Westen on Populism

Drew Westen has a big piece in Alternet about the current political climate and the anger fueling populist backlash. First, I think this is spot-on:

The “Obama Doctrine” should have been that Americans who want to work and have the ability to contribute to our productivity as a nation should have the right to work, and that if the private sector can’t meet the demand for jobs, we have plenty of roads and bridges to fix, new energy sources to develop and manufacture, and schools to build and renovate so our kids and workers returning for training can compete in the 21st century global economy.

And Westen’s natural follow-up is right on too (and useful for determining why so many progressive activists are feeling dissatisfied with the administration’s course of action):

But it’s too late for that. The administration opted for an alternative doctrine, which Larry Summers enunciated on This Week several months ago: that unemployment is going to remain high for the foreseeable future and eventually come down — as if there’s nothing we can do about it — and that they will push here and there for small symbolic measures whose symbolism tends to escape people who are out of work. It’s hard to be excited by symbolism when your children are hungry or the bank is repossessing your home — although you didn’t do anything to deserve it — while the people who did are once again making out like bandits.

Westen describes the current mood in America as populist anger, something that I agree with. I disagree that this anger from the left is because of missed opportunities – sure, that may be part of it with activist Democrats. No, I think the populist anger from the left stems from the fact that the economy remains broken, people don’t have jobs and are suffering because of it.

There’s a lot in Westen’s analysis of the timeline of the Obama administration and choices made. In many ways, Westen provides a comprehensive narrative of that is tossed around in progressive circles of missed opportunities and the progressive critique of what it means, particularly in terms of depressing the base and diminishing electoral prospects in 2010. I do think one paragraph is particularly worthy of quotation:

The underlying psychological assumption of these moves is that if you mix policies from the right and left in equal parts, you win the center. In fact, no one has ever won the center that way. It appears weak, opportunistic, and incoherent to the average swing voter, which is particularly problematic at a time when people in the center desperately want to know that their leaders have a vision and a coherent plan for what to do (which is why both FDR and Ronald Reagan were so effective in moving voters in the center). It doesn’t win any votes on the right. But it does have one predictable effect: It sucks the motivation out of your base, who feel demoralized and betrayed (if they’re part of the “professional left”) or less likely to vote (if they’re average voters who don’t follow politics carefully but just don’t feel very enthusiastic anymore, even if they don’t really know why).

There are a lot of relatively fundamental critiques of this administration, but this strikes me as one of the core ones – the penchant to be post-partisan and find agreement in the ideological lacuna that is the American center. Sure, it makes David Broder happy to see the White House try and strike an incoherent balance, but it just isn’t a political method which understands what voters want, which policies work, and how actions akin to ideology present themselves to the country. Strength wins, not alchemy.

Westen provides a serious playbook for the administration and Democratic leaders to use to describe how we got to where we are economically and who is to blame for it. Not enough of this is being done currently and as a result, Democrats are missing an opportunity to harness populist anger against Republicans and for better governance. There are still massive economic needs – job creation, state funding, green energy development, infrastructure repair, etc – and ample opportunity for Democrats to do things to address these problems, blame Republicans for opposing the success of the American economy, and actually get things on track. All it takes is building a narrative about who is to blame for today’s problems and who doesn’t want them to be fixed, while establishing Democrats in contrast to this. It’s time to do something.

It’s easy to read Westen’s account of the first year and a half of the Obama administration and be depressed. But this is prescriptive analysis. He provides a clear path forward for the administration to both achieve great things and have continued electoral success. Whether or not the administration is interested in pursuing Westen’s recommendations is obviously another question. But being where we are now is not determinative of future failures, but for the extent that the administration is unwilling to change course. Looking at the economy and at the political peril Democrats are facing electorally, it’s hard to imagine a situation where the President doesn’t start acting like his shoes were on fire.

Nonetheless, that unimaginable situation is the one we continue to find ourselves in. The time for change is now. Westen provides a good playbook. I hope the administration uses it.

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