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Moving American Politics to the Left

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Yglesias correctly notes the real way to move American politics to the left:

If you want to move US public policy to the left, what you have to do is to identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them on Election Day with alternative candidates who are more left-wing. I think this works pretty reliable. To my mind, the evidence is pretty clear that even the election of fairly conservative pushes policy outcomes to the left as long as the guy they’re replacing was more conservative. And if your specific concern is that the Democratic Party isn’t as left-wing as you’d like it to be, then what you need to do is identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them in primaries with alternative candidates who are more left-wing. It’s noteworthy that even failed efforts to do this, such as Ned Lamont’s 2006 run against Joe Lieberman and Bill Halter’s 2010 run against Blanche Lincoln led to meaningful policy shifts simply by being credible. But left-wing critics of the Democrats often seem to me to be somewhat in denial about their poor record of success with these endeavors. “If we can’t beat a Senator in Connecticut, let’s take on an incumbent president who’s substantially more liberal than Lieberman” isn’t a logical program of action. The right lesson to learn from these Senate bids is that they’re worth trying again if circumstances are right, but that even they may be too ambitious. You walk before you run. Maybe you win state legislative and House races before you win Senate elections. Research indicates that previous experience in elective office is one of the main predictors of candidate success, so perhaps it’s only through a concentrated effort to increase progressive representation in state government that a pool of talented primary challenges can be generated.

Yes, yes, yes. Or at least mostly yes. I’d expand it slightly to say that we also need increased class consciousness in poor and middle-class Americans that opens space for radical politics, but that’s a more long-term problem that I can go into if anyone cares.

But he’s absolutely right in noting the hard drudgery work that it takes to move politics to the left. This is especially true of the left, which doesn’t have the access to the money of the Koch Brothers and other evil robber barons. The modern conservative movement started by activists taking over local school boards, land-use boards, county commissioner positions, and other local offices. They built their network up from there, moving into the statehouse and then working to get members of Congress and presidential candidates elected. The current Republican Party insanity may be astroturf-roots in some ways, but it’s also the culmination of a half-century of movement conservative organizing to take over local, state, and finally the national Republican Party, making politicians fear their wrath in primaries if they are thwarted.

Progressives’ response was to support Ralph Nader for president.

I’m being a little flippant there, but liberals’ focus on big national questions is a problem because those are the realms where it is most difficult to make change. Taking over county and state Democratic Parties would be a more useful endeavor than a third-party challenge like Nader in 2000. Or more useful than whatever liberal might try a 3rd party campaign against Obama in 2012.

I feel like this issue of organizing on the local level and building from the bottom of the political party up to the top is one of many ways that conservatives understand American politics better than liberals.

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  • Erik: First, let me say thank you for the refreshing posts on liberal issues.

    On moving the country to the left, I’d add a couple of things:

    The first post-Reagan Democratic candidate to recognize and popularize the need to rebuild the left from the ground up over 30 years the way the repugs did was Howard Dean, starting in 2003. His 50-state strategy was just the beginning, but Obama and Rahm killed that baby in its crib, right after it got their worthless DLC asses elected.

    It’s easy for people in blue or even purple states to talk about running liberals in primaries against blue dogs – here in Kentucky such liberal candidates simply do not exist, outside of the Third District.

    And the reason they don’t exist, of course, is because the people who should be voting overwhelmingly for liberals have forgotten – or never learned – that liberalism created/protected every single thing that makes their lives worth living.

    That’s the battle we have to fight: making more liberals.

    THEN we can start winning elections.

    No wonder Iglesias got it backwards; the last thing that neoliberal apologist wants is genuine liberals in charge.

    • soullite

      This is just more of the usual Democratic BS of ‘if you try really, really, really hard never ever ever vote against us, then maybe in 100 years or so something minor will improve for your great grandchildren’.

      Not shockingly, nobody is convinced by that argument but fools and naves. Those of us above the age of 25 aren’t likely to fall for it again. We did that in 2000, in 2004, in 2006, and in 2008. Nothing worthwhile ever comes for any group making up more than 8% of the population. Gays get to marry, but the middle class gets HAMP stealing their homes. Some tiny segment of upper-class women get to sue for equal pay while wages plummet among the working class. It’s a shell game and that is all it will ever be.

  • Don

    I agree that Iglesias has it backwards. I wouldn’t bother taking over the local Democratic Party, though, I’d form a third party that draws liberals out of the Democratic Party. It won’t win any elections soon, but it’ll force the Democrats to fight for liberal votes, rather than handing them liberal votes in exchange for (less than) nothing.

    • “I wouldn’t bother taking over the local Democratic Party, though, I’d form a third party that draws liberals out of the Democratic Party.”

      This is a terrible idea. The entire point of the post is that we need to take over the Democratic Party. That is the only avenue to liberal electoral power.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        I’d split the difference here.

        In order to move politics leftward, progressives must either take over the Democratic Party or form a viable third party. While doing one or the other is absolutely necessary, both tasks are nearly impossible. I’m thus fairly agnostic about which should be pursued. At the moment, however, I don’t see a serious effort to do either one. I’d be happy to join either kind of effort if I did.

        • DrDick

          I agree completely. While there are formidable institutional obstacles to building a viable third party in the US, especially on the left, this is how you do it. Start local, with a national presence. Until you have the institutional infrastructure and funding at the local level, the national level is unreachable.

      • R, Johnston

        The problem is that so long as the Republican party exists, is a completely insane wingnut nationalist piece of shit party like the BNP or the National Front, and unlike those parties actually maintains major party status, moving the Democrats to the left is almost impossible.

