The Value of Confrontation vs. The Fetishization of Conciliation

by: David Sirota

Tue Aug 03, 2010 at 13:15


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.  

David Sirota :: The Value of Confrontation vs. The Fetishization of Conciliation
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.  


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I Think You're Giving Obama Too Much Credit (4.00 / 3)
There are two ways to interpret "letting the confrontation organically emerge" as opposed to "go[ing] out of your way for it?"

The more aggressive is that you push strategically to force confrontation--as Martin Luther King exlained so well in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail", but that you don't go out of your way to specifically provocative at the tactical level.

The more passive interpretation is that you push strategically for what you believe in, preparing for confrontation should it come, but not depending on it in order to achieve your goals.

I always assumed that Obama was much more likely to subscribe to the second view, but it's obvious that he was simply lying to you (and perhaps even himself at the time), since he doesn't believe in either of those.  He believes in avoiding conflict at almost any cost--except of course with those supposedly on "his" side who are upset at being sold out.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


I think Obama was deluding himself about his aversion to confrontation. (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
No, WE were deluding OURselves about which side he was on. (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
Glad you put "veal pen" in quotes (4.00 / 1)
I'm not arguing with your general push for confrontation in general, nor am I disagreeing with Paul, who thinks you are giving Obama too much credit.

But I am signaling my distaste for the "veal pen" concept.  It sounded so militant, so tough and all - "lambs to the slaughter" - when Jane Hamsher introduced the term last summer, but as it has come to be used, it winds up more as whining than anything else - whining by progressives who have nothing to lose by confrontation, about progressives who have something to lose (unions, single-issue groups, etc.) are therefore, justifiably or not, more cautious.

Criticism may be justified in many cases.  Wholesale writeoff of these potential allies, as practiced by many who do nothing other than bitch and moan on the internet, is not.

Again, not accusing David or Paul of doing this.  I'm glad to see David using the term with a little caution.  

If a confrontational progressive populism is to emerge we'll need these people.  No point in burning all bridges to them.

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


Actually I find it quite descriptive (4.00 / 3)
I understand that Obama's defenders take great umbrage at the term -- when they aren't hurling the "firebagger" epithet -- but if the shoe fits...


[ Parent ]
Well, it depends on their motivation (0.00 / 0)
Often it's portrayed as a way for the "veal-penners" to hold onto power.  In some cases, this could be certainly true.  In other cases, you might, for example, have a union trying to negotiate it's way through some difficult situation or other, where, to go for confrontation would be suicidal or at least sincerely thought to be suicidal.  It's complicated!  It's very easy for a "netroots person" to shout "veal pen" at such folks, but it doesn't count for much since the "netroot" probably hasn't been in those shoes.  One ought to have a little humility in such situations.

I put myself somewhere in the middle of the defend Obama vs attack Obama spectrum - I will defend him against rightwing attacks which many progressives are too angry to bother with, but will not shrink from criticizing him when I think he deserves it.

For what it's worth, I don't throw "firebagger" around either, and have respect for Jane Hamsher herself.  My bottom line is what, if anything, are they building?

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


[ Parent ]
There need to be voices on Obama's left (4.00 / 1)
and FDL, as well as a few other places, like OL, are they.  There are few voices, so each one is very important.  FDL is probably the biggest, which is why they're extra important.  Yes, they might be flawed, but which voice isn't?

I can't understand liberals who bash FDL or want them to go away.  They're about all we have!  Whether or not they make any sense is practically irrelevant, as long as they're there and they're screaming.  It's much better to have a flawed voice than no voice.


[ Parent ]
I Agree (0.00 / 0)
It's a good descriptive term used in moderation.  But by it's very nature it tends not to be used in moderation.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
It is also worth noting that (0.00 / 0)
Cenk used to be a Young Republican before he was a Young Turk.  

I am increasingly, if grudgingly, concluding that Leo Strauss may have been partially correct in believing that liberalism is inherently flawed.  The flaw is that the ideology gives rise to excessive tolerance.  Simply put, liberalism is unable to protect itself from the threats of other dangerous ideologies.  

