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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Saturday, November 19, 2005

a turning point

It's the weekend before Thanksgiving 2005.

I write this understanding that a confluence of trends (George W. Bush's unpopularity, the persistent failure of the war in Iraq, a series of scandals that touch both the White House and top GOP leadership) have made the Republicans vulnerable in ways they haven't been for years. At the same time I realize that core weaknesses in the Democratic Party (our liberal/mainstream split, our geographic concentration in big cities and the coasts, and a cultural failure and weakness of our leadership) mean that our ability to capitalize on those GOP weaknesses are not much better than they have been for the last 25-30 years.

It's a familiar litany, with a familiar foundation.

We don't control the House, and haven't since 1994. We don't control the Senate, and lost enough ground in 2004 that our best hopes for 2006 may simply be drawing even again. John Kerry lost the Presidential contest last year in a high turnout election where he quite often significantly improved on Al Gore's vote totals. In the wake of 2000 and 2004 our "electoral path" to Presidential victory in 2008 is not clear or sure. Even if Kerry had won, however, Congress is solidly GOP. And in the United States, power goes to those with legislative majorities.

One look at the closeness of the last two Presidential elections seems to imply a nation ready to give Democrats a fair shake, an evenly split country. But that ignores the reality that, structurally, the current layout of the balance of power favors the Republicans. Democrats are more concentrated in big states and cities, we are more concentrated in Congressional districts where we win 80-20 or 70-30, or 65-35, and we are more and more on the losing end of state redistricting that draws maps in Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania that give GOP incumbants districts where they can easily fend off Democratic challengers: ie. multiple "slight lean Republican" districts with GOP incumbants.

This environment, this structural imbalance, more than anything else explains the current state of U.S. politics. And the symbolic cornerstones of this imbalance: GOP locks on Southern and Heartland states isn't going to change out of the goodness of the Republican's hearts. There are "red trends" in the heartland that won't dissappear simply due to scandal in D.C. In fact, I'd argue that if we give Bush/Cheney enough time, we could see a whole new GOP leadership emerge and win in 2008 on a Republican reform platform.

The only way to change this structural imbalance is to start by understanding it, and how it affects our politics.

Since many core Democrats are packed into districts like the one I live in...that of Congresswoman Barbara Lee...where our representatives win with close to 80% of the vote, that means that, quite often, the driving centers of Democratic politics end up way more "out front" and "progressive" than the rest of the country. It's no surprise that many netroots Democratic activists judge politics with a harsh edge, or simply by how much we loathe the oppostion. To win Democratic activist support, you've got to win over activists in our most Democratic districts with a rhetoric that matches those numbers.

That's a trap.

I've tried to be a voice for coalition. I find that gets misinterpreted as "special interest politics" which, to me, is a crime. Democrats need a bringing together of both wings. "We" has to mean 60% of the country. "We" has to mean a potential majority in most every state. "We" has to mean a politics that appeals to 'urban democrats' (whom we NEED, every last one of them) and 'heartland voters' whom we need just as dearly...we need a winning politics that clearly isolates the issues the two groups have in common. Not in a surface way...in a real way. We need to talk kitchen table in a language that works in Oakland and in Tracy and in Los Banos.

It's time for us to come together to win in the environment we've been handed by history. We can't do it without the cities. We can't do it without the heartland. Pandering to either one is...still pandering.

In my mind, the mistake of "scandal politics" and "internet-based anti-GOP" crusading is that it doesn't get at the core structural reason the Democrats are out of power: all those GOP congresscritters in those "lean Republican" seats.

There may be thirty of them who are vulnerable. There may be sixty. There may be ninety. Until we identify them, and run credible kitchen table Democrats against them who link their campaigns to a powerful national theme that brings both wings of our party together: we're gonna be stuck on the outside of a GOP majority in our Congress.

I'm a progressive. I don't intend to change that. I'm proud of it. But I understand that the legacy we leave our kids can't be one of losing year after year. I want to be able to speak those progressive politics and see them represented in legislative majorities that get things done. I am a firm believer that the most powerful political argument is that of success: ie. showing how our ideas work better when the rubber hits the road. I think our progressive ideas can win in that marketplace...they already have in so many ways: from Head Start to Social Security to the Parental and Family Leave Act...and what I'd like is for another generation of those ideas to have a chance. We progressives have got a lot more to give; we deserve a seat at the table.

