Sunday, April 20, 2008

Radical Divergence

A short note before launching into the full post. Thank you for all the great comments on part one of looking at radicalism in the current campaign. The joke about Libertarians being Republicans who have sex and do drugs made me snort coffee out my nose - good one. Please remember that the last post and the current one are coming from a political theory perspective and do not address most of the concerns raised in the comments, at least not directly. I will have things to say about those topics another day.


Why am I so concerned about the way "radical" and "far left liberal" are being used in the blogs? First, I'm kind of pedantic when it comes to political definitions. These things mean something to me in a way they might not to ordinary readers. They have histories, they refer to specific modes of thought and action, and they are intended to have analytic power. More importantly, as I ended the last post, these labels have been used maliciously against Democrats by the Right in an attempt to distract voters from the core policies and actions of the party, measures that are far more harmful to Republican power than some upper-class idiot with too much time on his hands pretending he's a "revolutionary" and killing people. It matters that we use language correctly and understand the various radical modes of action on the Left so that we can be effective radicals ourselves. In the current political environment, to promote humane, egalitarian and moderate policies is to be radical.

I'm going to return to some of the themes I have written about in past posts. The 2008 campaign has illuminated the class divisions within the Democratic Party in a way we haven't seen since the early part of the 20th century. Part of that is because the class divisions have been obscured by events - the Great Depression which threatened all but the very upper class, WWII which unified the nation against real threats, the Cold War with its incredible rise in standard of living, the Civil Rights movement which made the party take on race, Vietnam with its focus on the war, and then the Reagan/Bush I years of jingoism, ending the Cold War and agitation over the "culture wars". I think we can also argue, along the lines of Mark Schmitt, that the Democratic Party has been undergoing an almost century long redefinition of itself away from its Southern roots and into something antithetical to where it began. In the doing, the Democrats have ended up with two major modes of political action and identity, distinct from what the party was before the New Deal realignment, strands I have identified as Truman strand and the Stevenson strand, named after their post-New Deal exemplars. The organization of the party is far more complicated than this, I readily admit, but my goal is to provide ways of thinking about the party and American liberalism that break away from the demonization of the Right. Refinement of the categories will be needed.

The Truman strand is the inheritor of the old Jacksonian tradition in the party, for good and ill. The Stevenson strand is of more recent vintage, owing its origin to the progressives of the early century. The majority of the liberal bloggers (note, not everyone who claims to be liberal is) fall firmly within the Stevensonian strand, myself included. Most of the current party leadership and the "respectable" punditocracy also can be placed there. Whatever fantasies of radicalism the Blogger Boyz may ascribe to themselves, the Stevensonians are technocrats, not radicals. The technocratic mode is the antithesis of radicalism, having its roots in the battle against machine politics and introduction of "clean government" based on abstract and rational principles of governance. Progressivism in its original form was the tool of society matrons and the growing professional middle class to do a variety of social work - enforce laws, make public figures accountable, assimilate the waves of immigrants from Europe, establish sanitary conditions in urban areas, establish social justice and generally protect their position in the socio-economic order. It came out of utilitarianism in great part and embraced a shitload of crackpot "science" along the way.

In California, where it was very effective, it lives on to this day in the fact that many California cities have "non-partisan" governments, which simply means you can't figure out who the Republicans are, as they are all in stealth mode. Progressivism has been instrumental in preserving Republican power in the Golden state. But I digress...

The progressives were transformed into Stevensonians through the New Deal, when FDR melded the emerging social science academics with a professional bureaucratic cadre to run the new bureaus and departments, and to invent new things for the government to do and for the Democratic Party to run. This is what I mean by institutionalization. This mode of liberal politics has become the most effective developing a rational welfare state because its natural environment (if you will) is modern bureaucracy. We're talking wonkitude of major proportions. A weakness of this mode, however, which I have also blogged about before, is the aversion to blunt political contestation, resulting in a willingness to relinquish popular politics and electoral battlegrounds in favor of dominating the crafting of policy and legislation and of appeal to the courts. It is a retreat into formal expert knowledge as the proper arbiter of political affairs.

