politics is to want something

tirsdag, januar 25, 2005

It's Gotta Be Dean

An exciting election is upon us. The media, an army of bloggers, scores of pundits and thousands of grassroots activists across the country are following the race closely. No, it’s not the Iraqi “election”. It’s not the upcoming Labor landslide in the UK. Rather, it’s the closed-door selection of the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. Now, I haven’t been around all that long, but I certainly have never heard of such a thing- national attention steeped upon the election of a generally quiet, behind-the-scenes political position. However, the reasons for such scrutiny should be pretty clear. The People’s Party has once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and the seeming triumph of “values” in November has left progressives wondering whether to cow-tow to the Fundamentalist set or try to recast our vision in a more moralistic vernacular.

More important than all of these factors, however, is the rock-star candidacy of Howard Dean. “Give ‘em hell Howard” has launched a deeply reformist bid for the party’s top spot, and I believe that it is a singularly perfect move. Dean was somewhat handicapped as a candidate (not quite charismatic enough, too lightweighty, etc), but his crusade to return the Democratic party to the fighting faith that allowed it to dominate politics from the 30’s to the 60’s rang powerfully true. Any good Democrat interested in building a strong party from the ground up, a party with deep principles and broad strategy, rather than simple election-to-election tactics, ought to rally to Dean’s side.

We need a party that exists in people’s everyday. We need a party that treats activists as assets and not embarrassments. We need a party willing to invest in long-term efforts to move public opinion and not just chase polls, triangulating ourselves into pyrrhic victories.

Dean alone represents that kind of sea change. That’s why I join the armchair politicos in wondering, sometimes aloud, what the frickin’ hell Joe Trippi is up to endorsing Simon Rosenberg. I had thought, I guess incorrectly, that Trippi was interested in creating a Democratic Party that stood for something. Now, it seems he has succumbed to the fetish of tactics. Check out this excerpt from his endorsement:

If our party is to win in the 21st century, we have to have a strategist who knows how to practice 21st century politics. That means expanding participation, embracing technology, and building an apparatus that can counter the Republican machine.

Simon Rosenberg was among the first in politics to acknowledge the power of the movement we built with Dean for America and he wasn't afraid to speak up about how we were fundamentally changing politics. He knows that in the age of the Internet, our politics must be interactive and participatory to engage citizens.

He knows the Internet is not just an ATM for candidates and parties, but a tool for bringing in millions of Americans who want to be a part of the political process. For Simon, building a new progressive politics for our time is not just lip service, it is a passion backed up by his record. I'm backing Simon for chair because I know I can work with him to help build a modern, winning Democratic party.

What, exactly, is this “new progressive politics”, beyond a great appreciation for the Internet? What about issues? Positions? Or, dare I use the dread word ideology? Rosenberg is a more-than-competent campaigner, as is Trippi. However, neither seem to be talking much about creating a party as clearly defined, ideologically brave and effective at dominating debate as the Republicans have crafted. I like that Rosenberg made ads in November talking about joining a “Democratic Movement”. Of course, these ads were in Spanish only. Points for taking the Latino vote seriously, but it all seems like so much “pandering” when taken alongside his constant advocacy of hugging the center divider when it comes to talking to white folks.

Contrast that with Dean’s advocacy of a total ban on corporate contributions for the Party. Before you Clintonistas spazz out into a fit of offended “realism”, consider the following line of reasoning:

The only way to unpack white working-class cultural affinity with the Republican Jihadists is to ratchet up the progressive economics. Corporations and banks play as well in the prairies as gay actors do. The Republicans use intolerance as wedge, and wedge issues work. We need to use an all-out attack on the new corporate mandarins. How can we do this while we accept millions in filthy lucre from pharmaceuticals, tobacco, biotech (small farmers, hello?) and telecom. Dean’s suggestion, which sounds scary, is the first step in rebuilding an economic populist base that many sociological indicators suggest could dwarf the libertarian/authoritarian house of cards constructed by the Post-Reagan Republican Party.

This is where Tom Frank is important, but flawed. He’s right that people are voting against their economic interests and even forgetting their concerns about the war in order to reassure their moral uneasiness. The response, however, is not only to reach out to the red states with a coherent, anti-corporate message. We also must find ways of advancing a socially progressive message in the heartland. Workers don’t vote Republican only because they are lured by authoritarian appeals. Years of Reaganite propaganda has also popularized the idea that small government is somehow beneficial to working people. The anti-government Right hasn’t made as much progress as it would like us to think. Social Security, expanded health care access and decent wages are still broadly popular. However, it doesn’t help that every time the Left proposes something it is killed dead by labeling it a “government program”. The task for the next decades is to make the same sort of progress in reframing the Right’s assault on equality and freedom represented by their “values” agenda. Such an effort is not going to turn the country around overnight. However, it will help to expand our durable but slim majority on choice and racial justice into a lasting one. These are the kinds of ideas Dean raised in his campaign by touting his ability and willingness to speak to white people about race, and his reframing of abortion as a question of public health.

