Digby, Hegemony and the Policy-Personnel Debate

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 18:01

Last Sunday, Glenn Greenwald wrote:

I've been genuinely mystified by the disappointment and surprise being expressed by many liberals over the fact that Obama's most significant appointments thus far are composed of pure Beltway establishment figures drawn from the center-right of the Democratic Party and, probably once he names his Defense Secretary and CIA Director, even from the Bush administration -- but not from the Left.  In an email yesterday, Digby explained perfectly why this reaction is so mystifying (re-printed with her consent):
    The villagers and the right made it very clear what they required of Obama --- bipartisanship, technocratic competence and center-right orthodoxy. Liberals took cultural signifiers as a sign of solidarity and didn't ask for anything. So, we have the great symbolic victory of the first black president (and that's not nothing, by the way) who is also a bipartisan, centrist technocrat. Surprise.

While there's certainly some truth to this, I believe it's clearly overdrawn, since a good many people were convinced that Obama's policies were already quite progressive--he was against the Iraq War, remember?--and it wasn't just cultural signifiers they were depending on.  We've certainly had no shortage of such commentators here making such arguments. And Wednesday, Nate Silver weighed in with what purports to be a fairly comprehensive sorting of Obama's policy initiatives into their ideological positions, showing a huge overall tilt in the progressive direction. I think Nate's categorization is somewhat questionable, but I do think that the impression he has is one that is widely shared: Obama appears quite progressive to many who have supported him, and that is a major reason why they have felt little or no need to pressure him. Digby is correct in saying that there's misperception involved, but it's just not as simple as she indicates.

A further complicating factor is that there's no obvious relationship between holding out for a policy promise and choices involving personnel.  I'm definitely not saying that policy and personnel have no relationship.  I'm saying it's something that needs to be understood in terms of a larger framework.

In short, I think that there's a good deal that's problematic with Digby's comment--and yet, I think the main thrust of it is absolutely correct: The left gave Obama a pass, so pleased with what he had to offer that they put little energy into asking for more, while established Beltway/special interests showed no such reluctance.  

Paul Rosenberg :: Digby, Hegemony and the Policy-Personnel Debate
The difference in attitudes is striking:  Progressives say, "Wow!  A friend!  That's sooo cool!  We have a friend! A friend! A friend!  Let's bake them some cookies!  Let's bake them a million cookies!" (Any similarity to Chief Wiggum is purely coincidental.  Trust me on that.)

OTOH, the Versailles establishment attitude is a bit different: "What are friends for, if not to ask favors?  $100 billion here, $100 billion there, that's change we can believe in!"

Put simply, progressives need an attitude adjustment.  Politicians are not our friends, any more than tv characters are.  They are not going to bring killer pasta salad to our BBQ, go to the beach with us, or help us break into our home when we've locked our keys inside. They may be our political friends, but (a) that's a whole different kind of thing, and (b) it depends on actions, not words, and not just one or two actions, but rather a pattern of them.

Second, progressives need to learn about political power.  They need to learn about building it for the long term.  They need to learn about investing in building power over the long haul, as opposed to simply spending wildly to avoid being utterly crushed in the next election.  This is what hegemonic struggle is all about: building power across a range of institutions, so that their normal functioning produces the sorts of outcomes you want.

In this election, people spent wildly to support Obama, after decades of neglecting to build cross-issue hegemonic structure.  As a result, when the rightwing hegemonic structures, in their triumph, produced the spectacular multi-issue failures of the Bush Administration, leaving the nation in ruins, progressives had lots of ideas, lot's of energy, lot's of passion, but not a lot of powerful institutions and institutionalized power to push their alternative vision of what should be done about it.

In short, I'm saying that our problem wasn't a failure to ask Obama for anything in return for our support.  Our problem was that we hadn't organized ourselves in advance to even be in a position to do that.

That's why, moving forward, we have to be a lot smarter about prioritizing what we do.  Building cross-issue hegemonic power needs to move up to the top of the list.  What do I mean by "cross-issue hegemonic power"?  I mean everything from grassroots organizations to think tanks and tv networks that deal with a variety of issues in an inter-related fashion expressing a more-or-less unified guiding vision.  And not just political institutions, but cultural and social ones, as well.   Because hegemony is very much about shaping basic cultural outlooks and understanding, about shaping what counts as "common sense."  


In short, my take on all this comes from my long-time contention that the left is incredibly weak in building hegemonic infrastructure.  This weakness, in turn, is reflected in the very existence of this debate, as well as Obama's centrist strategy, as well as many particulars entered on all sides.  This will also be seen in my follow-up look (later today or tomorrow) at Nate Silver's categorization of Obama's policy positions.  Many of the things Nate sees as distinctively "progressive" actually have much broader support, while many things I think of as progressive aren't on the menu at all.  This can only happen, I would argue, where there is no strong institutional progressive presence that can define what counts as progressive not just for itself, but for political discourse in general.

