Monday, April 21, 2008

Radical Politics

As always, my thanks to the commenters who take my ideas in new and fascinating directions.

I realized that I had not made two points in yesterday's post, one about the strengths and weaknesses of the Truman strand as I had for the Stevensonians, and another about the needs of truly radical Democratic politics.

At its best, the Truman tradition respects the lives and choices of the common man, it measures a person's worth by the good that they do, values the common good and common sense, and insists that the proper role of government to enable her citizens to flourish without regard to station. At its worst, it is parochial and suspicious of outsiders, takes pride in ignorance of the world or the life of the mind, substitutes tradition for law, and uses the government to skim wealth and punish enemies.

The Stevensonian focus is on the structures and institutions that treat all men equally, regardless of origin. The Truman focus is on the texture of individual lives and the particularity that distinguishes us, sometimes to the detriment of the universality of law.

Truly radical Democratic politics requires both of these political modes to succeed, using each in measure to rein in the less commendable qualities of the other and to enable the power of both approaches to be marshalled for the benefit of the nation and the citizens. The men and women who provide the hands-on activism cannot make their victories persist without powerful institutions and entrenched, rational, defensible rules to resist anti-Democratic efforts to overturn these advances. This is another reason why the stereotypical image if "Lefty radical" does the Left disservice because is seeks disruption without alternatives and destruction without substance to go in its place. You can't just declare a people "free". You must also be willing to replace the previous oppression with something that will prevent its return. The easiest thing in the world to do is destroy. Just look at George W Bush, Ayers on a monumental scale, acting out his oedipal frustrations with Poppy on the entire world.

The reason why the Truman strand is the more fruitful for strengthening Democratic goals is not because it has some corner on morality or public virtue. Hardly. The quality that makes it fertile ground for something like the New Deal is because you can't keep anyone out who is willing to lend a hand. Will Roger's joke about not belonging to an organized political party, but to the Democrats, lovingly pokes fun at the dynamic chaos powering the operation, something that can sweep up just about anyone and put them to work - just like the WPA. When that power is channeled to do what is both legally defensible and politically right, it is a juggernaut. It has no interest in being exclusive. The antithesis of democrat is snob.

To riff on themes and claims from earlier comments, while Libertarianism is corrosive, it is not radical. There is little radical in yelling "Mine! Mine! Mine!" It has more in common with fantasies about survival of the fittest, but it can only occur in well regulated societies where complex institutions allow the deluded practitioner to believe he is some Ayn Randian hero as he drives down the right side of the public road, tunes in to public airwaves, drinks clean water from the municipal water system, turns on his stereo built in another country and made available due to complex trade treaties, massive investments in transportation and markets, and purchased using a common currancy, all powered by electric current off the utilities grid. It is parasitic and vanishes the moment there is real turmoil. It is, however, a convenient ideology for people in the upper income brackets to claim to try to avoid public obligations.

Radical is the Movement Conservatives who seek to reestablish blatent class rule, using the nation to serve the interests of a small oligarchic class. Liberatarians are too lazy to be that organized. My deep concern about Obama is not that he is some kind of stealth conservative or libertarian, but that he does not possess a sense of or dedication to true Democratic radicalism. I never get the impression that this politician is there to bring about anything substantive. In contrast, Hillary and Bill both insist that you must make the world a better place, you must have improved the lives of the people you serve.

For all of his elbow rubbing with people of questionable political beliefs, there is no evidence that Obama has been moved to a political (as opposed to a personal) cause. When Garry Wills had the temerity to compare Obama's speech about his pastor to Lincoln's address on slavery at the Cooper Union, I rolled my eyes and said, "So where's the beef?" Lincoln dedicated his entire political career to first containing and then eradicating slavery. It was his obsession, his driving passion, the goal for which he literally gave his life. What is it, exactly, that Sen. Obama would do with the power of the Presidency? I dare anyone to identify anything he will pursue that will transform the face of the nation.