Simply put, I don’t believe in Deanism without Dean. The tactics of internet organizing and consumer politics are just that, tactics. Without a real commitment to burning down the DLC (which Trippi used to say he was up to), our party will continue to languish. It won’t be a cakewalk for Howard. Very soon, he’s gotta get smarter about shoring up the party’s black and brown base. He's gotta work to revitalize the link between labor and the party (talk about not thinking of something as an ATM). He's gotta recruit and train brighter, stronger candidates. He's gotta lot to do.

But it's just gotta be him.

fredag, januar 21, 2005

"Where were you in November?"

Thursday, there was a demonstration and set of workshops at my university held by a coalition of progressive student organizations. The event, scheduled to coincide with the demonstrations in Washington, drew in folks from the College Democrats to Chicano/a organizations to the Environmental crowd. Sitting in the back, listening to the speeches, I spotted a young Democrat friend of mine. “I hate this shit,” she said under a cupped hand. “Where the hell were all these bastards in November. They didn’t do shit, and now they want to protest…” I tried to tell her that these “bastards” are worth trying to organize, that they mean well, that they will grow and learn that we need politics as well as puppets if we are going to do anything worthwhile. She wasn’t having any of it.

I must say that I sympathize with her. It is hard to take seriously the subset of radicals who were essentially AWOL from the largest grassroots mobilization the Left has seen in decades. Now we see them happily going to protest marches or holding ‘where to we go from here’ meetings. It is a good question she asks. Indeed, where were they in November?

Some of them were helping out, begrudgingly. In a recent wrap-up of the election in the Nation, Medea Benjamin, entrepreneurial Diva of California Green politics stated that it was an “enormous concession” for “progressives” to work to elect John Kerry. An enormous concession? Was it really that hard for her to not make the same colossal, arrogant destructive mistake she made in 2000 by campaigning for Ralph Nader? Does it really take so much difficult moral work to shut up and listen to the pleas of African American, labor, feminist, queer and environmental organizations all of whom said that the defeat of George Bush was worth fighting for? I’m sorry, but I just don’t see what’s so hard about that.

Others, however, simply sat it out. It is this crowd who so enflamed my young Democrat friend: those who couldn’t be bothered to work to elect Kerry because he wasn’t leftish enough, but have the time now to march or kvetch or handwring.

For some of these folks, it is an ideological posture. Elections are not important for their outcomes. Campaign are judged on whether they will help to create more radicals, or more radicals of their particular stripe.

I stand by what I said to my friend. We do need to reach out to young progressives and argue and struggle about these important questions. But, any progressive worthy of the name should think twice about striking so enlightened a pose that they theorize themselves out of the most important election of our lifetime.

tirsdag, januar 18, 2005

An Old Rebuttal to Anti-Americanism on the Left

There are no bad countries, only bad regimes and bad governments. Even in the most obnoxious or geopolitically dangerous state, the average citizen awakes in the morning to put on their clothes and conduct the business of their lives. This lesson is often forgotten in the heat of political posturing. When George W. Bush announces a crusade against the moment’s “Axis of Evil”, he renders invisible the aspirations and perspectives of millions of Iraqi, Iranian and North Korean people, wiping them away in one blinkered, rhetorical flourish. Iraqi women, Iranian reformers and peace activists across the Korean peninsula were instantly rendered invisible and irrelevant. The battle lines were drawn: Us vs. Them. This is the ethos of the War on Terrorism, whether articulated from Washington, Tel Aviv or Moscow. Palestinians, Chechens, even Muslims in general are rendered in thick, imprecise lines. As a result, the agendas of elites become cloaked in the legitimate desire for security and justice, and the very necessary fight against fundamentalist terror is weakened. The real enemy goes unnamed.