At its best, this mode of politics provides a determined support for rule of law, supports social equality and justice regardless of particularity, and defends against corrupt consolidation of power. At its worst, it devolves into class elitism, condemnation of particularity, and rejection of the equality of the mass of citizens. "Why do we even try to help these people? They don't know what's good for them!

The Truman strand is more varied than the Stevenson strand for the simple reason that there are fewer barriers to entry. You do not need to be an intellectual. You don’t need the equivalent of a college education, believe in the scientific method or rationality, or aspire to a white collar professional lifestyle. You can be Rocky. Until Bill Clinton and the final exit of the Dixiecrats, this strand lived in tension between the new “Best and Brightest” faction which rapidly gained dominance in the party, and the old line, revanchist Dixiecrats. Those two factions warred for the support and votes of the Truman strand. While the Dixiecrats were rejected, the current campaign to me indicates that the Stevensonians do not have a lock on this group, either. (Note - I realize I’m drawing a bright line between factions that is more like a shifting tidal line.)

This group is the result of the influx of ethnic urban working class and poor into the party, with Al Smith, a man without even a high school education, their first urban presidential candidate. It is important to note that Smith was an early voice in the Democratic Party decrying Southern racism. The Truman wing relied on the foundation of political machines, from Huey Long to Tammany Hall. It was the bailiwick of machine politicians and union bosses, but has increasingly lost an independent leadership cadre as the leadership assimilates into the Stevensonian group. Nancy Pelosi is an example of this. She comes from one of the most well known urban political machine families of the 20th century, the D’Alesandros of Baltimore, and is now completely within the inside the beltway DC elite. I don’t offer this as a criticism of Pelosi, but as an example of the transformation of the party leadership itself to be able to maintain the New Deal form of government. Since Al Smith, there have been three Truman strand presidents: Truman, LBJ and Bill Clinton. (In answer to an earlier comment question, I honestly don’t know how to classify Jimmy Carter. A lack in the modeling, obviously.) With Bill Clinton the argument can be made that he belongs equally to both strands, however much the Stevensonians reject him as one of them.

The old party machines were porous. They needed numbers to provide votes to maintain power. They needed the younger newcomers to fill posts and heel the wards to keep the votes coming, and that’s how new people entered the system. Harry Truman was a product of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City, Missouri, for example. To maintain power, you couldn’t be too picky about whose votes you collected. They were usually incredibly corrupt and, ironically enough, were usually the target of progressive ire. And then FDR welded them at the hip to the inheritors of the progressives.

So, there is an older tradition in the party, one that had already been significantly modified by amalgamating Appalachian Jacksonians with the ethnic urban machines, rejecting tidewater Southern influence (Note – Much of my categorization of Anglo populations comes from Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer) which almost immediately is thrust into tension with the newly minted intelligentsia of the New Deal. The Stevensonians present the old progressive argument – our way is better because it is rational, smarter, experimental, efficient, uplifting, rules-based - and add to it the cry of the credentialed - we run it better because of our expertise. Think of someone in the 1990s who knows a business inside and out, who comes into the office one day to find a computer on his desk and a geek standing by to teach him how to use it.

Thanks for the history lesson, but where in all of this is radicalism? For the most part, outside of the party proper, though different expressions of radicalism are associated with the two major strands within the party. With the Stevensonian base, there is the home of intellectual radicalism. This is what the Right wants everyone to think of as paradigmatic of the Left, even as it has never been particularly effective. It tends to be limited to think tanks, graduate seminars and bloviating bloggers (Me! Me!), but it is also where you find reprobates like William Ayers, who tried to justify his terrorism and murders with intellectual clap-trap. Outraging bourgeois sensibilities for fun and profit, and never mind the bodies we leave behind. I would dump losers like Ward Churchill into this bucket as well, who imagine that crude anti-Americanism and ham fisted “analysis” of imperialism justifies praising the butchery of thousands in the World Trade Center. These are people external to the political system for the most part, who are able to attain standing in certain enclaves where other Left intellectuals romanticize what they hear and imagine themselves to be cool radical outlaws because of the putrid company they keep. These moral midgets provide the Right with a very effective club to use against the Left.

