In "The 'Theory of Change' Primary" Schmitt went on to explain:
The phrase "theory of change" is a bit of jargon that I first encountered in the philanthropic and non-profit world, where it refers to a fairly new way of evaluating the effectiveness of projects by drawing out the underlying assumptions about how they lead to social change. It's a useful innovation, because often differences that seem to be about ideology or effectiveness are really just different ideas about the process that will lead to change, though unspoken and unquestioned.
While I appreciated Schmitt's thoughtfulness, and would have liked to believe his argument, it just didn't add comport with the history of political struggle as I understand it, which is much more along the polarized confrontational lines that Mike describes in his book. And so I wrote a critique, "Obama: Does A 'Theory of Change' Explanation Make Sense?"
Now that Schmitt's argument is back, with some variation, in Andrew Levison's article, "Obama the Sociologist", it's time for another critique.
First, I should say a few words about where I'm coming from, and where I'm going. I do not necessarily believe that the argument in "Obama the Sociologist" accurately reflects Obama's thinking. My sense is that it probably does on some level, but there's more going on at other levels, either in parallel, at odd angles, or cross-purposes or some combination thereof. I think that the interpretation in "Obama the Conservative" is more central, but there's no reason both sorts of thought processes can't cohabit. But I also think that this interpretation is worth responding to and critiquing regardless of whether it accurately maps Obama's own thinking, because I think it is both plausible and ultimately misleading.
What I'd like to do is show the shortcomings of the logic involved, in contrast with Mike's assessment that sooner or later (in line with the history described in his book) Obama is going to have to adopt a more full-throated progressive approach--as hinted at in the video from the Democratic Caucus meeting that David linked on Thursday evening in "Obama Turns It On". Thus, the quotation marks in the title of this diary are important. It's not Mike vs. Obama. It's Mike's take on history, the present moment, and how Obama will respond vs. the argument in "Obama the Sociologist."
This is not, however, an attempt to pick a fight, much less to position Open Left in opposition to The Democratic Strategist. Indeed, despite some differences with its initial analysis, I completely agree with the main thrust of another recent piece from The Democratic Strategist, by Ed Kilgore, "Defining Obama's Political Strategy: Radical Pragmatism, Grassroots Bipartisanship and the Abandoned Center" [pdf], which is also cited in "Obama The Sociologist." (Significantly, Kilgore both adopts the "theory of change" perspective at one level and criticizes it at another.)
"You Talking To Me?"--Answer: No
The first thing to note is that this analysis positions itself in opposition to two presumed interpretive traditions--neither of which represents the dominant perspective of the netroots, or of many commentators (such Tom Frank, referenced within) the netroots commonly refer to. These are modern political science and modern political campaign management. I've bolded the section where they are referred to below:
it can be argued that Obama actually has a more coherent and well thought out approach than either his critics or other interpreters recognize.
To see this, it is necessary to identify a particular blind spot in the perspective of most American political commentators. Modern political science (exemplified in the leading American academic journals) and modern political campaign management (exemplified in "professional" political publications like National Journal, Congressional Quarterly and Campaigns and Elections magazine) actually present a very simplified model of the world, one in which politics is discussed as if it were a separate and isolated realm of life with its own unique rules. In this simplified world, most discussions of politics are based on two seemingly self-evident statements:
1. American elections are won with 50.1 percent of the vote.
2. All votes, regardless of their origin, are, in political terms, equal.
On the surface, these two ideas appear to be not only true but almost tautological. In a great deal of American political commentary, however, they are subtly inflated into two much broader premises that are most emphatically not tautological -- and that are, in fact, arguably wrong.
1. That winning support above 50.1 percent is of relatively small or even negligible marginal benefit or importance. Put differently, it is essentially icing on a cake.
2. That any particular political coalition that can be assembled to provide an electoral majority of 50.1% is of exactly equal value and utility to any alternative political coalition that can also produce an electoral majority of 50.1%. No particular majority coalition is inherently any "better" than any other.
