politics is to want something

mandag, februar 28, 2005

what kind of person reads hoverbike?

So, I am at that point in bloggerhood in which I obsessively monitor the demographics of my tiny readership. I am proud to say that the ISP that the largest number of readers use is not AOL or Verizon, but the Swedish Social Democratic Party. Pretty cool, yo.

Anyway, here's a breakdown, by country as of today. Right click and chose "View Image" to see details. For some reason, someone from the Islamic Republic of Iran has visited. Don't tell the gub'ment.

søndag, februar 27, 2005

(socialist) speculative fiction

Last night, I watched my all-time favorite film, the 1988 TV adaptation of Christopher Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup. It was probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen it, and it never ceases to both inspire and depress me. The film asks the simple question: what would happen if a socialist were elected Prime Minister of Britain? Not a mere tinkerer, mind you, but a best-of-all-possible-worlds democratic socialist who intended to fundamentally change the national and international power structure. Well, all hell breaks loose, of course, but in a bloodless, often very polite and “Very British” sort of way. The film sees the CIA, a right wing Media mogul and the permanent, conservative civil service establishment conspiring to bring down the government. It is a first-rate political thriller, probably my favorite film genre.

Four things intrigue me about this film, which now seems somewhat datedly Cold War in its politics. The first is that Harry Perkins, the fictional Labour Prime Minister around which the story revolves, is a wonderful spokesman for the ideas and values that are closest to my heart. Imagine Jed Bartlet as a third generation steelworker speaking simple, radical truths and promoting an agenda that includes worker participation and returning utilities and railways “to the people.” His one-liners alone make this a priceless film. When asked if he would abolish First Class on British trains, he replies: “No, we’re going to abolish Third Class. I think all Britons are First Class, don’t you?”

The second great thing about this film is that it is a reminder of what was lost in the Thatcher-Reagan revolution that shifted all politics so startlingly to the right. Perkins’ policies, a social compact with trade unions, beefing up the welfare state and pursuing unilateral nuclear disarmament were all official Labour Party policies in the 1980’s. Before Blair, Labour took the question of socialism, of real social transformation seriously. Of course there were problems with the heavily statist conception of socialism which gripped European social democracy at the time, but at least issues of justice and equality were on the table. Mainstream politicians spoke openly about addressing the system of privilege and powerlessness at its roots. Today, socialist politics of that sort is dead. We’ve all more or less conceded to Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative”. In 2005, social democracy is about doing good rather than bad, about helping rather than hurting. We’ve lost the overarching vision and long-term strategies which used to guide our politics. It’s a shame.

Thirdly, the film always gets my mind wondering about what a progressive American presidency would look like. The closest thing we have to such a flight of fantasy is NBC’s West Wing. Most of my lefty Democrat friends who are obsessed with that show (I include myself among them) confess that what draws them in is the make-believe world in which we are led by an intelligent, liberal president. However, while Bartlet is relatively liberal most of the time, but he’s not out to overturn the apple cart and so it’s not quite the same. Alarmingly, even that show, which is so careful to root it’s storylines in the real world sometimes seems like so much Hollywood unreality in today’s Arctic political climate. We probably wouldn’t believe a show that centered around a truly progressive president. It may be more believable in a British accent, since the UK has a socialist tradition which runs through the mainstream in a way that ours does not. But even if one were to translate it into American, and the show centered around a populist progressive, a Wellstone or a Kennedy say it would just seem…well, unbelievable.

Why? Perhaps its because there’s already been a coup in our country. A Very American Coup. After all, the same forces which lined up to take Harry Perkins down in last night’s movie have lined up to keep such a politician from ever emerging on a national level here in the United States. Our establishment got a little bruised back in the postwar era of sanity and good governance, but they’ve come back with a vengeance. Our crowd is a bit more corporate and a bit less Oxford than Britain’s, but in essence it’s the same type of folks doing the same type of things. Our highly concentrated media exoticizes and isolates progressive ideas, our economic power-brokers call the shots in the Capitol, money dictates who and what appears on the ballot, and we live in a state of perpetual war with a foreign enemy. All of this adds up to keeping real progress on disarmament, welfare, election reform, worker’s rights and corporate regulation out of the discussion. For any Democrat to make it out of the gates, she must declare herself docile on all those important questions. What makes this process so distinctly American is that it’s not done behind closed doors or over tea and biscuits. It’s all out in the open, with the willing and eager participation of millions. In the name of Freedom, we have clamped down on civil liberties. In the name of Equality, we have ceded policy-making to corporate boards. In the name of the American Dream, we have abandoned our commitment to the poor.

