Baby, I promise it’ll be different this time…

by , posted on Monday, July 19th, 2010 at 6:47 am

Yesterday, under the full glare of the sun and at the day’s peak of the heat we have been experiencing, I ended up standing on hot asphalt in a parking lot having a debate with a Democratic friend about the party’s prospects in November. When we encountered each other, she’d asked a general question about my opinion of party prospects this November, and I’d started my answer with a concern about where progressives stand in all of this – i.e. virtually no progressive position has been forwarded since the last congressional election.

She swiftly countered with “politics is the art of the possible,” an answer that I hear thrown out so frequently to progressives from Democratic Party strategists and insiders that I have come to regard it as the catch-all talking point excuse for doing nothing at all that might be viewed as even remotely attempting to forward any aspect at all of the progressive agenda.

Now, here’s the thing. I’ve known the person who stopped me for quite some time, and she and I have talked politics on enough occasions and at such length that I would not hesitate to call her thinking on issues progressive. So I was a little taken-aback to hear her instantly respond with the party’s most-canned talking point to any and all complaints from progressives about what they are getting out of Democrats.

But then she spoke eloquently, sincerely, and at length about her work for Gore during the election that first foisted Bush on us, pointing out that what that election got us was eight long and bitter years of Bush-disaster, and asked me to think long and hard about “what is the alternative?” All of which served to make me check myself for a moment, think about the fact that she’s been fighting the long fight within the party longer than I have, and try to explain my thoughts on the progressive position in the Democratic Party.

I said I thought she was right that we – progressives – should “think long and hard,” but on the other hand see no indication that the party is thinking at all about progressives. I offered up the health care bill as just one example of how I think the party is almost completely in bed with corporate America, will time after time throw average Americans under the bus to appease big corporations – in this case insurers who are pretty roundly and soundly hated by the average American so could have been a great test-target – and will then turn around and suggest that that is all that could have possibly been achieved within the “art of the possible” framework they would have us believe.

Whereas progressives sit back and watch Republicans start wildly far on the right, and concede toward the center, and then watch the Democrats start dead center, or even center-right-ish and concede toward the right and wonder over and over again how we will we ever know what could have been possible? What if we’d started the health care debate with single-payer and conceded toward the center? Hard to believe we would not have at least ended up with a robust public option rather than a giant giveaway to insurance companies.

To that, my friend agreed – or at least she agreed that Democrats use all the wrong strategies.

Meh, me I’m more cynical. I have a hard time believing that the people currently running the country that is currently running the world can’t grasp the basic concept of bargaining – a concept that has been grasped and engaged in by reasonably intelligent humans, even illiterate and uneducated ones, in everything passing for a market, even if that market just amounts to trading your pig for beans on the village green, since the dawn of human history.

But I didn’t say that to her, what I did say was that I have a hard time believing progressives are ever going to make headway against the corporate stranglehold on the Democratic Party if they are not willing to walk away. If “consider the alternative” is an effective and foolproof means of getting some of the most dedicated activists within that party to consistently work to elect corporatist Democrats, then what is the incentive for party leadership to ever take action on progressive issues or concerns?

The conversation pretty much ended there, and we have yet to see how November will turn out. I don’t think the party is giving even the most errant passing thought to where progressives will stand this November, beyond having their handy “consider the alternative” and “art of the possible” talking points ready to trot out if they get challenged. I think Democratic Party leadership is very focused on independent voters, so will continue to pitch centrist positions.

Because as long as progressives continue to go back to the one who is beating them up, merely because the alternative of hanging out there on our own and with no immediate prospects for supporting ourselves is so frightening, we’re going to keep taking that beating.


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8 Responses to “Baby, I promise it’ll be different this time…”

  1. bored now says:

    First of all, the Democratic party is the party of governing. The Republican party is the party of stopping it. So it doesn’t matter, from the conservative point of view, where the proposal starts — or ends — if it is making government smaller, taxes less and creates more freedom. Obviously, from the conservative’s perspective, more is better but even if they have to compromise, they still get somewhat smaller government, fewer taxes and more freedom.