There is a different kind of radicalism that tends to find greater expression within the Truman strand, but which, because it shares the porous quality of that mode of political participation, is fully open to all parts of the Left. This radicalism comes primarily out of labor unions and civil rights, though it also finds a home in peace and environmental activism, and it is performed by people from every part of the Left. This radicalism is not conducted within the heads of people who are already quite comfortably situated in society, but is done on the street to transform the institutional structure of the polity itself. This radicalism is what actually terrifies the Right and is the kind that can result in a fundamental modification to the society as such. It does not happen very often and its goals are usually both modest and profound. To be paid what you are worth. To be judged by the content of your character. To have the same civil protections that a white/male/straight/rich person enjoys. To have food, shelter and care commensurate with leading a dignified life. This radicalism is a challenge to entrenched privilege and will result in a reallocation of power and social goods.

The success or failure of Democratic radicalism depends critically upon the efforts of the Truman strand of the party. The genteel reformists have no skin in the game, so to speak, and can take or leave these fundamental claims for a later time. I don’t think it is a mistake that it was Truman and LBJ who forced the country to move decisively towards ending segregation. I do not think the participation in and tolerance of misogyny from the “educated class” this electoral round is a mistake either, noticeable among women of that class as much as among the men. I may be disgusted but I am not surprised by the willingness of the “progressive” blogosphere to push things as fundamental as universal health insurance and Social Security off to the side in favor of gushing over cool ironic detachment and the ability to make sly cultural references.

It’s easy to denounce the entire corrupt US government, or to declare you are not a part of the great unwashed, but belong to an archipelago. It does not require courage. One needs nothing but an ego, a distorted view of your own self-importance, and an internet connection for that form of radicalism. It is not very radical, nor does it really make you part of Left politics.

True radicalism is the courage to say “No, I’m sitting here,” on a bus ride, not knowing if this might mean your death. And that courage is the heart and soul of Left politics.

Equality has always been the most radical thought in politics.



lost clown said...

Hell Yeah!

I recently did a post on my lj (much like over at shakesville) about how Obama is not progresive since it just drives me crazy. A friend of mine is only an Obama supporter because he believes that if BO got elected and (as would be bound to happen) failed to live up to any of his promises of change it would radicalize people (to which I continually try to convince him that just the opposite will happen.

He asked me why I was such an adamant Hillary supporter since I have not voted Democrat since '92. (For a short history I am a delegate for the Industrial Workers of the World, in semi-retirement Earth First!er (all about peaceful protest in case people don't know), and "radical" feminist.) The things you stated: Social Security, Universal Healthcare, not to mention being the ONLY candidate who has pledged to do away with NCLB, getting Plan B over the counter (with my senator Patty Murray!), and the Prevention First Act to name a few.

Since when does the left turns it back on SSI, healthcare and education? I may always vote 3rd party, but I have always voted in non-swing states and I do realise that these are supposed to be the people who represent what is dear to me. Bull. I will be voting Hillary no matter what, but I am really ruing the fact that we do not have a parlimentary system right now.

Chinaberry Turtle said...

whoda thunk it? "Do right by ladies" and "exercise compassion for poor working folk trying to get by" - two mundane mantras I've always tried to live by. I never thought just trying to build an ordinary life around these two principles could ever involve anything "radical." But it certainly feels so with this current primary.

Thanks for the zoology. I never knew what kind of political animal I was exactly.