That means coalition. That means a politics that focuses on what brings the disparate parts of our coalition together. That means hammering out a "culture" that permits liberals like me to stand behind someone like a John Murtha or a Bob Casey knowing that I will get a fair shake for my ideas too, that those politicians will stand behind folks like me when the chips are down. We need to figure out how to do this without pandering or BS. Ie. without DLC types running against people like me out of convenience...or vice versa. That means no more "Sister Souljah" moments...it also means less easy ranting on the blogs.

I think this is a turning point for both parties. I think there will be a GOP reform movement...if not in 2006...certainly by 2008. Our chance, as Democrats, is to come together now under two new banners:

  • good government reform
  • a coalition of both wings of our party focused on our core values: fixing health care and the environment would be two

  • To that end, I think we very much need to put up a national platform for 2006. We need to identify districts where House GOP incumbants are weak. And, noting examples like Casey in Pennsylvania, or Herseth in South Dakota, understand that we won't get the "Dean Dream" of a clean sweep of progressive netroots candidates. But what we just might do is lay the foundation for a winning Democratic coalition that reforms our government and get things done on a state and national level.

    As progressives, our job is to address the structural imbalance in American politics by winning where we can...building majorities in coalition where we can...and innovating ways to partner in this political environment. Progressives need to learn that word, "partnership"...and learn how to make it work for us in building our reforms, and our change into American political life. It may be too soon for us on the national stage, but it should not be too soon for us in a host of cities and states and regions. For me, that was the shame of the New York mayor's race and in losing the California Governorship to Arnold. We miss a chance to define ourselves.

    I am convinced, as well, that far from hiding true progressive voices, our party should embrace us as one, strong part of our coalition. Currently, we have the worst of both worlds; our moderates are judged and lambasted as "liberals"...and real progressive values and reform don't even see the light of day. We need to change that and make clear the Democratic Party has room for everyone. In this, I remain a Wellstone Democrat; Paul Wellstone was a great spokesman for progressive values and a great Democrat.

    One final word, I know there is a focus right now on "purple zones" and "making red zones purple." That leads to a lot of talk of taking Democratic politics and making a run for "moral values" and "red flavors" at the expense of investing in our urban democrats as well. One word of caution. Don't forget the cities. Don't forget the urban Democrats and our shared interest in what make this country great. In a mid-term election people write off us voters in safe Dems districts. That's a bad idea. First, because no one on either side should be taken for granted. Second, ignoring the common interests between families in cities and families in the heartland is idiotic if we a trying to build a broad and winning coalition.

    Come 2008 the Democratic party will need every single one of its voters...those in cities and those in the heartland. We need to convince all of our voters of the meaning, the significance and the security of their ballots, and of how much much we all really have in common. 2006 is a chance to do that. A test run. It's a chance to build a coalition based on common values that will take us to victory in 2008...and perhaps, if we target the right districts, build a strong enough coalition, and show unity where we've shown weakness in the past, we just might shock the world in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006.

    God knows it's about time.



    • You've stated what I think is most everyone's bottom line for working in coalition: that others in them "will stand behind folks like me when the chips are down. "

      We founder a lot on that baseline requirement. People of color do not easily trust that will be true, and they have lots of experience to suggest they are right. Queers likewise. Pro-choice women's outfits don't trust Casey on that score, perhaps wrongly.

      Our coalition needs practice in demonstrating our commitment to each other. First we need some explicit bottom lines, probably as a platform. Then all parts of the coalition need to be very conscious about showing their support to other parts.

      The Republicans are in part foundering over the same problems, as they too are a coalition. But we certainly can't expect the strains in their coalitiion to bring Democrats/prgressives to power unless we work consciously to build our coaliton's internal trust.

      By Blogger janinsanfran, at 10:18 PM  

    • K/O,

      This is a great post. But two minor points:

      1) To win Democratic activist support, you've got to win over activists in our most Democratic districts with a rhetoric that matches those numbers.

      That's a trap.

      Chris Bowers links to some information that suggests Democratic activists are much closer to the center than Republican activists. It suggests that Democratic activists are more pragmatic than you imply.

      2) We, as progressives, need to make sure that we don't simply get co-opted into the campaigns of non-progressives. Coalitions ought to be two-way streets. In exchange for support from us, more conservative Dems ought to be expected to stand with us on certain issues. Some of this requires a progressive platform. But there is also a need for a distinct progressive Democratic identity.

      By Blogger Matt, at 10:47 PM  

    • Re: matt and Jan

      You both are spot on and add to the piece. Thanks. I get from both of you that coalition is a two way street...and I agree.

      Matt, what you are saying is true...MyDD is indeed more moderate and flexible than their counterpart equivalent.

      My take, however, is that when I've advocated a coalition building that values progressive and urban voices at MyDD...I get labelled as a "special interests" fan.