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Nate has a wonderful post up at fivethirtyeight titled (4.00 / 1)
Obama's Agenda & The Difference Between Tactics & Strategy

In the case of Barack Obama, however, I would argue that there is not as much need to worry about tactics. If his campaign was any indication, Obama is not much of an outsourcer -- he will dictate the tone of his administration. Moreover, we actually have quite a bit of information about what his longer-term goals are. This morning, I went to Obama's website and began transcribing essentially all the specific policy proposals that he was willing to commit to publicly -- as you will see, there are dozens and dozens of them. I then began classifying these positions on a truncated political spectrum running from liberal/progressive to center-right, further dividing the policies into economics and taxation (green), other domestic policy (yellow) and foreign affairs (blue). Here is what I came up with:


Yes, I Have A Diary Coming Up On That (0.00 / 0)
I was originally going to do that one first.  I think that Nate has a point, but he's way over-selling it.  Most of the proposals he's put in the "progressive" column only are really hard to justify as such, IMHO.  My diary will explain why.

Obama's DW-Nominate score shows him to be a moderate liberal, which is what I take him to be.  He does not have a record of strong progressive advocacy, however.  And the list that Nate put together is pretty much consonant with that.  The problem, for many, is simply that this sort of Clark Kent liberalism, while admirable in its own way, is not really up to the task at hand.  

"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 ]
A flashback (4.00 / 2)
Clark Kerr liberalism, perhaps?

[ Parent ]
Another reality check for this site regarding why Obama (4.00 / 2)
is doing what he is doing:


It's about hitting the ground running in the FDR fashion. Namely, having legislation ready to sign as soon as Obama is inaugurated in late Jan.

"Democratic Congressional leaders and the nascent Obama administration are moving quickly to assert control over federal policy, aiming to have economic, health and spending legislation waiting on the new president's desk almost the minute he gets back down Pennsylvania Avenue from the inauguration.

Given the severity of the problems facing the nation, officials on Capitol Hill and in the Obama team say Democrats have put their schedule on fast-forward rather than allowing the usual lull between the start of the new Congress, this time on Jan. 6, and President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in two weeks later.

Lawmakers and staff members are already laying the groundwork for a running start, and Congress is scheduled to remain in session once its expanded Democratic majorities are sworn in."

This is the reality of what's occuring while way too many bloggers are still discussing theorectical issues.

The question in terms of relevancy as I asked Bowers the other day is this:

What is being done to shape these policies?

False Dichotomy (0.00 / 0)
It's not even clear to me why you think that this refutes anything at all that's been said by FPers on this site.

"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 ]
Relevancy of your argument is the refutation of it (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
and if that's not clear let me put it plainer (4.00 / 2)
while you and others are fixed on personell-policy debates, progressive policies are being made and implemented right now as we speak. Thus the whole discussion seems besides the point. I keep hoping you all will start to focus onthe actual policy being made right now as we speak rather than on the things you have been discussing.

[ Parent ]
i agree with you (4.00 / 1)
john brennan was really the only possible appointee I had a problem with, and he withdrew.

I just want Obama to follow through on his policy positions.

[ Parent ]
And what policies might those be? (4.00 / 2)
Kindly name a few, and explain why they're progressive. Not progressive-like, but actually progressive, as most progressives would define the term.

I'm not arguing that his policies aren't and won't be genuinely progressive, but rather that we simply don't know enough about them, both in intent and in ultimate implementation, to be able to guage one way or another at this point. So far, it's been almost entirely general policy points (e.g. stimulus spending on infrastructure, getting out of Iraq) and personnel announcements. The former are too vague to know how progressive they'll actually be, while the latter aren't what most progressives would call progressives.

Simply "hitting the ground running", while impressive, admirable and necessary, doesn't make Obama's future policies under development progressive, per se. Their being progressive does.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
no thanks (0.00 / 0)
to be honest i am tired of argument with certain types of posters. one's that start off not from discussion, but accusation are one of them. nearly everything you just ask you can google news to find it. but you wont

[ Parent ]
So anyone who disputes your assertions (0.00 / 0)
and asks you to back them up is a "certain type of poster" who "starts off from accusation"? WTF does that even mean? I showed quite clearly why your comments are silly, and asked you to show me why they're not. Instead, you whine flailingly. Impressive. And typical.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
I don't respond to hosility with work (0.00 / 0)
It's a simple point. If you really wanted an answer, you would have approached me differently. Hostility tells me that whatever I write and whatever work I did would have been a waste of my time. I know you still don't get the point, and probalby never will, but on balance, Ive made myself clear as to the problem with what you asking: All work on my  part, with little chance of it being persuasive given the audience

[ Parent ]
You sound like a petulant 12 year old (0.00 / 0)
For all I know you may well be one. You thought that this was TeaTimeForObamabots.com, and have "suddenly" realized that it's not.

And I got your point. I just didn't agree with it, and asked you to back it up with evidence, which you responded to with whining evasion such as this. To you, being disagreed with = being attacked, which isn't only petulant, but itself hostile, in a passive-aggressive way.

Grow up.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
SusanG at Daily Kos adds: (4.00 / 2)
"The speedy transition and cooperation between the branches, the article claims, is aided by the fact that so many appointees tapped by the new administration have been pulled from the Senate and House, bringing a wealth of Congressional knowledge and personal relationships with members with them."

My theory is being proven correct. The point is to hit the ground running, and to not make the same mistakes that Clinton did in 1993. That's the core pragamatic issue here. Obama seems to have learned from recent history regarding how to get things done in Congress. He's making a practical strategic decision, not an idealogical one. The poster above defines what are the idealogical points Obama has made. Now comes the implementation.  

Don't Break Your Arm (0.00 / 0)
patting yourself on the back over how smart you are.

