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 from the title, 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. Message: Lakoff and Frames
Simply put, you'll never run out of people who'll tell you that "message" is the cure-all for the Democratic Party's needs. One has only to think of the Clinton, Gore and Kerry campaigns to realize that. Of course, we've been honing our "message" one way or the other for the last twenty-five years...almost as if finding the right words would make the voters come our way. In my view, if message serves as no more than a parentheses
around the coalition we're building, it is not a solution to anything.
I admire what George Lakoff is doing. His analysis informs my writing. Many of my pieces have been just another way of talking about, or using, frames. Lakoff is examining message in a powerful new way. And the best part of his analysis...ironic pun indeed...is how he points out there is this HUGE ELEPHANT in the living room of American politics. That elephant is the well-funded beast we call the Right Wing Noise Machine and we should all be thinking of it and rethinking how we deal with it.
However, I do fundamentally disagree
with Lakoff in that his program has the practical effect of convincing Democratic activists to think that "framing"...or, in its popular form, simply redefining
our message...is the key to victory. It isn't. And it never has been. And the danger in suggesting to our field of Democratic candidates in 2006 that they rely on the crutch of message yet again is profound. We're not going to discuss our way out of this mess
, and we all know it. Creating a legion of "framers" using the exact same words and formulations is something that is not pretty when you hear it in action. It can sound like an army of zombies
to me. (Is it just me, or can you tell when someone is going to spring the "framing / Lakoff" thing on you in a conversation?)
Simplistic, repeated messaging may work for the GOP. I'm not at all convinced it works for us. In fact, I would put it this way, as a party that represents a true, broad coalition, we Democrats come together around causes and ideals
around battles and pragmatic programs
more that we do around frames or ideology. Yes, message and reframing are essential. They are an excellent starting point. But they are not even close to sufficient. Frankly we've been treating message as an easy answer to the real problems that face our coalition for too long. We cannot simply throw up the brackets of "message" and expect to hold our coalition together. To leave that impression with our candidates is a bad idea.Process: the Netroots, Reform and Dean
Now, there's another school. I'll call it the Dean/Trippi school. This school is convinced that "process" is the key. Whether its the netroots...or online fundraising...or attacking special interest lobbyists...or whatever the next best hope
for breaking up politics-as-usual and reforming the Democratic party might be. Let's do something new NOW
is the motto.
There is enormous validity to this point of view. First, we do need reform. And second, like Dr. Lakoff, this school has had an immediate impact. Online fundraising kept John Kerry alive and in the mix in 2004...and, as we can attest...the blogosphere is a new and powerful medium
that has energized the grassroots. No one needs reminding that Howard Dean is now the chair of the DNC.
However, the "process" advocates have faced some real drawbacks as well. First, the messengers...be they Dean or Trippi or Markos...as they would readily admit, are mere mortals. All of them have, like all of us here on the blogs, been in one way or another learning as they go
. This has meant real, tangible, public failures...and, at times, despite good intentions, questionable judgments all around. In some ways...events and technology carried these folks to the fore, and it showed, and it still shows.
There are smart savvy people in the Democratic Party on all sides who are for progressive reform but who disagree with the "process" cadre...not about reform or innovation...but in how they've gone about it
. Those voices should be heard. Good ideas should be encouraged and debated. As it stands, in my opinion there is
an "echo chamber" effect and "group think" in the netroots and in DFA. It is symbolized in how a single story or movement dominates the top blogs over and over again. It is also expressed in the male "lock" on the culture of the Democratic blogs.
We need to innovate ways to break the feedback mechanism that creates this. We can start, I think, by looking at what the "reformers" are proposing, and the results they've acheived...not simply what they are critiqueing. We can start by asking how could the netroots work differently and, perhaps, better?
As it stands, Democratic politics at the netroots has been run on an ad hoc basis, making it up as we go and accepting results "just because."
There is nothing so thrilling...nor so spectacularly and frequently doomed to failure
...as the ad hoc political inspiration of a thousand "like minds" all thinking and doing the exact same thing in the belief that their actions are going to change the world. The Dean campaign was exhibit A for this effect. It is, however, a really
bad way to run a political campaign.
We need better than ad hoc for 2006. We need better than for the blogosphere to be a culture that is dominated by men and jocular attacks. We need better than a "no accountability" zone on the net where strategic failures and rank offensiveness are accepted "just because" it's a new medium. And we won't get there by group think, smack talk and closing ranks. We get there by open discussion and debate in an environment where results matter. For as much as the blogs represent "free speech"...I don't necessily see this happening in 2005.
