Saturday, December 18, 2010


Yesterday at the White House, when President Obama signed the new tax deal, he said it was an “early Christmas present” for America. Lower taxes for everybody. Unemployment insurance for those who need it. And more stimulus for our sagging economy. It’s all good, right?

If you would answer “no” to that last question and you’re reading this blog, you probably fall into a category that is coming to be known as “the left” or “the disgruntled left” according to the mainstream media. You also go by the name of “purist” – or more specifically, the “purist Democratic left.” It is said that you and your ilk comprise roughly 20% of the American people. And if the old saw is true that, no matter what question is polled, we can always find at least 20% of the American people on each side of it, you “purists” on the left must represent the fringe on one side of the political continuum. Supposedly, you are unconcerned with practicality and wish to attack war, redistribute wealth, and fight the Republicans every chance you get. And why? Because you would rather feel good about yourselves than support the compromises needed to get the trains running on time and put real food on the table for real people. In other words, politically speaking, you’re still in your adolescence; you’re not one of the so-called “adults in the room.”

So how do you plan on responding to the new realities? How enthusiastically do you plan on supporting your President? Do you see any alternatives on the horizon whom you would rather support? Do you see yourself, going forward, as a member of the Democratic Party, or rather as a member of the Greens? Or for that matter, do you wish to start a new movement, a “Coffee Klatch” to counteract the Tea Partiers on the right? And where do you plan on getting your informational sustenance, now that you’ve been marginalized by virtually everyone in the main stream media and have few real champions in the halls of power? One minute, you thought you were part of the “Democratic base” and took pride in the President you helped elect, and now, suddenly, your President is calling you “sanctimonious” and he has a whole group of new friends who appear to see eye-to-eye with him but who view you as little more than a silly, almost pathetic anachronism –someone more suited for the 1960s than the new millennium.

Oh sure, you can say “I’m a Bernie Sanders Democrat!” except that Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat; he’s a socialist who is technically identified as an “Independent.” Or perhaps you can say “I’m an Alan Grayson Democrat!” except that Alan Grayson lost his re-election bid for Congress and will soon be thrown out on the street, where he will be just another adolescent, sanctimonious purist, whose diatribes against conservatives will be analogized to spitting into the wind.

Surely, you and your ilk need a plan. But even more, you need some pride. No, I’m not talking about the pride of sanctimony – we both know that the “sanctimonious” label the President assigned to you was a classless attack that was frankly beneath him. This isn’t about sanctimony, this is about being true to your principles – the same principles on which he himself ran when he was attempting to gain the Presidency in 2008. The pride I’m talking about is all about feeling a sense of confidence that you are part of a larger movement that is as principled as it is pragmatic, and that recognizes certain principles that can never be set aside without one hell of a fight. Opposing unnecessary wars is one of those principles. And, yes, economic fairness – aka justice – is another.

With all that in mind, here are a few ideas. I’m open to changing them, but I wanted to get some thoughts out on the table now so that progressives can begin to play with some options. “Options” are key, because it is vital that we not feel fated to sit at the back of the American political bus. Progressives must never view themselves as irrelevant fringe players who are forever destined to support center-right candidates -- as opposed to the hard-right candidates -- for every important position in Government. That is not an option I’m willing to entertain.

1. Study the Tea Partiers, and rather than criticizing them, emulate them.

Give credit where credit is due. Not long ago, the Tea Party was an unorganized, grass roots movement. Now look at it. Sure these “Partiers” had their failures, but their successes have been staggering. And they became successful in part because they didn’t fear failure.

It was always assumed that the Tea Partiers would vote Republican, which they did in 2010, but the brilliance of their movement was that it was neither associated with the Republican Party nor was it associated with any other political party. It maintained maximum flexibility. Mostly, it was just a group of people who shared some common principles about which they were passionate and adamant, and it identified individuals both within and without the political process who could champion their cause. Plus, it had a built-in publicity machine known as Fox News.

So, progressives might want to consider (a) starting a movement of their own that is not associated with any political party, (b) coming up with a recognizable name for their movement, (c) ensuring that certain passionately-held principles and values are closely linked to the movement, (d) identifying leaders both inside and outside of the political process, and (e) using a television network to trumpet the movement the same way that the Tea Partiers have used Fox. As for the last point, MSNBC is an obvious choice. Maddow, Schultz and Olbermann will be happy to help. And if things are handled well enough, the network’s “adults in the room,” like Matthews and O’Donnell, might even be swept up in the fervor.

2. Reread Machiavelli.

Will Rogers famously said that he was not a member of an organized political party – he was a Democrat. That statement rings as true today as when it was coined. For some inexplicable reason, the Democratic Party has generally ignored the need to establish discipline within the ranks. The Party could get away with that at a time when Republicans came in various stripes. But now, when the Republicans are absolutely unified with respect to the critical area that separates the Parties – economics – establishing Democratic discipline is no longer a luxury. It’s an absolute must.

Progressives need to understand that. Indeed, they need to understand and implement all the basic Machiavellian lessons that are critical to wresting power from the conservatives. If that means that progressives must unite with Blue Dogs, fine. But the fight will be to unite on the progressives’ terms – just like the hard-liners on the GOP have figured out a way to push around their Party’s (former) moderates.

