How We Messed Up

by: Mike Lux

Thu Jul 12, 2007 at 17:13

When I blogged on the launching of OpenLeft on Huffington Post, mentioning that I was an insider joining two great bloggers in Matt and Chris, a reader who was perhaps a bit of a smartass mentioned that since us insiders had screwed things up so badly, maybe I could write about how we had pulled that off.

That actually inspired me to dig up something I wrote a couple of years ago, never published but shared with friends, regarding my thinking about how and why Democratic insiders had messed things up starting back about 35-40 years ago.

This piece doesn't explain everything about how the conservative movement succeeded and ours failed over the last two generations. It doesn't address the pacifying and trivializing effect of TV on politics, for example, or the white working class reaction to the changes society was going through. But I think it does give some interesting thoughts on what went wrong. Here it is:

Mike Lux :: How We Messed Up



The assumptions of taking for granted that you are a majority

In the early 1970s, when the right wing began in earnest to build its infrastructure, Democrats felt like they were the natural majority party, and progressives were used to winning substantive policy victories as well. Since Franklin Roosevelt  had swept the Democrats into power in 1932, Democrats had held the White House 28 of the 36 years from then until Nixon took office by the slimmest of margins in 1968. Democrats had been in control of both houses of Congress all but four years in that same period, and were still even with Nixon's landslide re-election victory in 1972. When, after the Watergate scandal, Democrats swept the table in the 1974 congressional elections and then Jimmy Carter won back the presidency in 1976, it just seemed like things were returning to their natural order.

On the policy side of things, progressives were also used to winning important victories.  The New Deal had institutionalized government as a major positive force for the American people, with social security, labor law reform, progressive taxation, backing and financial services regulation, and other policies that made difference in people's lives. Truman had pushed through the hugely important GI bill on the domestic side, and the forward thinking Marshall Plan in international policy. JFK and LBJ had striking success in the area of civil rights, and had gotten through Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs that helped reduce poverty. Even Republican presidents Eisenhower and Nixon were moderate enough to support important new government programs such as the interstate highway system, OSHA, and EPA.

With this kind of 40-year track record of political and policy success, perhaps Democratic and progressive leaders in the 1970s can be excused if they did not see the need for big new institution building projects similar to the ones the right wingers were undertaking. But taking for granted that we would always have a natural majority, had some very unhealthy consequences for our side, including:

• Becoming defenders of the status quo.  When you have passed a lot of big initiatives, and are running things, you start to think things are pretty okay in the world. The openness to new ideas by the powers that be in the Democratic Party faded, and the congressional leadership became very well entrenched. When Republican Presidents started getting elected on a more and more regular basis, the natural reaction was to defend the programs of the past without coming up with new ones, which made Democrats sound increasingly defensive and whiny to the general public.

• Intellectual laziness.  Along with becoming defenders of the status quo came a certain intellectual laziness. Democrats felt like they had solved many of the problems of the world, and that voters would keep rewarding them for their historic accomplishments. It did not seem like there was much need for rethinking broad ideology or governing assumptions.

• Protecting incumbents was more important than building the farm team or shaking things up. When you take for granted that you are in a permanent majority situation, it's natural to think first and foremost about protecting incumbents. The emphasis on protecting incumbents hurt us both in terms of an overall flabbiness to our message, and in terms of recruiting, training, mentoring, and supporting promising young people coming up through the ranks. Entrenched incumbents never want to rock the boat too much in terms of a populist change message, either in general or any particular issues such as healthcare, and they just don't pay as much attention to the young turks on the way up. 

Entrenched incumbency also had a devastating impact on building a Democrats farm team. A program similar to what Gingrich did with GOPAC, of spending millions to recruit and train young potential office holders, simply was not going to happen in any major way in the Democratic Party of the 1970s and 1980s.

• Building for the long term. Conservatives felt perfectly comfortable about digging in for the long term on issues and message because they felt they had no choice. Progressives, not worried about having a long term majority and believing any electoral setback to be a short term aberration, tended to focus  on whatever short term issue fight was at hand.

