists, and the Evangelical Christians, who brought the, “movement” to Movement Conservatism.

    The Old School has been around almost since the beginnings of the Republican Party (if not before, in the Whigs), the Birchers sprang from anti-FDR/pro-McCarthy/anti-Communists/Socialist movements, and the Evangelicals were the most recent addition – but also, maybe, the game changer that not only kept Conservatism alive, but helped it thrive.

    Liberalism/Progressivism had religious roots, largely in the anti-slavery movement. But somewhere along the way, it ‘lost its religion,’ and focused more on Labor, Civil and Womens rights – not that the three are seperate entities.

    Conservatism had to reboot after Goldwater got swamped nationally. And they were smart, they started rebuilding their grass root efforts from the ground up (not to be redundant).
    But largely, they were a combo of the Birchers, who saw Communists and Socialists in every classroom, and the Evangelicals, who saw Atheists/Secularists in every classroom. The Old Schoolers didn’t give a crap, as long as the people coming out of school were educated enough to be part of the work force, and be consumers. And so, the Conservative started at the schools, then took those people and elected them in towns, then counties, then State and National Congressional Districts, and finally national positions.
    The Evangelicals were the willing, and able, ground troops.

    Liberals/Progressives aren’t that paranoid, by nature. And even when we see threats, like todays Movement Conservatism, we always feel we can “talk things out.” We still think the brain beats the gut.

    Also, when we finally DO organize, we don’t have one of two choices, or a combination of them, like Conservatives, who see Communists/Socialists/Atheists/Secularists everywhere.

    We notice hunger, poverty, racism, misogyny, ageism, xenophobia, and homophobia.
    To Conservatives, hunger and poverty are caused by Communists/Socialists/Atheists/Secularists – let Capitalim and Christianity take care of those problems.

    And to them, the only people who care about the rest, are Communists/Socialists/Atheists/Secularist Liberals?Progressives, who want to undermine Capitalism and Christianity.

    And we wonder why THEY can organize, and WE can’t?

    It’s a tired analogy, but I still think it fits:
    Conservative lemming march in lockstep. Show them a leader, and they follow.
    Liberals can’t herd their cats. Show them a leader, and they wonder why that person should be THEIR leader.

    And so it goes…

  4. You’re right about Occupy not quite being a movement – I’m not sure what the right word is.

    Code Pink is sort of like Billionaires for Bush, a small clutch of clowns/attention-seekers. They are what they are. They have their place. As Jon Stewart/Robert Colbert et al. demonstrate, humor has its place. The Right wants everyone to take it so Extremely Seriously. They cannot stand to be laughed at.

    • Code Pink is sort of like Billionaires for Bush, a small clutch of clowns/attention-seekers.

      I have never been to a march or rally with a strong Code Pink contingent in which Code Pink was getting along with everyone else. They wouldn’t follow organizer’s directions, so they’d march outside the area covered in the permit and get arrested or get their fliers confiscated or something, and then they’d play out this big victim drama that sucked the energy out of the event. Maybe it’s just the east coast CP, but when it happens over and over you do see a pattern. Bilionaires for Bush would show up and do their act and have fun, and not get in anybody else’s way.

  5. So, Republicans are the actual radicals and Democrats/liberals are the actual conservatives. Gee, that ‘s what I’ve been saying for years!

    Only in Reaganspeak is a liberal not able to also be conservative. I’m a liberal conservative. NeoRepublicans are radical ideologues. Libertarians tend toward ideological conservatism. The Amish are ideological conservatives.

    Big “C” conservatives, like the (pseudo)christians, are the exact opposite of what their captured word-titles indicate. George Orwell must be smiling (and cringing).

    He who controls the language…

  6. I think the problem with liberals is that we are too diverse and independent and we don’t listen to talk radio or faux news. Thus, we aren’t brainwashed as the conservatives are. As far as I am concerned a radio is for listening to music. The conservatives live on talking points and talk radio repeating day after day, hour after hour those same talking points. It is a form of brainwashing. I also gave up television news because it is very repetitive and can brainwash you, too. Nor do I watch the political talk shows on TV because they are too programmed with talking points–Rachel Maddow is the exception. Our so-called mainstream press is pathetic with no guts. There are no true journalists any more. Consequently, it is a waste of time these days. And, ever since the Republicans refuse even a modicum of decency and good manners, the liberals don’t have a chance any more. We like to fight fair. They like to cheat. Yet, they convince many other people that the liberals are the cheaters–i.e., voter fraud. I just had a birthday. Three more years and I will be 70 years old. I am too old and too tired to be in the group of leaders that liberals need. Where are the liberal leaders?

  7. There is a website for conservatives that gives step-by-step instructions on how to take over the party. Unfortunately I forget the address, but essentially it starts with becoming a precinct committeeman. Once in that position you can hand pick your local candidates and start rebuilding the party to your liking from there.

