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Monday, January 4, 2010

Pillars of Victory: Populist, Progressive, Liberal

Daily Kos

Pillars of Victory: Populist, Progressive, Liberal

by Stirling Newberry

A Daily Kos Classic

The Democratic Party doesn't need a complicated frame, in fact, we are better off without it. We also don't need to be the "mommy" party of government services, because people may live with mommy, but daddy brings home the presents and the punishments.

Instead the Democratic Party has to get three simple things right: it has to be populist in the belly, progressive in its heart, and liberal in its head. Various wings of the Democratic party will focus on one of these three things, but without all three, in balance, there isn't going to be victory. We must also rip these three parts away from the Republicans. What I mean and how to do it below the fold.

[Oh yeah, if you want to help out my CD why not give a call to WHRB if you are in the Boston area, and ask them to play it during their Friday evening request show? The number is 617-495-WHRB, and the program is streamed over the internet.]

First some terms.

Populism is an appeal to the romantic rhetoric of the basic good of the people, and to the idea that government should reflect the will of the people. Populism is emotionalist in its terms, relies on focusing the public's attention on a single individual or case to produce sympathy and sentiment. The opposite of populism is oligarchy, and to a lesser extent, elitism.

Progressivism is fundamentally a belief in three quantities: that a free people, when organized into an effective, uncorrupted groups, can make their lives and the world better with sharp concerted action. Progressivism reflects populism. The difference between a pure populist, and a progressive populist is simple. A pure populist will see social evils, where they exist, as an by product of the local grassroots culture, and not to be tampered with. It was regressive populists that made that argument against civil rights, or that make the argument that discrimination based on sexual orientation is legitimate. The opposite of progressivism is traditionalism, or regressive forces that see the past as better than the present.

Liberalism is the most misunderstood of the three. Liberalism is the belief that we can comprehend the systematic nature of human activity, and shape it, not just by concerted action, but by shaping how people act. It is more subtle, and therefore easier to mischaracterize. But liberalism's fundamental idea is that society has a shape and a structure that is more complicated tha simple maxims. One can't govern out of the book of proverbs, or on autopilot, says the liberal. One has to face the world, as it is, and do what needs to be done, even if it sometimes goes against the grain.

It's easy to envision populism that is neither progressive nor liberal. The Republican Party uses "that old time religion" as its version of populism without a hint of liberality or progressivism about it. Quite the contrary, they appeal to the Neaderthal. Consider anti-secular rhetoric used in the last month to manufacture a "war on Christmas". Stories were concocted if need be to great a bogeyman of evil conspiracy.

It's not that much harder to be a progressive without being a liberal or a populist. Right wing progressivism involves business, and is touched with the populism of the individual storekeeper or shop owner. This pseudo-populism isn't the reality, the club for growth hasn't done many favors to small businessmen. Instead, the right wing believes in elitist progressivism - economic elites are the "creative sector of the economy".

Liberalism was the governing ideology of America for so long that it is important to remember that it was, for a time, a competing ideology with progressivism. Woodrow Wilson brought the word "liberalism" into American political discourse - before then no major American party had identified with the word, which was over a century old in European and Latin American politics - but he was not a progressive. A quick check of his civil rights record in his administration, will confirm that one of the reasons that Wilson did not form a lasting political coalition, is that there was something missing from it in his attempt to weld the head of the party in the Northeast and its gut in the Old South.

In our own time there are plenty of liberals who aren't progressive or populist. The inside of Washington is loaded with them, people who talk about policy and talk about problems, and never once relate it to the public mood. Joe Lieberman is a "liberal", he even has a certain tinge of populism in appealing to the bipartisan spirit. What he is not, is he is not progressive. Lieberman is happy to spend his career defending the system as it exists. Many traditionalist liberals backed the war in Iraq, because they saw Saddam as a blot, and the war as a chance to remove it. It is a good technocratic idea to have. It's also wrong, because it misses the key progressive piece of the puzzle - don't trust people who aren't trust worthy to do anything. Sawicky's dictum is "don't do deals with dipsticks".

There are also plenty of populists who want progressive results, but don't want liberalism. Instead, they feel a pain, see an anecdote, and shoot off a ranting non-solution that seems to joint the two. Protectionism is reactionary progressivism at work. Republicans love reactionary progressivism, because it makes the Democrats look like stupid Republicans. Without the argument that the world is complex, and that if you push it here, it can bite you in the ass there - when it comes to Republican reactionary ideas and Democratic reactionary ideas, the public will pick the nastier party every time.