Second, and in my view more noxious, is the tendency of the "process" advocates to see the entire established Democratic base as simply an obstacle
to their innovation. It isn't. In fact, true reformers don't spend their time pissing off the very people that their reforms are meant to serve. True reformers build bridges. They seek to understand even as they make critiques. They build a case for their innovations by showing how those innovations are better...not by poisoning the well. Too often, playing up the "shock effect" of pushing for reform and innovation has led to some absolutely screwy and irresponsible statements, and the taking of some ludicrous positions. (Women are not a "special interest"...ahem.)
Simply put, there are millions of us out there who've sweated and bled on previous campaigns and struggles. We've been influenced by folks, mere mortals too, who fought the good fight in the trenches before the internet. Pat Schroeder. Jesse Jackson. Paul Wellstone. 1-800-Jerry Brown. We, too, deeply hunger for reform in the Democratic Party. Yet at times it seems as if the reformers rip through the hard work of two generations of Democratic and progressive activists as if that work contains nothing of value. Some days it seems like the netroots is losing itself in a sea of smack.
When Markos, and so many others, went after NARAL in such a scathing way, I have to confess, I truly scratched my head. I want to say, "Hey, there was a time before Clinton, before Casey
...when we were getting up at 4AM to counter-demonstrate Operation Rescue at abortion clinics. I will bet you cold money that no one who has done that...who saw NARAL in action, and understands what that action meant at the time
...would talk like this now." I'd like to use my small voice to send a message to the blogosphere: There's something called respect and solidarity. There's something called respectful disagreement and engaged debate. When we abandon that in the name of "reform", especially when we indulge in juvenile, puerile shock politics, we put the very reforms we advocate in jeopardy.
Yes, we need reform. We need to innovate process. Reforming process through the netroots is just not, in my opinion, the "be all end all" that its proponents seem to think it is. It is a necessary
, but again, not a sufficient
solution. And, yes, some of the poisonous attitudes surfing out there, the group-think, the smack talk, however well-intentioned, can indeed do more harm than good.
At the end of the day, we aren't going to smack talk our way to victory, either.For a Politics of Coalition: Wellstone
I've titled this piece "for a politics of coalition." I intend to write about this project more thoroughly and concretely on this weblog. (Coalition will be a core here.) While it is not a silver bullet....I am convinced that pragmatic coalition building, in cooperation with framing and innovative party reform
, is our single best chance to win back a legislative majority in this nation. We owe that to our people.
It's hard work. You can't do it with message. You can't do it simply sitting at a computer. You can't do it by mailing a check or clicking a button. Real coalition-building means people sitting in the same room and hashing things out from the local up to the national level. It means folks getting their act together in private so that they can stand together in public. It means reaching people who aren't on the web. It means reaching out to people who disagree with you, but who will vote with you. It means, at the end of the day, that we learn to take people where they're at, and move forward together
As a party, we need to emulate something that Paul Wellstone excelled at: meeting with people and listening to them
. And then going back, again and again, and building a long-term relationship based on straight-forward communication and pragmatic alliance building. Wellstone burned the shoe leather. He looked people who didn't agree with him in the eye, and he won their support and respect while staying true to his roots. That is my prescription for the entire party, and for our candidates in particular. We need to bring our people together; and you can't do that at a distance...you have to do that sitting in the same room. That's how American politics works.
The challenge of pragmatic coalition building is that it is nowhere near as exciting as talking about frames or getting the top 100 blogs
to do project x
. It is, however, and this is a point I cannot emphasize enough, the most powerful thing we can do to counter Republican dominance of our political life. Coalition-building, hard work though it is, is the single best long-term political investment you can make. Organized Labor has always understood this: When people come together to fight for issues that matter to them, they build alliances that last.
When we get our act together and stand together as a Party, we are a force to be reckoned with. We are still, at heart, the kind of party that can actually get something done in this country. We are a coalition of diverse people from widely different backgrounds coming together for pragmatic reasons. Hence, when you elect Democrats, we get things done.
People understand this.
If you ask me, the true log jam of American politics is that neither
party has in recent history succeeded in building a diverse, "results-oriented" coalition that builds bridges beyond its base. (I would argue that we need to build bridges within
our base as well.) Let that happen, let us begin the hard work of building a flexible, pragmatic solution-oriented coalition in this country with a party organization to back it up...and I'll bet you we can kick the GOP's ass out of DC faster than you can say...2006.
You see, in my view our coalition is the solution, and it always has been. The hard work is ahead of us.