"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 ]
Actually what I am doing is providing a counter (4.00 / 2)
point to what you and others here write. You claim this site is about diversity. But, each time you respond, you make it really clear its not. As I said the other day- this is your mirror.

[ Parent ]
No, you're not (4.00 / 1)
That you might think that you are is simply amusing. Paul is arguing (as I understand it) that Obama's policies aren't necessarily, nor are they likely to be, genuinely progressive (as opposed to progressive-leaning), and that his personnel choices and the lack of organized and effective pressure from the progressive left make that highly likely. And your response is that he's hitting the ground running. Perhaps so, but how does that make his policies progressive, per se? And if your point is that pragmatism is what Obama is all about, again perhaps so, but again, how does that make his policies genuinely progressive?

Paul is arguing that we're on the wrong road, headed in the wrong direction, and your response is yes but we're in a brand new car and it's really really fast. Huh?!?

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
Or, Perhaps More Precisely (0.00 / 0)
I think that Obama is headed in the right direction (West, not East), but I'm not at all sure he's headed for Hawaii, rather than Utah.

And speaking of Hawaii, how, exactly is he planning to get there, since this funky old jalopy definitely isn't amphibious?

Hitting the ground running without enough money and supplies to get past Utah, and without a clue about how to cross the ocean is not exactly a grand plan to inspire confidence.

Hit the ground running? Sure! But make sure you're headed where you want to be going.  

"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 ]
so unless you are given exactly what you want (0.00 / 0)
it's not progressive? because if you read what paul wrote to you below- that's exactly what he's saying. that's the mirror here. that obama is enacting progressive plans,b ut they are not good enough. i mention that obama is enacting 800 billion for infrasctural etc, and paul's answer back to me? not good enough. it needs to be more. the problem with this argument is that no one will ever get anything done because it comes from a place of intransigence. i get the point of this site now. it's to move the overton window rather than address the problems. they aren't saying obama isn't addressing the problem as a porgressive, thy are trying to mvoe where progressivism is. the problem i have with it is the way they are doing it.  

[ Parent ]
Indicating that he won't prosecute war criminals (4.00 / 1)
and warrantless wiretappers is progressive? Hiring a cabinet composed almost entirely of centrists and Repubs, including at least one Bush secretary is progressive? Being opposed to single payer is progressive? Voting for FISA was progressive? Want me to go on? In what parallel universe are these progressive?

Now, I'm not sure that he won't end up enacting lots of genuinely progressive programs in the end. But it'll be despite these early hires and moves, and not because of them. Or, perhaps, what he's doing now is protecting his right flank and rear to make it possible to eventually pass progressive legislation. There's been lots of speculation that this is what he's doing, and part of me suspects that that might be his plan. But we don't know if that IS his plan, and even if it is, if it'll work. So it's really not possible right now to say that he's clearly persuing a progressive agenda that is likely to succeed.

I honestly don't know what you're whining about here. That lots of progressives are not willing at this point to call Obama and his agenda genuinely or sufficiently progressive? Or that they're asking for and expecting too much, in terms of a progressive agenda? The first seems fully warranted by the evidence, the latter by their being progressives. No one's saying definitively (not here at least that I can see) that he WON'T be progressive, just that right now, the signs are worrisome, which they are. So it seems to me that you're mostly upset that progresives are being too hard on Obama. In which case, yes, you are on the wrong blog. This is not WeWorshipTheOne.com. What's funny is that I doubt that even if there were such a sight, that Obama would take it seriously. Only Obamabots would.

Democracy is dissent, of necessity.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
wow- okay thx for confirming what I suspected above (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
Shaping policy (4.00 / 4)
I agree that the list on the left is great and long overdue but being on the ground implementing programs I want to know who's coming in to make the small changes that will make a the top progressive change have any impact at the local level.  Fully fund the CDBG program? Great of course, but we need the program changed.  Bring back HUD to fulfill its mission? great but what does that mean?  Who will change the definition of chronically homeless so that it doesn't leave out families and youth?  Who knows that it needs to be changed?  Who will allow youth emancipating from foster care and those coming out out from jails have access to homeless funding when HUD today won't consider them homeless because they are exiting a local government's care.  I can go on and on.  Progressive can be big ideas but the devil is in the details and who is telling them what the devil has been up to over the last decade?

Very Good Points (4.00 / 1)
It's precisely the inner guts of how things get connected together that concerns me most.  How things look in DC and how they look on the ground are often completely different, and that's one of the main reasons I'm quite concerned about how insular the team seems to be so far.

It's one thing to staff up with some key legislative staffers to facilitate legislative cooperation.  I understand and appreciate the value of that. But folks with on-the-ground experience are equally vital if you want the programs you pass to actually, you know, work.

"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 ]
connecting the dots (4.00 / 2)
It's precisely the lack of connecting the dots that worries me.  I agree with most of the lamenting and fall into the category of just not wanting  the republicans anymore.  But I think it was not these republicans anymore.  I can actually look back and say oh for the housing/urban policies when Nixon was in.  Imagine that?  Affordable Housing actually got built. Forty years ago since we've had a really good affordable housing development program; nothing happened with Carter or Clinton, believe me. Welfare reform with Clinton and Habitat for Humanity with Carter. We have one chance to thread the needle and I'm worried.  He's bringing in really bright people I'm sure; and I don't want folks here to throw me out if I complain about all the younger bodies getting the jobs; that's wonderful but I'm waiting to see who is setting the urban policies; who has the historical practical perspective to connect the dots to all the new ideas?  Thoughts?