        Before the Democratic party can be moved sufficiently to the left and to an empirically verifiable policy oriented status so that we can truthfully be said to have a center-left technocratically inclined major party the Republican party needs to either be transformed back into Rockefeller Republicanism or completely and utterly destroyed as a significant figure in American politics. While isolated victories can be had pushing individual seats to the left, the natural tendency of the Democratic party given the state of the Republican party is a lazy rightward drift.

        Before the Democratic party can be moved left it needs to be made angry enough to take every opportunity to marginalize the Republican party. We need a Democratic party that unapologetically calls out Republicans for being completely insane before we can ever hope to move the Democratic party as a whole to the left.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          This reads like excuse making to me:

          The problem is that so long as the Republican party exists, is a completely insane wingnut nationalist piece of shit party like the BNP or the National Front, and unlike those parties actually maintains major party status, moving the Democrats to the left is almost impossible.

          One could just as easily argue that as the GOP moves further and further from the center, the Democrats can seem like a more viable option to many centrists even if they move further to the left.

          What’s keeping the Democrats from moving leftward isn’t the GOP, but the Democrats themselves.

          Before the Democratic party can be moved left it needs to be made angry enough to take every opportunity to marginalize the Republican party. We need a Democratic party that unapologetically calls out Republicans for being completely insane before we can ever hope to move the Democratic party as a whole to the left.

          Again, I’d say the opposite is true: the more Democrats focus on Republicans, the less likely they are to work on their own problems. For the foreseeable future, the Democrats will be less bad from a left perspective than the GOP. In order for the left to focus on changing the Democrats, they need to stop thinking so much about how much worse the Republicans are, as this fact builds complacency toward what the Democrats are currently offering.

      • BJN

        Why does a third party need to be an immediate, national threat to the Democrats. Why can’t the local drudgery be done by a party (or parties) focused locally, getting elected to city councils or even state legislatures. They could caucus with the democrats, but work on reshaping the narrative, creating space for different ideas outside of the bought and paid for Dems without bringing down the party while the Republicans are the only viable alternative. Doesn’t a set of people getting involved in the political discussion outside the auspices of the Democrats at the local level fall in exactly where you want things to go?

        • DocAmazing

          Many states–New York and Wisconsin, to name two–have thriving non-Dem and non-Rep parties at the state level. They ally themselves with the big two for national stuff, but they are separate and independent otherwise. That’s a good place to start.

    • Has this ever worked in any two-party country anywhere in the world in human history?

      I’ve centrist “third parties” get the parties to move in their direction – for instance, Perot’s runs made the national debt a bigger issue for both parties.

      But a third party to the left of the more-liberal party or to the right of the more conservative party? When has any party responded to that by moving further from the center, as opposed to triangulating off of them?

      • seth

        The Populists scared the shit out of Dem’s in the 1890s. In 1896 Democrat’s nominated a “populist” in WJ Bryan and co-opted several of the Pops’ ideas including the federal income tax. This certainly was not the Populist’s intention but their popularity pushed the Democrat’s further to the left.

        • Except that the Populists fused with the Democrats in 1896 and then were absorbed completely. That’s not the normal third-party strategy discussed by progressives.

          • BJN

            Would that be so bad though? It seems to be an implicit possibility in most of these proposals.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          See also the history of the Conservative Party in Canada over the last two decades or so.

      • DrDick

        Republicans overthrew the Whigs and the Bull Moose Party shook up the Republicans.

      • John

        Hmm…I’d say that the existence of the Socialist Party of America arguably moved the Democrats to the Left. In Britain a century ago, the existence of the Labour Party pulled the Liberals to the left, although at the time Labour and the Liberals were still closely allied electorally.

        • DrDick

          I do not think there is really any doubt of that. Much of the New Deal was watered down Socialist programs (as were the graduated income tax and social security).

          • There’s no question that the Democrats moved left in the 1930s, or that the policies they moved to were related to SP policies.

            But that doesn’t demonstrate why that movement happened. I’ll note that the ranks of the Democratic Party grew considerably during that period, while makes it difficult to argue that the movement occurred because Democrats left the party.

            • DrDick

              That is not the argument here. Rather the presence of a third party pushed the Democrats to the left (which move then garnered them new members).

        • ajay

          In Britain a century ago, the existence of the Labour Party pulled the Liberals to the left, although at the time Labour and the Liberals were still closely allied electorally.

          I’m not really sure about that. The existence of the labour movement in the late 19th and early 20th century pulled the Liberals to the left – that’s how you got things like the People’s Budget, which really kicked off the British welfare state and was a Liberal project. But once the Labour Party actually got going as a political force, with MPs in parliament, it didn’t so much pull the Liberals to the left as cannibalise their voting base and reduce them to third-party status.

    • Malaclypse

      I wouldn’t bother taking over the local Democratic Party, though, I’d form a third party that draws liberals out of the Democratic Party. It won’t win any elections soon, but it’ll force the Democrats to fight for liberal votes, rather than handing them liberal votes in exchange for (less than) nothing.

      2000 called. It wants it’s bad idea back.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Obviously building a third party is a very tough task. But to take the 2000 Nader campaign as a proof that it isn’t worth pursuing is Wile E. Coyote politics: one, poor implementation used to condemn the entire strategy.

        While no third party has become a major party since 1860, plenty of third parties have had a profound impact on the agenda of the other parties, from the Populists in the 19th century to TR’s Bull Moose Party, from Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party to George Wallace’s American Independent Party to Ross Perot’s Reform Party.