    That’s not true for Democrats, because the one thing elected Democrats seem to share (from what I’ve seen) is a respect for the processes of government and a concern about how people are governed. As a national party, this pits Democrats from the North and the Midwest (which have stronger traditions about government’s role in society) with Democrats from the South and the West (which don’t). There is a reason why it is easy for Republicans, at least during my political life, to pick off Democrats than it is for Democrats to pick off Republicans (and why the Republicans we can pick off come from the North and the Midwest). Democrats can’t start from an extreme position to negotiate with Republicans because they have to negotiate with themselves first. This is even more true as the Republican party has become more regional (Southern and Western) in it’s orientation.

    Secondly, you appear to assume that each new Congress and/or president starts from zero. It’s not like private negotiations, where it party has their preferred position and you negotiate until there’s an agreement. Well, at least not in the Senate (you might have more of a point for the House, where different Members have less influence unless they are a committee chair — or, in the case of the Appropriations Committee, a subcommittee chair). In the Senate, you have to negotiate from 60+ starting positions and those positions don’t change with each new Congress. Moreover, except for Russ Feingold and Al Franken (who wasn’t there when health care negotiations started), there are no really strong progressives in the Senate who could start “wildly far” from the left. Observations about how one negotiates in the business world are about as applicable to government as other business principles (which, in my view, are basically none).

    Finally, you seem to assume *here* that campaigns don’t matter, and that presidential agendas should be set aside. We got the kind of health care legislation we did because it fit with Barack Obama’s campaign promises and his style of leadership. Enacting single payer in this Congress would have been a massive defeat of the President, something that few Democrats wanted to see. Advocates of single payer have been working all my political life, and have really gained very little headway in advancing the cause among politicians or the public (in part, this is because single payer advocates are so bad at getting the electorate to understand its position).

    The kicker is that progressives are infrequent voters. Progressives have so little influence in the political process not because they represent the smallest ideological segment of the American electorate but because they represent the smallest ideological segment of the American electorate AND they are less likely to turn out in non-critical non-Presidential years. Democratic politicians are forced towards the center because that’s where the electorate resides. It’s nice to get the progressive vote (when they turn out), but progressives are merely the icing on the cake. I’d argue that many if not most progressives feel like you do — angry with how rarely your positions are taken up by elected officials — and act accordingly. We lack progressive leadership in elected office because progressives don’t lead. When progressives start being a critical part of the Democratic coalition, they more Democrats will cater to their wishes. That’s what happens when a political party is not ideological, but a collection of specific interests…

    • n0madic says:

      I’m struck by the fact that, if we extend Downtowner’s metaphor, your response here doesn’t challenge the notion that progressives are in an abusive relationship with the Democratic Party (and here I would want to put a finer point on it and say Democratic Party establishment), so much as it attempts to defend the conduct of the Party by blaming the victim.

      If only we progressives would do what the Democratic Party wants us to do, if we would simply behave properly, if we would subordinate ourselves to the Party and understand that they know what’s best for us, then they might start treating us better, then they might start showing us some respect. Isn’t that essentially what you’re saying here?

      Sorry, but I think the Party’s got a problem, a serious problem, and I’m not interested in being an enabler anymore. Not only do I not like getting knocked around, I have my needs, too, and if the Party won’t do right by me, not only am I prepared to walk away, I feel obligated to do my best to persuade my progressive friends who are still making excuses for the Party’s abusive behavior to stop living in denial.

      • bored now says:

        while i wouldn’t want to go into psychology, i keep saying that progressives need to start punching above their weight. that doesn’t mean subordinating yourself to the democratic party but kind of taking it over.

        and this is where we disagree. i understand that its easy to revert to old behavior and you won’t see me begging for progressives to stay involved in the democratic party. i don’t do what should be. i do what is…

        • n0madic says:

          You’ll get no argument from me on your first point. Michael Harrington sold me on his strategy so long ago that we were still calling DSA DSOC in those days.

          As for your second point, that’s fine, too. Exactly what I would expect from a backsliding neocon. Suffice to say the feeling’s mutual.

