Moving Beyond Transactions, Finding Our National Purpose

by: Chris Bowers

Thu Mar 20, 2008 at 15:00


Yesterday, I blogged about how connecting the Iraq war to the bad economy held transformative progressive potential since such an argument implied that such large scale military spending was fundamentally a waste of money. Today, Barack Obama made a speech connecting the war to the bad economy, which is a good first step. Unfortunately, Obama's framing was steeped in transactional politics, rather than transformational values:

"Instead of fighting this war, we could be fighting for the people of West Virginia," Senator Obama said today.  "For what folks in this state have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students. We could be fighting to put the American dream within reach for every American - by giving tax breaks to working families, offering relief to struggling homeowners, reversing President Bush's cuts to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and protecting Social Security today, tomorrow, and forever. That's what we could be doing instead of fighting this war."

There is nothing remotely transformational about this. Instead, it is part of the long-standing Democratic habit of promising a laundry list of benefits to discrete voting and issue groups. It is technocratic, transactional politics, utterly lacking in the broader argument that large-scale military spending of the sort we have seen in Iraq has led to 5% of our national economy being sunk into ventures that provide virtually no return on that investment or broader benefit to Americans. In fact, part of Obama's argument is that military spending on Iraq should be redirected to other types of military spending:

As President, Barack Obama will end the war in Iraq and redirect our resources toward pressing domestic and national security priorities.  Ending the war in Iraq will help pay for Obama's priorities for the country, which include:(...)

Rebuilding our military capability by increasing the number of soldiers, marines, and special forces troops, and insist on adequate training and time off between deployments;

We need to reduce our spending on Iraq so that we can increase the size of our military? Pardon me for asking, but what exactly is the purpose of increasing the size of our military if wars like Iraq don't make any sense? What does it accomplish except to inefficiently suck money out of the economy and guard against an impending Canadian invasion force?

The broader point that needs to me made is not that Iraq specifically has prevented money from being funneled directly to your specific demographic group, but that excessive military spending in places like Iraq drains massive amounts of money from our nation as a whole. The Iraq war is our major national project right now, equivalent to the Apollo program or the New Deal. Do we want that as our national project? I don't think many Americans would agree. Do we want a series of transactions to specific demographic groups and issues to be our national project? Even if is vastly preferable to making the Iraq war our national project, the truth is that isn't very appealing either. We need a different framing around what we want our national project to be, and we need a Democratic leader who is willing to make that case to the country as a whole.

Tell me that instead of the Iraq war, maintaining a massive global military deployment or doling out a series of narrowly targeted government programs, we are going to do other great things as a nation. Tell me that we are going to have a New Deal for America. Tell me we are going to build a Great Society. Tell me that we are going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Tell me that we are going to win and end the cold war. Hell, even tell me that we are going to secure freedom around the world, because at least that is a national project that sounds worthwhile. These are the sort of transformative proposals we need from Democrats, and right now we just don't have any. Technocratic, transactional politics just is not as appealing, and ultimately secures a non-ideological mandate and a lack of purpose for the country as a whole. Until we offer just such a sense of purpose, we will never complete the progressive realignment towards which the progressive movement has been building for nearly a decade. Fighting for working families, homeowners, and Social Security recipients, however noble, just doesn't cut it.

Update: For further context, here is the rest of the linked article, starting from the point were the above quote ends:

As President, Barack Obama will end the war in Iraq and redirect our resources toward pressing domestic and national security priorities.  Ending the war in Iraq will help pay for Obama's priorities for the country, which include:

  • Keeping the sacred trust with our veterans;

  • Rebuilding our military capability by increasing the number of soldiers, marines, and special forces troops, and insist on adequate training and time off between deployments;

  • Covering all Americans and reducing health care costs by $2,500 for a typical family;

  • Putting college within reach by providing a $4,000 refundable tax credit available at the time of enrollment;

  • Creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance existing federal transportation investments that will provide at least two million new U.S. jobs;

  • Providing a middle class tax cut of up to $1,000 for working families;

  • Strengthening retirement security and protect Social Security; and

  • Investing in a clean energy future to wean the U.S. off of foreign oil and to lead the world against the threat of global climate change

That is absolutely a laundry list. Further, there is nothing broader under which the list is framed. What is the overarching idea, here? What is the theme? What is the project? All I can see is a list of discrete legislative ideas that are not connected in any overt manner. Give me the theme, the purpose, and the connection. As long as we lack that, we are not providing the country with any particular direction.

Update 2: For even more context, here is the entire speech. It is basically a really, really long list of things we could do instead of continue the Iraq war. As in a 20 minute list. And  there just isn't anything connecting it all:

Chris Bowers :: Moving Beyond Transactions, Finding Our National Purpose

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Agreed. I would like the project to be: (4.00 / 1)
"renewable energy; energy independence"  

but with a catchier name, of course.