At its best, the Left at home and abroad is very effective at seeing past this “othering” tactic. Anti-war activists in the US covered telephone poles with pictures of average Iraqi citizens, and international movements like the People In Black attempted to cut through the din of war drums by expressing a cosmopolitan regard for human life. It is peculiar, though, that it is so difficult to apply this same sophistication to the United States or Israel. While justifications for “essentializing” the US and Israel run the gamut from academic to knee-jerk, the results all end up mirroring W’s own “Axis of Evil” formulation. Setting up the United States and Israel as monolithic enemies obscures the fact that enemies of those states are not necessarily friends of the Left. More crucially, forgetting that Israelis and Americans form dynamic and contradictory polities is a strategic dead-end.

Touchy White People

I know a lot of Touchy White People. Probably, you do, too. They are all over the place, in your school, on your block, at your Church, in the Supermarket buying milk. They are your friends and your coworkers. They teach your kids, they sell you comic books, they fix your computer. In California, especially, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Touchy White Person. It is important to remember that TWP’s are not the same as Angry White People. Those are the scary folks who think that white people are abused and discriminated against. Touchy White People just feel vaguely harassed, and judged unfairly simply because they are white. That’s a big difference. Unlike Angry White People, TWP’s don’t secretly hate nonwhite people. In fact, they think nonwhite people are great, even going out of their way sometimes to make friends with some of us. They would never support an organization or vote for a candidate who explicitly maligned nonwhite folks, though if you try to point out how their beliefs or actions implicitly hurt these people, they get upset and, well, touchy.

The last thing in the world that TWP’s want to be called is a racist. They hate the idea of it so much, in fact, that they don’t like it when you refer to them as even being white at all. They also get really upset if when you suggest that white people, even other white people, are racist. Amazingly, they will sometimes say that calling white people racist is itself racist. I’m serious. TWP’s are the reason that every movie about racism made in America has to include a few really good, non-racist white people. You can make a movie where all the black or brown people are criminals, but you can’t make a movie where all the white people are messed up racists. Can’t be done. Too many TWP’s. The only exceptions are Spike Lee movies. That’s what makes them controversial.

TWP’s have some favorite words. Their number one favorite is “generalizing”, as in “you can’t generalize and say that the Republican Party is racist.” Their number two favorite is “extreme”, as in, “I agree that there are problems, but its just extreme to say that all white people bear some responsibility to make things more equal.” They also like “irrational”, “hysterical” and the phrase, “now you are being just as bad as they are.”

I bet, right now, some TWP is reading this and thinking “now he’s being just as bad as they are.”

It seems that there are two different kinds of TWP. There are those who are touchy because they think there are a lot of big problems in America, but that they are doing everything they can to stop it. Usually, these types of TWPs aren’t actually doing anything to stop it, and that’s why black and brown people keep bothering them. The second kind of TWP thinks that “all that stuff is in the past”, and that people should just “get over it.” These folks like to remind you of all the great achievers from your community. They usually give you a little list. I always tell these folks that if they can name them all, there’s a problem. Anyway, this second group is just plain foolish, so I want to concentrate on the first one. They are the ones who use the words “generalizing”, “extreme” and “just as bad as they are” the most.

Let’s start with the “generalizing” thing. Touchy White White people love this one because it allows them to be the “super-anti-racist”. They get to defend themselves by making it seem as though they are defending the true ideals of equality and brotherhood. For them, being non-racist is about treating everyone as an individual. The problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes that everyone thinks this way. There are a lot of racist white people in America. They don’t wear hoods, have shaved heads,or salute the flag palm-up. They do, however, wear uniforms and murder black people. They do get together to keep brown people from moving in next door. They do draw red lines around entire neighborhoods to keep us from getting business loans. And, they do vote to cut taxes that they think will give money to black and brown people. There is a reason that the South left the Democratic Party when it became the party of integration. Strom Thurmond was not the exception. He was the rule.

Black and brown folks generalize because there is a general problem, and it’s a huge and important one in our daily lives.

Lastly, we are not just as bad as they are. We didn’t capture anyone or burn down anyone’s civilization. We don’t systematically exclude, exploit or vilify white people. Even if we wanted to, we don’t have the power to. If all the black people in the country hated white people, it wouldn’t change white people’s lives very much. As I said before, our generalizations are defensive strategy, not a tool to hold anybody down.

Sorry, did that last part scare you?

The basic thing to keep in mind is that a lot of black and brown people are angry. They are angry that their schools suck, that there are more of them in prison than in college, that they are poorer than white people, that their elections are stolen, that people keep saying that they are lazy. They are angry at each other for some of this, and they understand that some white people have it pretty bad. But they are still angry about racism. So when they hear that they are being irrational, or that they should just calm down, that makes them more angry. It’s just patronizing.

Ok, so I'm joining blogger society....three years too late

Here goes....