[ Parent ]
urban, suburban, and rural (0.00 / 0)
Everything is broken, and all I see is a guy who campaigned on one thing and is delivering, so far, something else.  Lets look at trade, deregulation, job training, welfare, health care, manufacturing, energy - show me anything that works.  Bill Clinton was a huge disappointment, and I quite frankly don't want another Clinton administration.  After 30 years of Republican rule, the last thing we need is a return to the 90s.

"The left is incredibly weak" can stand alone.  It needs no clarification because the only thing I've seen from the left is a ton of cheerleading, ATM fundraising, and the slapping of anyone who doesn't "believe" in their guy. In other words, they asked for nothing and got nothing just as Paul said.  

[ Parent ]
Low hanging fruit (4.00 / 1)
Many of the things Nate sees as distinctively "progressive" actually have much broader support, while many things I think of as progressive aren't on the menu at all.

Isn't it amazing the sheer volume of progressive sounding items that have "much broader support".  For the time being, I have no problem virtually guaranteeing we get this list in exchange for putting off the other stuff you'd like to see.  (Though I'll have to reserve some judgment until I see the list, of course.)

But I've heard a great deal of talk about how the left is unhappy with Obama's appointments.  Good!  that is where power comes from.  Even the right is pushing the message in an attempt to make Obama look weak, but it helps us more than them.

Where we really need to hold Obama's feet to the fire are the lower level appointments and policy advisers.  Policy advisers don't need to be "pragmatic" (particularly in the MSM meaning of the term).  Lower level appointments, however, are the future of the party.  This is where the seeds can be planted so the next Democratic administration (or second term of this one) has a more progressive tilt to it.

I Can Appreciate Where You're Coming From Mark, (4.00 / 2)
even if I don't agree with it.

For one thing, I can remember how folks were advised to start with the more popular, less controversial stuff in Clinton's first term.  The other stuff never got gotten to, because it turned out they'd forgotten to pass stuff that would give the base a reason to turn out again in two years.

I'm not saying this is a carbon-copy situation.  It's not.  But there's a generic similarity. Trying to avoid conflict with people who live for it is not as easy as it may seem.  

"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 ]
Clinton Health Care (4.00 / 3)
The other stuff never got gotten to, because it turned out they'd forgotten to pass stuff that would give the base a reason to turn out again in two years.

I don't want to to get too much into the Clinton years, but if Clinton had passed health care we'd live in a very different world today.  That one failure opened a world possibilities to the Republicans, whereas its success would have opened a world of possibilities to progressives, giving them something to build on.

If Obama is successful getting his major initiatives passed we'll all be asking "what else can we fix".  If he fails,  conservatives will be preaching government isn't the solution to a crowd who listens again.

[ Parent ]
I Agree That Health Care Was Crucial (4.00 / 2)
But the reality was that Clinton's plan was so deeply flawed to begin with that it was already receiving a great deal more support than it had earned.  The GOP was, in the end, simply convinced that anything passed would be bad for them.

But I'm not really sure that's true.  It would have been bad for the jihadist wing, which had just managed to ditch Bush Sr., and was looking to instal Newt Gingrich.  But they weren't really running things yet.  And so that narrative is very much about rewriting history to disappear the less strident Republicans from the Kremlin photos.  If they had passed health care, I don't see Gingrich coming to power in the House.

But OTOH, maybe Dole would have had a better shot in 1996, if he'd played a role in bringing the GOP around. After all, (1) he was a recipient of government health care that helped him to rebuild his life after WWII, and (2) he did come out to Clinton's left in terms of saying the networks should pay for the digital spectrum that was simply given to them in 1996 Telco Act.  Dole really could have represented a sort of grounded, more-or-less sane version of conservatism that could have been much harder for Clinton to run against if his greatest achievement--health care--was one he had to share with his opponent.

This time out, the problem is somewhat similar--Obama's plan doesn't go far enough, though it's shortcomings may be fixable over time--but more a matter of other problems looming even larger than expected.

I still agree with your basic logic here.  I just think that there's more complicaitons in the past, and more room for further complications in the future.

"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 ]
Thanks for this (4.00 / 4)
Please, please never let anyone forget how the 1993 HRC-led health care effort was so disastrously slanted to pleasing the biggest HMO's & insurers that it garnered little popular and legislative support to battle the army of medium-large insurers & HMO's who would have been shut out by HRC's effort.

[ Parent ]
Building political power (4.00 / 1)
You talk about building institutions that advocate for progressive cross issue hegemonic power. Good point. Blogs are certainly a good jumping off point. What are the most cost effective ways we can continue down this path so that we are no longer in the position of having to crash the gate, so to speak? And more tactically interesting, what is the best route to forcing other institutions to acknowledge that power, i.e. MSM institutions?  

That's A Good Question (0.00 / 0)
Too good to answer well in a comment.  But generically, I'd say that what's needed is putting more resources into what we're already doing, particularly the newer stuff.  So, beefing up creation of our own media--ala Brave New Films--and circulating it more widely, creating more visibility for state and local blogs to highlight important fights, fundraising for collaborative efforts, a whole raft of things like these, in addition to organizing efforts that bring folks together across existing boundaries.

