Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where Can I Piss?

As should be obvious to my regular readers, I'm an institutionalist. This goes directly back to my readings of Hannah Arendt and her analysis of political power. One of her lessons, one generally overlooked or underestimated, was about the purpose of institutions in government. Her discussion of two-sided nature of institutions - to act as a barrier against erosion of rights and protections and to be like a scaffold or a trellis to which power, an ephemeral quality of people acting in concert, could cling and thereby be preserved - tended to be dismissed in seminars as old school and an apologia for government authoritarian tendencies. Didn't she understand that power was in the street, in the movement, in the moment?

Oddly enough, the critics overlooked her agreement with them about sources of power - where else can it come from save "the street" (or in her terms, the public realm) because that is where you encounter unique yet equal others with whom the business of the polity is conducted? - and miss that she is answering the question "What do we do now?" once power has been generated and action is underway. My fellow students were often too caught up in their own struggles against institutions (restrictive family, crappy job, college administration, etc.) to appreciate the function of the structure in the domain of human affairs.

Sean Wilentz's no-nonsense analysis of Obama's political impotence, Live By the Movement, Die By the Movement - Obama’s doomed theory of politics, has led to several evening's worth of discussion between me and the Spousal Unit on the problem of movement style politics, the role of parties, creating and destroying institutions, effecting political change and whose turn it was to empty the dish washer. Both of us agreed that Wilentz had put his finger on the central problem of the Obama movement in this paragraph (my emphasis):
As further developed through a labyrinthine analysis that drew on social psychology, brain chemistry, and human transaction theory, Ganz’s model posited that the root of the “values” problem was essentially emotional. “Values are not just concepts, they’re feelings,” Ganz explained knowingly. “That’s what dropped out of Democratic politics sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s.” Thus, the Obama campaign presented itself as a social movement that was more sentimental than political, pushing gauzy “values,” like “hope” and “change,” while leaving policy concerns to the wonks. Yet the successful movements of the past had more than values; they had specific goals. The civil rights movement’s eyes were on the prizes of desegregation and voting rights. Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, where Ganz learned so much about political organizing, also had its emotive side—summed up in its slogan, “Si, Se Puede,” which the Obama campaign directly appropriated in translation, “Yes, We Can”—but it also had in mind the recognition of organized fieldhands and the negotiation of fair contracts involving wages. The point of the Obama campaign-as-movement was conceived differently: exciting people with the thrill of empowerment, and collective self-empowerment, by electing to the White House a community organizer who believed in “hope” and “change.” Why electing Obama was imperative required no explanation among the faithful; it was enough to get the spirit, share the spirit, and revel in the candidate’s essence, which, by definition, no other candidate possessed. The leader was the program.
I would add a third movement to this list, one that liberals don't like to discuss but which also proves the point, namely the Movement Conservatives' "Reagan Revolution". That it stands in direct opposition to Civil Rights and unionization does not make it less illustrative. In each case, there is an impassioned following dedicated to achieving the objectives articulated by the leaders of the movement. Action is coordinated, power grows, goals are achieved, and then the goals are institutionalized so that they remain in force.

Spousal Unit commented that the Wilentz article reminded him of something his own professor, John Schaar,  said in response to a student's question about why the Civil Rights movement's use of very lofty ideology wasn't a liability. Schaar responded it was because the high-minded rhetoric was always joined to very concrete aims like "where can I piss, you know?" Civil Rights mattered not because of the concept that all men are created equal, but because equality is enacted or denied in the most mundane circumstances, such as being able to relieve yourself in a private and sanitary manner, or order some eggs and toast when you are hungry, or sit on the first available seat on the bus, or have a sip of water from the cooler on this floor, not the one in the basement. The right to vote is, ultimately, the right to piss where everyone else does.