        Those who condemn the strategy of building a third party often don’t take full stock of how difficult it would be for progressives to capture the Democratic Party.

        I’ve always felt that the two tasks are similarly difficult and, as I say upthread, I’d happily take part in a serious effort at either one.

        • Hogan

          I’ve seen the argument that in the US third parties at their best are like bees: they sting and they die. They live and thrive long enough to inject one issue (or a very few issues) into the bloodstream of a major party, and then they disappear. Any more ambitious goal than that is up against some serious political and historical intertia, which has only gootten stronger in the last half century.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            There’s a lot to this view, Hogan. But the Nader campaign didn’t even sting and die, in this sense. And I think it’s made us forget that stinging and dying–as slight as that might seem–is no small thing. It is still a lot more than progressives have managed to accomplish within the Democratic Party over the last quarter century.

            Think about the role that the Reform Party and Ross Perot played in turning budget balancing–a zombie idea that neither liberals nor conservatives really cared about–into a political orthodoxy that still haunts both parties today.

            It’s also worth noting that the sting-and-die parties have managed to sting precisely because they have had more ambitious goals.

    • soullite

      People who are serious about moving this country to the left do not quote Matthew Yglesias. The man is a rightwing neoliberal; they may as well have quoted David Brooks. Any advice the man gives is poison.

      • Meanwhile, we are supposed take someone like soullite seriously, someone who is happy to throw gays and lesbians under the bus because he doesn’t directly benefit. A left we can believe in!

        • He does have a disturbingly accurate point to make that a lot of the ‘stands’ being made by the Obama administration are kind of toothless.

          What is more important: Gay Marriage, or ending the bush tax cuts?

          • Malaclypse

            What is more important: Gay Marriage, or ending the bush tax cuts?

            Kind of depends. If you are gay, and your spouse’s homophobic parents decide that you have no input on medical decisions, then the tax cuts are pretty much a side issue…

      • NonyNony

        Sorry soullite – you gave up your moral high ground already. You outed yourself as a moral monster who only cares about himself. Have fun with that, but that ain’t liberal.

    • As people have already stated, this is magical thinking that runs completely opposite to historical reality.

  • wengler

    If Ralph Nader is the true extent of Progressive power, then there are a lot bigger problems with the movement.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Excellent post! I do have one minor disagreement: local politics and national politics are not entirely disconnected to each other.

    Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign obviously failed to capture the GOP nomination, but it was instrumental in coordinating the Christian Right’s takeover of many local Republican parties.

    I agree with you that long-term heavy lifting at the local level is the key to moving politics to the left. But, especially in the absence of one or more major national funders like the Koch brothers on the right, presidential campaigns are one of the best ways to coordinate such activity nationally (and such coordination is necessary).

    One of the many tragedies of the 2000 Nader campaign (and there are many) is that Ralph Nader is utterly uninterested in party building. In fact, the possibilities that such a high profile candidate appeared to offer for party-building was what drew many Greens to his campaign in the first place. His failure to win the Green Party’s nomination in 2008 was largely a result of his refusal to even join the Green Party, let alone help build it.

    • Certainly local and national politics are not disconnected–the question is which one should liberals focus on as the route to long-term change?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        I’d say we should focus on the local level, but use national issues and campaigns to coordinate those local efforts.

        To speak more practically: as a serious primary challenge to Obama looks to be impossible (due largely to the absence of a significant, national figure to mount such an effort), we ought to be focusing, at least in part, on finding a viable, progressive presidential primary candidate for 2016.

        This candidate needn’t win. But s/he needs to be a serious enough contender to build a movement around. If we could achieve something on the left akin to the draft Goldwater movement in 1960, we’d be doing very, very well indeed. If we could actually get a nomination in 2020 (as the Goldwater folks did in 1964), we’d far exceed my expectations.

        The point is that the most important legacy for conservatives of the 1964 Goldwater campaign, which on the surface resulted in a crushing defeat, was the movement building that went on around it.

        (And one of the secrets of that movement was that Goldwater himself was oddly aloof from it. When the candidate in such a situation tries to take too personal a possession of the movement–as folks like Nader and Jesse Jackson did–the movement has trouble transcending the campaign that helped to launch it.)

        • “The point is that the most important legacy for conservatives of the 1964 Goldwater campaign, which on the surface resulted in a crushing defeat, was the movement building that went on around it.”

          Yes but I think you have to look deeper. The lessons for liberals from the 64 Goldwater campaign is that a) in the end, it didn’t take all that long for conservatives operating on the local level to coalesce around taking over the larger party, which is what happened with Goldwater and b) that when you lose on the national scale, go back to the local community and keep organizing to make your movement stronger.

          Goldwater ’64 was a stage in the conservative movement but absolutely not its beginning.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            Goldwater ’64 was certainly not the beginning of the conservative movement.

            But we’re also not at the beginning of American leftism (or liberalism or progressivism or whatever we’re calling it this week) today.

            In fact, the place of the Goldwater ’64 campaign (and, in fact, the Goldwater ’60 campaign) in the history of modern conservatism was exactly the stage we’re talking about in this thread: the moment when the movement began to take over a major party.

            • I’d actually argue that as far as organizing a real progressive movement goes, we are basically at the beginning.

