The Political Foundations of A Liberal/Reform Coalition
In Part 1, I introduced Chris's idea of A Liberal/Reform Coalition, which he introduced in his post-2004 election diary, "Eureka! Or How To Break the Republican Majority Coalition". In that diary, Chris identified a non-ideological reform-oriented segment of the population, which has shown up in third-party presidential campaigns since the Populist era, which he talked about thus:
This segment of the electorate can be swung toward the liberal camp, thus breaking the Republican majority coalition, if the pragmatic, non-dogmatic, reformer, anti-status quo, entrepreneurial aspects of liberalism are foregrounded and turned into a national narrative and platform. Pulling this off will also require dismantling the Great Backlash narrative of oppressive liberal elites, and replacing it with a narrative about conservatism being a force that relies on pure theory, faith-based worldviews, and that supports status-quo institutions such as corporations and the media.
In this diary, I want explore what it would take to actually do that, focusing on a few key foundational thrusts.
To begin with, I want to argue that the Democrats have already started down the path Chris suggests, albeit not fully consciously. The Dean campaign was the start of this, and Dean's implementation of the 50-state strategy--which Chris also talked about in a couple of related posts at the time--continued the process. What's key to this was/is creating a vibrant grass-roots political culture in which ideas and initiative can come from below--and, indeed, are encouraged to do so. And the evidence of the success of this can be seen in a recent Pew report, "A Pro-Government, Socially Liberal Generation: Democrats' Edge Among Millennials Slips". This report shows both the enormous potential support among Millenials, as well how Obama's status quo presidency has undercut this support. It's my contention that the significant difference between Millenials and earlier generations you'll see in the chart below is due in large part to their shared perception of the liberal/reform coalition as logical political development--as already demonstrated by the Dean campaign and the 50-state strategy.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of this can be seen by comparing the ideological self-identification of Millennials to other generations:
The difference here is simply astonishing. Even the electorate the gave LBJ a 60-40 landslide victory over Barry Goldwater was significantly more likely to identify itself as "conservative" rather than "liberal" by a margin somewhere between 3-2 and 2-1, a range that the conservative/liberal ratio has stayed within ever since then. Of course, this has been counterbalanced by the fact that a large number of self-identified conservatives actually support liberal policies, particularly on core New Deal social spending issues. But the more that politics revolves around identity, the more this ideological ratio has favored conservatives. With Millennials, this is no longer so. The identification ratio hovers around 1-1 instead.
|It's relatively well-known that this difference is reflected in more liberal social attitudes among Millennials:
But Millennials are also significantly more pro-government, as well:
And they are more confident of government efficacy, too:
But Obama has significantly disappointed them:
If Democrats want to regain their advantage among Millennials, and do so in a way that consolidates similar broad support among older voters as well, I would suggest three basic orientational thrusts need to be pursued.
Return To Deaniac Roots Foundations
The first order of business is the return to what worked to build support in the first place. Obama came along and gave lip service to the bottom-up self-empowerment model that Howard Dean quite literally stumbled into, and had the good sense to fully embrace and then expand upon. But the gap between Obama's words and his deeds--similar to that between Candidate Obama and President Obama--is becoming an ever-increasing source of political debilitation.
Obama's FISA flip-flop, exacerbated by his glib lying about it to online activists was the first high-profile illustration of this gap. After his inaguration, we had the spectacle of him ignoring the two most prominent issues supported by his online supporters--accountability for the Bush Administration war crimes, and legalization of marijuana.
Obama treated the latter like it was a joke. In fact, he's treated the entire notion of participatory democracy as a joke. You can participate by following orders--with your own "personalized touch", of course. But the democracy part is strictly for the grownups. The "grownups" being the folks who brought you this ungodly mess in the first place.
If Obama is irredeemably on the other side on this, so be it. We need to be perfectly clear what we are for, regardless of him. This is about movement-building, coalition-building, party-building, and, ultimately, nation-building and world-building. If Obama is not up to the task, we need to be on our own.
This will entail all sorts of strategic and tactical decisions--such as shifting donations away from the Democratic Party and it's in-house funding organs, and toward independent institutions--giving directly to candidates, building our own infrastructure, etc. Doing all these things will be vital. But remembering why we are doing them will be even more vital. We are doing them to lay claim to our democracy, our future, our world.
Part of what this will mean in terms of a governing vision is that we transform structures, processes and technological relationships to empower ordinary citizens, both individually and in groups--self-organized as well as collaboratively organized by citizens and the government together. My diary "Can Smartphone Apps Save The World?" offers a glimpse into the technology side of what this would mean.
We can use technology to empower citizenship just as businesses promise to empower consumers. In fact, we can do profoundly more. because we have potential powers as citizens that go far beyond any powers we have as consumers. The means are there. The potential is there. We must supply the vision, the leadership and the political will.