"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 ]
There was a time when Obama wasn't President-Elect (4.00 / 3)
There were certainly a whole lot of people who probably would liked to have had more complex relations with the Democratic candidate, but at the time much of it had to consist of "Oh God Please Whatever We Have To Do To Keep Republicans From Winning Again."

There may even be a healthy change back to an actual policy debate between liberals and lefties and Democrats of many varieties, instead of the more or less equivalent to Popular Front Democratism.

We're just on the edge of coming out of 8 frightening years of right wing authoritarian nightmare.

Don't be surprised that people aren't yet geared up to full pre-nightmare mode.

Very Good Point! (4.00 / 1)
And, of course, it makes a huge difference what people's personal experience has been exactly how they will respond to this.

One thing I am certain of: all of us will change our minds, change positions over the weeks, months and years ahead.  None of us can tell what it will be like.  Except that, unlike ordinary nightmares, this one has left a helluva mess behind to be cleaned up.

"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 ]
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. (4.00 / 2)
It's all about one's capacity to hold politician's accountable once they are elected.  A capacity we seem to lack too much of.  Yes (did I say that?)

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)

Megan Beyer for head of PBS (0.00 / 0)
Just putting Megan Beyer as the head of PBS would correct much of the pig slop that passes for commentary. Just the overall direction of programming based on reality based criteria would stop the worst of it.  

Crucial concept, Paul (4.00 / 1)
This is what hegemonic struggle is all about: building power across a range of institutions, so that their normal functioning produces the sorts of outcomes you want.

I've harped on this a fair amount here and elsewhere:  the normal functioning of the Presidency is absolutely not in our interests.  It's designed to expand American (corporate) hegemony overseas, and to manage the national security state.  No individual is going to change that from within the system.  The nature of the presidency, or of any institution, is altered by outside pressure.  And that pressure needs to be brought to bear on the institution, not on the officeholder.

It's very, very hard to de-personalize our politics after a presidential election, but we need to do so.  We need to think less about Obama the Con-law professor, and Obama the community organizer, and more about the Presidency and our relationship to it.

I think the last 2 years have taught us that lesson WRT Congress as an institution.  I hope we don't need to be taught again WRT the Executive branch.

Obama's inauguration will not fundamentally alter the urgency of building a powerful oppositional movement, because as terrible as Bush has been personally, the real problem has been institutional all along, and the institutions will change only when we make institutional change necessary for institutional survival.

building for the long term (4.00 / 2)
Second, progressives need to learn about political power.  They need to learn about building it for the long term.  They need to learn about investing in building power over the long haul, as opposed to simply spending wildly to avoid being utterly crushed in the next election.  This is what hegemonic struggle is all about: building power across a range of institutions, so that their normal functioning produces the sorts of outcomes you want.


Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire asked, "What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?"  (something like that).  I love this question, and continually ask it in situations where I am dissatisfied (or devastated) by something - whether it be the 2003 invasion of Iraq (devastated) or Obama's appointments (dissatisfied/troubled/not surprised).  I love this question because it always takes me out of loser mode.  Don't get me wrong - I have no illusions about not being a loser in these situations.  But that doesn't mean I have to think like a loser.  Frankly though it's been difficult for a lot of people to not succumb to thinking like a loser these past decades, which is to say that when you lose and lose and lose and lose, you get used to losing.   When you're totally unaccustomed to winning anything, you may settle instead for being right about everything, or you may develop really strange ideas about how change actually occurs that are all but totally divorced from reality.  You may drop out of the struggle entirely (why try if you can't succeed?), or you may stay in it while fighting only defensive battles or only small battles for incremental changes while you continue to lose the war (and most the battles).

"What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?"  As someone who's been primarily involved in antiwar organizing through most of the Bush years, I have sometimes been dumbfounded by the lack of capacity of the antiwar movement, and even more dumbfounded by how we go on spending what little we have on fighting losing defensive battles instead of really addressing the capacity problem.  I don't even know if it's an accurate use of the term movement to describe the organized opposition to this Administration's wars and occupations.  Harsh as it sounds, it sometimes feels more like residue from past movements.  It didn't start out so bleak.  In the lead-up to the invasion, new antiwar groups popped up all over the country, and old ones were revitalized.  February 15, 2003 marked the largest coordinated global demonstration in history.  A substantial new base of volunteers had popped up overnight.  And what did we do with them?  We called for more demonstrations, with diminishing returns ever since.  We didn't have field organizers to send out all over the country, to train young people in organizing skills, to get them plugged into campaigns.  We didn't have the capacity to give people anything to do other than attend demonstrations or call their senators.  There was no systemic approach to spreading skills, building leadership, building our capacity.  To be clear, there were and are pockets of good antiwar organizing all over the country that include elements of everything mentioned above.  But as a trend we have been profoundly lacking in resources and infrastructure, and in thinking about how build for the long-term.

A second, possibly more confusing point I want to make with this same example, relates to this idea of "cross-issue hegemonic power."  It would be an error to blame the visible "antiwar movement" entirely, or even more than anyone else, for the problem and pattern described above.  We didn't send field organizers out to the 2,000 or so local groups that affiliated with United for Peace and Justice, because we didn't have any budget to hire field organizers, because we didn't have adequate money and resources and staff - because somehow there exists a construct (you might even say it's part of a hegemonic narrative) in which peace is the concern and responsibility of peace activists or peace groups.