You know Anglachel, your post reminds me of a movie I saw a long time ago: "Rambling Rose" (1991). Robert Duval played this wonderful fatherly character named "Daddy Hilyer".

I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone, but the climax involves a situation in which Duval is faced with a stark choice: (a) remain in league with traditional male thought and sanction a course of action that would devastate a young lady, or (b) do right by the young lady (and his wife) despite the social embarrassment involved. I don't want to say what the choice involved (and give away the movie), but suffice it to say my money is on 95% of the Blogger Boyz choosing option (a).

I remember being blown away by the movie, and part of the reason is because Duval's choice, at that climax of the movie, was so radical. The word "feminist" was never used in the movie, and Duval's character certainly would never have called himself a feminist, but his choice was nevertheless a radical feminist choice.

To me, that's what being "radical" is really about: making everyday unnoticed choices in real life. Hard choices that involve self-sacrifice, that cut against the grain of conventional thought, that are not rewarded w/ any pats on the back by peers, but are nevertheless the right thing to do b/c it involves goodness and decency toward others.

Maybe I read your post all wrong Anglachel, but it just really seems like this kind of understated, muted radicalism is part of the Truman strand you describe. Don't talk about it - just do it and live it.

But of course, somebody has got to talk about it or else there's no politics. It all just goes round and round ...

CMike said...

Chinaberry Turtle,

That's one of my favorite movies. However, I think you're misremembering who the movie's hero is.

Maybe a couple people can rent it and we'll have a poll to settle the question.

jacilyn said...

It’s easy to denounce the entire corrupt US government, or to declare you are not a part of the great unwashed, but belong to an archipelago.

And therefore whatever America has done wrong is not your fault. You are not responsible. You are the victim, not the perpetrator.

I think that is more important than people recognize, because part of the appeal of the left wing is this sense of being somehow liberated from the guilt you wish to bestow upon your neighbor. The whole point of saying 'America sucks!' is the back of the T-shirt, which says "...but don't blame ME"

What you call Stevensonian Democrats have got to learn to accept more responsibility. Their attitude is totally unsustainable. If everyone in America wore a t-shirt that said "don't blame ME" - well, who IS an American, if the affluent white guys who most benefit from the system aren't? And now they seem to be using this "I am the one fixing America, not the one responsible for the past" as an excuse to behave badly.

What you call Truman Democrats have been the ones everyone else dumps their identity politics on. The liberal elite is only elite because the Trumans are less-elite (the ones you are smarter than).

The analogy I use is the kid who comes in with a degree in management and starts telling the old timers how the machines work. There's no appreciation for different areas of expertise or even that knowledge that isn't "book learning" even qualifies as knowledge.

(My father would use the analogy of the officer and the enlisted man, guess which one he was hahaha)

The Truman Dems do not denounce America, so that makes them the Americans who are to blame when "America" is revealed to have mistreated this or that other group.

The shaming seems particularly unfair when you consider that, at least where I'm from, demographically speaking, we are largely a bunch of people who got here late, and aren't the powerful who make the decisions. But we believe in responsibility in a way Stevensonians don't seem to 'get' (or care about), so if you are going to come to America you take the bad with the good. Lefty anti-Americanism does not make anyone any less guilty for whatever crimes America has committed - not when you take what America gives you and prosper.

Obama is all about blame. It's like 98% of who he is. And people think that is a lefty trait.

And the Truman Dems are not represented anywhere - certainly not in the media - so when they complain, nobody listens. But IMO that is why Clinton keeps winning after we're told she's lost.

I see this election as a long-overdue reckoning between two incompatible belief systems, let's say Teddy Kennedy (the old bad philosophy that isn't sustainable) vs. Bill Clinton (embraced the best of the 1970s liberalism but threw out the unsustainable stuff and made it 'work', made it real-world practical).

To let the Stevenson wing drive out the Truman wing would be about like letting Robert E. Lee lose Stonewall Jackson on his way to Gettysburg - I don't care how idealistic you are, if you don't have someone practical to keep you from charging up the wrong hill, you're going to be in trouble.

