Losing for campaigning like a Democrat

Rick Perlstein has a very good article in Rolling Stone about the failures of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election. I think there are a lot of overlapping dimensions to the loss and Perlstein lays out a number of them in the piece. One of the more important aspects, though, is the tendency for Democrats to embrace pro-corporation/anti-worker politicians and policies even when it’s obvious how unappealing to the public those are. The Clinton/Obama epoch has produced some truly horrible representations of what the alternative to the GOP looks like and it’s not shocking that many voters find this unappealing. People aren’t looking for civility and the quiet transfer of wealth to elites, they’re looking for people who will fight for their jobs and their futures.

Wisconsin Aftermath

I’ll be honest, after the labor-backed candidate for governor in Wisconsin lost the Democratic primary in a recall election that was happening because of an assault on workers’ rights and public sector unions, I paid significantly less attention to the race. And even before that, once the choice was made by labor unions and Democratic operatives to turn away from direct action and popular protest following the occupation of the capitol in Madison, and instead focus energy on Democratic electoral gains, I was turned off from this fight. Don’t get me wrong – I still wanted Walker to lose. Now I’m hoping that he gets indicted and soon.

But last night’s elections reveal a number of really big problems. Looking at the final results, with Walker winning by around 7%, there are incredibly disturbing numbers that pop out of the exit polling. 36% of union households voted for Walker.
17% of Obama supporters voted for Walker. Unions, despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, map fairly well onto the partisan divide and it isn’t shocking that over a third of union households voted for a Republican, though it is depressing. But Obama supporters voting for Walker? That’s pretty terrifying if you believe that Democrats support workers’ rights and labor should be allied with the Democratic Party.

Of course it also isn’t surprising that a President who hasn’t done anything to aid labor – no effort on Employee Free Choice, no meaningful effort to improve the NLRB or get good rules out of it – would attract people who vote for a union-busting Republican.

There’s a big problem when the biggest argument in an election is “Defeat the bad guy,” with no compelling vision for how the Democratic candidate is going to affect change. Even had Barrett won, he wouldn’t have been able to reverse Walker’s union-busting legislation, as the Republican still control the state Assembly. The only demonstrable gain that would have happened would have been a cessation of Walker’s union-busting agenda. Evidently that was not compelling enough for all Obama supporters or union households to vote for Barrett.

The volume of outside case also played a role in the outcome. Walker outspent Barrett by around 8:1 and there was tens of millions of dollars in outside spending benefiting Walker. That’s certainly a tough environment to win in, but I don’t think it was in itself determinative. The bad dynamics, the lack of a way for the election to change, the establishment candidate who wasn’t backed by labor, the fact that Barrett had lost to Walker less than two years ago…these all added to the reasoning for the loss. There will be many post-mortems today. I’m really sorry for the people of Wisconsin, especially those who worked for the last 18 months to stop Scott Walker. But perhaps trying to elect more Democrats wasn’t the answer needing to emerge from the occupation of the capitol in Madison.

Democratic Message Discipline

Democratic Party message discipline, as exemplified by defenses on Bain Capital and private equity.

President Bill Clinton

Cory Booker

Ed Rendell

Deval Patrick

Harold Ford Jr.

Let’s be clear. While these high level Democrats – most of whom are currently or have been in the past top-level surrogates for President Obama – are saying something different from the President’s re-election campaign, this is not an example of a lack of message discipline. Or rather, the lack of discipline is coming from the Obama campaign. These Democrats, as leading elected and former elected officials, know that private equity is a crucial piece of the funding infrastructure for the Democratic Party. These gentlemen will not bite the hand that feeds them. The Obama campaign is breaking with what is clearly the party’s orthodoxy on private equity and it isn’t even doing so that convincingly. But it has been enough to shake out the party stalwarts, even the Big Dog himself, to say that Obama is wrong and Bain is good and proper. It’s pretty sickening to watch.

The absence of a desire for strong regulators

Matt Stoller, writing at Naked Capitalism, has a really important observation about the two political parties and their shared lack of desire to have strong regulators looking at the banking sector.

The hearing was about District Court Judge Jed Rakoff’s refusal to sustain the Citigroup settlement with the SEC.  What was interesting about it, from a political standpoint, is that all three witnesses, including the witness brought in by the Democrats, opposed Rakoff’s move and supported the SEC’s position.  And one of the top Democrats on the committee, Carolyn Maloney, gave a long-winded opening statement in which she basically took the position that forcing an admission of wrongdoing was just too hard.  In other words, many high-level Democratic politicians, for all their gnashing of teeth about the need for regulation, aren’t being truthful.  They don’t want regulation, they want to be seen as wanting regulation.  And the Republicans, while they want to be seen as the party against regulation, are actually quite happy having regulators they can work with, regulators who protect the banks from state or local level action.

The argument over regulation or deregulation, in some sense, misses the point.  We need regulation, obviously.  But we also need strongly principled regulators.  And neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has any appetite for that.

Stoller’s observation is important in that it crystallizes the sentiment of both parties being captured by Wall Street in an operationally specific way. And in Stoller’s telling, it’s hard to not come away with the impression that the Democrats are a good deal more cynical than the Republicans on the issue of regulation.

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.

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, SaveOurEnvironment.org, Courage Campaign, New Organizing Institute, Credo Action, New Bottom Line, Presente.org,  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.

Common Ground

Apparently President Obama gave a speech today attacking the Ryan budget. In the Q&A he went after the GOP for making rightward shifts which prevented them from finding common ground. Jed Lewison writes:

Obama continues hammering Republicans for moving so far to the right. “Cap and trade was originally proposed by Republicans … now they say we shouldn’t even be thinking about environmental protection.” “The individual mandate … originated as a conservative idea. … Now suddenly this is some socialist overreach. So, as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it’s important to remember that the positions I’m taking now on the budget and a whole host of other issues … [20 years ago] would have been squarely centrist.” It’s Republicans that have shifted.