Risk, Security & Opportunity
During the campaign, I wrote a couple of diaries showing that I was not just being negative in criticizing Obama, but instead offering positive suggestions for proposals I thought could fit well with his professed orientation. I believe they remain excellent suggestions that can help flesh out what a liberal/reform coalition should be all about. One was about Dignitarianism (more on that below). The other was "The Great Risk Shift-A Substantive Fight That Obama COULD Make His Own"
As I explained:
The issue is laid out in a recent book by Jacob S. Hacker, a Yale University political scientist, The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement--And How You Can Fight Back. In it, Hacker argues that the greatest economic challenge facing Americans today is not economic inequality--though he doesn't seek to downplay that--but rather the shifting burden of economic risk. And that what's most needed in the 21st Century is a new orientation to bringing risk back under reasonable control.
It's not simply a matter of protecting folks at the bottom, Hacker argues-effective dealing with risk is vital for creating an environment in which people feel secure enough to take on the sort of voluntary risk that helps drive the economy forward-what's often called "entrepreneurial risk," but that includes a wide range of choices to invest resources of time, money and effort in future possibilities that by their very nature cannot be certain. These include investments in eduction, training, changing careers, starting a new business, etc. In short, Hacker argues, a security orientation is not the polar opposite to an opportunity orientation-it is a vital aspect of an opportunity orientation. And it's this latter argument that gives Hacker's point about countering the Great Risk Shift a potential bipartisan cross-over appeal that fits perfectly with Obama's articulated intentions.
The synergistic relationship between security and autonomy/freedom is directly at odds with the conservative narrative, and provides a powerful, commonsense foundation for a new progressive era. But as sweeping and visionary as it is, Hacker's argument is really only part of a larger vision.
I wrote that diary in late January 2008. Obviously there was far more risk out there than either Hacker or I discussed, but if Obama had embraced Hacker's Risk Shift thesis as a central part of his campaign, he would have perfectly situated when the financial meltdown hit. He would not simply have been the beneficiary of McCain's panicked breakdown. He would have been talking about the issue of responsibly dealing with risk--just as he had been for months--a perspective on the meltdown that would have been as powerful from a policy standpoint as it would have been from a political one.
Of course one cannot go back in time. But one can look back to see how wise it would have been to take this path early on. And that in turn can serve to indicate how wise it would be to find a way to get on that path as soon as possible.
Furthermore, a rational and responsible approach to risk is also a powerful framework for dealing with challenges of both terrorism and global warming. From a risk perspective, it doesn't even matter if global warming is certain (even though scientists know it is). Risk is a product of two factors: potential loss and probability. If the potential loss is large enough, even a small probability creates substantial risk. Thus, if one starts from a risk perspective, the tried-and-true strategy of denialists--to confuse the public over the science--no longer has any significant clout. The risk perspective provides an end run around the status-quo special interest obstructionists and their allies.
The risk perspective is also useful in addressing how to deal with terrorism. Historically, military responses to terrorism have been enormously costly, and they have tended to greatly increase the intensity of terrorism itself. Police responses are far more effective from a risk perspective--particularly when combined with political responses that address underlying issues that terrorists seek to exploit.
Above I noted that I wrote a couple of diaries showing that I was not just being negative in criticizing Obama, but instead offering positive suggestions for proposals I thought could fit well with his professed orientation. The second of those, dealing with Dignitarianism was "Rankism--An Issue Custom-Made For Obama"
In it, by way of introducing the concept, I wrote:
|The fight against rankism is the brainchild of one man, Robert W. Fuller, who has written two books on the subject, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank, and All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity, and who has a website, Breaking Ranks, which explains, quite simply:
The purpose of this web site is to discuss the social cost of rankism and to develop a grassroots capacity to defend and protect dignity in everyday life. We hope you will join us in planning and building a world without rankism!
On the website, Fuller explains:
Rankism: A Social Disorder
An undiagnosed disorder is at large in the world. It afflicts individuals, groups, and nations. It distorts our personal relationships, erodes our will to learn, taxes our economic productivity, stokes ethnic hatred, and incites nations to war. It is the cause of dysfunctionality, and sometimes even violence, in families, schools, and the workplace.
Over the course of history, the most common abuses of power have acquired special names:
* child abuse
* domestic violence
* sexual harrassment
* corporate corruption
* clergy misconduct
Each of these practices is an abuse of the weak by the strong. Each of these familiar named offenses is an instance of bullying, of pulling rank. By analogy with abuses based on race and gender, abuse based on rank is given the name rankism.