Right (0.00 / 0)
But it's not just renewable energy, that is very much a transactional promise. What we could do with the money we waste on military research and dramatically wasteful big budget projects like bombers and battleships is much more than just produce renewable energy. We could restructure our energy economy, making it clean, efficient, cheap, decentralized, technologically advanced, more equitable and more secure. We could create jobs, empower millions of local energy producers, and begin in earnest to combat climate change. We could also once again take global leadership and unify the rest of the world around a powerful vision of a future in which nations cooperate to preserve the environment, instead of competing to exploit it.

A New Energy Economy really is a transformational vision, and a fairer deal for everyone.

I support John McCain because children are too healthy anyway.


[ Parent ]
Yep -- that is what I had in mind. nt. (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
The Iraq War Project (0.00 / 0)
The Iraq war is our major national project right now, equivalent to the Apollo program or the New Deal.

How depressing.

Also, was this the big economy speech Obama was going to give today? I am not even a little impressed. I'm the opposite of impressed.  

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


This is a little better... (0.00 / 0)
From an Obama advisor - a plan to use government leverage to control oil prices and (potentially) regulate the oil industry.

http://www.reuters.com/article...

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


[ Parent ]
The speech (0.00 / 0)
The speech was never said to be about the economy but about the impact of the War in Iraq on the economy.

[ Parent ]
I completely agree... (0.00 / 0)
I'll admit at first I didn't know what you were getting at, but you're absolutely correct.  Democrats need to frame the issues they care about in a way that is catchy and relatable to ordinary people.

I like "Project America."  I mean... come on... How can you vote against "Project America"!?!?! Talk about being unpatriotic if you did!

John McCain believes "Women shouldn't have a choice."


I agree (0.00 / 0)
that americans need a shared sense of purpose again, but have all along had the impression that THIS is what Obama's candidacy is all about.  

I don't have the time right now to find specific examples in speeches, but it seems to me these transformational values that obama talks of are those values that make us all uniquely american, and he ties them very well into progressive values.

the quote you have listed first, while not having a catchphrase, IS about transformational values ~ giving ALL the opportunity they deserve, regardless of class, race, sex, etc.

We could be fighting to put the American dream within reach for every American


Obama's speech (0.00 / 0)
At least Obama is out there speaking to serious issues and acting like a President.  Hillary is running around in Michigan whining about a bunch of illegitimate delegates that she isn't going to get.  Who would make a better Chief Executive?

This isn't a candidate thread (4.00 / 2)
So don't try to turn it into one.

I support John McCain because children are too healthy anyway.

[ Parent ]
Unfortunately (0.00 / 0)
After seven years of being told that "the terrorists are out to get us," expressly stating that the military industrial complex is largely responsible for the economic mess we're in, and calling for a drastic reduction in military spending would just provide fuel to the crazies already afraid that Obama will surrender to teh terrorists.  I can see the email now: Obama the stealth muslim wants to lower our defenses so he can invite his cousins in to invade and attack.

Besides, as you yourself said, his Iraq-economics speech is a good first step; the difference between transformational and transactional is largely one of degree and semantics, and the laundry list illustrates the costs of the economic choices made by Bush in a way that voters can understand.  Besides, if you think about it, it's pretty courageous to even broach the subject at all, since even raising the monetary costs of the war could invite charges that one is not "supporting the troops."  For evidence of this, one need look no further than the last time Congress caved on borrowing money to continue Bush's folly.

All in due time.


A reply (4.00 / 1)
Agreed, it would be risky to explicitly state a reduction in the military, but the point is that Obama actually advocated increasing it through man power. Not only is the 'man-power' somewhat antiquated in military terms but if its meant as an economic policy its ridiculous when as mentioned that could go in to new industries rather than the miltiary.

Of deeper significance is Obama's support of the military industrial complex, where is the democrat who will challenge the this militaristic core to the US, one which will only result in escalating arms races with developing superpowers such as China. At great expense to America and lend a destabilising militaristic tone to US foreign policy. i'm particualrly disappointed Obama took this line given he's seemed quite international in his outlook.

http://www.entangledalliances....


[ Parent ]
Thanks for writing this Chris (0.00 / 0)
I am a Obama supporter and view him as one of our best chances in a long time for real progressive change. But that is for another topic.

I hope you continue to focus on the transactional vs transformational political divide within the progressive movement.