These assumptions are rarely stated explicitly, but they are implicit in much of the progressive concern about Obama's political strategy - the widely expressed fear that he is essentially "leaving achievable progressive victories on the table" because of his commitment to pragmatism and bipartisanship. Having won 53% of the vote and with 59 Democratic senators, it is often argued that he is clearly in a position to seek more progressive, radical or dramatic changes than those which he is actually seeking. To many liberal and progressive commentators, it seems almost self-evident that Obama could demand and get "more" of a progressive agenda enacted if he behaved in a more aggressively hyper-partisan fashion as George Bush did after the 2004 election. Thomas Frank clearly expressed this liberal-progressive view -- and frustration -- by saying that "Obama should act as if he won."
So, the first problem with this passage is the netroots progressives are not, in general, operating under the influence of these two traditions. Neither is Tom Frank, whose interest in the sociology of ordinary Americans is exactly the same terrain that Levison claims as Obama's intellectual home ground, and the source of his unique insight that mere mortals cannot grasp. That's the second problem with this passage. The third problem is that I don't buy either of the second two ideas, nor does a good share of the netroots. Indeed, in my observation, those netizens who do tend to accept one or both of the second pair of ideas tend to be less skeptical of Obama's strategy and philosophy.
The point of raising all three of these problems is that Levison is making a very good argument to deploy against arguments that don't really hold sway with the majority of blogosphere critics. Indeed, I've been arguing since before the 2006 elections that we're in a period of realignment, when the Democrats should be expected to secure majorities well in excess of 50%+1, and it's much more common for people in the blogosphere to argue that majorities need to be coherent in order to be effective. Chris's argument about a growing pluralistic identity coalition is one of the most succinct and obvious-after-the-fact examples of this. When these sorts of conditions arise, the opportunity for fundamental, transformative policy change opens up in ways that are quite unlike other periods--particularly the period we've just been living in, one which has been characterized by divided government.
This is quite a different argument than the ones that Levison is prepared to parry on behalf of his notion of what Obama is up to. In fact, it shares a good deal of the elements that Levison himself uses in making his argument. But the underlying assumptions are quite different. As I've argued before, I believe Obama shares the elitist orientation of early-20th Century progressives, whereas I share a more populist orientation--along with all the other frontpagers here at Open Left, past and present. And it's the presumptions that come with those two different orientations that underlie much of the critique coming from the likes of us.
The focus on Obama's overall procedural conservatism--which bleeds into substantive conservatism at some points--is a complementary variant on this argument. This can be understood historically in terms of several different ways in which the Progressives represented a relatively conservative force: (1) The predominance of old-line civic leadership amongst progressive intellectuals, (2) The frequent political opposition between Progressives and Socialists, epitomized by the Progressive promotion of the depoliticized "city manager" model of city government as a counter against the growing electoral power of Socialist voters in municipal elections. (3) Tensions between the Progressive and Populist traditions described by Jack Balkin in his 1995 Yale Law Review article, "Populism and Progressivism as Constitutional Categories",, which I've written about before (here, here and here) (4) The role of big business in supporting, even initiating preogressive-era regulations to stabilize conditions and reduce competition, as documented by historian Gabriel Kolko's in his book, The Triumph of Conservatism.
The Sociological Imagination?
But there is good evidence (which we shall see below) that Obama's political strategy is actually based on an essentially sociological rather than political science perspective. It rests specifically on one key sociological insight -- that the political strategy required to enact significant progressive social reforms is substantially more complex and difficult than is the strategy required to simply resist social change.
Somehow, I just don't think you need a background in sociology to figure this one out. Half a brain will do just fine.
When significant social reforms threaten to directly affect major social institutions, enacting such reforms requires two things beyond simply wining an electoral victory:
1. The opposition of the key social institution or institutions affected
which in most cases include either the armed forces, big business or the church must be neutralized or at least very significantly muted.
