07 September 2011

What is a liberal American to do?

Liberals are in a tough spot these days.  Obama has been a disappointment in general: he has governed as a moderate conservative.  First, I'll illustrate some of the problems.  Then, I'll discuss what to do.

Myth:  Liberal Obama is trying to appease our enemies and is weakening our national security.
Fact:  Troop levels and military spending are at record highs.  Iraq troops are barely reduced, Afghanistan troops are much higher, and we went in and attacked Libya by air and provided material support for the rebels.  This is a highly interventionist administration, pursuing an aggressively conservative foreign policy - Obama is just actually successful at it.  Whistle-blowers and other threats to the expanding executive have been cracked down on with enormous strength.  Guantanamo is still open.

Myth:  That Kenyan anti-colonialist won't let us use all of our energy resources.
Fact:  Oil drilling and production are at record highs.  I'll say that again: the number of drilling rigs and the amount of oil being produced is at a record high.  So are, incidentally, the profits of oil companies.

Myth:  The job-killing EPA is crushing out all small businesses.
Fact:  The EPA has failed to pass basically any decent new rules, and now won't regulate emissions damaging the ozone.  They have taken the smallest of baby steps forward on regulation.

Myth:  Obamacare is a monstrous extension of hyper-liberal policies that will come into your house and get your children drunk.
Fact:  The Affordable Care Act is composed purely of elements proposed by conservatives ten years ago (or even more recently).

Myth:  He refuses to secure our borders, and he is going to give amnesty to dirty foreigners.
Fact:  Deportations are at a record high, as well, and the DREAM Act is dead.

So what is a liberal to do, admitting that Obama has not governed anywhere near as far left as we'd like?

First, we should acknowledge the context.  The opposition has become, let's face it, just plain crazy.  You won't hear any acknowledgement of these facts from Republicans, after all.  The GOP is poisoned with ludicrous exaggerations, and completely out of touch with reality in its criticisms.  Part of it is a power play: they have to shriek at the top of their lungs and put their organization into action to come smashing into Obama at every opportunity, because otherwise they're not going to get any votes.  Their hysteria and paranoia are necessary, because it demands their presence in leadership.

So to some extent, these realities of the Obama administration are a reflection of the success of the highly-organized scream machine of the Republicans, that has successfully controlled the debate and shifted the Overton window far to the right.  For all that Obama has been excellent in putting policies into practice - even objectionable ones like Libya - they've been terrible at messaging.  Obama has in many ways simply been the extraordinarily capable administrator of Republican policies, though they could never admit that.

But the eternal question arises, forced on us by a dichotomous political system: what the hell can a liberal do?  It's not like John McCain would have been better.  It's not like any of the GOP candidates would be any better.  Universally, they would be nightmares, because they are victims of the hard shift to the right of American politics as well.  If liberals fail to vote for the moderate conservative Obama, they'd just be contributing to the victory of the extremist conservative Republican candidate.  And that's not what we want.

Neither, though, do we want to be taken for granted.

The Republicans have been getting this one right for years: the Republican base demands adherence.  They primary politicians they consider insufficiently conservative, every single year.  They do this based on a coherent conservative orthodoxy, and in deference to the wealthy entities (the rich and corporations) whose interests are served by the GOP.

Democrats doesn't do this very well.  The Democratic Party represents the poor, the vanishing union base, specific interest groups, as well as (to a lesser extent) some of those same corporations.  There's no single liberal philosophy, and no agreement on goals.  And that needs to change.

There's no inherent reason that the Republican coalition (Christians, fiscal conservatives, neocons) is inherently more cohesive than the Democratic coalition.  The Democrats need to recognize two things:

  • The old base is vanishing.  Consensus has swung against unions in a big way, just as it once swung for them in a big way.  And just like how one hundred years ago, the Democrats aligned themselves with the unions as representatives of the working poor, now they need to align themselves with a different way to represent those working poor.  Further, there is a new strain of "values voter" that prizes the environment and essential liberties, and that strain is badly represented in several aspects and could be consolidated into one solid interest group.  The Democrats need to forge a new base.
  • Principles are important.  They allow for easy measurements of politicians against their promises, and even if they are ultimately simplified or dumbed-down versions of bigger truths, they're a reflection of how people just naturally think.  "No taxation without representation" was the first example in American politics of the power of the slogan.
How can a liberal help effect this change?