Sorry if this is too long :/ your posts are always thought-provoking.

Shainzona said...

"True radicalism is the courage to say 'No, I’m sitting here,' on a bus ride, not knowing if this might mean your death. And that courage is the heart and soul of Left politics."

I feel as if I am sitting here on a bus ride not knowing where I might end up but knowing that after this primary season, I will be looking for like-minded fellow travelers to continue this ride.

My support for HRC has turned me into a radical. And if she doesn't win there will be hell to pay - some way...somewhere...somehow!

Teresa said...

Imagine if Obama wins this election. Will we have created the Libertarian, sexist, hate-filled monster?

Chinaberry Turtle said...

CMike - no doubt. But Duval's character was always special to me b/c he's an archetypal good father & husband. He had the humility to say that he was wrong about an extremely important matter, and that the strong woman in the room (Mother) was right.

Anonymous said...

Very well said, Anglachel. And, very encouraging. As a lifelong Democrat who comes from a long line of Democrats, a Tejana, a political science teacher, and an activist for over 20 years, I am amazed at many Hillary supporters who feel that there is an air of "inevitability" to BO winning the nomination. Who said so? The activist in me says this -- have courage to organize and mobilize NOW. WE will decide what is inevitable -- NOT the Big Media who takes its talking points from BO's campaign, who takes their talking points from the Republican smear machine. The voters in PA and the other remaining states along with FL and MI will decide who is the inevitable one. Have the courage to organize and mobilze ESPECIALLY if FL and MI are purposefully disenfranchised. We can NOT allow OUR Party to be hijacked by naive college kids, elitist dilettantes, duped A/As, Republican-leaning Independents, and Obamacans.
We must continue doing what all true, blue Progressives would do -- fight, never give up, fight for justice. Hillary can NOT be left to fend for herself. As a Latina, who has marched in Cesar Chavez marches, I strongly believe that the only inevitability is what we make it to be. Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups have not gone to Obama en masse for a reason. He has NOT and can NOT close the deal with the traditional Democrats. His base is comprised of unorthodox Democrats who more than likely will not return to our Party after he is defeated. I truly feel like this is an invasion from without, and a corruption from within by these invaders.

The Obamabots are currently in training at an Organizing Internship which concludes in June along with Moveon. I know that they will be out there in record numbers with training and knowledge under their belts. I come from the same activist background as Obama; i.e., Sal Alinsky. That means, deliberate, highly-organized, orchestrated resistance.

The time has come, the call is clear, we must
ORGANIZE AND MOBILIZE NOW. We must take back our Party. I believe that Bloggers such as Anglachel can serve a pivotal role in this movement, this effort.

The call to action is NOW!

Chinaberry Turtle said...

wow - go ginamc!

Hey ginamc, this question might sound rhetorical, but it's not. I'm in a state that has already voted. What do you suggest? I mean, I'm donating $ to the campaign, but what exactly does "organize" mean for folks the primary has already passed by?

I don't want to miss out on something I could be doing but am not.

AdrienneJ said...

Reading your post made me think along the lines of a different dichotomy: mind and heart. (or I suppose mind and body--but I don't want to get all Plato, or anything--so I'll stick with mind and heart.) The Stevensonians would be mind, the Trumans heart.
I believe the two can merge, should merge for the health of the party, and in the metaphor, for the health of the being.