        • DivGuy

          I think one thing that always gets lost in discussions of Goldwater is just what a huge, huge loss 1964 was for the Republican Party. The Congress of 65-66 passed:

          -Medicare
          -Medicaid
          -Voting Rights Act
          -the modern Department of Education
          -Freedom of Information Act
          -National Endowment for the Arts
          -repeal of racist 1924 immigration restrictions
          -vehicle emissions standards
          -creation of Housing and Urban Development bureau

          The conservative Republican movement which developed from 1964 has succeeded in repealing only a small percentage of what the great 89th Congress achieved.

          If Goldwater 1964 was an integral part of modern conservatism as a movement, then modern conservatism has been a massive failure.

          I have no interest in being a part of a liberal Goldwater movement.

          • Bill Murray

            I would contend that what set the modern conservatives on the track to today was 1. the Voting Rights Act and Nixon’s Southern Strategy putting most all the crazies in one party where they could band together and takeover and 2. the evangelical movement deciding to be more political which was a slow move from about 1960 to 1979 (or even later — 1979 was the Houston SBC that mostly competed the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptists)which added numbers to point 1

    • presidential campaigns are one of the best ways to coordinate such activity nationally

      Amen.

      What if all of the OFA volunteers had been emailed the week after Inauguration Day by their local organizers about City Council races, community clean-ups, and other issues found in the Local News section?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Totally agree!

        I think Dean’s Fifty State Strategy was a terrific way to elect more Democrats.

        But if the goal is to transform the party, the effort has to principally focus not on electing more Democrats, but changing the folks who run the party at the local level. And the Fifty State Strategy was much less about this.

        The Democratic Party will not be transformed (at least not in a left-ward direction) by a top-down effort directed by the DNC’s Chair.

        • This misses a big part of the Dean story. Dean’s 50-State strategy, indeed his candidacy for DNC chair, was proceeded by a call from Dean to his supporters to join the party organization at the local level, especially in those states that would later be targeted by the 50-state strategy.

          Those newly-elected state party chairs and DNC delegates in turn brought in the votes to make Dean chair.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            Sure, but the goal of this whole effort was not to fundamentally transform the party, but rather simply to elect more Democrats. The fruit of the Fifty State Strategy were the Congresses elected in 2006 and 2008, which contained large numbers of Blue Dogs who often made progressive legislation very, very difficult to pass.

            • John

              But yet much, much easier to pass than in Congresses full of the conservative Republicans who won back those seats in 2010.

            • BJN

              I’m not certain to what extent this was out in the open and how much it was people I talk to saying so, but I always thought that the 50 state strategy was about taking the fight to the Republicans, both geographically and ideologically. Obviously the DNC’s job is to put Dems in office, but I thought the idea was that by not conceding districts without a fight, Dean was also trying to widen Dem constituencies even in places that voted for the other guy this time around.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks

                Yes. But the easiest way to do this is to nominate conservative Democrats in “swing” districts.

                The Democratic Party has, for the last two or three decades, been a much bigger tent than the GOP.

                Much of this discussion essentially boils down to whether one sees the “big tent” quality of the Democrats as a feature or a bug.

      • Emily

        I was an OFA volunteer – first time I ever canvassed, and we did it a fair amount including taking election day off to GOTV in Virginia. I would have been much more interested in follow-up information on local stuff than on appeals for money money money money which is what I actually received.

    • Njorl

      That’s an interesting point. A popular progressive candidate in a primary (preferably not 2012) could inspire people to work at the local level. Howard Dean was mentioned above. He probably had this effect to a small extent, though he wasn’t that popular, or that progressive. Reagan, in the 1976 primary, pushed the distinction between the moderate and far right elements of the Republican partry.

      You wouldn’t necessarily need a third party, just an enduring and identifiable organization within the Democratic party. The DLC is not a third party, but it is a recognizable organization that conservative Democrats can work to strengthen. Conservative Democrats who want to be politically active know exactly where to go. There doesn’t seem to be one, strong, identifiable progressive organization within the Democratic party. A strong progressive presidential candidate, even one who loses in the primary, could create such a formalized organization.

  • Jager

    Dems need to start at the local district level, get left leaning candidates to run for local offices:school boards,city positions then state offices and continue to move up the ranks. Republicans have done this for years and lefties are always surprised when some whack job runs for congress and wins out of the box…not realizing the R has spent 10 years getting ready for the race, has friends, financial backing and knows how the system works. Then again when you go to Dem meetings, you relize what is meant by “herding cats”!

    • Hogan

      Works in theory. In my city the smallest electoral district is one of the City Council districts, each with 130,000-140,000 people. Every other office (mayor, council at large, sheriff, city controller, city commissioner, prothonotary, clerk of quarter sessions, register of wills) is citywide. Running for any of those takes a major investment of time and money (the estimate I heard a few years ago was $250,000 for a credible city council at large race; I’m sure it’s higher now, and it’s nearly impossible to campaign adequately and also work a full-time job). We don’t have an elected school board or zoning commission.

      By contrast, every township in the suburbs has township commissioners and a township auditor, regardless of the population. What we tend not to have is sufficient concentrations of liberals in the outer suburbs to contest those elections.

      There’s been an effort to get more liberals and progressives elected as members of the Democratic City Committee. (There are almost 1700 voting divisions in the city, each with two committee slots.) It’s going slowly, in large part because the party rules are written (or. where necessary, interpreted) to give the ward leader considerable discretion over how much (and even whether) committeepeople are allowed to serve, so unless you either have a compliant ward leader or bring enough people in with you to elect a new ward leader, you’re not going to have much influence over policy or endorsements. And since committeepeople serve four-year terms, it will be another four years before they can try to consolidate and expand their ranks. Since they weren’t starting with a strong geographic concentration, it’s going to be a long haul.