• No urgency about institution building or ideological coherency.  This was the most important failing of all.  Republicans and conservatives knew they had top build their case with the American public for a more conservative America, and they acted accordingly. They systematically built think tanks and issue advocacy that had a coherent conservative message, ideology, and agenda at their heart. Progressives and Democrats assumed the public was with them ultimately, and tended to focus on specific policy areas to defend or do better on - the environment, choice, gun control, etc. - or specific consistency groups to help - labor, blacks, women, hispanics, gays/lesbians, the disabled, etc. We had a tinkering-around mindset, rather than being focused on building institutions or a broader message that could help win in the long term.

The end result of this fundamental difference in mind sets resulted in Republican and conservatives building a movement and infrastructure that held together both philosophically and in terms of political strategy. In the meanwhile, Democrats and progressives were more and more on the defensive, and were building issue based or demographically based groups that had few common goals or language. The conservatives built themselves a movement; progressives built a series of narrowly defined interest groups.

Progressive vs. conservative culture

There is also a fundamental difference in the culture of progressives versus conservatives.  I mention this with a fair share of trepidation, because I know some folks may react badly to this analysis, but I believe in its truth. There are a great many positive things about the progressive movement's culture - including diversity, tolerance, creativity, and a willingness to question authority - but these same positive attributes have also contributed to us not building a strong political infrastructure.

Conservatives are much more likely to come from the worlds of business, the military, and/or conservative churches, all of which tend to be top down institutions where authority is deferred to and discipline is tight. Progressives are much more likely to come from the labor movement, community organizations, non-profit and social services organizations, and liberal churches where people are encouraged to question authority and value diversity of opinion and action. These fundamental cultural differences have shaped the nature of both movements, and of the political parties that are natural homes of each side.

One of my favorite political quotes of all time is from Newt Gingrich, who once said, "Democrats are the enemies of normal Americans." I love this quote because it neatly summarizes the attitude of right-wing Republicans, and the differences between the parties. To Gingrich and his allies, being normal means being the most traditional kind of American: White, heterosexual, married, Christian, regular church-goer, at least reasonably well off, no serious health problems or disabilities, with a home in the suburbs or in small town rural America.  And if you accept this definition of "normal", Gingrich tends to be right. If you are a male and fit all these categories, your demographic group consistently gives over 80% of your votes for Republicans at all levels. If you are a female, but still fit the rest of that demographic profile, the Republican percentage tends to be less but not by a huge margin - generally only five to ten percent depending on the year. Democrats, on the other hand, are the party of all those folks who do not fit the Gingrichian definition of "normal": African Americans, Latinos, Asian and Pacific islanders, immigrants, union members, gays and lesbians, unmarried folks, people of diverse faiths as well as non-church-goers, people with disabilities, intellectuals, artists, people who live in- and actually enjoy doing so- big cities,  low income folks, etc. That kind of diversity in our coalition means we have tended to be less disciplined and consistent in our message and strategy, and less willing to describe a coherent philosophy or framework for what the Democratic Party or the progressive movement stands for, and why we do. And because we tend to come from non-authoritarian religious, political, and social institutions, it reinforces this "let a thousand flowers bloom" tradition. For 30 years, I've been seeing people at political meetings wearing "question authority" buttons.

Another difference I have found between the conservative and progressive cultures is the way business is viewed. Because so many conservatives come oout of the business work and respect it, many of the techniques of business were brought to bear in their political work in terms of:
• the raising of capital

• income and cash flow management

• the development of long term business plans

• creating long term multi-media marketing strategies

• developing branding strategies for their products

• creating linkages (such as interlocking boards of directors) and business to business partnerships

These strategies, if applied in the right ways, can be just as effective in politics as in business, in both specific campaigns and in long term organization building.

Specific firms as well as techniques have also been brought in to help Republicans in campaigns. Republicans, for example, have a long tradition of involving commercial ad agencies in the development of their Presidential ad campaigns, as opposed to Democrats who have mostly used traditional political ad firms for their ad campaigns.  The most famous example- but far from the only one- of how these non-political ad firms can bring a more sweeping thematic image to a campaign was the 1984 "Morning in America" ad campaign developed by Hal Riney of Ogilvy and Mather, whose brilliant evocative images perfectly captured the broader image Reagan's team was trying to build.