The tensions between the three pieces are inevitable. A populist feels the public's pain first, a progressive wants to push things forward, even if it hurts, and a liberal sees the corridors and combinations, oftne having divorce himself from the human cost of any one of them - because they all have human cost. To balance all three components is going to require constant work. The Republicans have to balance their parts, but they do it with money. The privileged pay for the structure, and therefore the bottom feeding parts have a short leash. They will occasionally overrun the desires of their lords and masters, but will get a short sharp jerk of the chain when they run out of lead.


A populist, progressive and liberal democratic party will be different from the one we have now. For a long time, the Democratic Party forgot progressivism - it was the missing piece of the Clinton Years. Schlesinger noted it. What Clinton brought back was populist rhetoric, even though the populists didn't vote for him the first election - they didn't vote against him, the way they had voted against Dukakis in 1988. But what was it in service of? While there were vague nostrums about bridges to the 21st century, and a few concrete actions, Clinton left behind no legacy, because he didn't have the progressive impulse to change how things worked on a fundamental level.

This is why the word progressive has been thrown around such a great deal in the last five years - it was the component of the legendary Democratic Party that was palpably absent. Gore and Kerry didn't exude progressivism - but Dean and Clark do, Feingold does. Progressivism forms the core of the Democratic Party, because it is the mortar that holds the bricks together. Once the mortar sets, it is very difficult to knock the bricks over.


What needs rehabilitation now, is liberalism. Populists make promises, liberals keep them. The way to pay for the social goods that people want, is to have a means of directing the national effort towards those goods, with a the least cost to the most people. Liberalism without progressivism is in a quandry - the best way to accomplish this is to tax the rich. No one gets less happiness out of a dollar than a person who has a billion of them. Heck, he doesn't even know how many of them he really has.

Liberalism has become stodgy. It has begun to forget its own basic premise - and that is that the world needs to be looked at fresh every day, in the reports coming in from the field, in the numbers, in its systematic nature - and dealt with fresh every single day. Some days you are going to raise taxes, some days cut them, some days create programs, other days bring them to an end. The constant balancing of tensions is the nature of liberalism. You can win elections on your gut, but you can't govern on your belly.

Liberal institutions need shaking up, they need to have the flooding light an energy that progressivism brings with it forced into every office, every room, every meeting. Liberal institutions have to realize that liberalism isn't about being the best wonk in the class to get ahead, or creating money flows that keep members reelected. It's about the people, finding the best future out of the realistic futures that are out there.


So how does this differ from what we have right now. I'm going to talk about some things going on behind the scenes that tell me that, while the Democratic Party is learning, it isn't there yet. One such group is "The Democracy Allliance" - a group of wealthy liberals who were supposed to be handing out checks to get things to happen. So far they have given money only two groups that were already established - Media Matters and the Center for American Progress. Both worthy groups, but not in need of a helping hand. Slowly they are edging their way into funding projects farther afield - but they haven't and people who know about why say the same thing: they wan't too much control, they have too much of a love of process, and too much caution about who to give the money to. Instead, the fear is that the same losers who have titles now will get bigger offices and better titles. There's alot of anger among people who have been working their fingers to the bone for Democratic victory, that on the otherside of a glass wall is the money to actually put much of what has been started into operation.

This is an example of how process, credentialling, measuring - all reasonable things - often stand in the way of progress. The liberal without the progressive impulse will dither, he's risk averse by nature. There are times to be super cautious, I want the Social Security Administration run by cautious people, who think far in advance. But there are times when there is an immediate, direct, need for action. And now is that time. The clock is ticking on our chances to turn American around before it requires a massive budget crunch and massive dislocation. But the money isn't flowing.

We all hooted and howled at "Together America can do better." as a slogan. I'm going to write something I have heard, but haven't seen anywhere - the word is that it was George Lakoff who came up with the slogan. What's misssing, is the populist fire in the belly - it is the urge to dampen the powder with the word "together" which is the deal killer. Chop it down to "We can do better", and it isn't bad. But the liberal technocrat, and often the progressive politician, fear the populist anger - partially because they know it is often directed at scape goats.

Almost everyone who reads this site regularly knew in 2000 that George Bush was not someone that the Democrats could do business with. George Herbert Walker, while he was a slimebag corrupt politician, was someone who would cave into the overwhelming pressure of reality. He raised taxes when he had to, he passed civil rights legislation when he needed to, he didn't run the Iraq war for partisan advantage. Sure he lied about Iran-Contra, Hortoned Dukakis to win the election and fiddled while the S&L crisis burned - but kept his idiot sons out of trouble. But in DC he had the reputation of being someone whose handshake you could rely on.