          • bored now says:

            lol. well, i was never a neo-con, or conservative, or moderate or liberal and since the term progressive isn’t well defined, it’s hard to know about that. but the funny thing is, conservatives think that i’m a liberal and liberals think i’m a conservative. so it’s pretty established that you can call me anything you want! never been called a neo-con before, i’ll have to look up what that means (the term being so archaic)…

            • n0madic says:

              Ah, but Alan, we are no longer young men. It should come 
as no surprise that elements 
of our past might now be thought archaic.
 Such is the passing of time.

              To the extent that political principle has ever provided
 a plausible basis for understanding what you were/are about, it would seem 
to me 
that your conservative and liberal acquaintances are both right; you are more liberal than the conservatives and more conservative than the liberals. And I’ll stand by my description of you as a backsliding neocon. Assuming we can take you at your word
 regarding who you’ve worked for through the years, that is, and what issues
 have mattered to you most, when issues have mattered to you at all.

              That said, no one is more willing than I to believe
 that political principle has never been your defining characteristic, and 
that the 
fellow who once described you simply as a “gunslinger” knew exactly what he was 
talking about. That you are, in other words, fundamentally a hired
 gun who cares less 
about ideology, or which side of the aisle he’s standing on, 
than on which side his bread is most likely to be buttered.

              As for the notion that “progressive” 
isn’t well-defined, yes, true. And all the better for you, no? I
 mean, think how much harder you would
 have had to work at rebranding 
if this were not the case, and how much harder you would 
have to work to get
 your bread buttered in the land of Obama if you were not now in 
the business of
 selling nominally progressive 

              Big tents all over the place, it would seem. Me, I’m 
thinking not enough attention 
is being paid to those playing fast and 
loose with the tent stakes.

  2. Downtowner says:

    First, I’d say that I can’t disagree that the Democrats can’t start from an extreme position because they have to negotiate with themselves first, namely liberals have to give up any extreme positions to corporatist/centrist Democrats – who will and have voted with Republicans on a myriad of issues thus bolstering their ability to get legislation passed – up front. In a nutshell that is why progressives like myself are not much interested in working to support Blue Dogs and other centrist Dem candidates – as well set liberal objectives out with the garbage before the election even takes place.

    I think this president, and this congress, started as near to zero and with as much strength to reset the board as it is reasonable to expect in my lifetime. Yet there has been little to no indication of an interest – let alone willingness – to strongly push for a liberal agenda. And yes, like most progressives I quite clearly get that Democrats (and most decidedly NOT Republicans) need 60+ votes to pass anything through the Senate.

    You seem to think that reading what I wrote does not matter before responding to it – i.e. I did not say we could have passed single-payer, I said we should have tried to if the objective was to get to a robust public option (a clear campaign promise of Obama’s) and that since I think this administration, and the Democratic leadership, are quite cabable of calculating where they are gonna get if they try to get along a line from A to X and shoot for F, I think efforts to get us to a public option were never sincere.

    So all and all, its a good thing that – in your estimation – we are unecessary icing, since I think most of us have melted off the cake now.

    • bored now says:

      we’ll just have to disagree whether they started from zero in 2009 (none of my conversations with people involved indicated a willingness to move off of long-held positions and start over). and i didn’t really think that you supported centrist democrats, anyway. that’s another place we disagree, since i understand that the democratic party is neither ideological nor especially brave.

      nor will it be until there is a time when a core group of *committed* democrats are willing to push the party over a period of years without resorting to threats and sitting out various elections (i’m not pointing fingers, i’m just sayin’).

      and, yeah, my bad about the single payer thing. i read it correctly but that wasn’t conveyed by what i wrote. the important point i keep trying to make is that the senate isn’t like what i think you imagine it to be. the senate democratic leadership doesn’t have control over its members, and its members are loyal to their individual positions in all these areas. since the commitment to the public option was (as i recall) a post-convention thing — it was never mentioned at any of the speeches that i filmed or attended — i never took it to be a core obama position. it was really a house thing, and the house and the senate don’t seem to get along.

      but, yeah, i play with the electorate as its given and manipulate it as able. it is much easier to define a path to victory by counting first those you know who will vote, and then going after the infrequent voters. you don’t risk the base to win over those who you don’t know won’t get out to the polls. i keep thinking that the lesson there is for progressives to become committed, reliable voters who will always turn up and vote democratic, but that seems to be asking a lot…

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