As for the national project. Eric Massa had two great posts about this on DailyKos about a year ago. The first one was "Building a Majority Party: Reforging Democratic Identity" and the second "FDR and Reforging Democratic Identity Part 2: Ending Free Trade and beginning Fair Trade"

They are based on FDR's speech calling for a second bill of rights. A economic security bill of rights. Those were:

   *   the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
   *  the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
   *  the right of every farmer to raise and sell his produce at return which will give him and his family a decent living;
   *  the right of every businessman, large or small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair completion and domination by monopolies at home and abroad;
   *  the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
   *  the right to adequate protection form the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
   *  the right to a good education.

Of course they would have to be updated to fit modern needs. But to me that must be at the center of a New American Project. The one thing that unites or should unite Democrats around the country is economic issues. Republicans since Reagan have always said they are "low taxes, traditional values and strong defense" and the Democrats have always said "Uh, I think we are for something.." We as Democrats must be for the American Dream. That everyone should have a right to it with the new bill of rights.

It would be really interesting to see a project similar to the responsible plan but you working with Massa and others on a New American Deal or something like that. That is definitely something I would want to be a part of.

John McCain: Beacuse lobbyists should have more power


A good idea (0.00 / 0)
but don't use he name: New American Project ~ smacks of PNAC a bit too much

[ Parent ]
How about (0.00 / 0)
New American Deal.

Like the new deal. But more American. And newer.

John McCain: Beacuse lobbyists should have more power


[ Parent ]
Moving beyond transaction and distractions (0.00 / 0)
because this is fundamentally what progressives should be demanding.  Your post yesterday was right on, but attracted few comments...and several of those wanted to argue narrowly whether the war was actually a significant cause of our current economic mess, despite the fact that most Americans now believe there is a linkage.   Fladem yesterday called this political development perhaps the most important in his/her lifetime.  I agree.  We need to seize this moment as you do here.     You've re-focused us correctly.  The war--and the massive military and security establishment that propels it-- is our national project.     We desperately need a new sense of purpose and it is our job as progressives to push...hard, not enable, the candidates, especially those we prefer.

I have at times grown quite frustrated by how easily distracted we are all (more frustrated than in the past...again, I think it is a function of what this progressive moment represents)...but writing like this gives me energy.  Keep going with this, Chris.


Random question... (4.00 / 2)
This is seemingly obvious, but do the candidates have people that read these blogs?  I know that they occasionally write diaries on these sites, but do they ever actually look at it for advice?

I'm just curious because, in a sense, these are kind of like progressive "think tanks".  I think Chris makes a good point here, and the comments discussing it are also helpful.  It seems like a lot of ideas that the candidates could push could come from these blogs and the discussion around them.  Not that they should listen to every random thought someone posts on the internet, but they seem like at least a good source of mining some collective "progressive" knowledge.  It seems, at the very least, some people should be basically responsible for checking in on the blogs, determining if there are any good ideas there, and then presenting them to the candidate.

Not to diminish what you're doing here, Chris, which I think is extremely valuable either way... but if stuff like this doesn't filter up to the candidates in some fashion, it seems like they could be missing something valuable.


maybe i'm grouchy this week (0.00 / 0)
But I'll take issue with another post of yours here.

How is talking about health care and education providing "a laundry list of benefits to discrete voting and issue groups". This just doesn't make sense. Maybe if he was like "we could spend it on new tiles for the city hall roof", that would be more laundromat.

I can't figure out what "transformational" demand you want Obama to make. You say "[t]he Iraq war is our major national project right now, equivalent to the Apollo program or the New Deal. Do we want that as our national project?" But providing health care and/or education can't be it. Going to the moon?


I was writing a response (4.00 / 1)
but since it was long, I decided to just put it as an update to the post. I hope it answers your question.  

[ Parent ]
i see -- but... (0.00 / 0)
I think this is more Monday-morning quarterbacking than actually an issue. Perhaps Obama could have sorted the list differently, or broken it out into sections. For example, as far as I can tell, you would be happy if Obama simply reframed education/college access into some kind of "moon shot" "transformational" goal with the same policy prescriptions.

It's a question of style, in other words, not substance (at least excepting that weird thing about "increasing the number of soldiers".) And if we're going to join in the quarterbacking, I would say Obama's taken more hits for "the vision thing" and that being dull and quantitative about things is possibly a good move for him at times.


[ Parent ]
It is not just style (0.00 / 0)
I know it can seem that way, but I'm not looking for a theme that connects those seven bullet points. Instead, I'm looking for a theme first, and the bullet points next. While that will mean that some of the above bullet points are reduced in importance during the campaign, that is the way it goes.

When we find the theme, the specific bullet points will change.  And the theme is more important than the bullet points.  


[ Parent ]
the theme for obama (0.00 / 0)
is "hope" (but I think you knew that already.) Maybe you want a bridge principle? Something both more vague and sexier than "X more elementary school teachers" and less so than "yes yes we can."