This is why Strauss considered himself to be a "friend of liberal democracy."  He believed that, ironically, only through benign totalitarianism could the best elements of liberalism be preserved.

While neoconservatism has gone on to forge a stunningly inglorious track record of being wrong, Strauss' criticisms of liberalism have always had the ring of truth.


Well, Strauss Couldn't Even CONSIDER An Honesty Sheriff From The Left (0.00 / 0)
But that's what leftists have always been for liberalism, speaking as one who's been that all his life.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Tolerance (4.00 / 2)
The degree liberals should tolerate enemies of liberalism will always be a point of confusion and argument.  It very much is a built in contradiction, at least at one cognitive level.  You can get past the contradiction, but only by going up a level in complexity and abstraction.

Looking at it another way, I don't think tolerance of conservatives is a direct problem at all.  I think the habits formed from this tolerance are a problem.


[ Parent ]
While I don't know that I'd go as far as Leo Strauss (0.00 / 0)
I do take your point to an extent.

Often I find my interest most piqued by reading people who used to be on the right and have now moved to the left.  People like Michael Lind and Kevin Phillips actually don't think like liberals even though they have now come to similar conclusions on many issues.  

I find it useful and bracing to read such people precisely because they don't understand and react to all the cultural references the same way I do.  Their knees don't jerk they way mine do.  Phillips, for example (author of Nixon's "Southern Strategy" and more recently an author of many economic populist books) is still obtuse on racial matters though he's no longer a race-baiter - basically he NEVER talks about it anymore.  Yet I find he often gets to the heart of economic issues in a way that liberals don't, and I think it's because he focuses on them without needing to engage in all the "liberal laundry list" set of talking points.

I wouldn't read ONLY such people but they are worth paying attention to.

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


[ Parent ]
About half way through (4.00 / 2)
I find I'm grinding my teeth.

Me thinks Van Jones desires to go back to Washington, DC.

Obama Apologies RUs

So, 18+ months in we're still talking about Republican intransigence?  Is this some kind of talisman to warn off disgruntled progressives' evil eye or something.

... it's a new world, new a situation... sounds very similar to look forward, not back.  Like the real Hope and Change ™ is just around the corner.

Van wants to suggest, post mid-terms there is going to be some complete re-strategizing on the part of progressives, and I need to ask who is Van talking about?  Is the Veal Pen re-strategizing?  Is CAP re-strategizing?  Who is he talkin' about?

Back to our values.  Back to the basics and bring the best out of our President and the best out of Washington, DC by bringing the best out of the American people.

Well hoo-rah.  And, I'd really like to see the plan Van has for doing that which he must have stuffed in his back pocket.


Can it not be true (4.00 / 2)
that both Republican intransigence and Democratic spinelessness are realities?

Just because one is paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get them.


sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


[ Parent ]
Sure... (4.00 / 2)
But, was Van Jones speaking to Democratic spinelessness?  I think Republican intransigence gets trotted out every time someone wants to avoid talking about Democratic spinelessness, which is why I think Van Jones referenced it in his interview with Sirota.

[ Parent ]
There's a time and a place for everything (0.00 / 0)
My spleen is directed at those who are so angry at all the ways Obama has let them down (which are certainly real enough), that they're "so beyond" all that "Republican intransigence crap" that they won't do a thing to put a dent in Republican intransigence.  I'd like to get rid of Ben Nelson.  I'd also like to get rid of Michelle Bachmann.  The way I see it is that fact that we have the Bachmanns helps drag the Democrats to the right and empowers assholes like Nelson.

But in reality, what are the "so beyond all thats" doing to move us forward?  It's really easy to bitch about Obama on sites like this.  It's like shooting fish in a barrel. I could do it myself - and with sincere conviction!  But what is the point?  