For example, after 911 there were many reactions. By far the most prevalent was anger (and the usual pattern of emotional states that occur after a loss). People of heart were nearly crushed by the experience. They felt powerless, victimized, and then came the anger. People of the mind (and please excuse the rigidness of the categories--I know nothing about this is that simple)thought something else. We thought (for I had these thoughts. Although I also had many of the emotional responses- although I didn't have as much anger) why is everyone so outraged? We have been bombing people, overthrowing governments, torturing people, etc. for ever.
Why are we so outraged now at this terrorism here when we have been guilty of it ourselves? And this line of thought is what Rev.
(I'm really fucking crazy) Wright glommed onto. In the pure abstract, we have tit-for-tat. However, when one joins the mind and the heart-- I believe one develops compassion. As in, yes
we've done some hideous acts; but, yes, this was a hideous act as well. And all the people who have suffered such acts have suffered injustice. And the outcome of that when you combine mind and heart is that you feel compassion.
So I think that when the mind of Stevensonian democrats and the heart of Truman democrats meets, we will have a true democratic party. We will have a party of compassion. And that will be radical.

AdrienneJ said...

Just a quick footnote to my post.
I don't in anyway mean to diminish the loss, grief and horror of 911. I was just seeking an example wherein there was a split among people's reactions.
Frankly, I still feel sick about 9ll. Didn't mean to sound in any way callous about that event.

Cathy said...

Fascinating analysis. As someone who traipsed through the left, it's nice to have a different road-map. I went for the most "radical" approach possible but never fit in with my comrades or colleagues due to what I realized even then were class differences. I did my brief time and moved away to adopt a more reformist approach.

But it has taken this election to shake me up and send me back further into my roots. Over the last several years I have followed what you astutely called the Stevenson approach. I have used law to make people's lives if not better at least tolerable.

I will continue this necessary work but I'm struck by the limitations of it. Law provides a formalism - not unlike the Obamabots approach to rulz - that covers up a multitude of sins. At a certain part you need to step away from it and remember to fight for policies that make better laws.

What stuck in my most in the campaign is comments made a longtime ago by Humphrey on Dukais. (It's not exact because my brain is full today but here goes: "guys like him don't care if you end up with shit as long as it was clean going in -- whereas I don't care if it looks like shit going in if it comes out clean in the end."

Obviously Hillary doesn't fit the ward healer image seemingly praised by Humphrey. But she does present pragmatic approach that knows how to use the best of everyone.

Cathy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

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.

Greenconsciousness said...

Well well well I guess we will have to call the new 3rd party the Radical Center Democrats because your definition comming from the civil rights and unions - on the street making change is how I used to define radical but now define as Center.

My disgust with what I call the left and the right is for their lack of decency and their contempt for the people,their basic needs, and the organizations they built to represent these needs. Bread AND Roses.

I think that is why feminism was a radical movement and may be again once it frees itself from the way the left has redefined it.

I don't get the Steve/ Truman divide though because both types made the settlement houses and all the reforms. The teachers and the taught changed roles often. The true differences of thought and methods of actions between radicals and leftists is deeper and you got at it here.

"There is a different kind of radicalism that tends to find greater expression within the Truman strand, but which, because it shares the porous quality of that mode of political participation, is fully open to all parts of the Left. This radicalism comes primarily out of labor unions and civil rights, though it also finds a home in peace and environmental activism, and it is performed by people from every part of the Left. This radicalism is not conducted within the heads of people who are already quite comfortably situated in society, but is done on the street to transform the institutional structure of the polity itself. This radicalism is what actually terrifies the Right and is the kind that can result in a fundamental modification to the society as such. It does not happen very often and its goals are usually both modest and profound. To be paid what you are worth. To be judged by the content of your character. To have the same civil protections that a white/male/straight/rich person enjoys. To have food, shelter and care commensurate with leading a dignified life. This radicalism is a challenge to entrenched privilege and will result in a reallocation of power and social goods. "

Anonymous said...

chinaberry turtle -- I'm sorry that I'm just getting to your question! For those of us who have already voted, Organize and mobilize and network with each other for practical actions/demonostration/protests. Currently, I am a member of the Hillary Clinton Forum. It is a very active Forum that serves as a Network for comraderie and action.

Please stop by, we have many Protest events posted:

Greenconsciousness said...


I know it is sick to make these corrections like this but I can't stand it.