But how do you make bathrooms available to everyone? You have to institutionalize the normalcy of taking a piss. It's not something exceptional, it's not special treatment, it's not a zero sum game where my gain is always and automatically your loss. It's just about ordinary human affairs - you eat, you eliminate. To normalize a particular activity or condition means that it is institutionalized. Institutionalization is the proper goal of a political movement. To be institutionalized, however, is to place something within the bounds of debate about its institutionalization, and this is the point where movement activists start getting their knickers in a twist over politics. As Wilentz says of Ganz, an Obama adviser,
Ganz’s projection of the Obama presidency gained its prestige from the hallowed memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movements, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes. He posed it against the threadbare, craven horse-trading and maneuvering of parties and all previous presidential politics, which Ganz believes were “practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.” The Obama experiment, a movement that arose from the grassroots apart from the Democratic Party, would usher in a purer moral and more effective leadership to the White House. Obama would not merely alter government policy but also transform the very sum and substance of the political system.
Here, oddly enough, is where certain elements of the political right and left have a point of congruence - they both hate the restrictions that institutions place upon them. Jacobins and Authoritarians alike do not want to be held accountable to the dirty, compromised, slow, horse-trading of political interests, though for different reasons. The boundaries set by institutional rules prevent the exercise of arbitrary power, or at least will complicate its efforts, which is anathema to authoritarian regimes. On the left, the resistance is because institutions become rule-bound, and procedures and deals can dilute or prevent pure outcomes. With the fervent support of people like Ganz, Obama became "Obama", an unsustainable fantasy because the dream was crafted in opposition to ordinary, institutional politics, something I described two and half years ago:
[The fantasy leader] knows he wants what is right and true and good, and he will be above all the dirt and filth of the government machine and will pass good laws and The People will hail their modern Solon. It is a compelling fantasy, that of the good philosopher king who will be above “mere politics” and will bring justice and order from the mire merely by pronouncing the law. Every significant election, from local mayor to President, has at least one of these types running, sometimes several. A good liberal democrat knows this is nonsense.
Obama was not running against Washington, which is simply elections as usual. He was running against politics as such. My writings during the campaign are borne out by the Wilentz analysis afterwards:
According to Ganz’s theory and practice of the Obama movement, policies and politics were slighted in favor of feelings and values. Supposedly, these emotive spurs would bind participants in a new activist community, devoted to the collective good and not personal gratification, and dedicated to advancing the uniquely inspiring political leader who had sprung from the reliable ranks of community organizing, and not from the precincts of compromised “transactional” politics.
Rather than go into a critique of the Obama campaign methods, I wish to step back and point to this impulse as something not unique to his campaign, but is an endemic problem with the progressive mind set as such, and something that is implicated in, if not indeed significantly responsible for, the inability of the Left to maintain power. The movement impulse, unattached to immediate material needs, like having to relieve one's bladder while retaining one's dignity, focuses on the the personal made abstract. A leader is pure, not effective, right, not tenacious, absolute, not practical. The leader makes you feel proud, noble, even historic. You don't care about the specifics of the leader's plan because what matters is the righteousness of the overall goal. It ratifies your particular flavor of moralism and brushes away the "But what about..?" details that do not fit with the dream of perfection.

The contempt for "transactional" politics is key to this movement mindset. A transaction is something tainted. It means a compromise has been reached, which means purity is gone. In its obsession with keeping the vision intact and the disgust, sometimes becoming violent rejection, of the offending deal, it resembles nothing so much as an honor killing, where the compromised (female, feminized, weak, inferior) body must be eradicated to repudiate the adulteration. The question that an institutionalist will ask about a political transaction is what is the exchange? To the movement mindset, the question cannot be asked because how can you compromise on truth?

The analogous extreme in an institutionalist would be where everything is fungible, to the point where the act of exchange, in and of itself, is the good in question - let's make a deal at any cost. I would say at this point you are no longer talking about political institutions - which are rule sets backed by law and usually an expensive bit of real estate - but rather about political process - which is a procedure for performing acts in a standard manner. An institution's rules declare what counts as an allowable transaction, such as whether you are allowed to deny me use of the inside ladies room with running water and can send me into the alley to piss in a gutter. A process that won't take anything off the table also undermines institutions because they may allow rule changes that make it OK for you to order me out in the alley to pee, or red line my neighborhood, or refuse me entry to a school, or allow me to be paid less than minimum wage.

The great irony of Obama, of course, is that he ran as a movement head and has performed as the ultimate process man, placing the mode of transaction, bipartisanship, as the goal of political exchange. Without having made a promise to anyone to do anything in particular, he has been left with nothing he particularly wants to do. Unfortunately, Washington rewards those who come prepared with to-do lists, as Wilentz notes:
Obama in office upheld the community organizers’ post-partisan credo, trying to bring together opposing forces and finding common ground, in part under the pressure of the organizer’s own reasonableness. But that was not how it worked in Washington during the past two years; nor had it worked that way for 20 years. A ruthless and right-wing Republican Party spurned talk of common ground as a sign of weakness, and did everything it could to ensure that Obama’s presidency would fail. But oblivious to the long-standing internal dynamics of the Republican Party, Obama continued to vaunt his brand of “post-partisanship.”
There ain't no "post" to major league partisan politics. Even the post-war settlement in the 50s and early 60s when everyone pretended to get along was the era of McCarthy, the Red Scare, witch hunts and the rise of Movement Conservatism. Obama, the alpha and omega of his own transitory movement, is getting steamrolled by an actual movement with very specific goals and completely ensconced in the institutions it has been warping to serve its interests since Reagan took office. In this case, it is pretty much irrelevant whether you consider him to be a naif or a knave - the outcome is identical.

