Monday, December 24, 2007

Why the “new progressive movement” is fucked

Well, maybe that’s a little too strong. It’s sometimes hard to tell what all the hoopla is about when it comes to the great progressive ascendancy that’s supposedly underway, but it’s clear that something is happening and there are a few genuinely hopeful signs.

For one thing, many liberals seem to be shedding the crippling allergy toward the left that was such a debilitating feature of Cold War-era liberalism. Some of the old shibboleths about American foreign policy are being slowly shaken off and it is now possible to occasionally stumble on once-verboeten terms like “imperialism” in the pages of respectable liberal outlets.

Of course, these verdant shoots of spring are products of the political awakening that has unfolded in the Bush years. When I started writing about politics in the mid-to-late 1990’s, the political landscape was much different. As I saw it, on this side of the valley was The Left, of which I considered myself a part. On the other side of the valley were the neoliberal centrists who played liberals on TV: fake liberals - like Cokie Roberts or Thomas Friedman. And in between there was a great empty expanse. Now that expanse is being populated by genuine liberals - bloggers like Eschaton, columnists like Paul Krugman and commentators like the younger staff of the American Prospect. All of this is good news.

So why do I say that the new progressive movement is fucked? Because they have no ideology. They lack any semblance of a creed. Now, naturally, the progressives would vigorously dispute this. Of course we have a creed! We believe in universal healthcare, combating global warming, protecting the right to abortion… [etc., ad infinitum] But that’s not a creed, it’s a list of policies. And of course, what happens when you have only a list of policies as your lodestar is that crafty politicians come along who loudly claim to embrace your goals before quietly vitiating them with a lobbyist’s scalpel and reams of fine print.

The minute these new progressives try to put their creed into words, it melts into a flavorless mush of insensible campaign rhetoric, the kind imperishably satirized by the Simpsons in an episode broadcast during the 1996 Clinton-Dole campaign. The space alien Kodos, doing his best to impersonate an American politician in a live televised debate, delivers his opening statement:

My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball. But tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward! Upward not forward! And always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!

Now, don’t accuse me of making blanket statements without backing them up. I’m going to do no less than prove my point scientifically! A good way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to compare the mission statements of two think tanks. The first is the Center for American Progress, a central hub of the new progressivism. The second is that hallowed bastion of the conservative movement, the Heritage Foundation.

Here I will apply what I believe to be a useful technique of rhetorical analysis. Political scientists like to speak of positional issues and valence issues. The first are statements that clearly demarcate people according to their particular ideology. If a politician says “I believe gay marriage is a sinful abomination,” that's a positional statement - it puts him squarely in one camp and separates him clearly from millions of people who support gay marriage. By contrast, when a politician says, “I believe in a strong economy,” he's using a valence issue. Pretty much everyone wants a “strong economy,” whatever that means.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to reproduce each think tank’s mission statement below. Position-speak will be displayed in red. Valence-speak will be in blue. The acid test is whether or not a politician with the opposite ideology could comfortably mouth the same words. If he could, it's mere valence-speak.

Now, one caveat. In one sense, all political discourse is valence-speak. We all try to put our ideas into words that our audience will be most likely to accept. The anti-abortion movement obviously chose the moniker “pro-life” because everyone would like to think of themselves, in some sense, as pro-“life.” (Same goes for “pro-choice.”) But declaring oneself “pro-life” is nevertheless unmistakably positional, and for a very simple reason: Everyone understands exactly what it means. There is no warm, fuzzy ambiguity about it. It means only one thing: “I want to restrict abortions.”

Sometimes, however, rhetoric can be deliberately ambiguous. It can seem to point somewhat to a particular ideological position without being entirely clear. Such language is weakly positional and it will appear in green. Finally, an obvious point: My coding is ultimately, to some extent, subjective. So I'll deliberately give CAP the benefit of the doubt.

Okay, here goes. First up, the Heritage Foundation statement, which is short and sweet:

Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute - a think tank - whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

There you have it. In Heritage’s brief statement, bold, clear, straightforward ideology – red predominates by a wide margin, with just a hint of blue sprinkled in.

Next up we have the Center for American Progress, which rambles on and on (already a bad sign):

As progressives we believe that America should be a country of boundless opportunity—where all people can better themselves through education, hard work, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. We believe this will only be achieved with an open and effective government that champions the common good over narrow self-interest, harnesses the strength of our diversity, and secures the rights and safety of its people.

Real progress will be achieved only through innovative solutions borne of open collaboration.

To realize our vision we must:

Build an opportunity nation where every hard-working person, regardless of background, can realize their dreams through education, decent work and fair play.

Reawaken America’s conscience, our sense of shared and personal responsibility, to build healthy, vibrant communities.

Reform government so that it is of, by and for the people: open, effective, and committed to the common good.

Use America’s strength to bring the world together, not pull it apart.

CAP’s blurb is a sea of meaningless blue nonsense. “Innovative solutions borne of open collaboration”? Even the language I generously coded as positional - "harness the strength of our diversity," "bring the world together" - is basically reheated PR-speak that one could find in any quarterly report to the shareholders.

The conclusion is inescapable: Liberals just don’t have a creed that they feel comfortable expressing in direct and straightforward language. Now, why is this? There are two reasons, I suspect. First, it’s partly a legacy of postwar ADA-style liberalism, which frequently went out of its way to depict itself as a non-ideology; a program of technocratic pragmatism and cautious experimentation - the Vital Center, in other words.

But I think the deeper reason is that if liberals tried honestly to formulate their principles in abstract terms, they would quickly discover how poorly they echo the American vernacular. Many swing-voting Americans would simply recoil from them. After all, Americans are, in the famous phrase, programmatically liberal but ideologically conservative. The hard fact is that this country’s political culture has evolved in such a way that what passes for harmless valence-talk here is actually quite right-wing, when you think about it.

