Saturday, January 09, 2010

Cheering the Team

I caught this article by Jeffery Young at The Hill (h/t Matt Yglesias) discussing the health care bill with Andy Stern of the SEIU.  Now the comments on the health bill are worth in themselves.  But one thing in the article particularly caught my attention, not with regard to the health care bill particularly, but rather with regard to how progressives approach politics and the rather limited success we’ve had in advancing policies we want.  At one point Young writes

Stern expressed strong frustration with the Senate and with those centrists -- without calling any out by name -- and hinted that labor unions and their members, who contributed with money and effort to winning Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, would be less motivated next time around.
“Democrats were given a gift that they have squandered,” Stern said. “If this is the way the Senate is going to do business when they have 60 votes, they’re pretty much guaranteeing a self-fulfilling prophecy that they won’t have 60 votes.”

a view similar to what I’ve seen a lot from various liberal bloggers radio hosts and the like.  Given the Democrats failure to deliver all that we hoped we won’t be there to give them our support in the future. 

This seems to me, however, to be a strange attitude toward the political process.   It is almost as we are supporting not a political party but a musical group or a sports franchise, and if they disappoint us the fans won’t show up at the part.  But the Democratic party is not really like a sports franchise that will have to live the misfortune of lower attendance if we, the fans, aren’t happy with how they perform.  The political parties are the instruments we have for achieving our policy objectives.   If we stay away from the polls then it is true that the Democratic party will feel some disappointment (although I doubt that it is actually as much as a lot of progressives believe) but it is also the case that other people when then be setting the nations policies.  Experience indicates that that will mean that really terribly bad polices will be established rather than merely disappointing policies.

I’ve discussed elsewhere what seems to be the progressives strategy and that it has been a striking failure.  As a movement we stayed away from the polls in ‘68 to get Nixon, and stayed away in ‘80 to get Reagan and stayed away in ‘00 to get Bush.  The policies that have come out of staying away have been quite a disaster from a progressive viewpoint.  Yet we persist in this strategy, and I see echoes of it in the comments of Andy Stern and others

On the flip side of this discussion, however, is this article by Seth Maxon from In These Times.  Apparently, Michigan Socialists are having some electoral success and political influence by working with the local Democratic party rather than opposing them.  To summarize

The secret to their success, says Green, is thinking strategically.

“As a small organization, how can we make a difference? We leverage our forces. We put our efforts towards a progressive Democrat challenging a Republican, or a progressive Democrat challenging a centrist Democrat [in a primary]. “

“We don’t pick symbolic victories,” Green says, “We pick things we can win.”

After deciding whom to support, Detroit DSA carefully chooses tactics that will have the greatest impact, all of which are based on the leftist tradition of on-the-ground, grassroots action.

This seems eminently sensible to me.  The route to political success is to move the political process in the direction you want, not to call upon political purity of all those you associate with.

This also touches on another issue one often hears about in left wing political commentary, namely the formation of a third party.  We’ve all heard before the kind of claim that the Democrats are all corrupt and sell outs to Industry, or whatever, so we need to form a new political party.  This too seems quite misguided.  Forming a political party is enormously expensive in terms of time and effort, as well as money, and the influence of a third party is very limited.  A much better path is the one followed by the Michigan Socialists above, form a coalition or section within the Democratic party.  Have members of the Democratic party move the Democratic party to the left.  People tend to think of the parties as being fixed entities, and indeed it is generally the case that they change slowly, but they do change.  The Democratic party of a hundred years ago could hardly have been the one to elect the first Black President, and the Republican party of the same time was not the holdout of the nations Confederate apologists.  The Democratic party can be made more progressive than it is and it already has a great deal of the infrastructure needed to get people elected and to shape policy.  Use that existing infrastructure rather than try to build a new one. 

Another way to consider what is needed is not to think of the Democratic party as a whole.  Rather consider that there are a number of people in Congress who are doing the work we want, Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold, Chuck Schumer, etc.  Given that these folks are trying to advance the kind of policies we want, and trying to stop those policies we don’t want, we should consider how to best help them do this.  Obviously, electing a whole slew of really progressive Democrats (or whatever's) would be best, but clearly seeing a bunch of conservative Republicans elected would not be helpful.  More Democrats would help (60 is a much better number than 59, but we really need 62 or 63).  The more progressive better still, but any but the most conservative Democrats would be a boost, and even some of those might not be bad if it brought us over 60.  

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