  • soullite

    Again, those of us who are actually leftists – instead of just pretending to be for the sake of the Democratic party – thank you for your concern. It is duly noted and we will give it all of the thought and respect that it deserves.

    • Furious Jorge

      Someone who is “actually [a] leftist” wouldn’t throw gays and lesbians under the bus simply because there was nothing in the deal for him.

      Get over yourself.

  • soullite

    Really, stuff like this can’t be written towards the people it’s claimed to be written for – people like me. No, it’s designed to try and keep enough wavering Dems on the reservation to prevent a complete collapse in Obama’s poll numbers.

    We tried your technique for ten years. It failed miserably and the country moved ever further to the right. If you want to blame someone for that, look in the mirror. Read your comment section. Most of the people here HATE the left even as they claim to be members of it. You are not to be taken any more seriously than Booman on this subject. When someone we trust and believe in says this, maybe we’ll listen. Until then, keep preaching to your ever smaller choir.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      You’re right, soullite. The kind of rhetoric that Erik uses in good faith here can also be used in bad faith arguments to keep progressives on board the center-right policies of today’s Democratic Party.

      But that’s not reason enough to ignore Erik’s argument.

      In fact, we haven’t tried the technique that Erik suggests. What we’ve (or rather folks who’ve stuck with the Democrats) have tried is electing “more and better Democrats,” which, in practice, has involved electing more Democrats and vaguely hoping that they are better (while every once in a while engaging in a tiny handful of primary challenges, like the Lamont campaign against Lieberman, which are bitterly and predictably opposed by the Party itself).

      To be fair, we’ve also tried building progressive third parties and these efforts have also failed miserably. I know. I was in the leadership of the Green Party for the better part of a decade.

    • Hogan

      Jimbo: You let me down, man. Now I don’t believe in nothing no more. I’m going to law school!

      Homer: No-o-o-o-o-o!

    • “We tried your technique for ten years.” – no, you didn’t. Some of you tried for a few years after 2004. But there hasn’t been a sustained left-wing movement within the Democratic Party really since 1980.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        I’d say since 1990. The Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 were sustained, if flawed, left-wing movements within the Democratic Party.

      • DocAmazing

        Attempts at pushing one through in California werre repeatedly shut out.

    • NonyNony

      Dude ten years? A pittance.

      there’s been a sustained movement by conservatives to take control of the Republican party since FDR. And it didn’t really start to bear fruit until the 70s.

      Liberals need to wake the hell up – trying something for a couple of years and then giving up is no way to push politics in this country. You’ve got to spend a generation of effort to move every inch. The right wing knows this – and the civil rights movements knew it too.

      • Hogan

        Five days?! But I’m mad now!

    • Njorl

      You shouldn’t mistake hatred for you with hatred for the left in general.

  • Bruce Wilder

    “liberals’ focus on big national questions”

    The problem with how liberals, or their designated representatives, respond on the big national questions is that the big questions are presented, shock doctrine style, and the liberals are never willing to press hard on the revolution button.

  • I think this works pretty reliable. To my mind, the evidence is pretty clear that even the election of fairly conservative pushes policy outcomes to the left as long as the guy they’re replacing was more conservative.

    The left should abandon sentence structure.

    • Anderson

      Down our syntactical oppressors with!

    • DocAmazing

      What do we want?
      Immediacy!
      When do we want it?
      Now!

  • Anonymous

    This is especially true of the left, which doesn’t have the access to the money of the Koch Brothers and other evil robber barons.

    Soros

    • Soros doesn’t really fund anything to the extent the Kochs do.

      And I’m glad he doesn’t. What, are you anxious to owe a billionaire your soul?

  • Hogan

    I always love this discussion.

    “Koch brothers.” “Soros!” “John M. Olin.” “Soros!” “Richard Mellon Scaife.” “SOROS!” “Tom Monaghan.” “WELL WHAT ABOUT SOROS!”

  • Deb Schultz

    So here I am, 61 years old, and after having spent many years working on local elections, pushing for progressive policies in land use and education, serving on various citizen committees for free, and then topping that off with a serious volunteer effort in 2008 coupled with giving more money than I’d ever given to a campaign before, some guy who writes a blog is telling me that the ‘left’ is too whiny and doesn’t know how to commit.

    No. That isn’t how it is. I know many people who are committed progressives and they’ve spent lots of years working for their policy goals and for candidates. The Democrats aren’t our allies, even though most of us have been regular voters for Democrats. 21st century Democrats are not progressives. That’s just a fact.

    I think apologists like Mr. Yglesias should get over their desire for approval from those of us who are actual liberal progressives. If he is satisfied with the Democrats, he can support and vote for them. Just don’t pretend that that is improving the likelihood of progressive policies becoming part of American governance.

    • Richard

      So you’ve been working for 40 years or so for progressive politics and seem to admit that nothing has worked and that Democrats (and obviously Republicans) aren’t your allies. So what is your solution? Forty more years of ineffective efforts.

      I don’t think Yglesias is stating any desire for your approval. He’s trying to suggest a strategy to move the country a little bit more to the left (although maybe not as much as you want the country to move) You may doubt that his strategy will work but what are your alternatives? Or do you like being a martyr satisfied with a righteous belief that your causes are just and that, if only the rest of the country had any sense, your policies would prevail?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Yglesias may have some interesting things to say about politics. And he may even be right about some of the things in the linked post.

        But he isn’t interested in moving American politics to the left.