David Dayen, writing in response to President Obama’s contention, notes:

Isn’t it Democrats who have shifted as well? For this to be the case, for the Democratic leader to have co-opted a whole bunch of Republican plans on the biggest economic issues of the day, represents the clear fact that the Democratic Party has ideologically become akin to where a moderate Republican would have stood in the 1960s. And the claim is always that this is a function of politics, that it’s about compromise, it’s about moving things forward. That’s against the entire point of today’s speech! Obama was saying precisely that Republicans are NOT willing to compromise. If these shifts in ideology were about compromise, it would presume that a compromise has actually been reached. But it hasn’t. Democrats have drifted right and Republicans have drifted right along with them, with common ground still elusive.

It really isn’t news to note that America has a right-wing political party and a far right-wing political party. Except it seems to be ignored by most Democrats, who instead try to explain away why President Obama and his cohorts on the Hill consistently adopt positions which are proudly touted as conservative.

On a certain level, the President is being willfully obtuse about why he has not found common ground with the Republicans, who are indeed further to the right than they used to be. Politics is about creating contrast with your opponent. Today Obama tried to make contrast between himself and the Republicans, who introduced a massive transfer of wealth from the 99% to wealthy elites in the form of the Ryan budget. But if there was common ground between the two parties, not just in general concepts (eg: we should cut entitlements and cut taxes) but in specifics, there would cease to be the element of contrast which is necessary for every political campaign. Politics would stop and no party which is out of power would ever agree to adopt it. While the likes of President Obama dreams of a post-partisan world where elites agree to take from the rest of us in small, reasonable bites, this isn’t something the GOP will go for.

Dayen notes in closing:

Far from changing this conversation, the online progressive movement of the past several years hasn’t really even arrested the forward motion. This is the real story of American politics, when you get out of the day-to-day struggles.

Yes, indeed. The online progressive movement has been alternately a beard used by conservative Democrats like Obama to convince the base of the value of conservative ideas or completely ineffective at presenting a real left flank in American politics, one to which Democrats are held accountable. There are plenty of reasons for it, but the most obvious is institutional capture by the Democratic Party. It’s either that or a fundamental aversion to tell the public the truth about what is happening in our country, after years of lying about the virtue of electoral politics as a vehicle for achieving progressive change that moves us to the left. In any case, it’s destructive and it’s depressing.

The Era of Mugging

Duncan Black:

Right now we have one political party that is very up front about and proud of their desire to mug everyone in the non-millionaire club, steal all their money, and give it to rich people. It’s time for the other political party to recognize that the era of dumb compromises is over, and if they’d actually come up with a way to help people, instead of a plan to set up a program to provide the incentives to blahblahblahblahblahblah….

Duncan’s closing point is that if the Democrats actually put forward aggressive policies to help people, those policies would also be politically popular, which is probably true.

Cutting Medicare is bad, unless our guy does it

The Democratic establishment is out guns blazing today. Is it in response to the Washington Post report yesterday that President Obama would still take a deal that exchanged some modest (and imaginary) revenue increases for cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security?

No, of course not.

Predictably, it’s about Congressman Paul Ryan’s Version 2.0 budget. As with the last version, this one promises to gut Medicare and the rest of the social safety net, while providing massive tax cuts to the 1%.

Don’t get me wrong – the Ryan budget is a monstrosity and easily worse than any cuts proposed by President Obama, the Gang of Six in the Senate, or conservative House Democrats like Steny Hoyer and Heath Shuler.

But the notion that it’s a cataclysmic event when one major political party proposes destructive cuts to Medicare, but completely kosher for the other major political party to propose destructive cuts to Medicare is partisan absurdity. The reality is it’s a huge issue that both political parties agree in austerity and gutting the social safety net. The only difference is one of magnitude.

Keep in mind, Heath Shuler is working with House Republicans on a new “grand bargain” which would be put forward after the November election, so as to avoid public scrutiny. Elites in Washington want to embrace austerity, even as it’s clearly unpopular. It’s not clear that they will succeed, but obviously we’re heading back into deficit hysteria. Hopefully along the way, the White House, DNC, DSCC and DCCC figure out whether or not they support austerity so there can be honesty and consistency in their public messaging.

Nevada’s Attorney General is a bad ass

There has been a lot of attention paid – deservedly so – to the work of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden. They were two of the first AGs to voice objections to the federal government’s push with the state AGs fore a weak settlement deal around robosigning. So obviously they deserve a lot of credit for creating the conditions in which other AGs could step out – notably Nevada’s Cathernine Cortez Masto, Minnesota’s Lori Swanson, Kentucky’s Jack Conway, Massachusetts’ Martha Coakley, and California’s Kamala Harris.

But at this point in time, anyone speaking about the role of Justice Democrats would be remiss to fail to recognize how much Nevada’s Masto is kicking ass. Just check out her thirty-eight question letter to Iowa’s Tom Miller. Miller’s office has asked all state AGs to inform them by Friday as to whether or not they will be joining the federal settlement. Based on the list of questions Masto has turned in, and for the request for specificity and timeliness in the response, it seems pretty clear that Miller and the Feds are asking AGs to sign on to something without seeing a very specific term sheet for the settlement.

Abigail C. Field has a detailed run-through of Masto’s thirty-eight questions and they are very serious. Clearly Masto and her office is taking this entire process very seriously and is not interested in getting burned on a robosigning settlement. It’s heartening to see this level of effort and hopefully the net result is real accountability for the banks and real help to hurting homeowners.