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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

for a politics of coalition

One thing that gets me is how my political instincts just run counter to what most folks propose as the "magic bullet" for the Democratic Party. (In my view there isn't one.) As you may have guessed, politically, my instincts always come back to coalition building. This essay is an attempt to analyse why and where I differ with what I see as the prevailing ideas...and to indicate why I am interested in 'coalition building' as the Democratic Party's best bet for winning back a legislative majority.

It seems like there are two broad schools of thought currently proposing a 'model' for moving forward, those based on message and those based on process.

Let's take a look....


{click here for the full post with your comments.}

{note: this essay was long enough that I "folded it"...your comments are still welcome, and you can add to the discussion by clicking at the bottom of the linked thread.)

Monday, May 02, 2005

a politics of coalition: sets

One of the things that has always frustrated me with Democratic politics is that we bang heads so much inside our coalition. I mean, it's almost like we don't get the meaning of the term "ally" or "coalition" in the first place.

Now, there are reasons for this...deep reasons actually. And the simplest and most direct response to this state of affairs would be for all of us to take as a basic start point that we are a broad and diverse coalition, and not paper over that fact. What I'd like to do here, towards that end, is to propose what I hope is a fresh approach to looking at coalition building and political organizing: a politics of coalition. To do this, at first, I'd like to look at our coalition like a mathmatical set. (Ok, I know this kind of mechanistic thing is not to everyone's taste....if what follows isn't you, no worries...feel free to skip this stuff.)

Let's say you could break, for simplicity's sake, all Democrats into three subsets: Urban Democrats, Suburban Democrats, and Rural Democrats. You could then represent each group like this:

Urban Democrats = UDs
Suburban Democrats = SDs
Rural Democrats = RDs

Now, in a given election, or on a given issue, Democrats as a whole would look to unify all of these voters in one set of voters. That set might look like this:

(UDs + SDs+ RDs)

That seems obvious enough. It also highlights some of the inherent difficulties that go into Democratic coalition building. You see, any time we want to talk about a broad issue, or run a state-wide or national campaign, we are essentially speaking to that whole set. In effect, what any Democrat who seeks to speak to our broad coalition is trying to do is to build a parentheses, to build a message that serves as an overarching rationale to bring the disparate groups of our coalition together. In terms of sets, that message might look like this:

(UDs + SDs+ RDs)

Now, this gets to the core of a pattern we've seen in previous election cycles. We know that we need to build this coalition to win, and we need EACH of the coalition members to be on board. But to do this, we tend to think as if we simply have to calibrate our message. Message becomes all we talk about, the 'focus' of our campaign.

Message building and framing are hard work. However, if you ask me, message alone is not the solution. We can't simply throw up brackets and win. We've learned that the hard way. Democratic unity, real coalition building, is about more than message. It's about the ties that bind the members of our coalition together, and how well we built those ties. It's about each group feeling at home inside the brackets of our coalition.. It is about understanding what it is that brings the people in our coalition together and what keeps us here. (One thing we need to do more of is actually physically meeting together ie. sitting in the same room.)

Whether our unity is driven by necessity, proximity, impending legislation, or ideology, for purposes of representing it in this schema, it looks like this:

(UDs+SDs+RDs)

From where I stand, we cannot underestimate the importance of unity, of doing the hard work of real coalition building. Simply put, for Democrats to reclaim our electoral majority in this country we need to win because of the strength and diversity of our coalition, not despite of it.

Our goal should not be to ERASE the distinctions between the members of our coalition. That is largely what the GOP has done within their party, and in an extremely negative, yet successful, manner. It 'works' for them; it actually builds their unity. That strategy doesn't much work for us. As the more diverse party, we cannot simply be united by negatives. A broad coalition needs more than that. You could argue that the 2004 election represents the most explicit expression of this reality yet.