2. A certain baseline level of sociological support (or at least relative neutrality) must be obtained among a series of pivotal social groups. Sociologically and demographically speaking these groups - religious voters, military voters or business voters -- are often predominantly working class, red state voters.
As a result, the coalition necessary to achieve major social reforms will require more than a knife-edge 50.1% majority. Translated into national levels of public support or approval, a commanding majority of as much as 60% may actually be necessary.
While I think the general form of (1) and (2) above are beyond dispute, the specific way they are expressed is another matter altogether, and basically amounts to the perennial claim that middle-aged white dudes matter more than other voters. But let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that's more sophisticated than that--as I'm sure it's intended to be--and respond accordingly.
Okay, for one thing, taking (1) first, in America there is no such thing, politically as "the church". Our religious institutions are and always have been diverse. Furthermore, the military has only been a substantial political player since WWII, and even since then has tended to keep out of non-military matters, focused primarily on its own turf. That leaves big business, and it is indisputable the consolidation of diverse big business interests into a more-or-less unified front has been one of the key characteristics of the period just ending. Yet, there are objective fissures ripe for exploiting, particularly in the light of the current economic crisis. Health insurance costs threatening to bankrupt the auto industry are but one example of this. Domestic companies vs. multinationals who offshore out that wazoo. There are many fissures to be exploited.
Moving on to (2), the formula presented--identifying "pivotal groups" as "religious voters, military voters or business voters -- [who] are often predominantly working class, red state voters"--is yet another variant on the "center-right country" narrative that has always been misleading at best, and is now wildly out of step with today's electorate. Indeed, if Tom Frank is wrong about anything it is about thinking that working-class voters are more susceptible to religious/culture-war politics, as opposed to more affluent voters--as Larry Bartells has persuasive argued in "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?" (pdf) Moreover, as I've argued many times using GSS data, self-identified conservative voters are far more supportive of social spending than conservative political elites are. Indeed, they are much closer to liberal political elites.
The result of generally agreeing in principle to the above two points, while taking strong exception to how they are specifically articulated is in no wise trivial. Nor is what I take to be the cause: a data-friendly, if not data-driven progressive populist perspective that's fundamentally at odds with Obama's elitist progressive ideology--an ideology that is much more prone to cherry-picking its data.
MLK Upside Down
The divide between reasonable principle and misrepresentative example next grows into a chasm as Dr. Martin Luther King is painfully twisted to support the argument. First the principle:
The idea that opposition from major social institutions must be overcome and that the support or neutrality of specific social groups must be obtained is an unfamiliar notion in conventional American politics, but it is a fundamental axiom of successful movements for social change.
Then the painful twisting:
Martin Luther King's strategy in overcoming Southern segregation (which Obama studied in the 1980's) included both successful negotiations with the municipal power brokers in cities like Montgomery and Birmingham in order to moderate their opposition to integration and also extensive but less successful efforts to build economic alliances with lower income whites and other non-elite groups. King considered that social reforms supported by only a knife-edged majority coalition of the educated and the non-white poor were substantially more likely to produce polarization and backlash rather than steady social advance
There are so many things wrong with this presentation of history one hardly knows where to begin. King was not entering into a coalition with the white power structure, and even if he had, that would not have constituted "a knife-edged majority coalition."
Quite to the contrary, King was very clear in seeing that power structure as the enemy--not just his enemy, but the enemy of poor whites as well. And "poor whites" in the South included virtually all of the working class, including his jailers, as is clearly shown in his classic speech, "The Drum Major Instinct":
The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking--calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point--that was the second or third day--to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."
Now that's a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he's superior because his skin is white--and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)
This was the motive and consciousness behind the "Poor People's Movement," which he was organizing for when he was assassinated, well after the fundamental civil rights battles had been won, though their implementation was still very much in dispute.
In short, the actual story of King's multi-issue, multi-level activism is far more complicated than the schematic formula that Levison seeks to invoke. Perhaps most significantly, King was driven by moral purpose that demanded of him a course of action that he himself knew to be significantly more difficult than the easier, single-issue path that was repeatedly urged on him by others. Although a master of strategy and tactics, King was never driven by them, much less swayed. And that central fact clashes fundamentally with the way in which Levison seeks to appropriate him for this narrative.