        Yglesias own politics are very clear. They’re, at best, “left neoliberal,” which isn’t really left at all. Actually moving American politics to the left would threaten Yglesias’s very market-based and technocratic political preferences.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          There’s a larger point here: moving the Democratic Party (and with it American politics) to the left means actively opposing and frustrating the goals of the people who currently dominate the Democratic Party.

          Democrats, especially centrist Democrats, love pretending that the principal disagreements within their party concern strategy. This was the rhetoric very successfully adopted by the DLC in the 1980s and 1990s, when they argued for their preferred centrist agenda as if they were progressives trimming their own sails in response to political reality.

          But centrist and center-right Democrats aren’t pragmatic (or even weak-willed) progressives. They’re centrists and moderate conservatives, many of whom actually prefer flat-out conservatism to the policy preferences of what they sometimes call “the professional left.” They currently occupy positions of power within the party and our federal, state, and local governments and will not give up these positions easily.

    • dave

      Perhaps there just aren’t enough of you? It might be painful to admit it, but the possibility must exist that the kind of policies you support cannot find acceptance amongst a stable majority, or even a plurality, of the culture you inhabit. At least, not sufficient acceptance that people will consistently vote for people who advocate them, rather than trying to sound nice when a pollster calls.

      • Njorl

        That’s not really how it is. Progressive policies are very popular, provided that they are not framed as progressive or liberal policies.

        People want higher taxes on the rich. If you ask people about specific programs, rather than spending in general, it becomes quite clear that they want more spending. If you ask people about specific regulations, as opposed to regulation in general, it becomes clear that people want more government regulation of industry.

        The challenge is political, not demographic. Big government liberalism has a bad name. The things a liberal big government does are very popular.

  • Charrua

    I would point that conservative politics is more local, ideologically, than liberal politics, so that may explain some of the difference in behavior.
    Conservatives reacted to a poor political situation by trying to erect local barriers to what they saw as liberal government intrusions (race was an obvious issue in this); liberals can’t really do that against tax cuts for the wealthy or another war against Muslims. There was an inmediate payoff at the local level for conservatives that isn’t probably there for Democrats.

    • LeeEsq

      I think this gets close but isn’t quite right. Liberals tend to focus on big national questions because we view most issues as big national issues that need a big national fix. The issues that are important to liberals like the environment or labor aren’t seen as local issues with local fixes; they are seen something that concerns the entire nation and needing a national level fix. The closest that liberals might get to truly local issue is public transportation and zoning. Even then the focus is on the big national picture, reducing car use and increasing density nationwide rather than just in select cities.

      American liberals have traditionally been more wary about state and local government than American conservatives. This might also explain the focus on the national level.

      • Pith Helmet

        Liberals tend to focus on big national questions because we view most issues as big national issues that need a big national fix. The issues that are important to liberals like the environment or labor aren’t seen as local issues with local fixes; they are seen something that concerns the entire nation and needing a national level fix. The closest that liberals might get to truly local issue is public transportation and zoning.

        Which ignores how our system of governance works. Labor *is* a local issue and a national issue. And, fwiw, “progressives” should spend more time focusing on local school boards.

        Conservatives – mostly socons – have been working that angle for years to get their policies enacted, mostly to the detriment of teachers and students. Now the econocons are coming in to clean up with their free market “reforms.”

  • I wish people wouldn’t represent the problem as left vs right. What needs to be undertaken are steps that will undoubtedly be represented as leftist, but the big thing about them is that they need to be done: fixing the health care system, addressing increasing wealth and income inequality, downsizing the military, etc. This isn’t a fucking football game. It’s about the fate of the country and the world.

  • Jim Lynch

    Ronald Reagan was lauded by candidate Obama numerous times during 2008, and afterwards. At this point, it’s fairly obvious why. It’s not so much he’s a poor negotiator, as he’s being true to himself. The man is a Blue Dog, and he gave fair warning to that effect.

    A divided democratic party will not fall, but it will forever remain ineffectual. If Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy tomorrow, I will support him.

    Those democrats who aren’t blue dogs are not an insubstantial minority. Were they to coalesce and bolt, rename themselves the Independent Democratic Party (or some such), then a grass root rebuilding might be feasible. Might.

    Barring such a mass revolt, the type of reform within that party that is being discussed here will never happen. Money doesn’t talk, it swears, and the Blue Meanies death grip will never be pried from their skeletal fingers.

    No individual can successfully assume the role of the man on horseback. It’ll take an entrenched group-within-the-group to say enough is enough, you other fuckers belong in the GOP, and we’re finished with you.

  • Rarely Posts

    I agree with this sentiment, but it’s not the whole story. First, you have to actually create left-wing candidates, and second, you might want to convert some actual office holders into left-wing candidates.

    On this point, the left could use some real policy development and specific legislative goals. Here are three liberal groups where I know what major policy goals they have, I could articulate their basic agenda, AND I know what type of legislation they want to achieve it: (1) People who support universal healthcare; (2) environmentalists and particularly those concerned with climate change; and (3) people who support the rights of LGBT Americans. All three of those groups have made substantial progress, and the first and third have passed serious legislation. The second has struggled, but it faces extraordinary contrary special interests, and it’s still in the debate.

    Here is a crucial group which I am generally favorable to, but which has not recently articulated a big legislative agenda (at least that I know about): Labor Unions. Their big goal was EFCA. I support EFCA, but if that’s the big dream you offer, you’re not capturing peoples’ attention. Personally, I would love to see a wish list of legislative goals from Labor Unions.