Transactional politics, like it or not kids, is how political settlements are done. If you are unwilling to maneuver for position, you are going to get cut out of the deal. As I put it before:
To be a liberal democrat ... is to be someone who deals constructively with ambiguous situations, where the task at hand is not to chose between right and wrong, but to act within the formal institutions, evaluate competing legitimate claims for social goods (rights, entitlements, benefits, protections), and distribute these goods in a defensible, equitable way. When the institutions have either failed or are no longer adequate to evaluate claims, the institutions and laws are restructured. This may happen any where from a local school board to the Constitution.

The vulnerability of a liberal democracy lies in the fact that it must take the claims of all citizens into account. While not everything is allowable (such as chattel slavery), what remains is not always recognizable as liberal, or even very democratic. Even claims that are reasonable are not necessarily harmonious with other legitimate claims, and the resulting contest and compromise are givens. Moreover, what is politically necessary may not be morally perfect. There are limits to the exercise of morality in the public sphere, which is what Machiavelli meant when he said that we must learn how not to be good. It was not a call to lawlessness, but to its opposite, to strict adherence to the needs of the mundane world, embodied in the law of the land, vs. the other-worldly claims of religion.
Transactional politics offends those who only want transformational politics, the political equivalent of the zipless fuck, that we should get what we want simply by the sheer awesomeness of our ideas. "We can have our political triumph by braining really hard and not have to exchange vital essences with the hoi polloi." Again, this is nothing unique to Obama or his campaign, but the man and the movement are almost pure examples of the worst kind of movement politics it is possible to have, especially given an institutionally embedded opposition who has done this move one better. We can really see the failures of this mode taken to its extreme and functioning on its own. In the transformational model, I don't get the right to piss where everyone else does because my need to relieve myself never enters the conversation at all. I just have to hold it until someone finally hands me a paper cup and directs me to the stairwell.

But lets not be romantics. Transactional politics are dangerous precisely because they can betray, dilute or lose sight of the vision that a political movement brings into existence. To be institutionalized is to be made status quo, and things that have been settled don't like to be moved. Things that have been "settled" before include human slavery and incomplete citizenship for women. The movement's fear of betrayal by the status quo institution is not unfounded. However, without the political acts to institutionalize the power created by the movement, its objectives will not outlive the transformational moment. Both are a necessary part of liberal democracy because institutions ossify, become obsolete, or are captured by oppositional forces. The key, again, is that the movement - in its exuberance and irresistible moment of madness - must provide something that can be acted upon and built into an institution to safely house and defend it against dissolution.

Wilentz goes into the true relationship between movement and institution, transformational and transactional politics in some detail. Here is an extended quote, all emphasis mine:
But is the social movement model adequate to democratic governing, especially as the basis of a presidency?

Fundamental to the social movement model is a conception of American political history in which movements, and not presidents, are the true instigators for change. Presidents are merely reactive. They are not the main protagonists. ... Supposedly, all of our progressive presidents have been preternaturally cautious, self-interested men who originated nothing themselves. Only forceful pressure from outside movements led them to undertake the audacious efforts for which history has wrongly given them credit. Hence, Abraham Lincoln would never have become the Great Emancipator had the abolitionists not pushed him to do so. Hence, pressure from the radical left and organized labor forced FDR into launching the New Deal. ...

The movement advocates’ idea of change coming from below, of course, is simplistic. It also blinds its followers to the true problems of democratic politics. No one doubts, for example, that the abolitionists were important and some courageous. But Abraham Lincoln did not have to be awoken to the evils of slavery; he hated slavery all his life. Years before he became president, he declared his expectation and hope that, one day, the nation would be entirely rid of human bondage. And had the consummate party man Lincoln—derided by the more radical abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips as a hack and worse, “the slave hound of Illinois”—not helped to form the first explicitly anti-slavery political party in world history; had his democratic election to the presidency not provoked Southern secession; and had he not managed a careful balancing of military and political exigencies, over the furious objection of the more fractious anti-slavery forces, that led to the Emancipation Proclamation, the abolitionists’ agitation would have remained at the margins of American politics. Indeed, in preparing the way for emancipation, Lincoln manipulated the Left of his day far more than he was manipulated, distancing himself from them publicly, while crushing the slaveholders’ rebellion and, finally, issuing the proclamation that spelled slavery’s doom. So it has gone, from the Civil War era through the end of the twentieth century, as presidents who understood the subtleties and intricacies of constitutional government as well as the art of the possible, achieve what social movements can only demand. ...

Even according to the social movement model, movements push reluctant leaders who are skilled in the intricacies of lawmaking, especially the president. How was this supposed to work when the chief executive was the movement leader, though vastly inexperienced in the ways of the White House, let alone of the hazards of Washington? Where was the crafty president who needed to be pushed, the president who would know how and when to use a movement to his advantage?