Democrats and progressives have been far slower to embrace these kinds of strategies. Sometimes that was because of suspicion and political correctness, sometimes because these strategies were so fundamentally foreign to progressives' experience and world view. This dynamic is starting to change, as we will see later on, but that change has been agonizingly slow to come.

As a result of progressives assuming we would always be a majority, and having a culture that was too diverse and non-authoritarian to create a coherent political strategy and ideology, we have not responded very effectively over the last thirty years to the conservative movement's steady progress of building a powerful infrastructure. It is actually remarkable that despite the right wing's overwhelming infrastructure that we are still as competitive as we are. After losing control of the Senate, and working control of the House (because of conservative southern Democrats voting so often with Reagan) in 1980 we regained working control of the House in 1982, and of the Senate in 1986, and held both until 1994.  From 1990 through 2000, we had more votes then the Republicans in three consecutive Presidential elections, and gained seats in Congress in five of six elections. A Democratic President had consistently high approval ratings through his last six years in office despite scandal and impeachment.  Even in 2002 and 2004, we were closely competitive in spite of being on the losing side.

So that was my thinking on some of the things that went wrong with American progressivism over the last couple of generations. And by the way, I am in no way suggesting that the way to rebuild is to copy the top-down culture and ugly tactics of the right: quite the opposite. I believe instead that we need to build our own kind of movement, one that is fueled by a more egalitarian and communal culture. Sort of, well, an Open Left…

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How We Messed Up | 29 comments
progressive culture vs. conservative culture (4.00 / 1)
I agree that the anti-authoritarian culture (while great for so many reasons) is a challenge in macro-level coalition and movement building. 

I've personally felt the challenges of these cultural differences at a more micro level, like any time that I had to organize a volunteer canvassing event on a campaign.  The volunteers, bless their hearts, can be quite a handful when they're questioning and nit-picking every little detail of a well crafted field plan that was written by leading campaign experts.  For better or for worse, I always imagined that the GOP volunteers took their marching orders without batting an eyelash.

Great Essay (0.00 / 0)
I'll recommend everyone to hit "printer friendly version" before you start reading it as it's a real strain on the eyes otherwise.

One small disagreement (0.00 / 0)
When you say "Gingrich tends to be right."  I disagree, I don't think we victimize anyone in that demographic.  I don't we're their enemy.

Gingrich tends to be right in that the right wing is successful in convincing them to fear all those that don't fit that category.  But I don't think in helping those who aren't all of those that we hurt those who are.  Perhaps if you said extraordinarily well off I'd agree.

[ Parent ]
sorry about that (0.00 / 0)
Yeah, it's just a tad long. Oh, well. My only defense is that it's a complicated subject.

[ Parent ]
Loadsa food for thought! (0.00 / 0)
The Dems got their perfect storm in 1932 - it's taken from then till now for the political system to approach some kind of new equilbrium.

The fact that for so long they were able to have their cake and eat it - turning previous GOP strongholds in the North whilst hanging onto their (ideologically incompatible) Southern cohort - was bound to institutionalize a false sense of security.

Factors like the luck of the JFK assassination shifting the logjam in Congress, and the extreme slo-mo of the unwinding of the Solid South added to that sense.

(The unwinding was still going on after the 94 elections, counteracting the effect of a Dem recovery in the North.)

Democrats aren't Progressive (4.00 / 4)
"Democrats, on the other hand, are the party of all those folks who do not fit the Gingrichian definition of "normal": African Americans, Latinos, Asian and Pacific islanders, immigrants, union members, gays and lesbians, unmarried folks, people of diverse faiths as well as non-church-goers, people with disabilities, intellectuals, artists, people who live in- and actually enjoy doing so- big cities,  low income folks, etc."