      Ie. I think significant parts of the "liberal blogosphere" have a JUST WIN BABY mindset that is looking at only one half of the equation...the winning "red friendly" voters half.

      I guess I would put it this way: my essay is advocating two things:

      -that progressives find a new way to build and work in coalition...

      -and that "just win" moderates and liberals not discount the Party's left wing...and the significant core of our coalition that it respresents...in pursuit of "red value" friendly candidates.

      By Blogger kid oakland, at 6:02 AM  

    • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

      By Blogger A. Citizen, at 2:52 PM  

    • Good stuff. I would add with regards to 'Just Win' type folks.

      Win what?

      Why do you want to win?

      If you have a reason for winning does it have anything to do with people's lives?

      As an example, Prop 80 went down, in my opinion based on what folks told me, because it wasn't made clear that re-regulation was essential to controlling the rapacious energy industry. This was all hashed out and PROVED back in the 1930s when the PUC was created. Now everybody has forgotten the lessons learned then, except for academic experts in this field whom no one pays any attention to as they don't speak in sound bites, this is a result of the destruction of our public education system and the failure of progressives to address the issues which concern voters in their campaigns. If you always on the defensive about your character or past votes you will never get around to advancing a progressive agenda; that is, an agenda which makes our nation a better place for everyone to live their lives not one which gets you elected. The first is supposed to be what it's all about not the second which is where Dems are at at the present time.

      Whenever I get an email from the Dems asking for money, the usual reason given is to 'defeat the Republicans', I always email back asking what their gonna do with the dough and what their agenda is.

      They never reply....

      Not gonna win with that top down B.S.

      By Blogger A. Citizen, at 3:04 PM  

    • This is a great post! (not that that's unusual for you, KO).

      I was at a meeting recently in which there was one person who feels the Dems need to "move to the center" among a group of people who consider themselves "activist."

      By the end of the day, I came to realize that our understandings of what the word "activist" means were vastly, vastly different.

      Those of us who label ourselves "activist" simply view ourselves as people who are active in politics. The other person viewed the word in the way the right wing has painted it: "dangerous, narrow-minded, loopy people naiively pushing a nefarious out-of-the-mainstream agenda." Even though she does as much as or more than the rest of us on behalf of candidates and her community, she did not want herself painted with that label.

      In addition, she was more than comfortable with what I call "pulling out the tent pole" if the people under that part of the "big tent" were "the wrong kind." Where "the wrong kind" would be defined as "those who feel strongly about a particular issue or set of issues that she doesn't feel as strongly about."

      We "single-issue voters" are expected to put aside all our knowledge and experience, stand in the booth, and pull the lever for "the" candidate (who was chosen by "wiser" people who know what's good for us), even if "the" candidate stands against everything we stand for. We are supposed to ignore the suffering that will be caused by that candidate's stances. The letter next to that candidate's name on the ballot takes precedence over human suffering. It's a one-way street, and we are wrong for wanting it to be two-way.

      We, on the other hand expect the respect inherent in "standing behind folks like me when the chips are down."

      Respect is at the heart of this disagreement. Simply put: our efforts have value.

      Expecting hours upon hours of labor, and dollar after dollar of donations, while the only reward is to be commanded to vote for someone who will actively work against our values (oops, our "special interests") by people who "know better," is disrepsectful.

      We are adults. We have actually thought about things. We have even come to conclusions based on what we have learned. Those conclusions drove us to become active. It is not naiivete that drives us, rather the opposite - it is in-depth knowlege that makes us realize the importance of the issue or issues that lead us to act.

      By Blogger rhetoretician, at 8:42 PM  

    • coalition and compromise vs. leadership and truth. I prefer the latter. Right makes might. The truth passionately spoken creates coalitions.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:46 PM  

    • what are these progressive principles of which you speak? Can you speak to them persuasively in such a manner that you create a coalition rather than division?

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:35 PM  

    • I urge all of your readers and lurkers to visit pnhp.org. Join the growing number of physicians, nurses, healthcare providers and concerned citizens on this critical issue.
      On a lighter side of this issue (laughter is good medicine), check out placebojournal.com

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:45 PM  

    • I urge all of your commenters and lurkers to visit pnhp.org so that they may consider joining a growing number of physicians, nurses, healthcare providers, and concerned citizens in this fight for universal healthcare coverage.
      On a lighter side to this issue (laughter is good medicine) check out placebojournal.com.
      Peace and love,

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:49 PM  

    • Sorry folks this was accidently posted at the wrong place.
      I quess I'm more tired than I thought.
      Peace and love,

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:18 PM  

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