The Left and the Tea Party

Found this great article via littlegreenfootballs.com.

As the progressive wing of the Democratic Party threatened to derail the cromnibus in order stop further weakening of campaign finance and Wall Street regulations, it became fashionable in some circles to call Elizabeth Warren and her ilk the “Ted Cruz” or “Tea Party of the left.” This phrase and similar ones are usually said with a sneer, as if the danger and stupidity of a such a thing were obvious on its face.

But is it? The problem with the hyperconservative Tea Party wing of the Republican Party isn’t its tactics, but rather its policies. Washington establishment and cocktail party circuit types love to focus on process and tone rather than on policy. The Tea Party is bad, we’re supposed to believe, because they say mean things, or because they play hardball in their negotiating, or because they’re willing to engage in histrionics just to a make a point, or because they’re willing to primary longtime members for the sake of ideological purity.

Which is just to say there is a lot of room for liberals/progressives to maneuver. The Tea Party has been fairly successful electorally; their tactics have often borne out. They’re succeeded in replacing a lot of conservative politicians with extremely conservative politicians. So why can’t Democrats do the same? Shouldn’t we? Use the tactics of the Tea Party, but promote sane policies instead of conservative or pro-bank legislation.

The trick here is that Tea Party tactics rely on not only pre-existing anger, but also relies on the Republican Party having a strong “ground game.” There were scores of local candidates ready and willing to take up the mantle of being a Tea Party politician when the movement emerged.

I am less sure the Democrats have that kind of network in place, although I live in a red part of a red state so I can’t say for certain. And it is just as big a part of the puzzle as promoting good policy.

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Elizabeth Warren, Obama, personality cults

Senator Warren has been getting a lot of attention lately for opposing the CRomnibus budget bill due to its fairly outrageous Citigroup bailout. Moveon.org announced it is spending $1m in a bid to get Elizabeth Warren to run for President in 2016. Okay, fine. I would be very happy with a President Warren.

But this is endemic of Democrats’ weakness nationally. We can’t win state or local elections (in many cases) so maybe we settle for having a Democratic president if we’re lucky. We got clobbered in 2014. Fine, it was a bad year–everyone has them. Well, why are we weak locally? Why do Republicans control 23 more state legislatures than Democrats? “Well, there are a lot of conservatives in small states.” Okay, I get that. But where are our grassroots candidates? Where is the Democratic Tea Party? Is there one?

I’m not saying Democrats don’t have some passionate and engaged voters, or that the party leadership is totally incompetent, or that this is an insurmountable problem. But we need local leaders.

I’ve been following the DC Ferguson March today. From what I can tell, some of the protestors are pissed at how Al Sharpton organized this shindig. It’s very Democratic Party: everything is centralized, organized mainly from Washington. And that’s not inherently a bad thing.

But the leaders of the Ferguson movement may not be the same people as the current leadership in the Democratic Party. Shit, this isn’t even a Democratic Party issue, or shouldn’t be. Instead of trying to run things themselves, Democratic leadership needs to step back and think: “Why do we keep getting crushed? Maybe we need to let some other people run things, and see how they do.”

Is Hillary Clinton really the best candidate for 2016? Does she really represent the concerns and desires of most American voters? Or does her candidacy have a touch of inevitability about it because there just aren’t that many strong Dems?

The Democratic Party needs an injection of fresh blood into its leadership or it’s going to continue foundering. It needs local community involvement. If you’re a Republican and you care about your community, you can volunteer through your church or maybe the local Rotary Club or even local government. If you’re a Democrat and you live outside of a blue state, what do you do exactly? Donate to Planned Parenthood? Visit 350.org?

It’s not enough.

Ferguson protests and liberal leadership

I think Democrats need to look at the Ferguson protests as a great potential source of liberal leadership. We have people engaging locally. We have people organizing these protests: timing, location, logistics (who will get water bottles, or earplugs or eye protection). We have people emerging as possible leaders via social media, the most prominent being Deray McKesson (@deray on Twitter).