After his rocky first two years brought on the Republican tidal wave of 1994, President Clinton, with no illusions about “post-partisanship,” entered a state of day-to-day political trench warfare, co-opting Republican rhetoric about family values to give them Democratic content, winning targeted but crucial legislation on matter such as health care, and risking political capital by endorsing welfare reform that the left wing of his own party lambasted—dogmatically and short-sightedly, it turned out—as the death-knell of liberal reform.
A transactional politician knows how to make shit happen, which battles to fight, and how to set up opponents for defeat three or four jumps down the game tree. Great transactional politicians, those who become historic figures, do so with a visionary political purpose in mind, know exactly how, where, and why I need to piss, and understand in as deep and transformational way as any movement participant why it matters that I don't get sent out into the alley but may, without hesitation or interference, go to the ladies lavatory and urinate in sanitary peace.

And this is the false dichotomy that Ganz and movement adherents try to create - that the understanding, compassion and commitment is only on the side of the movement members and do not make up any part of the crafty politician who turns the movement goals into the law of the land. In fact, the example of Obama is the opposite, that the movement may not have anything worth institutionalizing, and that the fervor of the adherents bears an inverse relationship to the value of the social good being delivered. It makes outrageous claims, like Lincoln being a "slave hound", or FDR being forced to enact financial reform, or that LBJ did not care about ending segregation. These were all men who understood the difficulties of taking a piss. Each of them gave their entire lives over to achieving their political goals. Can anyone honestly say that Obama is in their league, let alone that his "movement" bears the slightest resemblance to the world historic transformations wrought by any one of these presidents?

Wilentz ends with this:
Presidential oratory about beliefs was an important part of the mix—recall Clinton’s effective speech on government and patriotic values following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995—but the grind of political infighting and compromise must always have priority. It could well be that Obama’s survival as an effective political force for the next two years and his prospect for reelection—and any viable future for social movements—will require engaging cleverly and doggedly in what his movement theorists derided as “status quo” politics.
Precisely what the movement adherents most desire, to slip the bonds of status quo politics, is the most certain way to render their movement irrelevant. The battle to properly institutionalize a movement goal, for example having health care for all on the model of Medicare instead of some hodgepodge of tepid ideas and bones thrown to the insurance companies, or declaring that Social Security is not in trouble and will not be on the table instead of allowing it to be nibbled to death by ducks, or that the banks need to be reformed and their criminal management brought to trial instead of handing them bags of cash, or declaring that there will be a stimulus package big enough to jump start the economy instead of preaching fiscal austerity and allowing unemployment to rise, is what a president is supposed to do. That is her job, not to be Organizer in Chief. It is the person who puts the Party in "partisan" and who understand the difference between me wanting to feel righteous and me being denied the right to piss in the same place as other citizens.

In the end, it is the person who can understand the visions, dreams and goals articulated by her constituents and make them concrete in a way that actually satisfies their material needs as citizens.



Koshem Bos said...

Wilentz's article was quite impressive; it's way better than the regular crap you find in this type of articles in the media.

I do not know what makes a phenomenon into a movement, but I have difficulty seeing Obama's short lives excitement as anything resembling the civil right movement or the Reagan revolution.

All it was is a semi hysterical behavior of upper class people, including their student kids. This fired up people had no an idea nor a goal but rather by the endless arrogance of a mediocre person, Obama, and the simplistic thinking of his hired organizer, Ganz.

Therefore, the transformational was by definition an empty move and coming to power just what would expect from an unorganized and unfocused team and their leader. After all, how do institutionalize nothing?

StephenAG said...

As I said elsewhere, people want actions and solutions. They don't care about some progressive purity test. When actions bring about concrete benefits in their lives politicians get reelected and good things like The New Deal and the Great Society get institutionalized.

Getting good things institutionalized takes an awful amount of work. Not pithy sayings and word salads. Politics is transactional. It's the art of the deal. Does anyone care that the ADA and the ADA Amendments of 2008 were both signed by George Bushes in 1990 and 2008. Does anyone care that Nixon signed the Clean Air Act and implemented the EPA? All that people care about is that it got done and their lives are better for it.

The Obama movement had no concrete policy goals and did not/does not believe in the power of government to do good for all of its citizens. Movement conservatives have long had policy goals and never believed in the power of government to do good. Period. So, guess who wins out.

And, by the way, this is not a Clinton problem, people.

Anonymous said...

Good post. I like the idea about gifted transactional politicians accomplishing liberal ends by getting their hands dirty, achieving tangible results, and institutionalizing them. The party could do with some talented pols like FDR and LBJ who enacted a lot of the social safety net in this country that has endured for decades, but they didn't do it by virtue of their shining moral example - they wheeled and dealed. There are so many opportunities for that kind of pol today - bringing the banks to heel, keeping people in their homes, a jobs guarantee, a health care program that people could actually afford and would want to buy (rather than be forced to). It takes a village, but it also takes a leader.