The Loss of Consensus

In his series building up to the announcement of his Wanker of the Decade, Atrios has declared Joe Klein the third runner-up. That post includes a link to a Greg Sargent piece wherein Sargent eviscerates Klein’s casual accusation of Atrios as an “ideological extremist,” with no explanation of what ideas make Atrios extreme. To highlight Klein’s absurdity, Sargent linked to a post by Atrios wherein he described what he believed to a set of consensus positions on various issues within the liberal netroots. The post was written in 2006 and reading in 2012, I remember it well. It had a lot of good stuff, both in terms of long-standing liberal goals (universal healthcare, more progressive tax code) and ones very much emergent in the second Bush term (repealing the bankruptcy bill, repeal the estate tax repeal). After publishing the list, Atrios then updated it with the following additions:

…adding a few more things which would be obvious if we weren’t living in the Grand and Glorious Age of Bush:

  • Torture is bad
  • Imprisoning citizens without charges is bad
  • Playing Calvinball with the Geneva Conventions and treaties generally is bad
  • Imprisoning anyone indefinitely without charges is bad
  • Stating that the president can break any law he wants any time “just because” is bad

…oh, and I meant to include:

  • Marriage rights for all, which includes “gay marriage” and quicker transition to citizenship for the foreign spouses of citizens.

What’s remarkable is that at this date only six years later, I don’t think you can say with a straight face that these are still consensus positions within the online progressive community. With the exception of torture, every policy listed above that was bad under President Bush has been continued by President Obama, or worse, expanded. And President Obama himself opposes marriage equality for all Americans.

By and large, Obama’s agreement with Bush on these issues of civil liberties has been either ignored or glossed over.

Earlier this week, subbing for Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Charles Davis had an essay, The Liberal Betrayal of Bradley Manning, which does a good job documenting the damning pivot by so many in the online progressive community away from caring about civil liberties and the rule of law. Greenwald himself has been the single most prolific documentarian of the ways in which liberal activist groups and bloggers have pivoted from treating warrantless wiretapping of Americans to be a potential high crime by President Bush to being completely accepting of President Obama’s decision to assassinate American citizens who have never been charged, let alone convicted, of a crime.

I can’t speak with certainty about why this has occurred, though a theory comes to mind.

There are far more people who are tribally partisan than who are ideologically liberal. Liberal positions on human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law are politically expedient when a Republican is in the White House, so they are widely deployed. But when a conservative Democrat is in the White House, tribal partisans have no use for liberal positions and they fall to the wayside, presumably until there is next a Republican in office. Loyalty to party over ideology isn’t in itself a bad thing – but there does need to be an honest discussion of this phenomenon.

An additional wrinkle here is that it splits allies apart. Pundits like Greenwald or Davis are regularly attacked by tribal Democrats for being extreme or helping Republicans or being passionate about marginal issues that no one really cares about. These attacks – as well as the partisan abandonment of previously held positions – create an environment where trust is not really possible.

How do we move past this? Well, presumably, the next time we have a Republican president, Democrats will become passionate about these issues again and there will be space for Democrats to work alongside ideological liberals. Liberals will have to accept that their issues are political pawns in the never-ending struggle between Republicans and Democrats if they want to actually make any progress on the issues. But given that parties out of power can’t actually enact their policies, there isn’t much of an upside for liberals on this one. In fact, this speaks to the need for people who care about civil liberties, the rule of law and equality to look past the Democratic Party and identify trans-partisan or non-partisan allies to push on these issues outside the confines of the two parties. Examples of how this can work emerge around internet freedom issues like SOPA, PIPA and net neutrality. This doesn’t necessarily provide a blueprint for changing policies and practices which already exist, but I’m not sure what else to go on.

Dayen on the DeMarco campaign

I think David Dayen has consistently offered the best coverage and analysis of the campaign to get the FHFA to change policy to allow for GSEs to pursue principle reduction, be that by Ed DeMarco making a change on his own or him getting fired and replaced by someone who will. No one really disagrees with the idea that the GSEs should be reducing principal to help underwater borrowers. The questions have been about the extent to which DeMarco is the biggest obstacle to fixing housing policy (he is not) and whether there are other things the GSEs can be doing besides principal reduction to aid homeowners (there are). Dayen’s post yesterday on DeMarco and his critics and the shortcomings of both sides’ arguments is a great summation of where things are at this point in the debate. I think Dayen’s closing paragraph gets at what has driven some of the skepticism against the campaign by liberal groups around DeMarco:

Needless to say, there are about a hundred things housing policy advocates could be following rather than Ed DeMarco’s come to Jesus moment. Ultimately he’s going to deliver some kind of narrow, modified principal reduction program that won’t come close to fixing housing. And then what?