Our goal, out of necessity and choice, should be to enhance the participation of our coalition members, not simply by working on our overall message but by doing the hard, "in the trenches" work of building party unity. We should not attempt to drown our differences with ideology or paper them over with message; indeed, we should to forge our differences into strengths by seeking the roots of our common cause. We need to learn to work together even when we stand apart so that we can present a united, yet diverse, face to our nation. In doing this, we make a bold claim for being the true majority party. We need an equation that looks like this, with each of its components carrying equal weight:

(UDs+SDs+RDs) = an electoral majority

Idealizing this kind of coalition building, is, to me, the essence of what Senator Paul Wellstone, like no other political leader in our lifetime, was about. Paul Wellstone's praxis of idealism tempered with pragmatism is at the core of our party's mission, and the path to our rebirth. Democratic unity must be driven by pragmatic necessity and energized by our ideals. That is the force that binds us together more than any message can. It is our job to uncover this essential unity: the core of what allows us to stand in solidarity with each other while respecting our differences. Simply put, Democratic unity wins elections.

Living up to this challenge is inherently hard to do. It means overcoming the same awkward issues we've been dealing with for decades: cultural divides, geography, "values." It is, however, in my view, the inevitable challenge facing Democratic politics in our generation. It's the political legacy we've inherited. We either solve this equation, and build our coalition in a way that wins...we either learn, finally, to deal with the reality and strength of our diversity...or we lose our rationale for existing as a party, a rationale that is the same for any political party: winning elections.

The end goal is that simple. And the whole world is watching.

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

mike brown continued....

One has to wonder why there has been zero FEMA presence at the Superdome, the Convention Center and the city's hospitals. Would it have been too much to have communications people at those locations arrive by helicopter...if only to provide leadership and information? (If not distribute water and prioritize the needs of the victims needing help.)

Mr. Brown characterized the levee break almost like it caught him and the government off guard. (which it, of course, did.) But as he talked about that break I got the distinct impression that the levee break was going to serve as a kind of excuse...that "everything would have been okay if only the levee hadn't broke." That doesn't cut it when your own agency had addressed that exact contingency, in my view.

At any rate. Mike Brown doesn't come over well on TV. He's doesn't give off a take charge vibe in the least. And his message is not focused. He downplayed the looting as an impediment to rescue efforts and attempted to humanize the remaining victims in the city. (which I appreciate) At the same time he then quite clearly called the looters "thugs"...which sounded exactly like BushCo. code speak: a blanket condemnation of property theft in the face of an utter humanitarian nightmare.

Finally, his characterization of the house-to-house searches...his description of the many houses that contained the dead and the drowned...sickened me. It was almost like he was feeling sorry for the rescuers for having to "see" this. That simply doesn't cut it either, especially in light of his "blame the victim" remarks on CNN. (see comments below)

As it stands the director of FEMA, in the face of the worst humanitarian disaster in our nation in a century came off as someone not even aware of the stark facts of that reality.

We needed better from FEMA....and if the news reports from New Orleans are to be believed....New Orleans and the Gulf Coast had better receive the aid they so desperately need at all those points of gathering...at the Convention Center, the Superdome, at Nursing Homes and Hospitals and private apartment buildings and all up and down the Gulf Coast...and soon.

The BBC is now reporting "thousands" dead. The footage on the BBC is heartbreaking right now.

a politics of sets: basics

Let's say you could break, for simplicity's sake, all Democrats into three subsets: Urban Democrats, Suburban Democrats, and Rural Democrats. You could then represent each group like this:

Urban Democrats = UDs
Suburban Democrats = SDs
Rural Democrats = RDs

Now, in a given election, or on a given issue, Democrats as a whole would look to unify all of these voters in one set of voters. That set might look like this:

(UDs + SDs+ RDs)

That seems obvious enough. Now, what any Democrat who seeks to speak to this broad coalition is trying to do is create an overarching rationale to bring the disparate groups of our coalition together, is to build a message. In terms of sets, that message might look like this:

(UDs + SDs+ RDs)

Message, however, is not really coalition building. It's simply something papered over the top of our coalition by candidates. Coalition building, Democratic Unity is about the ties that bind the members of our coalition together, and how well we've built those ties. It's about each group feeling at home inside the brackets of our coalition. Whether our unity is driven by necessity, proximity, impending legislation, or ideology, for purposes of representing it in this schema, it looks like this:

(UDs+SDs+RDs)



Our goal, out of necessity and choice, should be to enhance the participation of our coalition members, not simply by working on our overall message but by doing the hard, "in the trenches" work of building party unity. In effect, we're seeking to build an equation that looks like this:

(UDs+SDs+RDs) = an electoral majority

It's not that simple, of course, and in further essays, I'll expand on this schema and get into how we can use it to talk about Democratic coalition building in State and National races.