Only now, only recently, have Washington insiders realized that Bush is not someone they can work with. Bush doesn't even know many senior Democratic Senators by sight. Herbert Walker did. Spygate is important, not just because of warrantless searches, but because the technology that is behind it was shot down by public outrage. Remember the "Total Information Awareness" program? In DC, if something is shot down, the rules say it should be dead. That's the way the game is played, every politician has his proposals, but it is the public that does the disposals with its disposition. Sure, he won't veto the occasional megapork bill - the Ag and Transportation bills were exactly that. And that is enough to keep a few populist, but not progressive or liberal, Democrats on side. But the creeping realization is, that the only people who do well with Bush, are the ones that get a check.

Progressives knew instinctively that Bush was bad news, even if they didn't know how in all the details. Liberals who had forgotten progressivism, or populists who wanted no truck with liberalism, could be fooled by platitudes about humble foreign policy and compassionate conservatism.

This is an example of how a divided Democratic Party can be beaten by a unified Republican Party. You can buy populist votes with pork, you can bamboozle Liberals with big promises, you can run Progressives in circles over false problems - but only if they don't talk to each other, or better yet, are made to see each other as enemies for the same pie. As long as there is a basic belief that the Democratic Party is populist or progressive or liberal - then the infighting alone keeps the Republicans happy.

Republican infighting is just starting to be on display - the libertarians are defecting, first over the war, then over the lack of progress on dismantling the government, and now over domestic spying. But it is Democratic infighting that has become a way of life.


So here I am again at the bottom line. The bottom line is that the public needs to say "enough is enough" to reactionary, regressive and economic elitist policies, and to the party that is their instrument. But this car needs to be junked. As long as people like Sperling are busy telling Democrats that they can be Democrats without being liberal, or the DLC is telling us we can be Democrats without being progressive - the Democratic Party isn't going to be a replacement for the present. At that point the Republicans can focus the public's attention on fears. It's like the automechanic who sees an easy mark and says "well your pistons need to be replaced..." And the mark, not being able to see them, agrees to it.

The bottom line for Democrats is that the money people need to start seeding a much wider array of projects, and see which ones work. The problem is that apparatchniks of the party haven't gotten good marching orders, which wealthy people are inclined to believe as a narrative, but that the apparatchnik class is out of touch. The bottom line is also the other way. The base of the party needs to be able to smell good liberal government when it is presented to them. They need to back leaders who can balance all three parts, and not merely rubber stamp the best known name. It isn't the machinery in Washington that is, ultimately, going to educate the public as to why America will be better off under a renewed Democratic Party, with a renewed mandate to get the country moving. It's people like us, out here in the country where most Americans live and work.


It's also important to get things in the right place. Populism doesn't come up with good solutions, because populists love unilateral action. Well, sometimes you are in a position of being able to act unilaterally and get ahead, but usually you aren't. Progressivism often jumps the wrong way on gut issues - Republicans live by playing the gay card, because that is an issue they know that Progressives have to think about a stance on, and that hesitation is visible to the populist mass. It's "flip flopping" or "waffling". Liberalism will sit and fiddle with org charts and spreadsheets, until there is fire under its feet.

And the final step is to get integrated. The Republican operative looks smooth because he's integrated. He has a gut level belief in his being better than everyone else - that's the smarmy smirk they all wear. In his heart he's a reactionary - if modern liberalism was for it, he's agin it - except of course for anything that makes money or blows up arabs. And in his head, he's constantly looking for an upside angle - a way to heard people forward into borrowing more money, running their savings down even further and skimming off the profits. He or she has a certain look, because he has faith that as long as the cattle stampede into the slaughter house, he will do just fine. He's only got three jobs: keep the cattle stupid, keep the cattle moving, and keep the wheels of the machine turning.

An integrated Democrat will have Clinton's ability to speak from the gut, Dean's ability to make change a moral imperative, and Krugman's way of looking at the whole picture. He or she too will have a certain look, because he two has only three jobs: educate the public, organize the public, peer into the future to find the best place to lead them. People will respond to this, because, when broken down, most of the public doesn't hate liberals, it just doesn't see the left as an integrated force that is delivering change for the public benefit from top to bottom.

So those are the three pillars of victory - Populist in our gut, Progressive in our hearts - and Liberal in our heads. All at once, no excuses.

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