First of all, don't just donate to Barack Obama or any individual politician.  Donate to MoveOn.org or Greenpeace or Americans for Democratic Action, instead.  The ADA, for example, is honoring Nancy Pelosi, which is the right thing to do because she has been one of the greatest liberal leaders in the past decade.  Empower these agencies to act as kingmakers and broker deals on policy with Democratic candidates.

Secondly, read and get involved with the modern liberal movement.  Subscribe to the RSS feeds of those organizations, and maybe go check out DailyKos.  Read The Nation, The New Republic, and other purveyors of moderate liberal thought.  Listen to liberal leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Russ Feingold, and Al Franken.

Third and most importantly, keep on the backs of Democrats.  Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, once expressed frustration with the "professional left."  Well, forgive my language when I say, "Boo fucking hoo."  Yes, liberals have goals and demands that Obama has not and probably will not meet.  And yes, we will and should continue to still demand them.  Loudly, persistently, and passionately.  Advocacy for the environment, for the working poor, for true liberty - it doesn't end.  Democratic leaders should feel as badgered as Republican leaders to cater to their base.  If they don't like it, they can go work as lobbyists like every other retired politician.  

There is opportunity in this crisis of the party system.  We can't let the two parties be conservative and extremist conservative.  Fight for the future, liberals of America.


  1. Good piece, but I disagree that "consensus has swung away" from labor unions. I'm not saying they're popular, but the link to Gallup below shows that they have risen slightly in popularity in recent months among the entire population and shot up in popularity among Democrats in the last couple years, and risen less markedly among independents. The "consensus" you are talking about strikes me as a euphemism for "angry, lazy, misinformed, and ignorant people who don't know who to be angry at so might as well blame the black man."

    Looking at those figures, I especially don't think you can say that the Democratic base does not support labor unions, and labor support is therefore not a viable basis for Democratic organizing. And, judging from his Labor Day whoop-whoop, Obama seems to be listening, although I certainly know better than to think anything he says is ever sincere. Labor unions remain a no-brainer, they've just allowed themselves to become tools of the cowardly, brain-dead, centrist, DLC-zombie Democratic leadership apparatus, the real bad guy in our current spate of economic problems, an ideological point of view that has never managed to help the American people in any substantive way, that has always helped you up one rung of the ladder while kicking the previous step out from under you. But that might change, too, as the next link shows.

    Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/149279/Approval-Labor-Unions-Holds-Near-Low.aspx

    Labor's new strategy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/24/afl-cio-trumka-strategy_n_935204.html

  2. In the 60s, almost a third of America was unionized. Today, it's only 11%. Further, the proportion of public sector vs. private sector union members has shifted, with only 7% of private sector workers unionized. More analysis on makeup from this report for the Congressional Research Service: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1176&context=key_workplace&sei-redir=1#search=%22union%20membership%20trend%22

    In a larger sense, though, I think that unions have been underperforming more and more. The conflict over the past few decades with Detroit resulted in them backloading perceived gains at the bargaining table into pensions and insurance over immediate wages, only to agree to massive cuts to those benefits ten years down the road. I admit to having no good data for this, but it's my general sense that unions are now predominantly entrenched in heavily institutionalized public sector areas (police, firefighters, teachers, transport, etc.) or in increasingly squeezed service industries (stevedores, teamsters, etc.) The manufacturing base that supported the extended middle class has been withering away over forty years, hollowing out the center of union support like the heart of an old oak.

    Certainly unions are important and should be a part of the Democratic coalition in the foreseeable future. But I think the dichotomy that persisted since the early seventies of GOP-corporations vs. Dems-unions is simply no longer sustainable. While they should work to shore it up and maintain their old ally, the Democrats should also seek to forge new alliances and new sources of support. I would suggest that blatant and fervent populism is the way to go, appealing both to the masses of working poor as well as the underrepresented ethnic populations. This is something that has long worked for Democrats and other political entities, and loud enough voices can help balance some of the immense Citizens-United-era corporate money gushing into politics.

    Your point is well taken. I was far too dismissive of unions' remaining power and support.

  3. I blame labor and labor only for the decline in union membership. I feel like they were way too willing to let the Democrats take them for granted, and showed very little desire to change with the times, instead trying to keep the old, doddering machine going as long as possible. In the meantime, they allowed themselves to be roundly vilified in our culture.