    Similarly, it’s one thing to support improving the conditions of the poor and middle class and supporting redistribution, but we haven’t recently pushed any major legislation towards accomplishing that goal. Notably, Obama’s big dream on this was to end the over $250,000 tax cuts but keep the rest. That’s a pretty limited dream, and it’s derivative.

    I guess what I’d say is: we may have even more work to do than the post suggests.

  • Oscar Leroy

    “let’s take on an incumbent president who’s substantially more liberal than Lieberman”

    Oh, I know! Obama would never agree with Lieberman’s right-wing ideas like raising the Medicare eligibility age, fighting more wars in the Middle East, or dropping the public option.

    Think twice before quoting Yglesias, let alone agreeing with him.

  • Anonymous

    Glad you linked to this; completely right.

  • strategichamlet

    “If you want to move US public policy to the left, what you have to do is to identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them on Election Day with alternative candidates who are more left-wing.”

    Everyone up-thread is interpreting this as only applying to Democrats, but I would argue that working to move the Republican party even slightly leftward from where it currently resides would have an even greater overall effect (by making some of the current craziness impossible, by making the Democratic rush to the center unprofitable, etc.).

  • greylocks

    I don’t necessarily agree with soullite, but as an unemployed 59-year-old, I understand his frustration with a supposedly liberal establishment whose actual liberal accomplishments are virtually-existent. I’m glad LGBTs are making progress, and I realize that has indirect benefits for all, but what I really need is a job and, failing that, to not have to worry about my Medicare and Social Security eligibility age getting pushed back any more. I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect my elected representatives to act as much in my interest as they do on behalf of LGBTs, but that is simply not happening. Frankly, no one’s doing a damned thing for people like me except trying to figure out ways to throw us under the bus in the name of fiscal responsiblity.

    • Njorl

      LGBTs overwhelmingly vote for candidates who support their agenda. Unemployed 59 year olds split their vote roughly evenly between those who would take minor actions to slightly ameliorate their circumstances, and those who want to cut their throats.

      I do primarily blame the Democrats for not making the distinction greater, and for not emphasizing the distinction enough, but voters do not make it easy for cowardly politicians to help them.

  • bobbyp

    In my experience at the local level, leftys are at an extreme disadvantage. They do not have institutional support. Business hates them. Unions are aloof (but appear to be waking up some…what’s left of them). Local Democratic pols do not rely on the party organization for their big donations or the bulk of their campaign resources. You can put up yard signs all day, send small donations, write letters, take of the local LD machinery, even get a lot of face time with your elected, and the big bucks raised by your Democratic legislator in marathon phone calls, will crush you or ignore you when the rubber hits the road.

    Conservatives made their comeback:
    1. Backlash on national issues, esp. race and war.
    2. Dedicated and fairly unified ideology.
    3. Unwillingness to slam their allies.
    4. Huge financial support from powerful interests.

    The most the “left” has to offer is a weak “2”….but then take Libya, please.

  • paulo

    I think essentially this is true and the left used to be very good at it. Think unions.

    Unfortunately the unions forgot that and thought they actually had a seat at the table – Meaney, Hoffer… All those anti-hippie flag wavers that thought the corporations were actually their partners. Ha ha ha… Reagan settled that.

    But the left never regained its balance. Once the union halls were no longer left bastions, there were no left incubators.

    Meanwhile as you note, the right was building up their network figuratively and literally.

    I dunno what the answer is. I think though school boards and town offices have something to do with the solution.

    You can only tweet a revolution if you have a revolution to tweet to.

  • bobbyp

    you understand perfectly well that “overhauling Social Security and Medicare” can mean a lot of different things..

    No. It means only one thing…cuts, especially when you lump the two together. It’s practically an ideological marker.

    • Njorl

      So increasing the cap on the taxed portion of wages for social security is a cut? Collective bargaining for prescription drug prices is a cut? Basing treatment on effectiveness is a cut?

  • paulo

    So, what would happen if Obama in a “save the union at any cost” speech says “Fuck you House, I’m going to end the ceiling under executive authority”. Of course he makes whatever constitutional rationalization passes the pundit smell test.

    Certainly the GOP would impeach him but given that the last time the GOP House and the Democratic President had differences (he was a democrat I’m told) their was an impeachment over less than compelling issues, would it be a little like the old Special Prosecutor law? Where the application of the law was seen to be so politically motivated that the remedy became ineffective even toxic?

    Then what? The GOP has given us a president that can torture, assassinate, start and run wars and spend money – albeit once committed by congress – completely at will.

    Just because he’s a democrat, the GOP can’t really complain. It sounds like they got exactly what they wanted.

  • Sly

    This is likely going to be long and meandering, but there should be a point in here somewhere:

    The disconnect between the Democratic left and the Democratic establishment is almost entirely found within the distinction between the activist and the working politician.

    To use a somewhat strained military analogy, the activist is like a guerrilla insurgent; their strategy is not to occupy territory, but to harass a standing army into defeat through attrition. The activists chooses where to fight, how to fight, and over what to fight. Their purpose isn’t to build institutional power, but to destroy institutional power that already exists. Defense and logistics are either of secondary concern or of no concern at all. Victory, fundamentally, is decided by a question of willpower; the activist who wins is the activist who wants it “badly” enough, and the activist who doesn’t win just didn’t have enough fight in them.