I don't think you described Democrats. You described Progressives, or perhaps "non-Republicans". The Democratic party has alienated most of the groups in your list. Union members? Why do most Democratic politicians support NAFTA, WTO, and other job-exporting measures? Gays and lesbians? Not much support there either, other than NOT striving to create marriage amendments in the Constitution. Minorities, intellectuals, and artists? Why do most Democratic politicians still support the failed Drug War? Low-income folks? Has anyone ever heard of the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996"? See also my comments about NAFTA/WTO for this one.

In your article, you discuss everything except for the Democrats' steady drift to the political right. Many of the people in your diverse list will vote Democrat as the lesser of two evils, but how many don't even bother to vote any more?

Democrats lose elections because they have alienated the Progressive base. They haven't won major elections without unique circumstances since the 1960's. Jimmy Carter? Thank you Richard Nixon. Bill Clinton? Thank you Ross Perot. 2006 Mid-Term? Thank you Iraq Mess and George W. Bush (easily the worst President in US History ... amazing that he was reelected, eh?). 2008? Maybe Michael Bloomberg will run 3rd party and save the day.

I pretty much agree. (0.00 / 0)
I think in 2008 we're doomed if we nominate someone who makes it an election solely about being against Bush or the Iraq war.  It's a winning strategy in the short term, but it does nothing to advance our agenda.

While using these things to our advantage is understandable, we have to nominate someone with big ideas for Energy, Healthcare, Education, and Jobs.  Election and Media reform must also be high up there on their priority list.

We have a great opportunity here that's been opened up by Bush's incompetence, but we'll squander it if that's all we make the election about.

[ Parent ]
Great point... (0.00 / 0)
And this may be why most progressives/leftists I know are supportive of the overall progressive agenda, but skeptical (if not hostile) towards established Democratic politicians. Especially on the federal level, where our elected leaders do not represent the diverse demographics described in Lux's article. They are mostly wealthy, white and Christian - just like Lux's (and Bower's, in a recent post) own description of Republicans.

"Don't hate the media, become the media" -Jello Biafra

[ Parent ]
1972 (4.00 / 1)
I'd say one major blow to the progressive movement in the Democratic party came with the intra-party demonization of George McGovern in the 1972 primary campaign and the abandonment of support for his general election campaign by a lot of the Democratic leadership who had been liberal on many social issues but had supported the Vietnam War.

The three presumed frontrunners in '72: Muskie, Humphrey, and Jackson were liberal and progressive in their domestic policies, but Humphrey had supported the war as VP, Muskie had supported it as a Senator and as Humphrey's '68 running mate, and Jackson was such a war hawk that his staff included Bill Kristol, Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney, and Elliott Abrams back when they were just proto-neocons.

Pushing domestic progressive issues from Congress isn't enough. Progreressive domestic policy can only go so far. Eventually, you have to enter the lions den of foreign policy, which is what McGovern did throughout his Senate career, and people like Jimmy Carter -- who was a leader of the Anybody But McGovern movement at the Miami convention and a dead-ender on Vietnam -- torpedoed any chance the Democrats had to regain control from Nixon and try to repair the social programs that FDR and Johnson had installed that were already unravelling under Nixon and Ford. By the time Carter got into office, he had to deal with a load of problems that had festered for another four years, and then he ended up supplanted by Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush.

It's been 40 years since anyone in the White House was actually working on something like a real progressive agenda. Most of it's been rollback.

Those who have had a chance for four years and could not produce peace should not be given another chance. --Richard Nixon, 9 October 1968

[ Parent ]
Dems and progressives (0.00 / 0)
I think the biggest reason the Dems drifted right is the success of the right wing infrastructure in driving the political debate to the right, for reasons I address in the article and others as well. There is no doubt at all that there are too many Dems who are not true progressives on a range of issues. But Dems are still the more progressive party. You are wrong when you say most Dems were for NAFTA, actually most of them voted against it, and WTO, and other bad trade deals. A majority of Dems voted against welfare reform, too. Most Dems support a wide range of gay civil rights as well, even though a lot of them still suck on marriage. The Democratic party is a thousand miles away from perfect, but a large majority still support most progressive issues. 