I don't believe in "the worse the better".  I don't think that a strongly empowered TeaPartyized GOP is going to finally raise the scales on the eyes of the Obama worshippers, enabling a "true" left to come rushing back any time soon.  I expect the GOP will win seats, and Dems surely need a wake up call, but I'd rather endure the next two years without wall-to-wall investigations of Obama by the likes of Issa and Kyl,  Breitbart witch hunts and the like.  It may happen anyway.  And we will be further behind the 8-ball than we will if the Dems narrowly retain control.  In that case we'll be fighting with the Blue Dogs and corporadems (which include Obama) over the nature of 2012, instead of being inundated with a bunch of crap about the "socialist Obama".  

So really, other than the fact that Beltway Dems do it for completely dishonest reasons, why is it wrong to talk about Republican intransigence?  

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


[ Parent ]
Because Republican intransigence is not the problem. (4.00 / 3)
Democrats have the White House.  Democrats have the largest majority in the Congress in a generation.  Republican intransigence is the EXCUSE that Democrats have used to enact a Neo-Liberal policy.

Reference Paul's brilliant comment a few days back about how the problem wasn't that there was a filibuster but the problem was that Obama failed to use the bully pulpit during the stimulus fight to shame Collins and Snowe from gutting stimulus to teachers.

Obama's White House has not attempted to fight for progressive issues but failed because of Republican intransigence.  Instead Obama's White House worked to gut out the real strengths out of legislation that was only cosmetically progressive and used Republican intransigence as the rationale for yielding BEFORE the fight.  The Veal Pen didn't fight for those strengths either, I guess because they were convinced that confrontation would be suicidal like you said above.  Or maybe they just didn't want Rahm to swear at them?

Educate, Agitate, Organize, Mobilize, Act!


[ Parent ]
Brilliant analysis (0.00 / 0)
OF COURSE, Republican intransigence is the excuse that Democrats have used to enact a neo-liberal policy.  And if the Democrats were a unified opposition to neoliberalism they could simply vote them down.

But, guess what?   They're NOT!  Is that a brilliant insight?  Geez, it was obvious even in the primary season of 2008.  

Of course, a genuine progressive President would have used the Bully Pulpit.  You're right.  You've proven that Obama is not a genuine progressive.  Q.E.D.  Also B.F.D.  You've now advanced to the point that some people understood well before the election.

The question is, what do we do about it?  If your progmam isn't just letting the Republicans and the neolibs have the field all to themselves out of spite, then just what is it that you're suggesting we DO???

Hint: it might involve rear-guard actions.  It might involve temporary marriages of convenience with the compromised Dems.  It may even involve a united front with elements of the hated "veal pen".

Oh horrors!  But this is politics.  Who did you think you were joining with when you united with the Democrats in 2008?  They'd ALREADY proven their fecklessness once they won the majority in 2006.  Nothing since should come as a surprise.  

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


[ Parent ]
Movement Building (4.00 / 1)
I know you don't intend it to be taken this way, but your suggestions of marriages of convenience and united front with the "veal pen," to me now feel like just cooperating with the Neo-Liberals as they enact their agenda.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I'm not thinking it is continuing to just cooperate.  I think we need to build our movement, work on electing progressives and think in the long term.

Educate, Agitate, Organize, Mobilize, Act!


[ Parent ]
Movement building is fine (0.00 / 0)
And obviously, the progressive movement cannot simply subsume itself under Obama For America or the DNC.  It was right and smart for Progressives to go after Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, no matter what Obama did.  It was a real shame that she eked out a win.

It was a shame because I WANT to see a Democratic Party that does not concede "Red States" before the game starts. That realizes that liberals who fight have a better chance in Red States than those who play the Republican-lite game.

But you pick your battles and this little internecine war looks like it will go on for years (if our side doesn't surrender the field in burnout) .  Since a full-out frontal assault is not likely to work, we have to have a different strategy.  That strategy should include knocking off obnoxiously bad Republicans as well as obnoxiously bad Democrats.  