    The working politician is, continuing with this analogy, like a field commander of an army; they see victory in terms of claiming and occupying territory and strategic necessity in terms of logistical support. Being able to direct enough men and material to a given place at a given time to take it from the enemy. For the politician, building logistical support means building an electoral constituency sizable enough to defeat the opponent, and this constituency is built through various means; negotiation, co-option, concession, intimidation, bribery, extortion, etc. The successful politician is someone who “gets things done” for the constituency he or she serves.

    The fundamental problem is that the activist and the politician speak almost entirely different languages in terms of political action, and the different approaches tend to lead toward mutual recrimination; the politician’s focus on building broad constituencies causes the activist to think the politician “doesn’t want it enough” (or doesn’t want it at all) because they are not rhetorically appealing directly to “the base” (i.e. the activist), and the politician sees the seemingly disconnected and futile tactics of the activist and thinks the activist is more concerned about “feeling better about fighting” than actually winning.

    This should start to sound familiar. The way this almost invariably unfolds is that the activist gravitates toward politicians who “have fight in them” (i.e. are generally the loudest in the party) but are little more than backbenchers with little in the way of political victories under their belt, and the politician spurns the activist by appealing to an imaginary constituency in which the activist isn’t included (i.e. “the middle”).

    In other words, the left thinks people like Kucinich are the greatest politicians ever when they’ve actually accomplished very little, and the party establishment constantly invokes the desires of “the American people” in all things (“the American people want X, Y, and Z, and how dare anyone suggest we do otherwise!”). Unfortunately for the politician, “the American people” isn’t any kind of functional constituency from which any kind of consensus can be built. They end up creating, entirely within their own mind, a constituency that is so broad that it doesn’t even exist.

    Getting around this is no easy task, because the problem is essentially created by the activist but has to be solved by the politician, because the politician is the one who deals with institutional power. In the past what has generally worked is when the politician co-opts activist into expelling other, more radical activists. This is how both the New Deal coalition and the modern conservative movement was essentially formed; politicians within the both orders demanded the expulsion of the radicals of its day and in return negotiated mutually acceptable political goals with those that remained.

    So, ironically, the country has moved left through a process of expelling the more intransigent leftists from political life and isolating them from political power. The New Dealers got rid of the Marxists, just like the Conservatives got rid of the Birchers. It’ll likely follow the same path if the country moves left again, aided by the ongoing implosion within conservatism that is all too similar to the one that busted apart liberalism in the late 60s and 70s.

  • The only reform needed for social security is to get rid of the cap.

  • owlbear1

    What progressives really need to do is to start running as insane Republicans and then switch parties once elected.

  • Deb Schultz

    Sly, that is a very interesting analysis of the interactions between activists and working politicians. Thanks very much.

    Richard, for me the alternative has been to work as a volunteer at the local and state levels in those agencies and institutions that have direct contact with people in need. And I continue to lobby Congress directly for those changes I feel would improve the system for all. I just don’t think that party politics is very helpful in any of these endeavors. I don’t feel I’m a martyr; I just recognize that politically, I’m marginalized.

  • seeker6079

    I’d expand it slightly to say that we also need increased class consciousness in poor and middle-class Americans that opens space for radical politics…

    This, a thousand times over. One of the biggest problems that America faces is that about a quarter to a third of its most cohesively-voting citizens will elect people who will actively work against the interests of those who voted for them, and rely on that portion’s wilful self-denial and data-resistance to get away with it.

    • Joshua

      I’ve probably been labeled as a communist by someone of my friends when I start talking about class in this country. Fact is, it’s just taboo conversation. People just have totally internalized the idea that the Rich Are Better Than You And Deserve What They Got. It’s easier just to kick the guy below you, the gardener or the janitor striking for an extra few bucks an hour.

      In other words, they have been defeated.

  • seeker6079

    Taking over county and state Democratic Parties would be a more useful endeavor…

    Problem is, there’s a ton of money and power at the centre of the Democratic Party that hates their own grassroots. Look at the Rahm. Look at just how quickly they ditched Howard Dean after he started on the (temporarily successful) process of rebuilding the party’s local efforts.

  • RhZ

    Erik please keep going. Your r 2 grate.

    Dig in, with a focus on effective change. Vision is important but process is key.

    I am from the CLE.

  • the issue is that the democratic party is not left-wing, center-left or centrist. it is a center-right party, so the mission to move it leftward only gets you nothing. 4 years, 40 years, 400 years, it doesn’t matter; the dems will always be at best a dead center party.

    the shortish scenario: obama loses; pres. romney has to work with pragmatic center-right dems and rightwing repbubs; pres. romney has to abandon the racist and batshit crazy teabaggers; romney does a shitty job, but it does happen sorta; this also splits off the few dems that might actually be left-of-center; the romney-obama party is the right-wing major party; this leaves both a vacuum in the two party universe and a runty, mildly left wing party; runty leftish party will have opportunity to grow into a vaguely left-wing major party.

    not likely, but more rational than pretending that the democratic party is anything resembling a left-wing party.

    • Malaclypse

      the shortish scenario: obama loses; pres. romney has to work with pragmatic center-right dems and rightwing repbubs;

      Romney is not gonna get the nod. He prays to the wrong Jesus.

      pres. romney has to abandon the racist and batshit crazy teabaggers;

      And in the hypothetical world where Romney gets the nod, what on earth, or Kolob, will move him left of the teabaggers?

      …this leaves both a vacuum in the two party universe and a runty, mildly left wing party;

      This happened in late November 1972. It did not work out well.

      runty leftish party will have opportunity to grow into a vaguely left-wing major party.

      Or runty leftish party can start running mildly conservative Southern governors. You know, what actually happened.

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