The claim I am making is different than "he's just in it for the ego", and of greater import to the party and the country. Someone can have a towering ego, my dear old Big Dog heading the list, and yet have a purpose that makes something of that drive. Can anyone doubt that FDR was one self-centered bastard? But he had the political bug, that fascination with making the system work, of bringing about the impossible because you have been charged with enacting the public good and it is to that you will dedicate your soul and fortunes. Even evil old Tricky Dick was able to drag himself out his sewer of resentment and paranoia every so often and do things that were jaw droppingly audacious, like going to China.

One of Obama's speeches is revealing on this count. At a commemoration of the Selma March (I think, I'm not 100% on the specific event), he gave a speech on the Joshua Generation, of which he counted himself. It was a good speech and the only one I know of where he actually presented his view of Democratic politics as such. The parallel was between the era of MLK and Civil Rights (Moses) and our own times (Joshua), and how there remained some tasks for us, but that the great struggles and drama, the trials and dreadful passage, these were done and past and we merely inherited a fundamentally complete legacy. To us is left the role of epigone, the reduced follower of greater forbearers. The idea that the struggles of the mid-century were precursors of a longer fight, or that we had not so much a leagacy as a foundation on which to build, or perhaps that the works of giants like MLK and LBJ should stand as challenge to us, as they had been challenged by the works of FDR, to attempt even greater acts of Democratic radicalism, was not in evidence.

And this ties back to some of my original claims in Radical Chic. Obama obviously enjoys the cachet of hanging out with the "bad guys" and seeming tougher, angrier, cooler, more edgy than he really is. While I had originally described him as a left-centrist, I'm not sure there is enough presence of a political spark to earn him even that much credit as having made a deliberate political choice. I am struck by him as an accidental Democrat, one for whom it is convenient and comfortable to cruise along with the others in the pack, someone who at a policy meeting would say "Oh, and me too," to whatever the chief wonk had devised. The details don't matter because that's just not what makes him tick. You get the sense with Hillary that she really does read dense policy papers for the intrinsic fascination of this or that topic, swiftly followed by the question, "And how does this affect my country?"

Along with the porous, inclusive nature of theTruman mind-set, there is also another facet that makes radical Democrats what they are - the sense that a wrong must be righted, a failing must be corrected, an obligation must be met. This, I think, comes as strongly from the Stevensonian side, with its long roots back through progressivism into the bedrock of American political thought and motivation, the drive of those damn Yankees dumping tea in the harbor, as from the Jacksonian demands of honor brought in through the Truman faction. It is imperative that the Democrats do right by the public.

There is no imperative to Obama's politics.

Anglachel

18 comments:

gendergappers said...

For the 4th time MSNBC chuckleheads responded to a comment about a BO/HRC with, who will be his food taster? This followed by loud laughter. Of course this was sexist. It is never said when a HRC/BO ticket is suggested.

Here's a way to get an idea of how the vote is going tomorrow. Since media gets the exit poll trend results long before they are allowed to release them, just note how the pundits/reporters are acting. If BO is doing well, they are buoyant and cracking jokes; if HRC leads they are grim and any joking is at a minimum. A truly good indicator of media bias.

Pat Johnson said...

The perfect way of measuring the outcome.

cutepeachpanda said...

gendergappers: Another thing that has totally pissed me off is all of these "progressive" organizations and white men coming to Obama's defense (like he's a f-ing child) because of the ABC debate. Did you read chucklehead Michael Moore's endorsement of Obama? I've had to unsubscribe from so many listservs: Michael Moore, MoveOn, DNC, Democrats.com, WorkingAssets...there are probably more but I can't remember anymore. I used to subscribe to all of them but not anymore. Not a single one came to Clinton's defense or challenged the misogyny on MSNBC but ABC asks Obama relevant questions and the "claws come out" from these assholes. It's amazing how accepted sexism is but Clinton can't even mention the name Farrakhan or Jesse Jackson without being accused of racism and dirty politics. Unbelievable. Also unbelievable is how Obama is never questioned which is why the ABC debate is illegitimate to the Obamabots. Progressives in particular project themselves onto his blank page. There is nothing about him that is radical but I guess many of them just assume that he is because he has friends like Ayers and he gave one anti-war speech. Why are these people so gullible?
Wanna bet that Clinton's PA win like every other win she's had in a relevant blue or swing state will be seen as illegitimate? She isn't given credit from these people for anything that she does. But Obama wins a caucus or a red state? BIG NEWS. I am so sick of these people. Another reason why I won't vote for Obama if he's the nominee even if Clinton begs us to.