And this brings me to the final thing that I love about A Very British Coup. All the while the embattled Labour administration is being hit with cooked-up scandals and treasonous shenanigans, Perkins never wavers in his belief in democracy. “This is democracy, comrades” he quips, “ dictatorship is a lot faster, but too many people get shot.” Here in America, things are looking grim indeed, especially when it seems that at a sizable chunk of the population is more concerned with gay marriage than their children’s futures. However, the only way to really win, to really beat back the folks who have taken over our country and turned it inside-out, is by winning the people over. We may lose at this difficult venture, but it is our only hope. They can fool people and scare people, but they only bother to do so because they know that the will of the people is a powerful force. We can’t lose sight of that, of our fundamental commitment to democracy as both an ends and a means. We can’t give in to cynicism or arrogance about “those people in the red states.” They are, in fact, our only hope for taking this country back. As Harry Perkins says, “the will of the people is sacred.”

Labour in Trouble?

Just a few weeks ago, the UK election seemed all but settled. The Blair government had weathered accusations of manipulation and dishonesty in the lead up to the Iraq war, the Tories appeared incompetent and scattered, and the Liberal Democrats struggled to find a voice. However, an onslaught of anti-immigrant pandering from the Conservatives (and, in pure New Labour fashion, a bit of counter-pandering from the Blairites) has helped to narrow the margins in the polls.

Meanwhile, the cold war between Blair and rival Gordon Brown has heated up, and many party activists are calling Blair's personality a liability. They want to see a "stronger role" for Brown in the election campaign. Blair is seen as "too presidential", an attribute which is alienating married women and working class men, two key Labour demographics.

I would still predict a Labour victory, but it is conceivable that Blair will not last through another term. A Brown leadership could signal a slight move to the left, though it is doubtful that Britain's foreign policy will change dramatically. Slavishly defending American policies has been the political consensus in Britain since the Second World War, and dogged skepticism toward latching their fortunes to Europe will persist for some time.

If Blair steps down, however, it will lift the burden of loyalty from many cautious Labour MP's and activists, and we may hear more anti-war noise coming from the party's base. This can only be a good thing.

torsdag, februar 24, 2005

the hoverbike circuit

You probably didn't know this, but somewhere out there, tiny plastic men are engaged in a death-defying contest of skill and bravery. Underground Lego hoverbike racing is sweeping the microsphere, and has inspired a number of fansites.

mandag, februar 21, 2005

Goodbye Hunter S. Thompson, RIP

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it -- that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

Brother, Which Side Are You On?

I’ve been having a stimulating email exchange with my old friend Adam Berg, a talented political activist in Pennsylvania. When I first met Adam, about six years ago, he was a wunderkind environmental activist and Green leader. 2005 finds him a Chief of Staff (and campaign manager) for a newly elected Democratic Assembly member and an up-and-coming politico in the best sense of the word. Someday, I hope he’ll kick me down a job writing speeches or making coffee when I’m an unemployed PhD.

The crux of the exchange is this- what makes a progressive? This is a difficult question that forces us to consider our core principles, hard strategic choices and the always slippery issue of political “litmus tests.” In a political environment in which Democratic politicians can be on either side of such crucial questions as Choice and economic justice, how do we understand what it means to be one of the “good gals/guys”? Many strategists and theorists are arguing for “softening” our rhetoric on women’s rights, Affirmative Action and equality for lesbians and gays, while tacking to the left on economic questions. This, supposedly, will help us reconnect with working-class whites and some blacks and latinos. On the other hand, in a place like Santa Barbara, the entire political establishment is pro-Choice, pro-Gay, strongly environmentalist, but often downright nasty when it comes to trade, unions, taxes or brown people. Are these our choices?

