Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Playing Like We Want to Win

When are Democrats going to learn how to act like an opposition party?

There has been no shortage of tut-tutting from Left Blogosphere over Dems bowing to the Rice and Gonzales nominations, a noise that has only increased with the passage of the Credit Card Bankruptcy Bill, a piece of legislation that benefits fatcats and no one else.

Unfortunately, the noise has amounted to little more than "Whatcha' gonna' do?"

I came across this piece by Gene Lyons in (of all places) the Northwest Arkansas News Source
Naïve souls, they prefer to see national politics as a giant PTA meeting, and to comfort themselves with civics text bromides about the virtues of compromise and bipartisanship. Even in the face of the Clinton impeachment and the naked power play that decided the 2000 presidential election, they have trouble comprehending the sheer ruthlessness of the GOP political juggernaut. This is nothing new. Even during FDR’s presidency, Will Rogers joked that he belonged to no organized political party: He was a Democrat.

Again, we're left with the impression of "Whatcha' gonna' do?"

As much as I'd like to see Dems steel their spine and answer the GOP point-for-point, what Dems really need is a political infrastructure similar to what the GOP has built. The cohesion and gutter-level tactics we associate with the GOP today is the result of almost 30 years of patient plotting by conservative fanatics and idealogues. Since the early 70's (some say, since the early 60's), the Right has invested heavilly into think-tanks with intellectual and monetary capital, scheming the overthrow of a largely progressive tide that dominated American politics since the Great Depression.

The pit-bull style of attacking without substance is not the result of the Right's political instinct but the product of careful training and indoctrination developed during the past few decades. Indeed, there is a martial efficiency in how the Right trains its functionaries in how to wage political warfare and it's no coincidence how ex-military leaders have been highly esteemed in the conservative strategy machine. Discipline and unity are the winning qualities of the Right's soldiery. Just like a platoon of diverse elements - a kid from the streets of Philly, a kid from a Montana ranch - put aside differences to create an efficient fighting machine, the GOP has managed to attack as a cohesive whole.

It didn't hurt the Right that the Left had become diffuse and scattered. When the Vietnam War gound to a halt due in large part by pressure applied by the Left and the anti-war movement, liberals took the end of the war as a mandate for progressive politics. From the mid-70's on, the Left became diffuse and prone to in-fighting. With no central issue to unify the Left, liberals began marking territory, pushing one agenda at the expense of others, stepping on toes and generally dismantling the structure that had evolved under the civil rights/gender rights/anti-war movements.

Gender politics became factionalized, environmentalists stood opposed to the aims of the labor movement, various civil rights movements fought for primacy, while the entire Left became an annoying din of self-seeking Politically Correctness and irrelevant to the minds of many Americans. By the 1980's, the Left had become a parody of itself. Assured of their righteousness and invincibility (granted by that righteousness), the Left seemed unaware that it was becoming a parody of itself (aided, in no small part, by the media). Meanwhile, conservatives watched and waited, ready to take advantage of the melee.

To use the military analogy, it was as if Stalin had let his guard down after signing a mutual protection pact allowing Hitler to roll right in. The time was ripe for the Right to take advantage of the Left's lack of unity. Furthermore, with the US having lost its first war and having been humiliated by the Iran hostage situation, the GOP was in a good position to exploit a tide of backlash that was simmering in the middle sections of the country. The Right was prepared for the attack, the Left was busy navel-gazing.

Years of strategy meetings and planning allowed the Right to demonize "liberals", "the loony left", "feminazis", etc., in the media and in speeches. What's the matter with Kansas? Kansas doesn't know that the GOP works against the Kansas voter's economic interests because the GOP has been successful at creating scapegoats for problems that have nothing to do with economic self-interest. The think-tanks knew this would be the plan from the early 70's. Focus on the issues that tore at the moral core of the typical Kansas voter and gussy up the corporatist agenda in terms of those moral values. Classic Bait-and-Switch, a strategy that had been developed well before the conservative movement of the 80's.

Dems can't merely answer the attacks by the Right. The GOP's tactic is (and has been) to be on the offensive and make Dems reactive. "Reactionary", a term applied to conservatives as a characterization of their opposition to the progressive swing in national politics, no longer applies to the Right. Conservatives have set the agenda and the terms of the fight, it is their game and they change the rules as they see fit. Dems have to do more than to just be the opposition.

Dems need the same type of intellectual foundation that has carried the conservative movement since the early 70's. Conservatives have no devotion to philosophical purity other than its unifying function; theirs is a devotion to winning. Win and let philosophy take care of itself.

Dems have to develop the same kind of discipline and unity that has been the hallmark of the GOP. Think-tanks, political boot camps, and a willingness to put aside individual differences for the sake of providing a united front are all necessary for taking the momentum back from the Right.

A disadvantage that will hobble Dems in the years to come is the success of the Right in undermining the media and making it their own. Corporate-owned media is going to continue to support a corporatist agenda at the expense of objective reporting. The Left will need to acquire an alternative to Fox, ABC/Disney, NBC/GE, CBS/Viacom, CNN/Time-Warner, etc. but I have no suggestions for how that will be done. I doubt George Soros is prepared to become a media mogul and start a liberal alternative to a monochromatic media and not controlling the media (or being in a place to demand fairness) is a tremendous obstacle.

Fortunately, there is evidence that the cohesion of the Right is beginning to show some strain. The Bush administration has become enamored by its belief in invincibility and has reached too far, its hubris leading it to forget political expedience in favor of blind allegiance to ideology. Bush's commitment to scrapping Social Security (a move driven purely by ideology) has created immense dissension within Bush's own party as savvy politicians scramble to salvage their own destinies. Fanatical elements on the Right, likewise taken by hubris (specifically, members of the Religious Right), have driven moderates to step out of line with the discipline and unity that has made the GOP such a formidable force in American politics.

Liberals are not quite in the strategically advantageous position that conservatives were in the late 70's but there's no need to wait for that moment. Now is the time to close ranks, build an intellectual foundation for winning, develop strategies to win. The Right built their infrastructure as a way of negating liberal progress and asserting greed. Fortunately for the Left, the purpose for creating a similar infrastructure has a far more noble and positive purpose.


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