I get frustrated when people tell me that "Obama is a neoliberal" or that "Obama isn't a true progressive because if he was he'd do X instead of Y" and use this as an excuse for sandline-sitting and tossing off anonymous bon mots in a game of one-upmanship to see who is the most disaffected.  We need to get in the game talking to people who dont' already agree with us.  A true evaluation of Obama's politics is useless if it leads to passivity and apathy and extreme snark.



sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


[ Parent ]
It's not about passivity or apathy or extreme snark (0.00 / 0)
It's about NOT working/voting for undeserving Democrats like Blanche Lincoln and maybe a few others (Brad Ellsworth, Charlie Melancon, etc.).  And it's about NOT voting for Obama in 2012.

That's not sit-on-your-ass do-nothingism.  That's about taking active steps to make sure your vote and the votes of as many liberals as possible go to someone better than sellout neoliberal Democrats.


[ Parent ]
I really want to be nice, but it's the end of the day and I'm worn out. (4.00 / 4)
So really, other than the fact that Beltway Dems do it for completely dishonest reasons, why is it wrong to talk about Republican intransigence?  

It's not.  If you're a Republican.

Look.  Unless you're a registered Republican, or an Independent/Unaffiliated living in a state that has open primaries, there's not a blessed thing you can do besides talk about Republican intransigence.  And, frankly, all that talk don't accomplish much.  As far as I can see, the only thing it does accomplish, for a Democrat (which I ain't, btw), is to relieve themselves - momentarily - of the burden of being a Democrat when Democrats control both houses and the presidency.

There are sites on the internet that love, love, love themselves some Republican bashing.  I don't spend any time there anymore because (a) it's repetitive, (b) it's boring, and (c) it really doesn't concern me.  It's not just beyond me, Republican intransigence is right out of my reach... Except when approached by Republicans, because I am unaffiliated, I give 'em an earful about how frickin' useless they are.   But, hey, De gustibus non est disputandum.  If railing and wailing about Republicans and their lock-step intransigence is your of cup of tea...

What irked me about Van Jones was the surprise.

I think a lot of people were shocked that we're not going to be able to have a president with these skills come to DC and not be able to work with the other party...

What?!?!  Okay.  First 6 months, I can forgive the feelings of disorientation.  Obama had no idea, and his First Lieutenants, had no idea, how much resistance he was going to get; what sore losers they were.  At 12 months, I'm not feeling particularly forgiving.  At 18 months, I see it as  an excuse.  Republican intransigence is now part of the office furniture.  Republican intransigence is unremarkable.  Republican intransigence is old news.  And, to continue to cite it, to continue to point to it, is, in my opinion, a way for Democrats to avoid facing up to either their own political incompetence, or the fact that their hands are effectively tied and they'd do just as well to go home until 2012.

There are an array of things that Obama has initiated on the civil liberties front, and in terms of domestic policy which are untouched by Republican intransigence.  The creation of the Catfood Commission.  HAMP.  Compelling companies to turn over citizen internet records without a warrant.  The order to assassinate American citizen al-Awlaki.  The recent threat to veto any bill which might strengthen - even slightly - legislative oversight of intelligence activities.  None of this is dependent on Republican intransigence.  

I'm sorry.  I keep rereading this,

that they're "so beyond" all that "Republican intransigence crap" that they won't do a thing to put a dent in Republican intransigence.

and I can't help but giggle.  Just exactly what is it you think I can do to put a dent in Republican intransigence?  Just exactly what do you think progressives can do to put a dent in Republican intransigence, that the DNC, DLC, DSCC or the rest of the alphabet soup that comprises the party can't do.

sTiVo, I actually have a great deal of sympathy for your frustration.  I'm over at Greenwald's place most times trying to cope with the anarcho-libertarians and Democratic nihilists.  It is my belief (and, there ain't no use arguing with someone's belief), that the way forward is in dealing with Democratic intransigence.  And, that is where I choose to put my energy.  The problem, imo, ain't the Michele Bachmanns or the Chuck Grassleys, it's the Blanche Lincolns and &^%$#*@ Betsy Markeys.  So I put my $$ and my energy into Accountability Now, and Blue America, and local races where I can make a dent.  If a sane Republican comes along, I'll probably put some energy there.  I'm about ready to take my mother's place as a Republican Committee person, for the same reason she did it; Because they need me.