Pat Johnson said...

Agreed. As I have stated before, how she gets out of bed every morning to face another onslaught of chauvinism is to her credit. I couldn't do it. Very few female talking heads have ever stood up for her on any of these cable shows. You would think, even if you were not a supporter, that a woman would pipe up just once and say, "hey guys, enough of this sexism. I too am female and I seriously do not appreciate those insinuations". But let his side perceive that somehow he has been wounded the pack mentality takes over and they are out there screaming how their boy is getting a bum rap. Sexism will long outlive racism in this country.

DownriverDem said...

We just need a win in November. If we can't win with Obama then is this going to end up like Nixon v McGovern? (McGovern only won 1 state)
No one talks about race, but where I live too many white men have said they will not vote for Obama. They know change is coming to our country, but they view this race as the last stand white men can make to keep white power. If this election comes down to white men, then sad to say we will be looking at a President McCain. Yuck.

sam said...

(note: I posted most of this in response to your previous post. I have included it here because it may be even more relevant. I have also added a little bit, specific to this post, at the end.)


Thought provoking. Thank you for writing.

So, here goes. I got here from a link by Lambert, and I'm glad to find you. I'll be back for sure. However, i have a few questions.

First of all, I do not understand how Hillary fits into the Jackson/Truman strand of the Democratic party. She was on the other side of the barricades from Paul Wellstone in Seattle, at least figuratively speaking. Now, I understand that it is a radical notion to insist that women's rights are universal human rights, and to stand forward and mean to follow through with a commitment to that. I do not debate Hil's cred in this area (I was raised to be a feminist man, and my mom, sister and grandma were the only -so far as I know- three generaion set representing the US in Beijing in '95). But I'm not talking about that.

It seems to me that Hillary, in all her mastery of the breadth and depth of policy, is far more in the Stevensonian technocratic mold. When has she set herself outside of the system? Again, I will grantthat her policy positions may be the ones that a union organizer in the 30's would recognize, but have her tactics or her strategy been in this mold? I very much don't think so.

Obama, on the other hand, has the tactics and the strategy -- building a movement based on new entrants to the political process and appealing to a hodgepodge (what you call not being able to be picky about who your supporters are) of various elements in society that may not agree with each other in the final analysis -- but not so much the policies. His proposals, such as they are, are very incrementalist and raional.

So where are we? Well, as useful as these models are, i often think that we must build them only to not rely upon them. Hillary and Obama seem to each have a "half and half" approach, but with opposing halves of the different traditions. Their policies do not "agree" with their tactics and strategies. Interestingly enough, this may be what has given each of their campaigns the stregth that they have had.

Also, I think that no matter who wins, it will remain to us in the great unwashed masses of citizen activists to keep them honest and to combat the tendency of centers of power to serve the status quo.

In specific regards to this post, I dispute your claim that Obama has no imperative. he sees himself as a healer. He did not time as a community organizer on the South Side because it's such a clear road to higher office. I mean, come on. I will grant that Obama's approach to policy is to try to make gains without being too disruptive -- much in the same way that activists in the 60's used the word "liberal" as an insult. But to say that he does not care enough?

To be clear: I do not disagree about the sexism of the establishment(s). I do not disagree that the policy proposals are dangerously thin, and not in any apparent way relevant to the "texture of people's daily lives" (which is a great phrase, and perfect for this discussion), but please admit that simply by being a black man taking the oath of office he is placing his life very much at risk.

To the question, "for what does he stand?" I think his premise is that his symbolism is wildly healing. I don't think it's that simple and I'm not an Obamaniac. I like to call him "Anodyne Obama," and I don't mean it in an entirely nice way. I'm cynical about all this bullshit. But I try to represent things from others' points of view -- it makes for much more substantial discussion.

Alice said...