Confusion and Lowered Expectations
Skipping down a bit, we come to what I think--quite inadvertently--is the real key to Obama's story:
As John Judis has carefully reconstructed, Obama gained a social reformers' perspective of both the power of major social institutions and the difficulty in overcoming their intransigence in his attempts to negotiate with the steel industry on behalf of laid-off steelworkers in Chicago. Obama also directly observed the political paralysis that was induced by the failure to overcome the backlash of white working class community groups in the ethnic communities within the city.
What I take from this is quite different from what Levison does: I see in it Obama's formative experiences in a condition of extreme power imbalance and disadvantage, a condition that while superficially was much less dire than King's was fundamentally much, much weaker, because there was nothing comparable to the incipient mass movement that King suddenly discovered himself at the apex of. I believe that Obama is still psychologically, or perhaps more accurately attitudinally held back by that early, formative political experience.
Others have suggested repeatedly that it goes back to his absent father, and while I think that's part of it, I think it's also possible that a more positive encounter with social change potentials in early adulthood could have substantially compensated for that childhood experience, at least in the realm of his political attitude, orientation, and philosophy. It's the combination of the two that I think we have to reckon with. Obama has, quite simply, no life model of what it means to really win. And that is a really big problem if you're the leader of a political party, particularly if you're President.
Finally, the article plunges head-first into a maelstrom of confusion that lies at the heart of Obama's thinking, in which (1) an entire generation is blamed for the fact that our politics is conflictual, (2) a desire to outreach fails to distinguish between conservative elites and masses, (3) moderate disappear from view entirely, and (4) a model of fundmental change with social stability and broad consensus is invoked--a model with no historical precedent whatsoever in our history. This is not, I would submit, a sociological vision so much as it is a pure political fantasy. And here I think it may be really proper to look to Obama's childhood, and the fact that his boomer parents abandoned him, and his grandparents raised him.
Here's part of what's said as the article movers towards its conclusion:
The most explicit and direct description of how deeply this sociological insight affected Obama's political strategy appeared in a long article by Matt Bai in the Oct 15th edition of the New York Times Magazine:
First, the article reveals how emphatically Obama expressed his rejection of the 50.1 percent approach.
[Obama seeks to] get beyond what he dismissively refers to as the "50-plus-1" governing model, the idea that a president need only represent 50 percent of the country (plus 1 additional vote) to command the office. From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers...To a large extent, this reflects Obama's personal conviction about modern politics, which he first laid out in his 2004 convention speech when he talked about worshiping "an awesome God in the blue states" and having "gay friends in the red states."
He told me, when we talked, that Washington's us-versus-them divisions had made it impossible for any president to find solutions to a series of generational challenges, from Iraq to global climate change. "If voters are polarized and if they're seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity reality and a Keith Olbermann reality, then we're not going to be able to get done the work we need to get done," Obama said.
In short, a commanding majority is not optional "icing on the cake". It is indispensible for achieving significant change. In the same fashion, winning significant support from working class and small town religious and culturally conservative voters is also not optional. It is a prerequisite for maintaining social stability while seeking progressive reform.
There are all the elements I described in a nutshell. And none of them really hang together in the light of actual historical experience, particularly the history of large-scale change that Mike addresses in his book.
But what comes next reveals an even further confusion:
Speaking of his misstep in referring to rural voters "clinging to guns and religion" Obama said:
"part of what I was trying to say to that group in San Francisco was, 'You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong,' " he continued. "Because, in fact, if you've grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that's going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you're watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we'd better be paying attention to that...
