A long train of tweets I posted & later Storified.
The Democrats got beat pretty badly in the midterm elections. This is not a big surprise. But the losses have generated countless pieces about why they lost, how they could have avoided losing, what messaging would work better, how Democrats can better convince the citizenry to put their faith in them and so forth. To me, it’s a massively unsatisfying oeuvre.
I came to realize a number of years ago that by and large the people and centers of power in the Democratic Party don’t share my set of beliefs. There are no doubt some leftwing and populist politicians in the Democratic Party – obviously Elizabeth Warren tops the list – but they don’t run the party, they don’t run the party committees, they don’t drive the legislative agenda. Power in the Democratic Party is centered in individuals who are conservative, who hold neoliberal views of work and the economy, and have deep ties to finance capital. The majority of Democratic office holders and their supporting infrastructure falls into this latter category and spends an awful lot of time talking about how Democrats are wrong to use populist or anti-bank messaging.
This is a realization of fact. There is no normative quality to this, it’s simply the world we live in. And it’s a world where the existence of a Warren or a Sherrod Brown or a Mike Honda within the Democratic Party does not mean that it is in fact a populist or even a left political party.
Here are a few other somewhat disjointed, post-election thoughts…
A common thread in election epitaphs has been that Democrats aren’t conveying their ideas well. As a counter-point, Noam Scheiber describes the nature of Obama’s ideology:
How could these two legacies coexist in one presidency? They emanate from the worldview that Jarrett and Obama share—call it “boardroom liberalism.” It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on high—one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.Is this not a perfect description of the Democratic Party today? Generally positive on social issues, but full-blooded in their support for corporations, for profits, for the 1% and the bottom line.
Notwithstanding his early career as a community organizer, Obama, like Jarrett, is fundamentally a man of the inside. It’s why he put a former Citigroup executive and Robert Rubin chief of staff named Michael Froman in charge of assembling his economic team in 2008, why he avoided a deep restructuring of Wall Street, why he abruptly junked the public option during the health care debate, why he so ruthlessly pursues leakers and the journalists who cultivate them. It explains why so many of his policy ideas—from jobs for the long-term unemployed to mentoring minority youth—rely on the largesse of corporations.
This doesn’t describe a problem of rhetoric. Plenty of Democrats ran and lost using populist messaging, just as plenty of conservative Democrats ran and lost using conservative, Republican Lite messaging. Focusing the debate on the impact of messaging not only ignores the fact that Democrats have a clear record while in varying degrees of power over the last six years, but has the unseemly quality of treating American voters like rubes to be moved by marketing campaigns.
Matt Stoller, in the course of a must-read book review of Al From’s The New Democrats and the Return to Power, makes a very strong case for the need for ideas. Opening on the occasion of the many hair-rending after action reports within Democratic circles as to what happened, Stoller writes:
Everything is put on the table, except the main course — policy. Did the Democrats run the government well? Are the lives of voters better? Are you as a political party credible when you say you’ll do something?
This question is never asked, because Democratic elites — ensconced in the law firms, foundations, banks, and media executive suites where the real decisions are made — basically agree with each other about organizing governance around the needs of high technology and high finance. The only time the question even comes up now is in an inverted corroded form, when a liberal activist gnashes his or her teeth and wonders — why can’t Democrats run elections around populist themes and policies? This is still the wrong question, because it assumes the wrong causality. Parties don’t poll for good ideas, run races on them, and then govern. They have ideas, poll to find out how to sell those ideas, and run races and recruit candidates based on the polling. It’s ideas first, then the sales pitch. If the sales pitch is bad, it’s often the best of what can be made of an unpopular stew of ideas.
Still, you’d think that someone, somewhere would have populist ideas. And a few — like Zephyr Teachout and Elizabeth Warren — do. But why does every other candidate not? I don’t actually know, but a book just came out that might answer this question. The theory in this book is simple. The current generation of Democratic policymakers were organized and put in power by people that don’t think that a renewed populist agenda centered on antagonism towards centralized economic power is a good idea.
Democrats writ large aren’t populists because they don’t believe in populists ideas. Expecting them to be a vehicle for ideas that they don’t hold isn’t a reasonable expectation.
Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor in New York, has a good op-ed in The Guardian that brings up a number of ideas that he sees as fertile ground for a resurgent American left, unserved by the Democratic Party.
Frankly I don’t care if the Democratic Party becomes a vehicle for leftwing ideas or if left movements emerge that can force policy action or if a left third party emerges that builds real, sustained political power. But I do hope there is a home for these ideas in this country.
There are potential sources for left ideas to be put forward and spread publicly. The ideas can be pushed for by left Democrats, by the Working Families Party, by #BlackLivesMatter, by Occupy, by labor, by environmentalists, by a new third party that represents workers, people of color, women, immigrants, youth… There’s a lot that can by done and is already being done. Like Stoller points out, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, as long as the issues that must be confronted are so confronted with good ideas, unbound to Democratic electoral frameworks.
There has been real energy come from youth and working people lead movements like Occupy Wall Street (and the notable mutual aid offshoots Occupy Sandy and Occupy Homes), the Dream Defenders, Moral Mondays, fast food worker organizing, direction action activists against the Keystone XL pipeline and quite powerfully, in the anti-racism, anti-police brutality protests surrounding the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and sadly many others.
- Anti-racism in general and anti-police brutality/profile in particular
- Legalized marijuana, end the war on drugs
- Marriage equality
- High minimum wage
- Student loan / debt reform
- Workers rights on the job, particularly against fast food and app-based employers
- Net neutrality
- Regulation of financial markets
- Spending for renewable energy development / ending fossil fuel state
These is a great list of issues that Democrats have thoroughly failed to serve their natural, historic constituencies on. Maybe there’s space for someone to bring forth ideas that address them. I don’t hold out hopes that this will happen within the Democratic Party, but I’ve been wrong before.
[View the story “Robbery, social media & a lesson in brand loyalty to customers” on Storify]
Bonus links to these companies:
My good friends Alia McKee and Tim Walker recently launched a new project together – Lifeboat. It’s a unique addition to the progressive movement landscape, focusing on an under-discussed yet very important topic: friendship. Tim & Alia explain what Lifeboat is and why they started it:
We’re in a friendship crisis.
The average American adult reports having only one real friend. Paradoxically, in an age of Facebook and always-on connections, a growing body of science proves what we already feel deep in our gut: we’re actually lonelier and more isolated than ever before. The way many of us use the internet is only making the crisis worse.
The solution isn’t to retreat from the web. It’s to aim higher—to re-think what friendship means in adulthood. Indeed, it’s time to explore uncharted relationship territory—academic research, philosophy, expert advice and our own heads and hearts—for a better path forward.
Lifeboat is a movement of people rediscovering deep friendships. We’re not offering grand solutions or complex schemes, but instead, simple things that work. Here you’ll find our unique content on the art and science of friendship—full of inspiration, learning and practice. It’s designed to help move us beyond fast-food-friendships and become self-assured friendship pioneers!
For those who choose it, Lifeboat is a pathway to living more fully with friends.
It’s an original project focusing on a real challenge that anyone who’s grown up in or on the internet can relate to. They’re developing useful and interesting content that explores their research and original ideas about friendship and the friendship crisis. They’ve even written a friendship manifesto that frames their project:
We believe in great friendship.
Friends electrify our lives —
And light us up with meaning, health and happiness.
We are no strangers to isolation and loneliness.
The puzzling paradox that in our hyperconnected age —
The average American has only one real friend.
We feel this friendship crisis. But we refuse to retreat.
Instead we dig in. Choosing to forego fastfood friendships —
And rediscover what great friendship really means.
We take friendship back.
From the Internet, from our schedules, from the breakneck pace of our busy lives —
Purposefully reinvesting in the people that matter most.
We explore the uncharted art and science of friendship.
Learning from experts and each other and practicing from our own heads and hearts —
How to be better, get deeper and live more fully with our friends.
We are on this path back to friendship — pioneering something greater together.
Are you in?
They’ve created an insider email list that delivers regular content. Toss in some great visuals, brilliant design, and the fact that they are the only people out there who are organizing and mobilizing on the issue of friendship, it’s very easy for me to recommend this project to people. Go check out Lifeboat. There’s a ton of great content and it’s one of the most original and fascinating projects I know taking place in the progressive movement space.