Adam suggests that “it’s not even about changing our position on abortion or GLBT rights. It’s about attitude, emphasis, etc. Our national Party’s attitude is -if you’re Southern, or from the Midwest, or pro-life, or pro-gun, you’re stupid and backwards.- People can tell that that’s our attitude. ”

There is probably a lot of truth to this. It is certainly true that Republicans have done a good job of painting Democrats as elitist, coastal, cosmopolitan and “out of touch” with middle America. No doubt we have helped this effort along ourselves. There is indeed much elitism in Blue culture.

On the other hand, the tension between coast and country is not just merely a cultural misunderstanding. The Republicans captured the South by speaking to legitimate feelings of being ignored or snubbed by Northern elites, but also by appealing to a fundamentally racist worldview. Many Democratic Party leaders at the time called for moderation on Civil Rights issues in order to keep Southern loyalty. They were wrong.

Choice, gay marriage and Affirmative Action are all civil rights issues. How far backward do we bend on civil rights in order not to offend or alienate voters? I say we do not bend an inch. Instead, we should increase our aggressiveness on issues that matter to cultural conservatives, framing that boldness as a counter-attack against the corruption and incompetence of Corporate America. I’m fine with replacing stuffy Brahmins with plain-talking Midwesterners when it comes to candidates, but making the Party safe for anti-Choicers who are good on union issues will not do anything in the long run.

And so, what makes a progressive, in my humble opinion, is someone who is willing to bring it. Someone who is willing to talk to white people about why racism hurts them; who is willing to speak, whether as a Christian, Jew or atheist, about the importance of secularism. A progressive is someone who understands that a majority which relies on the occasional support of people who are not really with us is nothing more than a house of cards. There will always be a Republican party ready to reach in and topple it by appealing to the sentiments we were afraid to really challenge. If a majority of Americans believes that George Bush shares their values, we need to change the values of America.

At the same time, we need to bring the wrath of God down on those soft middle class liberals who are all fine and dandy on choice and equality at the alter but who balk at truly redressing the crippling economic inequalities which hurt black, brown and white working families. We must fight on both fronts, difficult as that may be. Only that kind of courage will allow us to build the 30-40% base that shares our values and vision across the board: a base which will allow us not only to win elections but to govern effectively and creatively from the left.


søndag, februar 20, 2005

I'm not really a Freudian, but...

Time to lower expectations...and get to work.

I am simply ecstatic about the election of Howard Dean as DNC Chairman. As I have written earlier, I believe that he is not only the best of the bunch offered up, but also a singular hope for a renewal of our Party. However, I have a heartfelt piece of advice for everyone who shares my excitement about the good doctor: lower your expectations, and get your ass to work.

Those of us on the Party’s left, who see in Dean a revival of principles-led politics from the Democrats must be sober and honest about what Dean’s victory does, and doesn’t mean. Overcoming the field of candidates and shoring up support from State and local party organizations and leaders was a remarkable feat for someone who had just been famously blown out of the water in the primaries. This achievement demonstrates that there is overwhelming support, at all levels of the party, for a reinvestment in grassroots activism. It also means that Democrats want to see a party that goes on the offensive and is willing to consistently critique the Administration.

However, the election does not, in itself, constitute a shift to the left. It would be a colossal mistake to think so. Dean is now the leader of a party which runs the gamut from anti-choice old South patriarchs to Coastal latte-loving enviros. It’s organized factions include the arch compromisers of the DLC, a winnowed but still vital labor movement, beltway feminists, New Economy capitalists and an emerging generation of talented Latino politicians. He will have to appease all of them, and that’s no easy task. At the same time, he must figure out how to cut into the Republican base, attract white working class voters back to the fold, re-inspire black and Latino loyalty and raise large boatloads of money. In doing all this, he is likely to let us down more than once. Already, he has made noises that sound like softening up on choice a bit.

I believe that the party can only regain government by moving decisively to the left. Only boldness of word and an aggressive reframing of the events of the world will allow us to beat back the Republican slide. However, even if in his heart of hearts Dean agrees, he will only be able to deliver on the above vision of the party if we make it possible for him to do so.

Certainly, this is a Chairman who will listen to the Left. But if he wants to keep his job and deliver on some of his promises, he will have to listen to our opponents within the party as well. And if we want him to keep his job and keep his ear, we have to raise our own volume, organize on the ground and work to shift political discourse. These are all efforts that the new Chair is likely to be supportive of, but a leader is only as effective as the movement he champions.

Let’s get to work.