This is what the Right's hegemony looks like.  While the Iraq War and Occupation has been a centerpiece of the Neoconservative agenda and defeating the Neocons on this would have been a blow to their whole agenda, the forces concentrating on this "issue" were largely marginal in the Left, profoundly lacking enough resources to even make a dent.  The labor movement is about labor.  The environmental movement is about the environment.  Community issues are community issues.  Women's issues are women's issues.  Peace groups organize for peace.  And on and on.  Of course, there are many many important exceptions, where people have connected the dots.

The solution to my example should include investing more resources into progressive foreign policy organizations.  But I don't think that that on it's own is what Paul means by "building cross-issue hegemonic power."  It's seems to me rather that the lack of attention to foreign policy from many left-leaning institutions - especially when it's the centerpiece of the Right's master plan - is a product of this lack of Left cross-issue hegemonic power.

So, what can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?

"What can we do today, so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?" -Paulo Freire

This Is An Excellent Comment (0.00 / 0)
I wish I had an easy answer, but the best I can do right now is add a hearty "AMEN!" to the way you've highlighted the problem.

Part of the problem, I think, is the lack of consciousness about how the Anti-Vietnam War Movement won--and the lack of satisfaction from it.  The feeling of marginalization and powerlessness derives in large part from the fact that people have no clear sense of how it won, what that meant, and why it was so good that it happened.  But the enormity of that success can be seen in the fact that BushCo wanted to launch wars against as many as 60 countries, but only got two of them before public opinion made further wars impossible--and one of those two was only possible based on an intense campaign of systematic lying.  The bottom line is that basic mindset of the American public is simply nothing like it was in 1964, when the Vietnam War build-up was being begun.  And this was a direct result of how deeply the anti-war movement changed public attitudes.

"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 ]
2 points (4.00 / 1)
1.  Using Gramsci's two categories of political battle I would argue that presidential elections are necessarily wars of maneuver based on where the ground you've gained in your war of position.  Based on the ground we'd gained since say 2002, when we got into the Democratic primary and it was time to choose a team we chose and we had no choice but to fight unconditionally for our candidate.  (Organizations like SEIU, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, NOW etc are in the position to set conditions.)  Of course there are small opportunities for waging the war of position within the maneuvering but elections should primarily be seen as war of maneuver.

2.  I would disagree to some extent that what the Left has been backing is infrastructure.  We've improved mightily lately and there is more to do, but. . .

For the last twenty years that I've been paying attention, we had The Nation, Mother Jones, Z Magazine, the Progressive, UTNE Reader, the Village Voice (and local knock offs) Harpers, Common Cause, the PIRGS, Citizen Action, SEIU, CWA, ACTWU/UNITE-HERE, progressive leadership at the AFL_CIO, the Economic Policy Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, The Institute for Policy Studies, the Pacifica Radio Network, etc.

What we haven't had is progressives running for elected office at the local level.  City council, school board, state rep, water conservation district.  These thing lead to state Secretary of Agriculture, Education, speaker of the state house, Congress, Mayor.  These thing lead to Governor, Senate, US Secretary of Commerce, Education, State, the Interior, etc.

I commented on this in a way on another thread when I pointed out how thin the bench was on progressive wish lists for Secretary of Agriculture.  We have like one dynamic progressive state secretary of agriculture that was making those lists.  Down ballot statewide elections don't take all that much to win if you have organization.  We just haven't had the candidates.

But this has changed drastically in recent years with the work of DFA and ACTBlue.  It will take sometime for bear fruit.  

I remember working passing out election flyers in 1992 as a young union organizer in Atlanta and chatting with someone who was campaigning for someone I knew to be a stealth rightwinger for school board. They had all had a big pancake breakfast at their church before going out to canvass.   They were digging in for the long haul.  Unlike the Greens who have only been interested symbolic candidates for President, these people said, "We don't have any credible candidates for President or Governor, or Senator for that matter.  But we will."  

And that's what I think of when I think of Sarah Palin.  Wingers in a church basement eating pancakes at 6am ready to give up shoe leather because they were thinking 6 moves ahead. Wasilla City Council (pawn to king's bishop) Wasilla Mayor (rook takes knight) Chair of Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (queen takes pawn) Director of "Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service, Inc." (rook takes rook) Governor of Alaska (bishop takes queen) Republican Vice Presidential Nominee (queen takes queen and check).  

Less about think tanks and tv stations and more about someone being up for the unglamourous job of being on a small town city council and activist willing to get out bed at 5am to help.

There's no Sarah Palin without the Wasilla City Council and there's no Barack Obama without Illinois 13th district.

I think that part of building hegemony that you are leaving out is progressives running for office (maneuver), building resumes, voting records, experience and networks (position) to be in a position to move up to the next rung when the opportunity presents itself(maneuver).

Too put some of this a little more concisely. (0.00 / 0)
I see progressives get upset about presidential elections because they think of them as war of position.  They aren't.  They are a war of maneuver to try to institutionalize and solidify your latest gains in the war of position.  It's the same for legislative battles.

Though I would classify local elections more as part of the war of position.  Union president, school board, state representative.

So the election is over. We won this maneuver. Back to the war of position.  

[ Parent ]
Or even more concisely (0.00 / 0)
Elections and legislative battles are where you attempt to convert hegemony and  political power into political authority.

[ Parent ]
Our Diffrence In Outlook Is (0.00 / 0)
that I see those organizations as existing in and of themselves, and not as a coordinated entity.  So I see the relative paucity of candidates as a manifestation of the same underlying lack of organization.