My good family friend Avram Barlowe penned this thoughtful piece which I think merits wider reading. Avram is a teacher in the New York City public school system and a union shop steward.
What Would Carl Oglesby Say About Bob Rubin?
. . . and by extension, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?
Coming of age under the influence of the New Left, one of the political traits I developed was an enduring mistrust of powerful liberals and liberalism. There have surely been times in my life when that mistrust was misplaced and dogmatic. And decades of neoliberalism’s slow but steady erosion of the welfare state have certainly taught me the value of certain liberal reforms and the need, sometimes, to work within the system. However, I still believe in an aspect of the New Left’s critique, which suggests that liberalism is too often an accommodation masking capitalism’s injustice. I would also argue that social democracy as we have known it, with all of its considerable benefits, in both its European and American forms, is fundamentally a concession that capitalism is rejecting in the context’s of the left’s defeat. It should not be an end in itself. I understand that fatigue in the face of reaction at home, the failure of “really existing socialism” abroad, and a pragmatism born of conditions have narrowed the horizon for many decent, serious activists, but I think these people are engaged in denial to the extent that they accept the good intentions, if not the practices, of the “centrist” liberals who run the Democratic Party.
I’ve been stewing about this in recent weeks as I’ve perused assorted bits of news, which reveal the manner in which liberal Democrats have essentially conceded to the big banks the right of risky, financial speculation and the fiscal austerity/privatization that accompanies it. (If you doubt me on this one consider as examples the latest, paltry fines paid by UBS to settle [out of court] its “LIBOR” violations and by HSBC to resolve [out of court] its laundering of billions of dollars for Columbian and Mexican drug cartels, a clear violation of the Banking Secrets Act and the Trading With The Enemy Act. In each case, according to The New York Times, the government clearly “chose not to indict . . .for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in the process, endanger the financial system.) I’m reminded that so many of the current policy’s architects are liberal, east coast Democrats, products of prestigious educations, the best and brightest, just as were their 1960’s counterparts (except that this time several of the wise men — Jack Lew, Gene Sperling, David Plouffe, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel — are Jewish, as are their not-so-informal guru, Bob Rubin, and myself). And when one takes a closer look at their profiles, credentials, interests and political actions, the parallels to the 60’s are rather striking.
Yves Smith wrote a smart blog piece this week on Jack Lew, Obama’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, that examines Bob Rubin’s influence in the Obama Administration. (Lew, by the way, worked with Rubin in the Clinton Administration and later was one of a group of former Clintonites recruited by Rubin at Citigroup.) It includes a telling description of Rubin’s liberalism:
“Rubin was admired by everyone for his low-key personal style. Rubin always had a big heart and a gentle manner: He was a liberal Democrat who, as a young trader at Goldman Sachs, used to show up at New York community meetings on the inner-city poor. Later on he opposed Clinton’s welfare “workfare” reform—a much-criticized compromise with the GOP—as too harsh. . . .
In the year 2010, in an interview with me a decade after his star turn as Treasury secretary, as the floodwaters of the subprime disaster lapped at his executive suite in the Citigroup building on Manhattan’s East Side, Rubin mulled over the consequences of what he had wrought. ‘We have a market-based financial system, and yet we have a whole bunch of institutions that are too big or too interconnected to fail,’ Rubin said in puzzled tones. “Yet the market-based system is the way to go. How do you reconcile all that? The fundamental theory of the [market] case is premised on the notion that failure or success reaps their own rewards. But now that’s not happening.”
The quotation cited here is quite an admission. One wonders why someone capable of it and someone apparently concerned with the plight of marketplace “losers” doesn’t renounce the present system and call for or seek an alternative. The answer, of course, is that he and others like him are deeply vested in the system, ideologically, emotionally, and, perhaps most important, materially.
Now consider for a moment one of the New Left’s defining moments, the words spoken by SDS leader Carl Oglesby’s at the first national March on Washington protest against the Vietnam War:
“We are here again to protest a growing war. Since it is a very bad war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be caused by very bad men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on such grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or the brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or the ominous signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be permitted. We must simply observe, and quite plainly say, that this coalition, this blitzkrieg, and this demand for acquiescence are creatures, all of them, of a Government that since 1932 has considered itself to he fundamentally liberal.