What we see here is Obama positively wallowing in rightwing narratives. "Gun control" in America has never been about hunting and hunting rifles. It has been about handguns, and it's the handgun industry above all that has worked 24/7, year after year to keep that confusion alive. What Obama is demonstrating here is not a lack of sympathy for rural voters--which is how this incident was spun--so much as it's a lack of understanding of progressive gun control advocates. It's the progressives he misunderstands much more profoundly than it's the conservatives.
The same can be said about Obama's posturing on religion. He has in the past echoed the paranoid rhetoric of James Wallis talking about Democrats shaming and suppressing religious people. Given that Congress contains exactly one out atheist, this seems not simply highly improbable, but downright delusional. He seems to think that the people he's addressing in San Francisco are, indeed, the fantasy figures of fervid rightwing imaginations, just itching to find some minster's son or daughter to turn onto drugs and seduce. He certainly seems to have no idea that it was Karl Marx who called the church, "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.." One does not have to be a believer to understand this.
It's passages like these that lend strong credence to the thesis of Obama the Conservative. This is not just the temperamental outlook he posses, it is also socio-political outlook as well. Intellectually, he knows that change is needed, but time and time again his reference points emerge as influenced, if not framed and defined by rightwing narratives that he himself quite clearly does not recognize as such.
If I am correct, Obama has a very difficult struggle ahead, not with Republicans in Congress or even with progressives in the netroots, but with himself, and the warring inclinations pulling in him two very different, very contradictory directions, which he himself does not seem to fully realize.
Levison goes on to write:
Soon after Obama's election it became clear that he was, in fact, quite systematically pursuing both of his key objectives - reducing the potential opposition of key social institutions and seeking to broaden his coalition into a commanding majority. The first objective was not immediately recognized as a long-term political strategy because the urgency of the problems Obama inherited made very dramatic overtures to the military and the business community seem inevitable. Liberals and progressives may have disliked a number of Obama's key military and economic policy cabinet choices, but they understood the quite urgent political imperatives that lay behind the selections. What was not necessarily apparent was that those choices were also consistent with a coherent long-term political strategy.
The second objective, on the other hand, seeking to extend his political coalition into a commanding majority, provoked substantial progressive annoyance -- particularly in the case of the selection of Rick Warren to participate in the inauguration and Obama's unreciprocated attempts to win Republican support for his stimulus package. In both these cases many liberal and progressive observers criticized Obama's efforts as seeming to reflect an excessively naïve and timid attitude toward the exercise of power.
This is not, however, outreach to sociological groups. It is outreach to elites. And the outreach to Washington insiders is particularly disassociated from any particular group of conservative populist rural voters or whoever it is that Obama things he needs for whatever it is he is eventually planning to do. Indeed, if it's sociology you want, then Obama should know this: the leadership of the GOP is far more conservative and far more ideological than their voters are. If he wants to reach those voters, then the way to do it is not to go through the GOP leadership, but to go around it. This fundamental fact is extremely well known--particularly to that very same benighted enclave of political scientists that Levison referred to early on. Even more well known--to Obama himself, especially, is that Obama is uniquely gifted as an orator for the task of going around these oppositional elites. And thus his chosen path of engaging and trying to win over elites directly simply makes no sense in terms of the "sociological" theory that Levison advances. If anything, it directly contradicts that thesis. Obama appears to be intentionally choosing the path of greatest possible resistance.
It seems clear to me that, from a realist perspective, Obama's strategy cannot work for a whole host of reasons. It seems equally clear, however, that Obama is not driven by realism. This is the only way I can see to make sense of the multiple contradictions indicated--though certainly not fully explored--above. Thus, I agree with Mike Lux's contention that Obama will eventually have to move left and in a more partisan direction in order to accomplish anything significant. However, the contradictions I've highlighted lead me to question if Obama will actually do what is needed for his own political success. Democrats certainly have a long history in recent decades of acting in deeply self-defeating ways, and it remains to be seen if Obama is capable of doing something truly unique and breaking out of that mode.
At this point, our national situation is so dire that we must all hope for a swift and positive resolution of that questions--a resolution that, if history be any guide, must necessarily follow the path that Mike lays out.