Exceptions would include Democracy Now!, which has built a remarkable network of outlets, not just with a commercial agenda, but a political one, Prometheus Radio Project, which helps folks build community low-powered radio stations, Change To Win, which clearly does have a political/organizing strategy involving building larger coalitions, and more local institutions, such as the Liberty Hill Foundation here in Los Angeles, which funds groups working for social change that no one else will, and helps them continue to grow. (We'd be a whole lot better off if we had a national equivilent the size of one of the large rightwing foundations, but there's nothing remotely like that.)

"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 ]
Yeah . . . (0.00 / 0)
What I've seen is coordination at the local level or at least community.  When I was working in Georgia in the mid 90's progressive Labor, NOW, the Sierra Club, gay rights advocates, etc all saw themselves as part of the same team.  And we all read the same magazines, those mentioned above.  The magazines were clearly organized around a cross issue agenda.

In the last election here in Oregon, Defend Oregon was a clear coalition of supposedly one issue groups coming together to campaign for and against the entire raft of initiatives on the ballot.

I don't disagree with you at all about the importance of building hegemony and the need for institutions that work an agenda rather than issues.

But I would put a finer point on the historical reasons for the lack candidates that will maybe bring us on to the same page (I think we are on the same page, so maybe the same paragraph).

I think that in the past self identified progressives were tempermentally unlikely to become candidates for public office.  They were people who saw running for public office as hopelessly corrupting or at least comprising.  To practice politics they gravitated to journalism or activism in activist groups and hoped to pressure the system from the outside.  They held their nose and voted for Democrats as the lesser of two evils.  They wished the Green Party would get it's act together but it seemed hellbent on not getting it's act together.

During that time (and still) the personality that is drawn to public office tended to be more moderate in their politics views and ready to accept the give and take of compromise.

Progressives and radical just weren't the kind of people who would run for public office.  (old civil rights warhorses were maybe the only categorical exception)  And the kind of people who would run for office were liberals (progressive and liberal weren't synonymous not so long ago) I don't think that this is measure of a left progressive's chance for success since local races aren't that ideological.

You also had the Left's temperamental impulse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  While the Right decided to take over the Republican Party, the Left was trying to decide whether the Green Party (multi issue party hopelessly branded as an environmental issue party) or a Labor Party (Tony Mazzocchi's windmill tilt to create a multi issue party hopelessly branded as a organized labor issue party) or New Party (a multi issue party that organized itself as the UnParty by mostly endorsing and campaigning for Democrats) or DSA (a party without candidates! Thank god for Michael Harrington, though) where viable vehicles for their aspirations.  They weren't.

What has changed in 2000 was George Bush made it impossible for most of us to continue to flirt with being independents who grudgingly voted for Democrats (or Nader).  Then the rise of Moveon.org, DailyKos and the Dean campaign in the 2002 to 2004 period gave progressives a way to relate to the Democratic Party in a new way.  It became possible to see the Democratic Party as a party that we could be proud of being a part of.

Those organizations gave birth to ACTBlue and DFA which are both dedicated to progressives running for and WINNING public office up and down the ballot.  I think that the Atlas Project is going to be a pretty big deal down the road.

I think that is the qualitative difference between the current period and the one that came before.  I think the superstructure is quantitatively getting better now, but what's qualitatively different is the ability to recruit and fund candidates for office.

[ Parent ]
Yes, I Agree (0.00 / 0)
Same page. Same paragraph.

One thing I think we need to get clear on is that it's okay for some folks to be mostly party/electorl-oriented and others to be mostly issue-oriented, and there's no reason for either to feel superior or inferior to the other.  Both are necessary, and can learn to work very well together.

"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 ]
One of the things bothering me (0.00 / 0)
while I wait to see how an Obama administration is going to govern is the seeming lack of interest from the left to advance the self-organizational side of the movement.

Obama Co gave us the kick in the pants to organize using his platform. I saw people saying "Hey, I'm not waiting for the campaign. Let's organize our own phone banks and out-of-state GOTV drives." But they still used Obama resources.

What I expected to see is more of a split away from his infrastructure to linked sub-infrastructures based on more progressive ideas. Maybe it's too soon and I'm just showing my impatience but I'm a feeling a little bit of the bitter-sweet taste about change.gov. How do we go from feeling elated at derailing the neocon destruction to holding Obama accountable once he starts to govern?

Now that I think about it I have seen some interest in this so maybe this is just the the first steps of a 1000-mile journey.

I'm a bit of a contrarian by nature, always searching for ways to fight power and there's nothing to indicate to me that I'll be changing that to faith-based-establishment-think with Obama.

I don't see much inclination in my contacts to build accountability groups beyond Strange Bedfellows and a lot of thoughtful discussion here. It could be that there is a lot of it going on and that I don't see it because I'm not in those loops where this is being talked about. I hope that's the case but I just don't know. I'm made a couple of feasibility probes and have been ignored but that could be for more reasons than lack of interest in the concept.

I am sure there's a lot of talk but it's happening in isolated sub-groups who are not thinking about forming larger groups with the idea of building strength through size with a coordinated message and action.

I really don't even like to post my thoughts in this forum or elsewhere for that matter. While I get a lot of ideas and gain a lot of insight from a few sites on the left I don't move in the same circles as the upper levels of the blogosphere hierarchy and consequently have not made the progress I'd like. That's completely okay with me because I'll keep building my infrastructure with the occasional reach-out to others to see if I get any nibbles from like-minded activists/thinkers.