Just look at the way that the conservatives have used fear to establish discipline. For starters, they need only point to George H.W. Bush’s decision to raise taxes; it’s now known that if a Republican takes on GOP orthodoxy on that issue, he’ll not only lose his base, he’ll lose his next election. Consider also the plethora of conservative radio and TV personalities who are poised to jump on any Republican who shows signs of real compromise with Democrats on fundamental (i.e., economic) issues. Hell hath no fury like a conservative scorned. And believe me, that creates discipline. So, too, do the daily breakfasts led by Grover Norquist, the leader of a right-wing group known as Americans for Tax Reform. At these events, conservative powerbrokers have gathered for years to formulate a consistent message that can be used to destroy any semblance of economic equity in this country. And look at the results. Not only are the rich getting richer, but President Obama has been enlisted into action as a willing supporter – in practice if not in theory.

Progressives need to find their own Grover Norquist. And they also must locate some bright, single-minded folks who don’t mind starting their day with bagels and economic theory. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel here. The conservatives have demonstrated how the game is played. It’s time to play it.

3. Don’t over think the general elections.

One way for a progressive to get depressed is to start thinking about yourself as a jilted lover. If that were true, a vote for your lover (be it President Obama or your “sell-out” Congressman) would be tantamount to serving as an enabler. Let’s face it -- no good progressive wants to be seen as an enabler. We all pride ourselves on being like the battered wife who immediately goes to the cops and presses charges, rather than simply turning the other cheek.

But folks, voting Democrat in November 2012 is not tantamount to “enabling” a wife beater. We as citizens have the right to vote for the better of two alternatives, even if neither one is ideal. If you’re a progressive, that will almost certainly be the Democrat. So fine, vote Democratic! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel free to support any candidate we want to in a primary just because fear mongers talk about a primary challenge as tantamount to high treason. Nor does it mean we should feel obliged to fight like a banshee to get a particular politician elected if he or she doesn’t reflect our values.

So, my progressive friends, throw the bulk of your energies into those campaigns where a legitimate progressive is on the ballot. But whenever it comes time to vote, don’t feel bad about pulling the lever for the “Democrat,” even if you see him or her as simply a moderate Republican. These days, a moderate Republican is typically way, way better than the alternative.

4. Start by finding a few good men (and women).

So, where do we begin? By taking an inventory. Survey the airwaves. Survey the op-eds. Survey the halls of Capitol Hill and the State Houses. Your job is simple: put aside the opportunists and find the real progressives. No, I’m not talking about the crazies either. There are folks like Chomsky who can legitimately call themselves progressive but whose knees jerk so far to the left that they’ve pulled their brains out of joint in the process. Candidly, all that I have in mind are folks who seem to care half as much about peace and economic equity as Grover Norquist cares about jingoism and further enriching the rich. That’s a standard that most current Democratic politicians couldn’t even come close to meeting, their transparently superficial rhetoric notwithstanding.

Think back to the time that then Illinois State Senator Obama gave his speech against invading Iraq in 2002. Does anyone now think for an instant that he would have given a similar speech had he been U.S. Senator Obama? Or President Obama? Of course not. Most Democratic Party politicians are willing to check their progressivism at the door whenever their political aspirations are at stake. If war in Iraq were unpopular, do you have any doubt that Hillary Clinton would have opposed it during the fall of 2002? But it wasn’t unpopular, so she supported it – as did future Presidential candidates Dodd, Edwards and Biden. That’s the way it has worked with Democrats in Washington, D.C.; they’re always looking around to make sure that it is “safe” to be a progressive. We deserve better.

The differences between the Parties is especially stark when it comes to economics. Republicans fight for their laissez-faire economic principles regardless of the political winds, and this week’s tax cut “compromise” is the fruit of that resolve. By contrast, Democrats go only as far as the Gallup Poll numbers allow them to go at any given time, and apparently, there is no polling data saying that a fight for economic equity is worth waging. The result is that, in Washington D.C., true warriors for progressive principles are as rare as appearances in the World Series or NBA Finals. (If you know how lousy our sports teams are, you get my point.)

Our job is to identify and support legitimate progressives. I’m talking about people who viscerally loathed the Iraq War – and couldn’t have supported it even if it were immensely popular. I’m talking about people who take climate change seriously and know that the clock continues to be ticking against us. I’m talking about people who hate runaway deficits precisely because they are progressive – and recognize that no less than gays, minorities, and the environment, our nation’s children and grandchildren are victims of today’s political marketplace. I’m talking about articulate, unabashed supporters of a progressive tax policy. And yes, I’m talking about people who are willing to acknowledge that no society with a wealth distribution like ours could possibly call itself just. Above all, I’m talking about people who are not afraid to have the mainstream media question whether they are “socialist,” even though they know such a label would be inappropriate.

The fact is that there are alternatives to socialism, on the one hand, and unbridled capitalism, on the other. Let’s identify rising stars in the media, in the Statehouses and on Capitol Hill who are happy to identify themselves with a middle ground – a capitalism that respects universal dignity and justice. Then we can support these leaders as they struggle to give America an alternative to the Supply Siders who currently dominate the GOP – and are increasingly coming to dominate the Democratic Party as well.

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