Dean Baker has estimated that GSEs pursuing principle reduction would probably save 200,000-300,000 homes from foreclosure a year. While this is better than nothing, it isn’t a game changer. And DeMarco estimates the size of universe of people that he would allow principal reduction to be a tiny fraction of the entire GSE portfolio.

There needs to be a much larger conversation going on, with much larger demands.

Membership & Support in the Online Left

Matt Stoller has a long and thought-provoking post on two recent Democratic primary elections where ostensibly progressive candidates with strong support from online progressive organizations were handed crushing defeats. The whole post is worth reading, as it’s a chilling look in the mirror that reveals a lack of effective progressive infrastructure.

Noting that the IL-10 had 30,000 Democrats turn out to vote in the primary and MoveOn has 15,000 members in district, Stoller observes that MoveOn members simply did not turn out to vote for their endorsed candidate – Ilya Sheyman, a former MoveOn and Obama campaign staffer. Stoller notes:

If you can’t turn out your members to vote, then they aren’t really your members.

This is a hugely important observation. There is an assumption in online progressive organizations that the act of participating in one action online – signing a petition, RSVPing for an event, making a small dollar donation – makes an individual a member of their organization. Every online organization that you get emails from considers you a member. By this logic, based on today’s emails alone, I am allegedly a member of Rock the Vote, Brave New Films,, Courage Campaign, New Organizing Institute, Credo Action, New Bottom Line,,  and Demand Progress. This is not to mention emails from at least five unions, four Democratic party entities, numerous political campaigns, and two traditionally offline organizations who now complement that work with online campaigning – Students for a Free Tibet and Greenpeace. Of these organizations, the only one I think of myself as a member of is Students for a Free Tibet, on whose Board of Directors I serve. I like and admire the work of many of these other groups, but I would never self-identify as, say, a Courage Campaign member.

I can’t say with certainty how we got here, but I can imagine at some point the reach of an online organization was determined to be the most impressive way to measure its size. Since “We have 1 million email addresses” doesn’t sound as powerful as “We have 1 million members,” groups leaned towards description of an interaction along a model that was familiar to grassroots, membership-based organizations of the offline world. Unfortunately this lends itself to an overstatement of power and an overcommitment of what an individual activist is expected to deliver in the fraction of their life they devote to helping liberal causes. What is glossed over in discussions of massive organizational memberships – especially when defined by possession of an email address and not a deeper tie – is that of the universe of email addresses, the universe of people who open an email from an organization is smaller. Within that, the universe of people who click on a link is smaller and those that sign a petition is smaller still. Change the action ask to making a phone call or a contribution and it’s even smaller. If the ask is to host an offline event, the universe is again reduced in size. And so it is with each increasingly hard or time consuming action, the size of the email list who will do what the organization asks is decreased. The chain continues to the point Stoller notes, if a group asks the people on its email list to vote for someone and they don’t, they aren’t really members. The word is functionally meaningless.

To understand how this becomes a major problem for online progressive groups, read this passage from Stoller:

Two, the internet Democrats need to understand the basis of George Washington Plunkett politics, which is that votes come from getting voters turkeys at Christmas. Voters want stuff, information on how to live their lives, increased incomes, a better world, tax cuts, the trash picked up regularly, whatever – and if you can’t credibly get it to them, your message is unpersuasive. It’s not that your arguments don’t work, it’s that you aren’t a trusted messenger, and you can’t win in a low-trust fight because low trust channels are dominated by oligarchs. This is why the failure of the internet progressive space to focus on wages or foreclosures from 2006-2010 was so catastrophic. It’s why the fact that health care doesn’t kick in until 2014 carried significant political costs. There simply is no progressive advantage on economic arguments anymore. Sheyman laid out standard left-but-not-too-left policy prescriptions – reimplementing Glass-Steagall, lifting the Social Security cap on earnings, Medicare-for-All, gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan – and they didn’t work. Why would one really junior member of Congress without any substantive record of accomplishment really matter? Why would anyone trust the progressive brand on economics?

I would hazard that part of the reason that there is an absence of trust between online groups and the people they consider to be their members is that there is such a disconnection between treating the existence of an email address as membership and how individuals actually think of themselves. It’s not that there are weak ties between organizations and people on their email lists, it’s that there are no ties. This fact, before any discussion of actual political strategy or policy decisions by progressive groups, is likely the formative one that enables activists to apparently tolerate the sorts of failures Stoller describes. That is, it’s not that there is tolerance for them by activists, but that because activists don’t actually consider themselves members of these organizations, they don’t have a stake in these organizations being strategic and effective. How else can you explain the failure of ostensibly member driven groups to turn out their members on campaigns that they think will matter to them?