Since they aren’t counting Fl and MI, To balance that disenfranchisement out, why don’t we not count 2 other states of equal delegate votes that Obama won. That way the current states that are being punished won’t feel so bad and the 2 new states who will be disenfranchised won’t really care or won’t care enough to bother in the general election. Do you think they would mind? Instead of Hillary taking the hit, we will make the hit even. Of coarse did Obama even win two states as big as FL and MI???

cutepeachpanda said...

sam: I obviously disagree with you. I don't see Obama as a healer and I really don't give a shit if he sees himself as one because he is incredibly arrogant and I wouldn't be surprised if he sees himself as "the Chosen One" destined to be the first black president, even if it means buying this election with his millions and stealing the nomination by disenfranchising MI and FL. I am going to suspect that you are an Obama supporter because no Hillary supporter I know would agree with you.

Please tell me what he accomplished as a community organizer in Chicago when he wasn't hanging out with slum lord Rezko. In fact, there was a LA Times article that reported on how his fellow organizers say he took too much credit for his community organizing efforts. There is really no point in arguing about this because obviously Obamabots will block out any negative coverage on this issue.

I also don't believe his symbolism is "wildly healing". More like it's wildly scary and divisive. The thugs I find among the Blogger Boyz and the young college-aged Obamabots should make anyone who hasn't drunk the kool-aid take note and question whether this is the kind of change our country needs.

We welcome you here but you should know that 99% of us are strong Clinton supporters and that means we see very little good in Obama's run for president.

Pat Johnson said...

Sam, I appreciate your attempts to be both fair and balanced in your assessments. Much food for thought there. However, one point I have yet to have answered to my satisfaction and that is this: when Rezko took the grant monies with the purpose of rehabbing the low income properties, then did nothing, where was Obama? Did he ask any questions? Did he demand an audit? He was the rep for that district, one of the poorest in the city. Where was his outrage that the monies were not being put to use? We can assume that he did nothing since his relationship with Rezko continued up to the time that he purchased his own property and Rezko was even invited to do a walk through at the time of purchase. Without even hinting that this may be a conflict of interest, just where was this candidate's conscience when it came to serving his constituency? This is a big problem for me. If he was unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo of politics as usual in Chicago how does he expect us to trust him in any other area of service. I have yet to hear this addressed. It goes to character.

gendergappers said...

Cutepeachpanda - absolutely! And that is why we must make sure to write in Hillary Rodham Clinton if it comes to BO and DNC stealing the nomination. We must NOT let them frame our demands for a fair fight as vote for McC. And at every chance we must bring up FL and MI which are won by HRC.

If, as Howie says, their delegates will be seated at convention, then by the gods and the force, the majority of them must be HRC's.

Shainzona said...

gendergappers....I think it is critical to get Howie to define "seated".

One definition I have heard is that the Fla and MI delegates can go to Denver and play with the Boyz and vote on rule changes but NOT vote for the nominee. So they will have seats...just not at THE table.

Another definition I have heard is that the decision to seat them will be made after the nominee has been selected (e.g., when HRC withdraws from the race) and then, of course, Fla and Mi delegates can be seated...because they will then be voting for Obama.

I don't trust 'em.

It depends on what the definition of seated is - and these "folks" have a terrible track record on honesty and transparency.

Just saying.....

Pat Johnson said...

Does anyone really trust Howard Dean and Donna Brazile to do the right thing? Their love for all things Obama outweighs any other consideration. If it gets to that level in Denver, I would want Hillary to graciously walk away to avert a bloodbath. They want him, they've got him but he won't win. The right, regardless of the weakness of McCain, and don't forget he will have a vp running by that time, will gorge his bull. All they need is the fake patriotism they pull out each election and Obama may want to pull out the Kleenex. The GOP just won't let it happen. Hillary is the strongest candidate to take on McBush but the DNC is willing to brush her aside.

Chinaberry Turtle said...

sam:

"In specific regards to this post, I dispute your claim that Obama has no imperative."

OK. So tell us what his big domestic agenda will be during the crucial first 90 days of his presidency. For Hillary, we know it's health care. What's Obama actually gonna do?