It's a process, Paul (0.00 / 0)
As I'm sure you realize. In a few short years we've gone from being a country that effectively embraced Goldwater/Reagan conservatism, if not in a "hard" ideological way, then certainly in a "soft" practical way--including much of the Democratic party and a majority of indies--and where the true left was effectively powerless, disorganized and withered, to one in which Goldwater/Reagan conservatism has effectively been discredited, the GOP marginalized, indies leaning leftward, the Democratic party shifted leftward, and the true left reemerging and rebuilding itself. That this transformation is far from complete is unsurprising, given how much time and effort this sort of thing takes. Center-right special interests still exist, still have power and influence, and still dominate national politics--and the Democratic party, albeit slightly less so--and the left is still coming into its own, after decades in the wilderness.

None of which contradicts, and all of which I think meshes with, what you're saying. Clearly, we're in a much stronger position now than we were just a few years ago, even if we're not as strong as we'd like to be. And clearly, it's going to be "easier" to get an Obama administration to move in a progressive direction, than it would have been with a Bush or McCain one. It's just that what we have now, while vastly better, isn't good enough. Some people appear to be content with how far we've gotten in a few short years, and don't see the need to push further. Whereas others, while certainly happy with recent developments, don't see why we need to, or should, stop pushing. To some, we're in the promised land, and need to just smile and learn to be happy again and stop whining. But to others, we might be a lot closer, but we're nowhere near there yet, and don't see why we can't both smile and be happy AND keep pushing for more progress. Real progressives by definiton are the latter.

I honestly don't get this binary thinking from the "Leave Obama alone!" contingent. It's FISA all over again. I.e. you either 100% support him, or you're a whining malcontent who will never be happy and is undermining Obama's agenda. Un, NO.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

Very Well Put! (4.00 / 1)
This seems to capture the heart of the debate here:

Some people appear to be content with how far we've gotten in a few short years, and don't see the need to push further. Whereas others, while certainly happy with recent developments, don't see why we need to, or should, stop pushing.

I know it's not the only factor, but I can't help thinking that age and experience are a significant factor here.  The longer people have been engaged, I think, the less likely they are to rest contented.  Perhaps I'm mistaken in this, but that's how it seems.  If you think that the problem was just Bush, then I think that solving problems looks a lot easier than if you think it goes much deeper than that.

Thus, it's not just about people's attitudes towards Obama.  The two are quite inextricably intertwined--again, not for everyone, but for many.

"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 ]
Not only isn't it only about Bush (0.00 / 0)
It's not even about undoing the damage that he's done, or the damage that nearly 30 years of mostly conservative mis-governance has done to the country. More than all these (which of course are necessary and important), it's also about completing the uncompleted mission of the New Deal, and bolstering our democracy so that future attacks from the right (which of course are inevitable, as "conservatism" is simply an inevitable and unavoidable by-product of and reaction to the attempt by all progressive societies to, well, progress) find less purchase. As the right well knows, every successful and popular progressive program makes it that much harder for it to regain a foothold--and keep it.

I think that one has to either be a student of history, or over 40, to remember a time when conservatism wasn't the consistently dominant governing ideology in this country, and when the idea of a Reagan or Bush becoming president was nearly ludicrous. We need to get back to such a time--and then some--which will require much more than merely undoing the damage that these two sociopaths (and their ilk) have done to the country, and moving past a post-Reagan/Bush era, to a post-post-Reagan/Bush era, where their era seems as remote as the Nixon or even Hoover era. But that won't even begin to seem possible for at least a few years. And for all I know, what Obama's doing right now might be the smart way to get there. I.e. getting to the left via the center. Who knows. I'm old enough to remember the pre-conservative era, but not old enough to remember the New Deal era. The 70's were neither, and a terrible decade to grow up in, in terms of political optimism.

But I digress...

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
You May Be Right (0.00 / 0)
And for all I know, what Obama's doing right now might be the smart way to get there.

The problem is, all those who want to argue this seem to lack the historical perspective to know how to make the argument.  They simply rely on eye-rolling and assertion.

OTOH, we have a mountain of evidence that failing to impose consequences only leads to disaster.

"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 ]
I never thought Obama was a progressive, (0.00 / 0)
so I'm not surprised.  But I AM angry.  He certainly did claim that he would govern for all America and that we should put aside ideology, but he is clearly not putting aside his right-center ideology or planning to govern for anyone but the economic/politica/military establishment.

Voting records don't mean much.  For one thing, there are many ways to game voting records.  For another, there is a lot of context involved.  In a poltical world that takes Reaganomics for granted, that takes it for granted that Iran-baiting is good, there are precious few who don't qualify as rightwingers.

And policies that may seem progressive often have poison pills in them.  For example, universal health care sounds good, but almost all the plans on offer, other than HR 676, to my knowledge, involve mandates.  Not only do mandates not actually solve anything, they additionally attack the Constitution.

Pulling troops out of Iraq sounds good, but intensifying the war in Afganistan and driving it into Pakistan doesn't sound good.  

Helping the automakers might be good, but not if it means clobbering the Union.

Obama COULD have reassured progressives by having a more inclusive transition process.  Instead, he is clearly building a right of center team.
He should be taken to task for this loud and clearly and it should be sustained.  


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