Challenging the assumptions of the membership model of online groups is hugely important. As Stoller says, these campaigns provide an opportunity for real reflection about what tactics are not working and why this is the case. The membership disconnect is something that needs to be deeply explored, as it is so important to the existence of activist organizations. Hopefully Stoller’s piece sparks some honest dialogue and self-reflection, as online organizers need to address these structural challenges to achieving what we want to achieve if we’re ever going to get to where we want to go.

…Adding, the occasion for this post is related to electoral defeats, but I don’t think this is a problem limited to progressive work in the electoral space. The strength of grassroots organizations is determined by many things – budget, strategic savvy and the quality of their leadership all come to mind – but engaged membership is certainly one of them. Figuring out what isn’t working with membership engagement strategies requires first acknowledging how the problems we see in this electoral context are manifesting themselves in non-electoral organizing (say, participation in a campaign on Issue XX is phenomenally successful but the subsequent one on Issue XY has huge drop-off). Groups need to gain a better understanding of how the people on their email lists think of them. To whatever extent a real disconnect is identified between people who identify as members versus people who occasionally enjoy updates from an organization, those audiences need to be talked to in different ways. Leaders need to figure out how to transition from a mentality of “Whose list is biggest?” to “How can we leverage our committed supporters to affect meaningful change?” This likely isn’t just about internal thought processes, but changing the way leader-activists talk to their donor base.

To put things differently, part of the urgency for figuring out how advocacy groups can build meaningful relationships with activists unto them considering themselves members is that there are always fights being waged. If a major corporation does something destructive or if an elected official introduces legislation that would cause major harm, are groups going to be able to stop them with their email lists? Or are large and always growing lists the Maginot Line of modern progressive advocacy, built to look impressive, but not effective at achieving their purpose?

Defeats create opportunities to re-evaluate our assumptions about how we can engage activists. This is as good a moment as any to evaluate how we build relationships with people we perceive to be supporters and how we honestly evaluate our capacities to affect change.

What Atrios Said

Duncan Black:

I’m not sure how anyone expects “the housing market” to “recover” when buying a house now involves handing a bunch of money over to a bank which will then proceed to steal your house from you.

This behavior will continue until lots of people go to jail. And that, apparently, is off the table.

This is probably the most succinct description of the problems in housing now, both in terms of recovery and stopping the foreclosure crisis from continuing for another three to five years.

Field on Foreclosure Fraud Settlement

As always, Abigail Field is a must-read in her ongoing coverage of the 49 state and federal foreclosure fraud immunization settlement. The fact that the settlement was approved by a federal judge with no hearings into it is both disappointing and truly sickening. Of course, as Field notes, the lack of transparency in this settlement is par for the course:

On Thursday, April 5th U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer announced she had decided to sign off on the ”$25 billion” Mortgage Settlement. By “announced”, I mean she signed the consent orders all our major law enforcers and the biggest bankers had agreed to, and entered them into the record. Judge Collyer didn’t actually say anything about the deal. She didn’t let anyone else say anything, either: she didn’t hold a public hearing on the deal.

In acting silently, Judge Collyer not only okayed the deal’s lousy terms, which institutionalize servicer theft and foreclosure fraud, she reinforced the incredibly poor public process that’s kept the enforcement fraud at the heart of the deal hidden. Deliberately hidden.

The rest of her post is a look at how the deal is presented in such a way as to misdirect people looking at it with allegedly new and beneficial mortgage servicing standards, while quietly institutionalizing and legalizing bank fraud and theft of homes. The problems with this are manifold, but just so you have a taste, here’s an excerpt of the post on the lack of clear and measurable servicing standards:

To recap: no one yet knows which servicing “standards” will take effect when, or if the deadlines will be extended as the deal allows. Until a standard is in effect, there’s nothing to measure compliance with. Worse, the the measuring process itself still has to be negotiated, so standards may take effect without a compliance process to verify implementation. Worst, the metrics let the servicers systematically steal from you and defraud the courts without risk of consequence. Heck, even if all servicing standards take effect before the deal expires, and all the work plans are finalized so that all the metrics are being computed, and banker theft rises to the level that a bank fails a metric, no penalty kicks in unless it’s the second quarter in a row that the bank failed that metric.

This deal has always been a shit sandwich. It’s just more clear now than ever before how big of a shit sandwich it is.


David Dayen has a post on the release of new servicing standards by the CFPB, which largely make the settlement’s standards irrelevant.

This would supersede the mortgage servicing standards from the foreclosure fraud settlement, as well as outlast them, because while the settlement standards expire after 3 1/2 years, the rules from the CFPB can be permanent. CFPB has statutory authority under Dodd-Frank to adopt rules for the servicing industry, so the vaunted “servicing standards” in the settlement will become mostly superfluous, or at least a stopgap.