The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.”
I know some will argue that it’s wrong to compare the horrors of Vietnam to our current economic problems. But substitute the casino economy and growing inequality for Vietnam and the liberals yesteryear for the liberal leaders of today and you have an analogy that fits. As Yves Smith notes, “we have created a free-market system dominated by institutions so huge and systemically important that they no longer have to play by free-market rules.” Bob Rubin and proteges such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag and Jack Lew — honorable, liberal men all — have done as much as anyone to create that system. And the lives of ordinary people are being damaged and destroyed in order to preserve a power structure, just as they were in the Vietnam War.
To those who would deny this or question the wisdom of placing the system on trial even as we fight to defend and advance reforms, I would ask you to consider as well the closing of Oglesby’s speech in today’s light as well:
“Let me then speak directly to humanist liberals. If my facts are wrong, I will soon be corrected. But if they are right, then you may face a crisis of conscience. Corporatism or humanism: which? For it has come to that. Will you let your dreams be used? Will you be a grudging apologist for the corporate state? Or will you help try to change it – not in the name of this or that blueprint or ism, but in the name of simple human decency and democracy and the vision that wise and brave men saw in the time of our own Revolution?And if your commitment to human values is unconditional, then disabuse yourselves of the notion that statements will bring change, if only the right statements can be written, or that interviews with the mighty will bring change if only the mighty can be reached, or that marches will bring change if only we can make them massive enough, or that policy proposals will bring change if only we can make them responsible enough.
We are dealing now with a colossus that does not want to be changed. It will not change itself. It will not cooperate with those who want to change it. Those allies of ours in the Government – are they really our allies? If they are, then they don’t need advice, they need constituencies; they don’t need study groups, they need a movement. And it they are not, then all the more reason for building that movement with the most relentless conviction.
There are people in this country today who are trying to build that movement, who aim at nothing less than a humanist reformation. And the humanist liberals must understand that it is this movement with which their own best hopes are most in tune. We radicals know the same history that you liberals know, and we can understand your occasional cynicism, exasperation, and even distrust. But we ask you to put these aside and help us risk a leap. Help us find enough time for the enormous work that needs doing here. Help us build. Help us shape the future in the name of plain human hope.”
Carl’s words are hardly a program for working within and beyond the system today, but the approach and spirit they represent remain highly relevant. ‘Nuff said for now.
It’s been pretty quiet around here lately, due to the fact that I changed jobs last month and am incredibly busy as a result. Right now, I’m not sure I’ll be able to continue to update this blog with regularity. I’ve enjoyed writing Hold Fast off and on for the last four years. I’m sure that even if I enter a state of blogging hibernation, I’ll end up turning the lights back on in the future. Stay tuned and thanks, as always, for reading.
Via Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.
Econ4 economists put out a statement on housing accompanying this video. It includes this passage, which I think is spot-on:
We oppose treating the nation’s housing as a bundle of assets to be sliced, diced, flipped, and bailed out in pursuit of inflated profits and bonuses.
We call for reality-based, ethically grounded housing policies that restore stability to families and sanity to markets.
We call for mandatory partial reductions of mortgage principal whenever this can keep a family in its home. We call for America’s best run housing non-profits to be paid to provide the counsel required to determine when such modifications will work. We call for civil and, when necessary, criminal sanctions on banks and loan-servicing companies whose employees intentionally obstruct implementation of mandated loan modifications.
We call for amending bankruptcy laws to restore pre-2005 rules that protected families and communities from bank depredations.
We call for immediate return to the rule of law by requiring those who seek to foreclose to demonstrate they have the proper title and rights to do so – with stiff legal penalties if they ignore the law.
In response to recent moves by the top 1% to buy distressed housing and convert it to rental stock as absentee landlords, we call for local, state and national standards to protect families from predatory rental practices.
We extend our support to all who are working in the private, non-profit, and public sectors to promote access to affordable and stable housing as a human right of families and an asset for communities.