In The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, Matt Bai details his close up view of various groups and activities hoping to mark out new strategies and tactics towards national Democratic electoral victory. With insider access and experience as a political reporter, Bai follows three distinct groups committing serious time, efforts, and in some cases millions of dollars to answer two central, yet intertwined questions. Who and what will replace Industrial Era liberals?
Because it was written before the 2008 presidential election, it is easy to want to say, “Obamaism won.” However, having worked on dozens of elections and having learned to always, always underestimate voters I am aware that political communications is often simple. Find a dominant theme that works and reducing it to the lowest common denominator. Change, as it turns out, tapped into anxious feelings among Americans. But what is “that thing?”
While President Obama may have raised the lowest common denominator of ideas among many millions of voters, his essential message was simple and without specifics. Change, or no more Bush, fit well alongside Obama’s remarkable presence, charisma, personal story, and steadiness, especially as the economic downtowns went from warnings to facts and more importantly voter concerns. In a sense Obama was a once in a lifetime candidate for an election where the dominant message was, “Who is least like the putz we have now.”
But the struggle to deal with the future of Democratic politics in a new, post-industrial era is real even after the huge Democratic victories of November 4th. The sad truth seems to be that the party apparatuses of liberals, progressives, and true blue democrats should worry because Democratic most easily unite, as Bai points out, around their revulsion of conservatism and the need for new ideas, but not necessarily around new ideas or plans. But what is a new direction for the ‘Can Do Nation’ that has clearly fallen off track.
In truth, neither party has established a clear and effective narrative for what is to be done. Early in 2008, Newt Gingrich made an interesting observation about Republican Presidential candidates. In the post-Conservative Era, Newt said, "None of the [groups] have figured out how to get a routine, repetitive explanation of the future that breaks out of the current situation and that's their primary challenge." While new ideas are clearly needed, where is the beef? While bloggers have proven mobile and effective in fighting back, and millionaire liberals quickly funded Leftleaning -idea machines to match Right Wing foundations and the Congressional Democrats made a comeback in 2006, one could argue Democrats are one hesitant and passive response to a national crisis, like the recession, away from giving it all back.
With so many issues needing urgent attention, why is it that the Democrats cannot string together a message that would make Newt say, “Damn they beat us to the punch?”
Even with new ideas, Democrats also lack uniquely creative strategies and effective messages. I would argue if Democrats were actors, the director would say, “I need a better delivery.” In Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, Stephen Dunchome argues not only is the Democratic establishment lost in old ideas and tactics, but also lacks an exciting narrative everyday people can admire and ardently support. Bai, I think, would agree pointing out that Democrats have “grown accustomed to expressing themselves … through arcane pieces of legislation and the occasional news conference.” In short, BORING!
What Democrats ARE good at doing is letting Republicans shoot themselves in the foot with poor governance, cronyism, nepotism, and intense partisanship. However, Democrats seem only able to hit a double with this fat pitch. As Bai points out, the conservative dogma of “reflexive disdain of multilateralism - the belief in the superiority of pure markets – have likely lost their shine. So what do the subjects of Bai’s book say about that filling that vacuum of political ideas? Nothing. Newt, again, says no one is explaining the world, say like a preacher would.
The groups Bai covers do get an "A" for effort. Those billionaires who donated money, networked, and built a “business plan” to guide's the Party's strategy and communications “didn’t share any single identifiable philosophy.” While being repulsed by the Republican majority, these true limousine liberals basically said, “We know how to make money; money is the most important thing and we have lots of it, thus we should be in charge.” Meanwhile Wall Street doesn’t try to run the Republican Party they just make sure they get what they want out of their investment.
The bloggers, on the other hand, deserve credit for their impressive use of technology. Who would have known that you could influence your government by sitting on your butt, looking at liquid crystals for hours on end? While vocal, the bloggers still fail to understand that the average person does not share their bitter partisanship. Like the billionaires, many of the internet blogger types seem to be entirely focused on ending Republican rule, and like their higher-living fellow liberals, could not muster a clear narrative or vision for a party agenda.
Not to say the Democratic Establishment has learned too much from the plentitude of suggestions. The Democratic establishment can’t seem to imagine a new era of politics and is stuck defending old programs, offering no new ideas. For all the committees, ideas, and interest groups that offer help, even the newly revamped Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean cannot chart a new course. They stick to the mantra, “Those other guys suck – vote for us.” In short, the Democratic establishment, as represented by the DNC, Congressional leadership, state parties, governors, and mayors, largely follow Clintonism and its knee-jerk centrism. If you remember, Obama was also for “Change” in the Democratic primary.
While the collective actions of the individuals mentioned in Bai’s book are noble and genuine, the view that all we need is money or a magic message with new tactics and strategic maneuvering is too simplistic. Strategery, as Will Ferrel put it, fails to look at new ways to structure our economy and how we solve problems in a way that is collectively beneficial. That also is in line with a modern vision of our world. That is change.
