Thinking Small

There's a discussion starting to bubble up in some corners, one that will grow in intensity as we approach 2016, asking where the left should go as Barack Obama heads for the exits a couple of years hence. In the latest issue of Harper's, Adolph Reed offers a critique from the left of not just Obama but the liberals who support him. Our own Harold Meyerson offered a typically thoughtful criticism, to which Reed responded, but I'll just add briefly that one of the many things I didn't like about Reed's piece was the way he poses a dichotomy for liberals between investing too much in winning presidential elections even if the Democrat is imperfect (not a complete waste of time, but close) and building a movement (much better), but doesn't say what, specifically, this movement-building should consist of.

That's a common problem. Movements are great, but creating and sustaining them is hard work, work most of us would rather not do. It also takes skill, timing, and bit of luck. Most of us would agree that the decline of labor unions has been disastrous for the country in many ways, and I sometimes hear people say that what the left needs is a revival of the labor movement. That'd be great! If you have any ideas about how to do it, we'd all like to know.

Eight years ago I wrote a manifesto for liberals, and though not very many people read it, whenever I would speak to an audience about it, someone would always ask, "So what should we do? This isn't an easy question to answer, but since the theme of the book was that liberals should learn from what conservatives had done right over the prior couple of decades, my best answer was to think nationally and act locally, in the same way conservatives do. Get a couple of friends together and stage a coup of your local Democratic committee. Run for school board, or dog catcher, or whatever office you think you can win. If you want to push the Democratic party to the left, trying to get Bernie Sanders to run for president isn't going to do it. (Remember what a profound and lasting impact Kucinich for President had? Yeah.)

Reed would object that that sees activism only in relation to the Democratic party, which is true. It's not the only kind of movement-building, but it's a kind that works. Think about it this way: Mitch McConnell isn't scared of the National Right To Life Committee; he knows that if they think he isn't doing enough to outlaw abortion, there isn't much they're going to do about it. But over the last five years, he and every other national Republican have been absolutely terrified of the Tea Party. Why? Because the Tea Party has actually gotten Republican scalps.

Now the Tea Party is a unique case in the speed with which it accumulated power. But the principle of starting electorally at a low level still holds. The trouble is, the state rep race just isn't as glamorous as the presidential race. Andrew Sabl gives an excellent account of why that is. He was responding to Markos Moulitsas's argument that since Hillary Clinton is all but unbeatable, there's no point in getting behind some kind of challenge to her from the left, and instead liberals should accept that Clinton is going to be the 2016 presidential nominee and focus on getting strong progressives elected in down-ballot races. I've weighed in on the presidential primary question (short version: HRC might be beaten by somebody, but not by an ideological crusade), but Sabl hits the nail on the head:

… the larger problem, not unique to progressives, lies in the incentives and capabilities of presidential campaigns, in their systematic, structural (and rational) attempts to obscure the above lessons in the service of driving donations and turnout. National campaigns, through the best technology and psychology money can buy, persuade us that giving them our money and time means becoming part of something important. (True! But it’s a small part.) They portray the consequences of every election as more epic and final than they are likely to be. They encourage the Hollywood fantasy that the presidential speeches that inspire partisans have the potential to sway huge numbers of moderate, and inattentive, voters. They crowd out our background awareness of how much policy that really matters—regarding taxes, roads, public transportation, schools, colleges, policing and public safety, public health, Medicaid coverage, and now health exchanges—is set by states, counties, and cities, not primarily by the President, nor by Congress. And the media, desperate to attract mass readers and viewers whose attention is drawn to the excitement and pageantry of national campaigns, have an interest in reinforcing these distorted impressions.

Indeed. And like Sabl, I'll admit that I'm part of the problem—in 2016, I'm going to spend a lot more time writing about the presidential race than I will about anything else. But if you really want your activism to have impact, you have to set your sights lower, and be in it for the long haul. There's a not-very-old saying that Republicans fear their base, while Democrats hate theirs. If you're a liberal and you want to change that, the answer is to make high-ranking Democrats fear you. The reason they don't isn't that there haven't been enough left-wing populist presidential campaigns. It's that, unlike the right, the left hasn't taken over the grass roots and started climbing up the tree, hurling off those who displease them along the way until the people at the top look down and conclude they have no choice but to give the base at least part of what they want.

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