[ Parent ]
Re: Dems and progressives (4.00 / 1)
A majority of House Dems voted for joining WTO (167-89) and even more strongly against efforts for the US to withdraw from WTO in 2000 and 2005. A majority of House Dems opposed NAFTA, but 40% still voted for it. http://www.citizen.o...

The right wing has certainly been successful in framing the debate to their advantage. However, you don't say too much about the role of big money in political platforms. There is quite a bit of talk on this site about fundraising (and it is obviously important for winning). The 2004 presidential campaign cost over $1 billion!

This kind of money is anathema to grass-roots organizing and progressive causes (particularly those causes which are
intended to help the poor or otherwise disenfranchised). Billion dollar campaigns are also a huge advantage for the GOP (the party of the extremely wealthy). To compensate, the Democrats go after the same big money donors, moving to the right in the process.

[ Parent ]
Studies (4.00 / 2)
Psychologist Robert Altemeyer has been studying this phenomena for 40+ years. His work was the basis for John Dean's recent book "Conservatives without Conscience".

He maps out the psychological characteristics of the type of people that are being defined. He is circumspect enough not to try to correlate these characteristics (belief in a strong leader and a hierarchical social structure) with any specific upbringing. He does find a strong correlation between this personality type and having conservative political beliefs.

He also finds that increasing education and exposure to others not in your own group lessens prejudice.

Altemeyer has written his own book summarizing his finding and has published it online for free. You can read it here:
The Authoritarians

I think if you are going to try to counter the effects of the right and their hold on those who are easily led it is important to understand their makeup. Reading his book can help.

Policies not Politics

Started reading (0.00 / 0)
I started reading his book online.  I'm already on chapter 4.  It's an amazing the amount of insight he brings.  Does this guy blog anywhere, because if he enjoys a captive audience(as he claims in his book) he could get one quickly.

Our Dime Understanding the U.S. Budget

[ Parent ]
You dance with the person that brought you (4.00 / 3)
Your discussion makes a lot of sense, particularly with regard to the strong and weak points of liberal and conservative values, ideologies and political philosophies, and I agree with much of it.

But I have something against the Democratic party and have had for a long time. I firmly believe that once the Democratic party achieved dominance and power in the 70s, they fell into the same trap that all people fall into when they are given too much power. The middle class put the Democrats in power. The middle class kept them there. But the Democrats abandoned America's middle class and lower class when they made their PAC with corporate America. Corporate me if I'm wrong, but I'm of the opinion that the Democratic party sold their soul to the devil in the 80s by chasing corporate money, both in the form of political donations and in the form of corporate stock and business opportunities. Wealthy opportunists took over the leadership and political strategy of the Democratic party. Lobbyists and corporate interests became more important than American citizens. In other words, power created opportunity, opportunity created wealth and wealth corrupted the Democratic party.

The Republican party is the party of wealth. The Republican party supports the agenda and interests of the very wealthy. The Democratic party does not. The Democratic party will never be able to compete with the Republican party where the interests of the wealthy are concerned.

We can blame Reagan to some degree on the Dixiecrats. Prejudice and fear are two of the most powerful tools the right has at its disposal. But the self-interest of the middle class is the heart and soul of the Democratic party. Not just the middle-class, but the lower middle class and the upper middle class as well. And because of the very nature of wealth, the Democratic party, if it remains true to its purpose, will always have the majority of voters. That fact that the Republican party came to power at all is not the result of superior money or organization or anything of the kind. It is the result of the Democrats caving in on the things that mattered most.

Just like they're doing now.


Agreed... (0.00 / 0)
..getting knocked out of power may be the best thing that ever happened to the Democratic party.

"Don't hate the media, become the media" -Jello Biafra

[ Parent ]
"Wealthy opportunists took over the leadership and political strategy of the Democratic party" (0.00 / 0)
As opposed to the working class heroes like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy who ran the Democratic party during the height of the New Deal coalition?

[ Parent ]
No, I was thinking more like (0.00 / 0)
K Street and Terry McAuliffe. And they're both still here.