"please admit that simply by being a black man taking the oath of office he is placing his life very much at risk."

More at risk than Hillary is for being a woman taking the oath of office? Nobody is showing up at Obama rallies saying "shine my shoes boy." Not much race based hatred toward Obama has bubbled up yet. But there's been plenty of gender based hatred shown toward Hillary. I think the most anyone can say is that they're both breaking barriers and both would be at the same risk, so Obama gets no "life at risk" points over Hillary.

"To the question, "for what does he stand?" I think his premise is that his symbolism is wildly healing."

You don't understand - we're bored of, and completely uninterested in, "healing symbolism." We want the stuff the symbolism is supposed to stand for, not the symbolism itself. Hillary delivers the goods rather than the symbols for the goods.

sam said...

All, thank you for your kind welcome. Understand, I am not going to answer for Obama, I am just trying to work through the model for a better understanding of who each candidate is and why they are wining, because I think that the real battles will happen after the election when we need to organize to push the system in the right direction.

However, I can't help but think that my assessment of Obama's candidacy (as opposed to policies) is the one more in keeping with the Truman/Jackson lineage of activist poilitics is only bolstered by his origins in the corrupt Chicago political machine.

The problem is that it doesn't matter where a politician is from or how they got elected. Once they are seated, access is restricted to those already powerful enough to be near the top of the power pyramids in Washington.

This is why I don't trust Obama to stay true to his activist roots any more than I would trust Hillary to not stay true to her global-capitalist corporate roots.

Chinaberry Turtle said...

Obama's candidacy (as opposed to policies) is the one more in keeping with the Truman/Jackson lineage of activist poilitics

The problem is (gathering from Anglachel's analysis) that derision toward the 'lower classes' is completely antithetical to the Truman/Jackson lineage. Obama has continually shown derision towards the lower class, with the "bitter/cling-to" quote being only the most notorious. Thus, Obama is not of the Truman/Jackson vein.

Obama is clearly more comfortable being cast as a modern Kennedy who will usher in a new 'Camelot' for the 21st century. But that myth don't play well w/ us backwoods Truman/Jackson folk who judge men/women on their actions, not their mystique.

Again, all this political history stuff is new to me (never paid attn in high school), so maybe I've got it all wrong. But that seems to be my understanding of what's going on.

X. P. Callahan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CMike said...

Anglachel writes:
*************
To riff on themes and claims from earlier comments, while Libertarianism is corrosive, it is not radical. There is little radical in yelling "Mine! Mine! Mine!" It has more in common with fantasies about survival of the fittest, but it can only occur in well regulated societies where complex institutions allow the deluded practitioner to believe he is some Ayn Randian hero as he drives down the right side of the public road, tunes in to public airwaves, drinks clean water from the municipal water system, turns on his stereo built in another country and made available due to complex trade treaties, massive investments in transportation and markets, and purchased using a common currancy, all powered by electric current off the utilities grid. It is parasitic and vanishes the moment there is real turmoil. It is, however, a convenient ideology for people in the upper income brackets to claim to try to avoid public obligations.
*************

I've seen similar analysis which critiqued, specifically, Randian economics.

show me said...

Anglachel...thanks for the education in political history, it is very interesting and informative. I appreciate Sam's response because it is usually so hard for me to listen to an Obama supporter (I know Sam that you are not)make a case for him. Anglachel's premise:that Obama is an accidental Democrat really resonated with me.I think he saw it as the path of least resistence:he could benefit from history and he was aware that there is an elite group whose white guilt he could manipulate to his advantage.He met plenty of them on his academic path.I have always felt that his church membership,his community work, his ties to the Chicago academic elites in Hyde Park were all just means to an end.His political ascention. His interests seem to be international and he seems to think he has an instinct for it.I don't think he is all that interested in domestic policies and will palm that off on advisors. He now has a group including much of the press that are"true believers". Does any of this sound familar to anyone?I'm not suggesting that he is anything like GB but there are many similarities to their success with very thin credentials. Both represent huge risks for their parties and we can all see how that turned out for the republicans.