[ Parent ]
The problem is both. (0.00 / 0)
I see nothing inconsistent in going after Blanche Lincoln and going after Michelle Bachmann.  (and I've done both).  If your line is that there's no difference between the parties, why would you not want to back challenges to either of them equally strongly?

The only argument I can see for going after Dems MORE STRONGLY than going after asshole Republican bigmouths is a subjective one, based on OUR anger and OUR feelings of betrayal.  But as the late, great Harold Washington used to say, "Politics ain't BeanBag."  We have to look beyond our own FEELINGS.  

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


[ Parent ]
It depends on who's running (0.00 / 0)
For me the key question is, who's the person we're electing to succeed whatever bastard we're trying to "take out"?  If that person is a DLC centrist neoliberal themselves, I say screw 'em and let them take care of themselves.  We can take our money, time and energy to more worthy people.

I think one reason why liberals are much more ginned up about taking on ConservaDems is because the candidate they're promoting is, by definition, always at least decently to the left.  That's not always the case with the candidate that's challenging an asshole Republican - Brad Ellsworth and Charlie Melancon might be better than Dan Coats and David Vitter, but they're still nothing to get excited over.

For me, if I find a candidate that's excitingly liberal and worth my support, I support them.  I don't care about which party their opponent belongs to.


[ Parent ]
Wait... (4.00 / 2)
I'd like to get rid of Ben Nelson.  I'd also like to get rid of Michelle Bachmann.  The way I see it is that fact that we have the Bachmanns helps drag the Democrats to the right and empowers assholes like Nelson.

Are you really trying to blame Michelle Bachmann for Ben Nelson's behavior?  When did Ben Nelson lose his agency?  So, it's not really bad behavior on the part of the Democrats, it's the lousy company they have to keep?  And, if they just had a better set of friends...  lived in a better neighborhood...  Whoa, sTiVo.  That whole notion simply takes my breath away.  And, if you really believe that, your efforts would be better spent inside the GOP so you can reform their "friends," and improve their "neighborhood."

[ Parent ]
It's hard to believe you're not deliberately misunderstanding me (0.00 / 0)
But I'll try to explain.

Damned right, the unpunished existence of Michelle Bachmann and her soulmates helps empower the whole frigging conservaDem racket.  You've got all these Republican assholes saying the most absurd things and who's making them pay the price?  Last I heard Michelle had a pretty good Democratic opponent.  Why aren't we backing her like crazy?  

We need some scalps of some of these assholes.  If we had a few, it would empower some challengers of some of our own assholes - like Ben Nelson.  Sure, Nelson and the rest of the racket uses Bachmann as an excuse - but that doesn't actually excuse him.

But aw, what the fuck, it's so much more emotionally satisfying to just vent about them, to bystand, if you will, sir, and spew harmless venom, to cut off your nose to spite your face.  

Have fun with that while you can.

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


[ Parent ]
Gerrymandering (4.00 / 1)
Bachmann has the luxury of a strongly GOP-voting district and she uses that to spew her propaganda. No matter how "good" a candidate the DFL puts up against her, that hurdle will be very difficult to clear.

So, yeah, support Tarryl Clark - but realize that just dumping $ on her campaign is not likely to turn it into a DFL victory because the way the district is drawn works to concentrate Bachmann's voting block. Unseating Bachmann will likely require a gaffe or scandal on Bachmann's part.

Or redistricting.


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
Funny, I thought every word that comes out of Bachmann's mouth is a gaffe/scandal (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
Depends upon who is listening to her (0.00 / 0)
Her hand-selected constituents appear to have a high level of tolerance for her statements and she knows how to spin with the best of them.

However, the more she has entered onto the national stage and the more airtime and coverage her statements get, the more embarrassed the Minnesotans become. Its one thing to have your more liberal neighbors jibe you about Bachmann's latest verbal spew at a local picnic, quite another to get razzed about her at the country club when entertaining clients from out of state.


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
I remember very well "Mr. Obama Goes to Washington" (0.00 / 0)
It was one of the deciding factors that led me to vote for John Edwards over Barack Obama, a decision I've never been more proud of.  Thanks David.

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