In “Supercapitalism,” Robert Reich tells a great story of the collaborative efforts that helped lead us out of the Great Depression and build the greatest and most equal society on Earth (absent serious social injustices). Reich tells the tale a the win-win period where business and labor collaborated with government to invest in the economy, create public works that benefited communities, limit competition via regulation, and reward workers via unionization and historic contracts. It was this collaboration that laid the foundation for the largest middle class ever and the birth of the consumer-based economy.
Paul Krugman often argues that this great period of equality discouraged partisanship, because it would have been political suicide to oppose the impressive success and voter support for New Deal programs. In short, the programs were win-win and politicians worked together to pass and implement these programs and business and labor were largely on the same page.
This is not to say we must return to Industrial Era liberalism. However, the conservative era that replaced liberalism is now also behind us. So is the industrial economy. While it is rich history to read about the 60s and the labor and social movements, we cannot move towards new ideas until we drop the nostalgia for 60s American Liberalism and the New Deal.
My reality growing up in the late 80s and early 90s was urban poverty, drug addiction, xenophobia, violence, and harsh punishment. Across America, large cities saw the white backlash of Conservatism and its attack on New Deal and Great Society programs. As Progressives continued to defend “unpopular programs” and move to wholesale politics where they communicated to voters through mail and TV, their impersonal touch left a gap in organization. That poor communication led to subsequent electoral defeat. The remaining loyal Democrats could repeat talking points and sound bites, but perhaps could not understand much of what they were saying, and most importantly, could not explain it to their friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
The loss of elections was followed by the loss of support for New Deal and other liberal ideas amid a deafeningly and constant Conservative noise machine on the vicious attack. The answers to problems for the last 30 years has been defined by the Right and its blame-game against immigrants, affirmative action, welfare, and crime. Democrats could only muster fierce opposition, but no plan of their own. That is all done. Thanks, Dubya.
Since we cannot go back to the Liberal era, which is as lost we must look at Bai’s question and ask ourselves if the loss of the industrial era and the entrance of a new technological revolution affords us new opportunities to look at how we plan our world. Couldn’t we deal with today’s major issues in a new way? Couldn’t the solutions make money and create jobs – and not do harm? If real-life experiences shape ideas, then many may wonder, such as I do, why 70% of Latinos and Blacks in Los Angeles do not graduate from high school, why the University of California cost about $600 a year in the late 80s and costs about $12,000 today, or why 22% of my paycheck goes to taxes while we have a huge state deficit and I would be hard-pressed to name three popular government programs. Meanwhile suburban whites spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on private schools and hate it. It is no wonder people think government is not worthy of more money. But maybe the answer is not more money, but how we structure revenue.
So what does “Change” mean and how do we deal with our economic recession? For Obama, what are the solutions to our recession in the post-Industrial era and for Democrats what is post-Industrial era program for people to get behind? Could it be that our next and best path for all would be to set aside the Left–Right-Center paradigm and actually build win-win programs. Perhaps what Obama means by "change" is the end of the “we win, you lose” goal and the long and arduous road to sit all reasonable power players down and say, “’Let’s build solutions where we all win.” Essentially, let's end the zero sum view of politics.
Everyday people have a role if we invest in those millions of people who everyday commit to hard work and sacrifice in the hopes of better days. We could invest in these workers and communities while turning a profit, building our economy, rewarding workers, and improving and protecting our environment. We can use the tools of our new economy to build these win-win programs. We can use advances in science and technology to merge the issues we must deal with as well as to build and strengthen economies, protect our environment, improve public health and create jobs. Technological advances can also show us how to help fund some of these programs.
For example, instead of complete givealways to Big Business, why don’t patents and technological advances made at public universities or in government labs bring in more residuals and resources to the public. If a cure for cancer is found in a UC Berkeley or government-funded lab, why wouldn’t some of the billions in dollars soon to be made go to reducing university tuition and expanding the lab to look at other diseases?
We can also use technological advances and science to reduce health care costs while increasing access and affordability. We can use science to find cures for asthma, AIDS, and cancer, dramatically reducing the cost of care. We can also deal with famine and prevent epidemics and the spread of disease.
Imagine creating refugee camps that grow nutrients to feed people while multilateral diplomacy solves the political and military obstacles. Technology can also be used to streamline data, think creatively about how we “visit the doctor,” or get second opinions or managed care and prevention.
We can harness natural resources like wind, solar, and other emerging natural forms of energy to not only build whole industries but to deliver clean and cheap energy to millions of business and homes. These new “green jobs” could be on a scale that would provide resources for families to buy homes, cars, travel and live the American dream.
Finally, we need to leave behind old thinking and the zero-sum gain mentality of politics. We also need to recognize a new economic revolution driven by technology. Most importantly, we need to recognize the opportunity before us to solve real problems with solutions that work for all.
Javier Gonzalez is the Executive Director of SOL (Strengthening Our LIves). SOL works to increase civic participation in working class latino communities statewide. Aside from registering new voters and turning them out to vote, SOL works on messaging, strategy and coalition building for various causes and initiatives. In just 3 years SOL has become one of the most respected voices among political organizers.