NOTE: I am scheduled to be on MSNBC at 3:30pm ET to talk to Cenk Uygur the value of confrontation with respect to the financial industry. Tune in.
Last week on AM760, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Van Jones that ultimately ended up revolving around the concept of political confrontation - its value, its necessity and its fundamental definition. You can listen to that discussion here.
The idea of confrontation is one that the American Left once valued. As evidence, just look at the tactics and subsequent successes of the civil rights, environmental, labor and women's movements (to name a few). In the Obama era, however, confrontation is something the Left has seemed to shy away from. Many so-called "veal pen" groups that should be organizing issue-based confrontation with the Democratic Party have put their faith in a conciliatory posture, betting that a Democratic administration will ultimately do the right thing on its own (for more on that, see here and here).
The problem, of course, is that this assumes the administration is interested in confrontation with the conservative movement - which it most assuredly isn't.
|And as Paul Krugman astutely notes, that aversion to conflict has not only weakened key legislation, it is now imperiling the Democratic Party's political prospects:
The point is that Mr. Obama's attempts to avoid confrontation have been counterproductive. His opponents remain filled with a passionate intensity, while his supporters, having received no respect, lack all conviction. And in a midterm election, where turnout is crucial, the "enthusiasm gap" between Republicans and Democrats could spell catastrophe for the Obama agenda.
So, in other words, the fetishization of conciliation - and the aversion to confrontation - is not only resulting in bad policy, but it's also bad partisan politics. And while this revelation seems new, frankly, we should have seen that this conciliation-versus-confrontation question would be the single most significant tactical issue determining whether or not an Obama administration would result in real progressive change.
Indeed, here's a key paragraph from the 2006 article I reported for The Nation after spending a day with then-senator Barack Obama:
But that question brings another one: whether Obama wants to challenge the club in the first place. "There's no doubt that I will be staking out more public positions on more issues as time goes on," Obama said cryptically. Does that mean he is going to be more confrontational? "The question is not whether you end up being confrontational," he said in a tone that made clear he had been pondering that idea long before I brought it up. "The question is, Do you let confrontations arise as a consequence of your putting forward a positive vision of what needs to happen and letting the confrontation organically emerge, or do you go out of your way for it?"
Clearly, Obama had no intention of "going out of his way" for confrontation. And that sounds great - it sounds so "pragmatic" or "bipartisan" or whatever other saccharine Beltway bromide you can come up with. But the thing it misses is the notion that there is actual, substantive value in confrontation.
In a democracy, challenging an opponent on issues and drawing a contrast is what helps build an informed electorate and, ultimately, a public mandate for a given policy course. If, in fact, there are two separate and distinct political parties with separate and distinct ideologies and agendas, then going out of the way to elucidate those differences is a good thing. By contrast, pretending those differences don't exist, or trying to totally eliminate/obscure those differences, dulls any vibrant discussion and undermines decisive legislative action.
This axiom should be axiomatic both for progressive organizations and for the White House itself. But clearly its not - and, unfortunately, it may take an bad mid-term election for the value of progressive confrontation to finally be taken seriously.