For a progressive movement aspiring to ascendancy, facing that fact, and how it came to be so, would require a searching reexamination of great swaths of the hallowed American history and tradition that liberals seem to feel a constant need to pay reverent homage to – the Constitution, the Democratic Party, any number of past liberal heroes.

Much easier to keep talking about “building healthy and vibrant communities.”

Thursday, November 1, 2007

In politics, the enemy is your friend

Brad DeLong misses his rendez-vous with Carl Schmitt:
There are, in general, three ways to compete for the majority of the votes:
  1. To demonstrate that you will implement policies that will make the majority of potential voters freer, more prosperous, and happier.
  2. To convince a majority of voters that they are under an obligation to vote for your party because that is, fundamentally, who the are.
  3. To convince a majority that they are threatened by vicious and deadly enemies--and that the other party is, at some level, in league with those enemies.

The northern Democratic Party has by and large pursued the first. The northern Republican Party used to pursue the second--with Civil War memorials and Lincoln Day speaches and how the sainted martyr Abraham had saved in the Union and it was our duty to his memory to carry forward his banner.

Starting early in the twentieth century, however the Republican Party has been increasingly pursuing the third...

In the real world, (2) and (3) are actually the same thing and (1) is not possible without the other two. The only way to convince people that your political party is, fundamentally, who they are is to also make it clear that those people -- those people over there, you know who I'm talking about -- are not. They're your enemies, they want to do you harm and if you vote for the other ticket, you're voting for them.

Take the northern Republican Party of yore that Brad admires (and not wholly without reason). Of course they held Civil War memorials and made Lincoln Day speeches. But then in the peroration, they would always remind their audience once more of the perfidy of that party, the party of Rum, Romanism and Rebellion. (See the Thomas Nast cartoon above - the priest and the Irishman carving up the goose that laid the Democrats' golden eggs.)

What about the Northern Democratic Party of yore, supposedly a follower of (1)? Tom Frank once wrote about Harry Truman's Turnip Day speech, which he delivered during the 1948 campaign:

Truman was explicit: “[T]he Democratic Party is the people’s party, and the Republican Party is the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.” He reveled in what Mr. Klein would call “class war,” calling a Republican tax cut a “rich man’s tax bill” that “helps the rich and sticks a knife into the back of the poor” and describing politics as a contest between the “common everyday man” and the “favored classes,” the “privileged few.” Even more astonishingly, Truman went on to talk policy in some detail, with special emphasis on Mr. Klein’s hated “jobs, health-care, and blah-blah-blah”: He called for the construction of public housing, an increase in the minimum wage, expansion of Social Security, a national health-care program and the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. And this sort of high-octane oratory propelled Truman on to win the election in a historic upset.

Note that in this speech, Truman clinches (1) through a studied combination of (2) and (3). And if you read the speeches of Robert Wagner or FDR you'll find the same thing.

And today's Democratic Party? Over the past few decades, aided by a capacious social vision and and soaring oratorical command, the Democrats have perfected a form of political appeal more stirring and irresistible to the democratic masses than any ever devised. I'd summarize it this way: "This election isn't about ideology. It's about competence."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

David Brooks: Hope springs eternal

Today's Brooks on "The Happiness Gap":

this election will be shaped by the gap within individual voters themselves — the gap between their private optimism and their public gloom....

....The polling — and I, for one, believe people are pretty sensible when it comes to evaluating their own lives — suggests that people are not personally miserable or downtrodden.

Their homes are bigger. They own more cars. They feel more affluent. In a segmented nation, they have built lifestyle niches for themselves where they feel optimistic and fulfilled.

Today's report from Stan Greenberg's polling shop (PDF):

In the focus groups, we handed people a page of
positive facts about the economy – and we nearly
had to rescue the moderator from the disbelieving
and angry participants. In fact, before this
exercise, we asked people to write down two
important things happening with the economy and
none of the 40 participants said anything
positive, with their negative notations centered
on the high “cost of living.” It is hard to
underestimate the power of a Democratic message
that simply recognizes the economic realities
that are very real for these voters. Indeed, the
very invisibility of their issues is for them
evidence that this economy works for the big
economic actors, not for average Americans: “this
applies to a bigger business and the wealthy”;
“it’s about big business, not the little guy”;
“CEOs at the top of corporations worrying more
about themselves instead of their companies”;
“yes, thank you”; “It is not for the average
family”; “this is probably true but not for us.”


These swing voters – about half non-college and
half college graduates – nearly attacked the
moderator because many are on the edge: “Over
half of Americans are what? Two paydays away from
living on the street”; “absolutely”; “that’s me.”
Nobody except the super-rich has seen salary
increases in years; not if you are in a “straight
regular job”; “people don’t make any raises,” and
if you are lucky, your spouse gets 2 percent in
some years. Some are working 2nd and 3rd jobs
because they “can’t make ends meet”; “I’ve never
known so many people to have two jobs or more
than I have lately.” Still, “they are cutting
back on everything.” They are struggling to fill
up the gas tank twice a week; and they fear a
visit to the hospital will wipe them out. They
are watching their own companies, even the large
ones, reduce and freeze hiring. They talk about
Wal-Mart almost wistfully – not with resentment
or anger – as a place where a lot of people
losing out on good jobs “have to put food on the
table. They have to pay the electric bill.” And
one woman interrupted the moderator trying to
move on, “I hope I don’t get to the point where
I’m that desperate where I have to go work at
Such an optimistic bunch. They even talk "wistfully" of having to work at Wal-Mart.