What's a theme? I personally think we need better education, better health care, better science, better foreign policy -- perhaps my theme is "better"? But it's hard to get doctors and nurses and diplomats and teachers under the same heading if you get more specific.

I'm teasing a bit, but I think you would help us understand your point better if you gave a concrete example of a theme -- or at least a historical one?


[ Parent ]
I gave several historical examples in the above post (0.00 / 0)
New Deal, Great Society, Apollo program, ending the cold war, are all examples. And by "theme" I mean a direction for the country. "Hope" isn't a direction. Lists are not directions. Give us a direction to follow, give us a project to undertake. Pointing to a 50-point plan points us in 50 short directions to complete 50 short projects. Give us the big project, the main direction. Obama isn't doing that.

Of course, Clinton isn't doing that either. In fact, the laundry list of short policies is now known as "Clintonian" politics. It is a frame we need to escape.  


[ Parent ]
well . . . (0.00 / 0)
To a certain extent the Dems are really just trying to rescue the New Deal at this point. Obama's hit more on the Civil Rights era, of course. You could make up a new frame, of course, "New Deal 2.0", but there are these unfinished projects we have lying around to hand.

Indeed, if there is a substantive theme in Obama's rhetoric, in the sense you want, "unfinished business" could well be one. It's something that comes up again and again (at least during the limited times I pay attention.)

I should also say that hitting this speech is a bit of a wrong shot. As a bit of rhetoric, it seemed pretty good to me. Take the "big idea from far away" (end the war) and make it into little concrete ideas that people can imagine changing their local lives and those of their neighbors. It would have been a lot less effective if he had linked the "big idea from far away" to just another big idea.


[ Parent ]
It's not either / or (0.00 / 0)
Take the "big idea from far away" (end the war) and make it into little concrete ideas that people can imagine changing their local lives and those of their neighbors. It would have been a lot less effective if he had linked the "big idea from far away" to just another big idea.

The "big idea" isn't an indivisible abstraction. It is a central theme and direction that runs through and connects all of the smaller examples.

Sure, give examples, but tie them into an overall theme. Or, better yet, give the theme, and then give examples to keep backing up the theme. Something like "The Iraq war has kept us from completing the unfinished business of the American Dream because we are spending on Iraq instead of health care. The Iraq war has kept us from completing the unfinished business of the American Dream because we are spending on Iraq instead of on education. The Iraq war has kept us from completing the unfinished business of the American Dream because we are spending on Iraq instead of on jobs." Etc.  


[ Parent ]
some of those discrete pieces (0.00 / 0)
Like the green economy for the 21st century, or health care for all, ARE transformative while being wrapped in policy.  But overall I completely agree with you, focusing on the small bore of cutting Iraq spending to finance other transactional spending is really shortsighted.  It's why I wrote about it at Hullabaloo today.

Insert shameless blog promotion here.

Right. (4.00 / 1)
the transformation needed is away from a politics and governance that seems to exist almost solely to feed the needs and desires of Wall Street and the military, security machine that made this war possible.  This situation is profoundly anti-democratic and utterly crushing to the ideals of the American Dream (as Chris mentioned above).    I'm clearly terrible at framing or messaging or whatever you call it, but the truly progressive philosophical piece seems to me to be one of re-instilling the notions of self-government and a revitalized, empowered citizenry.  I know this is messy and a bit airy, but I'm hoping others can help with a more tangible way to talk about this.  Is such a thing even possible in the midst of a presidential campaign?

[ Parent ]
That's really good (4.00 / 1)
'Empowerment' is a great transformational theme. Empowering consumers to make safe and healthy choices, empowering farmers to actually produce in and for their local communities, empowering homeowners to become energy producers, empowering citizens to guide our Democracy instead of lobbyists, empowering local media to get the truth out. And for each class that we talk about empowering, there is a built in foil. Big Business, Big Media, Big Oil and Coal, agribusiness, the military industrial complex.

That's a powerful theme that could guide the next presidency. The Iraq war and economic crisis could both be placed in the context of our Democracy failing to let the people say what's best. Solving global warming and fair trade can both be framed as putting people in charge instead of corporations. And if that message and narrative is being used to promote the policies, we can hope that it may actually influence what is considered. As our next president works with congress to address these issues, allowing and promoting citizen engagement in the process needs to be a central priority.

I support John McCain because children are too healthy anyway.


[ Parent ]
Wow (0.00 / 0)
Nicely explained. Thanks.

[ Parent ]
Agree with you on this (4.00 / 1)
It's also frustrating because as laundry lists go, this is a pretty good one, and it points to a coalesced philosophy but doesn't arrive there.  It's the next step.

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