The Democrats don’t need more liberal bloggers. We don’t really need more journalists. We don’t even need many more Harvard lawyers. We need people who can direct peoples’ emotions about some of the horrible shit going on in the world into productive venues. We need people who can round up upset people and get them to protest, and register voters, and even maybe run for (gasp) local offices.

This is not to detract from the actual issue at hand–Black men getting arrested, incarcerated, shot at disproportionate rates. We need to change that. It’s going to be a long process. It’s going to involve a lot of different towns and a lot of different situations. It’s going to be a national issue that is changeable on a local level. But the Democratic Party would be foolish not to identify effective ralliers, spokespeople, and cat-herders, and figure out how to get them to effect change on a larger scale.

(Of course, the Republican Party is also welcome to recruit whatever future leaders emerge from Ferguson. I would welcome that. I just don’t see it happening.)

“Bowling Alone”, social capital, and a weak Democratic party

There’s a great article up on Slate by Jamelle Bouie about the weakness of Democrats nationally. The worst of it:

As Amy Walter notes for the Cook Political Report, Democrats lost big at all levels of government, including the states. “Today,” she writes, “about 55 percent of all state legislative seats in the country are held by Republicans. That’s the largest share of GOP state legislators since the 1920s.” What’s more, “just 11 states have an all Democratic-controlled legislature,” and Democrats hold single-party control in just seven states. By contrast, “Republicans have a legislative majority in 30 states, including the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina,” and single-party control in most of the South. [Italics mine.]

I’ve been trying to figure out what makes the Democratic Party struggle so much electorally. I read something in Bowling Alone tonight that made me think. The book, by Robert Putnam, is in general about declining civic engagement of Americans, and how we as citizens might rectify that.

The specific example that I saw was where Putnam compares the strategies of pro-life and pro-choice organizations, and he mentions that their tactics and base of support are fundamentally very different. Pro-life organizations have a local groundswell of church members and religious people they can rely on. They are able to therefore do things like staff “crisis pregnancy centers”, picket local Planned Parenthoods, etc. Pro-choice organizations aren’t as lucky–they tend to be heavily centralized, and most member involvement (in the book, estimated at 95-97%) tends to just be donations rather than say volunteering at your local women’s health center. The comparison mentioned is that of a pro-life “ground war” versus a pro-choice “air war.”

This looks to me a lot like Republican vs. Democratic electoral strategies. Republicans can pick leaders from their churches, local businesses, etc. to pursue party goals on a state or even national level. They have succeeded in packing local legislatures in 30 states at present. Even though (in my opinion) their platform is weaker than the Democrats’, they often have killer organization. Their voters tend to actually go vote. A significant part of this gap appears to be religion-based: local churches provide a great place to bond, make friends, talk about shared values, gain leadership experience, etc.

Democratic voters tend to be less religious, and this poses a practical problem. Where will we get our future leaders from? On a national level, Democrats appear to be content recruiting from the ranks of places like Harvard Law and other elite institutions. There is nothing wrong with this! But politics is local. Democrats need diversity in leadership. Democrats need options, so we’re not deciding whether or not to coronate a Clinton. We need a bigger “bench” for national leaders.

Obama got elected. Good. Gay marriage is legalizing. Great. This is progress. But is it producing enough local leadership? Can the Democratic Party launch a strong “ground war”? I would argue based on recent election results that the answer right now is no. And we are paying a heavy cost:

[T]here are more costs to Democratic weakness in the states than just House elections. States are where parties build talent and try new ideas. Here, the GOP is instructive. Its brightest stars are either governors (Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Chris Christie) or former state officeholders (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Joni Ernst). And Republican-controlled statehouses have been incubators for conservative ideas, from experiments in tax cutting (Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana and Sam Brownback’s Kansas) to full-fledged assaults on public-sector unions (Walker’s Wisconsin and Christie’s New Jersey).

