Kabuki Democracy

Eric Alterman:

Since the Obama administration is clearly happier with a top-down approach, progressives who take movement organizing seriously need to develop their institutions independently. To do so, however, they will have to put aside traditional differences that have separated them in the past, particularly those between liberals and progressives who think of themselves as left of liberal. MoveOn’s role has proven exemplary in the past in joining these two groups together and provides a model for future political organization. As Jim Vopat reported in In These Times, in Michigan a group of progressives who met through MoveOn house parties established Harbor Country Progress, an official Democratic Party club that is changing the political landscape in the state’s rural Sixth Congressional District. As G. William Domoff noted in the same publication, replicating this model across the country “allows activists to maintain their primary social and political identities while at the same time enabling them to compete within the Democratic Party.” They could be as progressive as they like so long as the campaign stayed a positive one; and win or lose, everyone would agree to support the Democrat in the election. This is the un-Nader way of transforming a party and as such, is a nearly perfectly constructive model. Also unlike Nader, it has the potential to build for the future, particularly one where Internet fundraising allows progressives to compete with corporations as never before.

Of course progressives need to keep up the pressure they have begun to place on the mainstream media not to adopt the deliberately misleading and frequently false frames foisted on readers and viewers by an increasingly self-confident and well-funded right-wing noise machine. Media Matters, FAIR and other organizations have done this in the past but it needs to be kept up. And in an age of instant, personal communication, there’s no reason it can’t be. (It also, and this is key, needs to be polite. No journalist is going to respond to the kind of personal abuse that is all too common on newspaper comment sections and other such forums for MSM complaint.) Done properly, such pressure is an effective means of forcing journalists to rethink some of their reflective prejudices, particularly in a today’s punishing economic environment. But if progressives continue to pressure them to live up to the promises of their profession—to refuse to cater to the lowest common denominator of tabloids or the right-wing cesspool of talk radio/cable television discourse—such pressure on these organizations should strengthen reporters’ and editors’ backbones to do the kind of the work that made them proud to be journalists in the first place. (This is, happily, a fundamental difference between right and left wing media criticism.

The right seeks to undermine the messengers of news that does not comport with its worldview; the left wants journalism to stick to its guns and resist such pressures to color the news, believing, as Stephen Colbert once said, that the facts “have a well-known liberal bias.”) And on the positive side, we need to support those journalistic enterprises and experiments that attempt to live up to their values as it becomes harder and harder to do so, whether with subscriptions, clicks or direct donations. A campaign for taxpayer-funded high-quality journalism on the model of the BBC—and recently suggested by a study published by the Columbia School of Journalism—should not be off the table.

Indeed, with regard to almost every single one of our problems, we need better, smarter organizing at every level and a willingness on the part of liberals and leftists to work with what remains of the center to begin the process of reforms that are a beginning, rather than an endpoint in the process of societal transformation. As American history consistently instructs us, this is pretty much the only way things change in our system. Over time, reforms like Social Security, Medicare and the Voting Rights Act can add up to a kind of revolution, one that succeeds without bloodshed or widespread destruction of order, property or necessary institutions.

What’s more, one hypothesis—one I’m tempted to share—for the Obama administration’s willingness to compromise so extensively on the promises that candidate Obama made during the 2008 campaign would be that as president, he is playing for time. Obama is taking the best deal on the table today, but hopes and expects that once he is re-elected in 2012—a pretty strong bet, I’d say—he will build on the foundations laid during his first term to bring on the fundamental “change” that is not possible in today’s environment. This would be consistent with FDR’s strategy during his second term and makes a kind of sense when one considers the nature of the opposition he faces today and the likelihood that it will discredit itself following a takeover of one or both houses in 2010. For that strategy to make sense, however, 2013 will have to provide a more pregnant sense of progressive possibility than 2009 did, and that will take a great deal of work by the rest of us.

To borrow from Hillel the Elder: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

I think Eric’s trying to come up with some kind of game plan that doesn’t include violent revolution. He’s a historian, he’s got to be worried about the possibility, given the conditions.

And that really is what it comes down to: Organize. I can think of few things I’d rather not do than knock on doors of people I don’t know and try to make connections in my community, because like sales, you’re risking rejection. But I absolutely think this is what we should all be doing.

Do we have what it takes?

Bill Bragg with “The Great Leap Forwards”:

6 thoughts on “Kabuki Democracy

  1. And — if things weren’t depressing enough — so much of the organizing has been co-opted by slick players and misdirected to worthless or worse goals.

    For example, organizing for the meaningless, distracting “public option,” while serving STFU to single-payer advocates. And of course, organizing for the great “progressive” Obama.

    Maybe the funniest was the gnashing of teeth about the Arkansas Senate primary, where one was supposed to choose between the Obama-endorsed candidate and the one MoveOn claimed would help pass his agenda (as if that’s something devoutly to be wished).

    Little roach motels everywhere, absorbing lefty energy in service of pointless or retrograde ends. (Except for those who benefit as much from activity as from achievement). What a great time to be an American lefty!

  2. k,

    That’s an unfair comparison. Obama has no interest in populist reform, so why should he be graded on his failure to deliver it?

    He came in at a time when the Reagan/Hoover agenda was in deep decline, and now he’s on the brink of a successful raid on Social Security. Do you think that shit’s easy?

  3. I don’t think this is going to work. This is just another way of saying Obama’s multi-levels of chess is going to pay off just give him 1 more term.

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