1. n. abuse, discrimination, or exploitation based on rank
2. n. abusive, discriminatory, or exploitative behavior towards people who have less power because of their lower rank in a particular hierarchy
Once you have a name for it, you see rankism at the heart of many infringements of human rights, far away or close to home. Rankism is the root cause of indignity, injustice, and unfairness. Choosing the term rankism, places the goal of universal human dignity in the context of contemporary movements for civil rights. Reexamining racism, sexism, and ageism as examples of rankism breathes new life into the movements opposing them. Identifying rankism in all its guises and overcoming it is democracy's next step.
In that diary, I went on to argue that dignity is a core progressive value, and that it provides a an invaluable framework for political advancement. Although I was not specifically addressing Chris's thesis of a liberal/reform coalition, I believe it is quite clear that dignitarianism fits quite well into Chris's notion of the inherent consistency between liberalism and reformism, expressed in his Eureka! diary, where he wrote:
While it [the reformist constituency] is currently non-ideological, this segment of the population, which has existed in large numbers since at least the 1880's, has an outlook on politics that is far more closely allied with liberalism than conservatism because of its emphasis on reform. It is, to put it one way, latently liberal. This segment of the electorate can be swung toward the liberal camp, thus breaking the Republican majority coalition, if the pragmatic, non-dogmatic, reformer, anti-status quo, entrepreneurial aspects of liberalism are foregrounded and turned into a national narrative and platform.
First, here's the beginning of the section on Dignity as a value:
Dignity As A Core Progressive Value
Taking on rankism is a natural expression of liberalism's core values, since liberalism has always been associated with the quest for equality, as opposed to conservatism's association with hierarchy. This is why liberals have routinely been on the side of tearing down barriers based on race, gender and class, while conservatives have fought to keep those barriers in place.
But taking on rankism goes beyond any particular such struggle, and it goes beyond simply being a laundry list of all of them. Rather, it creates a larger framework that can help transform all of these specific struggles. For one thing, by naming a common problem, and a common solution that addresses all abuses of rank, it transcends the tendency to fall back into simplistic identity groups. Fighting rankism does not mean tearing down all hierarchies. Some hierarchies have very necessary functions, others do not. But it does mean developing values, awareness, structures and practices to combat the abuse of power that hierarchies create.
The reformist agenda has repeatedly focused on attacking hierarchies of power which are best described as insider/outsider, special interest/general citizenry, and technocrat/citizen. Liberals have had overlap with reformists on many of these, but all of them all of the time. The dignitarian framework provides a unifying approach for liberals and reformers to see their struggles as fundamentally alike. It also provides for a degree of principled subtlety that has often been lacking, particularly when reformers have have lapsed into anti-intellectualism. By focusing on abuse of hierarchy, rather than hierarchy per se, dignitarianism provides a rationale for action that embraces intellectual and technological sophistication in service to the common good, as opposed to serving the interests of established wealth and power.
I quote the next relevant section in its entirety:
Dignity As Framework--A Strategic Advance
The last 40 years have been dominated by the politics of backlash and resentment-primarily backlash against blacks and women-and it has been particularly effective in speaking to those who suffer from other forms of rankism-particularly those based on class, region and educational opportunity. The basis for this politics of resentment is an indentity-based us-them logic: "They're getting something that we're not!" Never mind that what they're getting is a chance to be included in us. It's much easier to point out the specific efforts needed for inclusion, and portray them as "special rights" (a term that's far and away most prominent in homophobic politics, but is present in racist and sexist politics as well).
Expanding the framework to include all forms of rank-based abuse creates the opportunity to disable the backlash once and for all. We are no longer talking about injustices specific to one group, and therefore requiring different attitudes depending on whether one is or is not a member of that group. We are talking about a common perspective that can be shared by all, which has different specific applications. This is a shift that has an obvious relationship to the rhetoric of Obama's presidential campaign, but it is much more than rhetoric alone. It represents a perspective that can lead to the articulation of basic values, principles, and standards that can be applied across a wide range of specific issues and policies. It creates cognitive space for all of us to experience being on the same side.
This also fits in well with Chris's vision. The quote from his "Eureka!" diary above continues as follows:
Pulling this off will also require dismantling the Great Backlash narrative of oppressive liberal elites, and replacing it with a narrative about conservatism being a force that relies on pure theory, faith-based worldviews, and that supports status-quo institutions such as corporations and the media.
This is only a rather hurried, rough draft description of the possible outlines of principled, strategic way forward, not just for the immediate future, but for an entire 40-year cycle of American history. Regardless of whatever shortcomings it may have, I believe that it is fundamentally the kind of strategic thinking that we desperately need to move forward. Not the only kind, by any means. To the contrary, we need all different sorts of strategic thinking. But this addresses the broad contours of political strategy on a principled basis, a nexus that is absolutely necessary in order that all our separate victories on battles large or small can lead us forward coherently toward the blessed global community we already share in our inmost hearts, and struggle to make real.