|In 1978, the first midterm election dominated by the New Right, conservatives undermined moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats all over the country. They forced Carter to the right, and Reagan rode the conservative backlash into office. The Club for Growth is only the most recent echo of the New Right, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist following along the well-grooved tracks created for them by the Phyllis Schafly, Milton Friedman, and John Olin. After literally forty years of organizing, we are now in a situation where the town of DC is entirely populated by the ghosts of the New Right, in both parties. Tax cuts are deified, the national security state is beyond reproach, and the economy of conservative political influence can prevent nationalized elections from having impacts on policy, as the election of 2006 showed. The conservatives fully closed their rootsgap - their political leadership and their activist base are in many ways indistinguishable. This is both useful for conservative ideologues, and a problem for the political system at large. Politicians shouldn't be conservative movement activists, they should be politicians representing all the people.
The Democrats have the opposite problem. Our politicians, who believe that the press is basically an honest mediator, and that expertise is honestly held within elite universities, do not consider the base particularly important. And on the more difficult issues, the public is rarely considered a possible source of political support.
I first noticed the rootsgap problem during the impeachment of Clinton, when the 60 plus percent of the public supported him in office, but the Republicans, the media, and even some Democratic officials, did not. That was when Moveon was created, via a simple petition that asked Congress to censure him, and Moveon. This rootsgap, which we saw grow during the run-up to the war in Iraq, produced new leaders in the form of Howard Dean and Wes Clark, and new forms of communications and organizing, in the form of the blogosphere. The public, having always preferred a war under UN auspices, turned against the Iraqi adventure as early as 2003. It's been written out of history, but the $87 billion the administration requested for Iraq was opposed by more than 60% of the public.
The rootsgap has been the single most salient feature of modern American politics, at least since I've been paying attention. It cuts across economic issues, media policy, foreign policy, national security, civil liberties, you name it. Conservative (and often bipartisan) political elites ignore, usually the left but often the public itself, with almost no political consequences. Joe Lieberman built an entire career, and even elevated himself to be the Vice Presidential candidate, on this feature. A lot of people think Lieberman changed after 2004; I think such a view underestimates the consistent streak in his career, and how sharply the environment shifted after Bush's relection. Lieberman was elected Attorney General in Connecticut based on family values issues in the 1980s, won his Senate seat by red-baiting Lowell Weicker on Cuba and drug policy in the 1980s, and was picked as VP because he was the most outspoken Democratic critic of Clinton's behavior. It was only the primary, incomplete a response as it was, that saw some measure of reaction. That was the first time this new progressive movement, which Chris and I tentatively called the 'Open Left', really tried to shift the calculus of leadership. And we did. But not enough.
The invasion of Iraq, the Protect America Act, the condemnation of Moveon, the $700 billion bailout, the Bankruptcy Bill, the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, the Patriot Act, and a thousand actions large and small were instances where the rootsgap maintained its hold on the political order. In a lot of ways, Obama's triumph in the primaries was a response to this phenomenon; the caucus-goers who won it for Obama took Iraq very seriously, and took the nomination from Clinton, who had simply refused to apologize for her vote for the war. The follow-on consequences of this decision, one by the Democratic rank-and-file, are not clear, but there are both depressing and promising signs.
This is not, of course, new. Liberal leaders have ignored and mocked their base since, well, the good sensible liberals wrote Aaron Burr out of the revolution because of his proto-feminist and anti-slavery views. So-called liberal journalists have carried this even further; Arthur Brisbane, who said that he took in "socialism with his mother's milk", didn't think much of the muckraking classic 'The Jungle'. He told Upton Sinclair, the author that "a slaughter-house is not an opera-house", and gave him a nice "fatherly pat on the shoulder,". We've always been called shrill, that's as American as apple pie.
The right presents us with a model, though an imperfect model, of organizing, of closing this rootsgap. That is why Reagan is such a hero (or anti-hero) to people like Obama, because Reagan was the messenger for a wave of grassroots organizing that changed the country profoundly in a conservative direction. But Reagan wasn't just a messenger, he both led the conservative movement by opposing detente, the Panama Canal Treaty, unionization, the Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion, and profited from the organizing work these people had done to lay the groundwork for his governance. This syncretic approach is key to any successful movement. Movements must have leaders, and these leaders must both listen to, lead, and be led by the activists and the public that supports them. There must be bonds of trust, even with inevitable disagreement. The right built up those bonds over forty yearss.
What we have now is a powerful political apparatus that can elect, raise money, engage in policy debates, work through our own media channels, push back on mainstream media channels, and a set of grasstops who organize on behalf of a progressive identity. It's ten years old, and there are now thousands of trained organizers and millions of activists (like you). What we're missing, among other things, is links to direct political leaders. One of the reasons Reagan succeeded is because he had a political machine borne of the conservative activist class, one well-versed in the standard centrist trickery that led to such an infuriating rootsgap on the right. His direct mail people and his evangelical liaisons knew what they wanted, and they knew they wanted more than what the mainstream GOP was offering. While there are great people around our leaders, what is striking is how politicians are considered to be 'over there' making decisions, and activist movement people are considered to be outsiders and reactive to these decisions. This doesn't make sense; cooperation can benefit everyone involved.
Now, I don't think the analogies of our party to the Republicans of the 1970s or 1980s are perfect; the Democratic Party has different problems than the Republican Party did back then, and different opportunities. And it can't be emphasized enough that we believe in very different models of the ideal American polity. But the rootsgap is a commonality, and the rootsgap is the space in which both New Right organizing and this new progressive organizing took place. Ultimately, I don't think this problem of liberal organization can be addressed without more of us from the outside going into areas where we must take some direct (as opposed to indirect) responsibility for the decisions that happen. I believe that the next few years are going to be very hard for this world, and we desperately need a vibrant progressive world, with strong leadership and good strong liberal policies. Liberals have been correct about the war in Iraq, the financial meltdown, the Bankruptcy Bill, the deficit, the Patriot Act, and, well, pretty much everything. What they haven't been is powerful enough to prevent the mistakes the country has made. And this is a leadership problem that we can and will fix.
As a movement, we need to be promoting and helping our leaders make the right decisions, pick the right policies, and surround themselves with individuals who will frame policy choices in real human terms, without the weak bromides that mask the cruel impact of bad policy decisions. That's the problem I want to start solving. And so I'll be moving away from public blogging, though I'm pretty sure I will return eventually, perhaps soon. Politics is always volatile.
I'm going to miss writing for you and being a part of these conversations tremendously. I still feel honored that anyone reads our blog, and even a little shocked. You have helped shape, pretty profoundly, the way I see the world, and the conversations here have always been interesting and lively. Though I'll miss blogging, I'll be around, of course; this is my home, and I won't venture too far. But with the new administration taking office in a few weeks, and a new Democratic Congress taking shape, it's time to experiment with different ways of making change, and different ways of taking responsibility for our great country.
As always, if you want to drop me a line, email me at stoller at gmail.com. Onward.