  8. Sometimes a post is interesting not for the information/answers but for the questions. This is one of those.

    Conservatism today is an alliance of ideologies with motivated followers. IMO, at the top are the HUGE money guys. They aren’t in it for the money – they want long-term political power so no one can touch their money or interfere with how they make it. They have money – they want the power to keep it forever.

    Next, in rank are the evangelicals. They know they made a deal with the devil when they got in bed with the rich, but there was no other way they could force their religion on the general populace who aren’t believers. Evangelicals provide raw numbers for the big money guys.

    There are libertarians in two versions – the ones who read Ayn Rand and the idiots who can’t read, but believe they are on the cusp of getting rich – except the liberals keep thwarting them. These people believe the American Dream can be measured in dollars. These are the Rush Limbaugh shock troops.

    There’s neo-cons who want to take over the world, and Tea Party dimwits who have NO objective understanding of Early American history, but imagine they are restoring the original vision of the founding fathers. *sigh*

    The point being that there is a coalition – some bring cash, some bring troops. They are willing to cooperate to advance their individual objectives because separately, they could not succeed.

    Why doesn’t liberalism have a similar structure and hierarchy? Mostly because we want to be left alone. Liberals don’t want to require anyone to use contraception – but they want to be able to choose what works for them. Liberals don’t favor abortion as a form of birth control (I don’t, anyway.) But unplanned pregnancies happen, and it should be a woman’s right to terminate early. Gay rights – jeez is it hard to give same-sex couples the same rights (and respect) you give a straight couple? The list goes on, but generally, we aren’t as motivated as they are because we only want to be allowed to do what we think we have a natural right to do in a free society. The libertarians and evangelicals want to rewrite the norms of society and impose those norms on all. So they are more motivated.

    But there is one huge conflict – the ‘machinery’ of a free society isn’t free. The upper crust have exempted themselves from paying their share and allowed government to run at a deficit for decades. Addressing a deficit that can’t continue much longer means raising taxes. It’s inevitable! The minority pulling the strings think they can slash spending on the poor and elderly as a way of avoiding the tax bill. This is what the war is about – the libertarians and evangelicals are cannon fodder – the war is over who will pay the bill that’s coming due.

    IMO, the ‘plan’ this election cycle was a re-do of the Bush tax cuts by reconciliation. To pull that off, the aristocrats need a simple Senate majority and a friendly president. Both of these are slipping away. The Bush tax cuts will expire. It’s not over yet but it’s possible conservatism has peaked (finally). The true believers are becoming unmasked – their contempt for democracy and the non-rich are becoming obvious. This is not selling with moderates.

    There are signs the coalition is fracturing – maybe permanently. The rich will try to hold it together, but their own formula works against it. “No Moderates Allowed” will kill the GOP is the swing of the independent voter is to moderation.

  9. Just a clarification: the notion of the “Green Lantern” President is one who is strong willed enough to make things happen, even if they’re completely impossible – just like the Green Lanterns of the comic books. They can do anything with their power rings, if they’re strong-willed enough to accomplish it. (And, in the earlier comics, if they weren’t trying to act against something yellow.)

    So, the Green Lantern theory of the Presidency says that Obama would have gotten the public option if he’d fought hard enough for it, even though Joe Lieberman decided it was rank socialism and wouldn’t vote for cloture if the bill contained the public option. We would just have a big splash panel – or maybe a series of panels showing successively greater strain and effort – where the artist shows Obama trying *really* hard and then it would happen, even without 60 votes for cloture in the Senate.

    It’s almost the same thing as the magic candidate, of course… it’s just complaining about a particular foolish hope, rather than a more general one.

  10. moonbat… Your 1:51 comment is more than excellent. I can’t properly express how profound your analysis is to me because I understand it by personal experience. And if I had one word to to describe my error, that word would be: deference. A lack of faith to believe in myself to think for myself, and a lack of courage for lack of skill in expressing myself through the written word. I’ve learned a lot from the Mahablog —although it might not be apparent—and I know this( internet) is where the real battle will be fought. Fox News isn’t conducive to thinking or challenging someone to think. That’s the difference. People who read and write to express ideas are at an advantage to those who just sit a listen to some butthead..I sat in pews for over thirty plus years just sucking up nonsense while my brain near atrophied.

    On the God thing… I recently had an experience where my wife asked me the question in a disbelieving manner,”You don’t believe in God?,” and I was flushed with fear to answer. I answered no, but had to weaken my response with the statement..if God is a sentient being. My point being that the God cudgel is so powerful and pervasive in our society that whoever controls that has got the ultimate weapon. In God we Trust, one nation under God, God bless America.

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