The Democratic Party needs places it too can experiment and build talent. Look at the rise of Elizabeth Warren (unsurprisingly, formerly of Harvard Law). We need a great deal more candidates like her. We need to be able to implement liberal policies locally. The model for Obamacare was based on a Republican governor’s model, for Christ’s sake. Why couldn’t a Democratic governor have implemented his or her own model in a different blue state? Oh, right, because Democrats barely control anything on a local level.

For a future post, possible solutions. For now, I need to think.

On losing “our” country, those darn Republicans, etc

I blame the 2014 elections, but I’ve been seeing a lot of bitching lately about how our country is getting away from us. I seem to know a lot of semi-retired Democrats who’ve got a lot of time on their hands to write and post political shit.

Here’s the thing. 1960s America was only “our” country if the group you’re talking about is white people. Post-WW2 was a great economic time–to be white. The GI Bill? Great if you were white. Cheap homes? Great if you were white, harder to take advantage of otherwise. You felt like the system listened to “average voters” more? Sure, if they were white.

This kind of myopia is profoundly alienating to people like me, who are pretty pleased with the progress that minorities have made over the last decade or so. We’ve got a Black president, gay marriage is slowly legalizing nationwide, and right now people give more of a shit about criminal justice reform thanks to Ferguson than I’ve ever seen.

I’m not saying we don’t have problems in America. But please don’t wax nostalgic about some idyllic past that mostly existed for white people.

Today’s big story, John Brennan’s press conference etc

The big topic of the day is John Brennan’s unusual press conference given this afternoon. I don’t get the impression that the CIA (or just CIA for those people in the know, apparently) likes to have much sunlight on its activities, so this was a bit of a rare opportunity. It was made stranger by Senator Dianne Feinstein live-Tweeting rebuttals to some of Brennan’s statements as he was making them.

I can only imagine having the Senate Intelligence Chair and CIA Director at odds does not bode particularly well for either intelligence-gathering or intelligence oversight.

The press conference itself seemed rather unremarkable to me. John Brennan is a career CIA officer, and his job is basically to defend his organization and the President. That he prefers to label torture as “EITs,” that he tried to minimize the problem to a handful of problem individuals, that he insisted on the general legality of those CIA officers’ actions, was all unsurprising to me.

I was more surprised how willing the journalists present were to go along with Brennan’s judgments. I understand Brennan has to do his job, but surely the reporters have to do theirs as well? Brennan has to do damage control, but does the press have to basically accept all of his conclusions? The lack of honestly challenging questions WAS surprising to me. I understand that reporters in Washington politics often show a lot of deference to high-ranking officials, but come on now.

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Dick Cheney’s handling of this kind of stuff. His approach is basically: yes, we tortured, it worked, and we’d do it again if similar circumstances arose.

Are his views abhorrent and wrong? Sure. Can you argue directly with them instead of spending hours arguing over what “stress positions” are legal, or exactly how many agents did what, or how many detainees were involved, or what Bush knew when? Yes. This mealy-mouthed shit about EITS just obfuscates the real debate, which should be whether this is the sort of stuff America wants its government doing. I see the torture scandal as a real challenge to America’s values–if we’re torturing people, how are we different from ISIS? Are we?

  • The Cheney view is: we’re on Team USA, and if you fuck with us we’re going to torture and kill you, regardless of the cost in money, lives, and time.
  • My view is: we’re all humans, members of one species and one planet, and there are certain ethical limits we as a country shouldn’t cross if we want to aspire to be any better than any other nation. Torture is profoundly unethical and our government shouldn’t engage in it. And it’s a fucking terrible method of gathering intelligence.
  • The EITS view is: Well we were briefed originally in 2007 maybe or was it 2009 and we had either 101 or 129 detainees but maybe it was more and um we had sites in Poland and Thailand maybe and Egypt? oh gosh what was the question um so President Bush knew what was going on and so did Congress and the American people really were OK with this anyway even if we didn’t tell them everything and 9/11 was bad and…

Unsurprising news of the day

All I’m saying is, I don’t think we were torturing these people to get usable intelligence. We were satisfying someone’s sadism, we were looking for information to connect some unconnected dots, we were just doing it for kicks. But this was not about gathering useful intelligence at any point.