[ Parent ]
I understand what you're saying (0.00 / 0)
and my counterargument is that not much has changed on that front.  The Dem leadership has always been super rich elites, even back when the party message was far more populist than it is today. 

[ Parent ]
The difference (0.00 / 0)
is who they are trying to please. There was no "K Street" when FDR took office, nor JFK, nor for the most part JEC. It developed into its present malignant form during the Carter Administration, to my horror at the time, with double-digit annual growth in PAC $s beginning in the late '70's.

The Democratic Party was agnostic on Foreign Policy prior to 1972. Protoneocon, or not? McGovern made a thematically lame attempt to force the issue, lost badly, and here we are. On domestic issues our current path was decided in the late '70's with the growth of PACs, and the determination by the Democratic Party that their lucre, directed at the time to Democratic officeholders since they ran all the committees, was their salvation from perpetual funding imbalances vis the Pugs.

Short-sighted, intellectually lazy Mistake.


[ Parent ]
I think Democrats are on the offensive again... (0.00 / 0)
I think you are right that Democrats spent much of the last 20+ years defending the legacy of progressive triumphs. But we now find ourselves with several big progressive causes - climate change and universal health care seem to be the biggest - that are both the exclusive domain of the progressive left AND increasingly popular with the general public. These two issues can end up constituting the bulk of our newest deal, and offer us something to stand for again.

Then we can go about spending the next 20+ years defending these policies :)

"Don't hate the media, become the media" -Jello Biafra

Progressives and Democrats (0.00 / 0)
Echoing some of the comments further up, I'm curious where you think the distinctions between Democrats and Progressives lie in this analysis.

Having not been alive in 1972, I don't know what it was like, but I kind of doubt there was a widespread popular sense that a "Natural Progressive Majority" was in place. Nixon was stomping hippies at the time, or so the story is told.

Anyway, it's a nice analysis, but it would be good if you were to tighten your language a bit. Soul-searching is always more evocative if you can be specific.

Another point: do you see the difference between political campaigning and governance as being germane at all? They're both necessary to building a majority, but they require fairly disparate institutions and activities to be carried out successfully.

Me | My Work | Future Majority

thoughtful questions (0.00 / 0)
You raise really good questions, and I think the answers will need a lot of time and (writing) space to work through. Perhaps in a future post...
But the short answer is that there are big differences between what I think of as progressivism and the Democratic party; and between governing and campaigning. FDR built an enduring progressive majority on broad economic issues by both campaigning and governing well, but it sure wasn't progressive on everything (like race).

[ Parent ]
Federal vs. State Focus (0.00 / 0)
Mike, one piece of the puzzle that I think you ignore in this piece is that for many reasons, post-New Deal Democrats were more focused on passing policy at the federal level, almost foregoing the states as an effective organizing and policy-making arena. This was a natural reaction to viewing the New Deal as the most effective liberal idea of the century, and one that was as top-down from Washington as can be imagined. Later, the Dems federal focus might have constituted a reaction to viewing 'the states' as dangerous - where civil rights were violently denied, anti-Semitism was rife, and education seemed to take a back seat to fundamentalist religiosity. 

Thus it has taken ages - and big losses in DC - for Democrats to start seeing the states as a viable political sphere. The tensions above are still present, of course, but the game is changing. Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, Progressive Majority, the Equality Federation and many other DC-based organizations (not to mention thousands of state projects and campaigns) have helped turn Democratic strategists, politicians and other organizations' focus to locales far beyond the Beltway. And it's about time.

Agreed (0.00 / 0)
Yep, everything you said.

[ Parent ]
Perhaps there is an equation at work here? (0.00 / 0)
The observations & tentative analysis are accurate about the behaviors of the parties.  However, equally important are changes in the population of the US & changes in the electorate.

Some observations about very large percentage shifts in the demographics of the American people would be useful.  Many groups changed, shifted, drifted, opted toward the rethuglican party because of economics, religious beliefs, geography, etc.

And it would be vitally important to take into account how so few people actually vote & how the make-up of those who do is vastly different than the majorities that elected Roosevelt, et al.

How We Messed Up | 29 comments

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