How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington

I came to DC in November to meet the national Democratic Party.  What I'm findinig is less a party and more a process, of transmitting ideas and political trends among and between groups of influential policy-makers and elected officials.  This morning, I came to The Real State of the Foreign Policy, a forum designed to provoke public debate over the course of America's path in the world.  It was a fascinating forum, headlined by Wesley Clark, but also a diverse one, with John O'Sullivan of the National Review, Sidney Blumenthal, the brilliant Anatol Lieven, the business elitist Kevin Nealer, and Peter Bergen, who wrote The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda's Leader.

O'Sullivan can be characterized as a mix between a neoconservative and a realist.  He has the pollyanna-ish outlook of a neocon, though he is at least willing to discuss costs.  Clemons is of course the blogger behind the Washington Note, a progressive centrist who jumps between party lines.  My favorite talk was by Kevin Nealer, because he laid out the challenges that we have in working on the problems of trade, globalization, and global stability.  Long story short, we are in real trouble, but we also have tools at our disposal to use in mitigating some of the problems we're facing.

I'm not a foreign policy guy.  The problems of a global society are fascinating to me, because I care about structural issues and flows of information and human networks, but ultimately, I just don't have the body of knowledge to really drill into a global policy topic without a great deal of work.  What is most striking about this forum, therefore, to me, is how there is simply no place for the Democratic Party or the progressive movement in designing our approach to the world.  On the reform of the United Nations, for instance, we just aren't in the game, because we haven't considered its role in the world nor have we designed a political language to use in describing our vision for the globe.

This points back to a human problem which the right-wing has solved.  They have a broker class, a group of mediators who shuffle ideas and money back and forth between grassroots groups, officials, decision-makers, idea-generators, academics, and Federal bureaucrats.  Karl Rove is one such mediator, Grover Norquist another, Jack Abramoff another, and Scooter Libby a third.  But there is a whole slew of them.  Much of what they do is basic networking among different groups, you know, just good politics.  They plan.  They coordinate.  They anticipate political problems, and set up strategies to work through using ad hoc coalitions to solve them.  

We do not have this broker class.  The space that Nealer, Bergen, Clark, Clemons, and others make in terms of defining a progressive vision for the world is therefore never translated into the political process on the progressive side.  Instead, Cindy Sheehan goes and stands with Hugo Chavez, blowing massive amounts of credibility for what is a nascent progressive movement towards a global vision.  In some sense, Paul Begala, James Carville, Peter Beinart, Dan Gerstein, and Katrina vanden Heuvel pretend to play this broker role, but it is fundamentally a fake.  They fake in different ways, but they all share the characteristic of doing bad to no politics, not reaching out to groups that should be part of progressive ad hoc coalitions.  Beinart is probably the best broker of political influence among foreign policy intellectuals within the Democratic Party, and that's really saying something about how broken the progressive movement is.  I suspect he will be challenged and destroyed soon, though it's not at this point clear to me who can take on the overall 'broker' role within the progressive movement.  Who will do the politics and coordinate these groups?  Who can unify the media reform DFA'ers, the pro-UN realists, and the financial neo-liberals like Paul Krugman into a potent political force?  

That's the question I am left with after this event.  It was great, it was fascinating, and we clearly have the tools and the political will to manage our global problems.  The bricks are there.  We just don't have the mortar.

Tags: DC ideas Democrats (all tags)



it's called coaching

We have no coaches on our side.  Someone to put together a game plan our side can execute.  We have to ask ourselves where is our Bill Cowher, where is our Bill Belicheck?  

Al Gore could fit this roll, he knows all the players and still has credibility.  I'd much rather see Al do this then try and run again in 08.  

by jbou 2006-01-30 11:34AM | 0 recs
I nominate Matt Stoller

Why the hell does Peter Beinart have any credibility? Because he was annointed by TNR and the DLC as spokeshole for the Democratic Warmongers?

I'm also curious how you define an "idea broker." You listed  Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, and Scooter Libby. It seems to me that a broker is a link that provides two way communication, which Rove and Norquist obviously do. People like Libby may provide two way communication between think tanks and the GOP, but I don't see how Abramoff acts as a broker of any ideas or communication.

I also don't see how Beinart, Paul Begala, James Carville, Peter Beinart, Dan Gerstein, and Katrina vanden Heuvel qualify. Their common characteristic is top down communication. Do any of them have links with any grassroots organizations that they could at least pretend to represent?

A huge part of the problem is the "Democratic Party Speaks. Idiots In Grass/netroots Listen!" attitude among the Democratic leadership. The blogosphere gives them feedback every day of the week. The problem is that they don't listen or respond.

by Gary Boatwright 2006-01-30 11:37AM | 0 recs

I am with you.  The first thing that has to be done is drop the sound bite thinking!  All rethoric and no substance(Cindy Sheehan) is going no where.  It is the ideas that have to stand up in the debate.  

Your trip counds very exciting.  The problem you seem to have found is not that the Democratic Party doesn't have a place in Washington, but rather the "Progressive" movement is not represented at the level you would like.

by Classical Liberal 2006-01-30 12:24PM | 0 recs
Designing our approach to the world

Matt, per usual there is a lot of interesting stuff in here, but i want to pull out this piece on designing our approach to the world. While I agree with you that we are often muddled, disconnected and uncoordinated in our response to the changing landscape of our world in terms of the day to day, or even month to month dynamic, i think in general we are somewhat in agreement in long term goals. The challenge then, as a party totally out of power, we are essentially helpless in driving the direction of current policy and any policy suggestions about the here and now are likely to be outdated and look ridiculous when the world evolves in response to the likely inane actions of the Bush administration. So in a sense what I'm saying (and trust me, i'm still thinking through this) is that we need to resist the urge in general to provide actual policy responses to the current situations as they are, and rather focus on clearly describing what the macro policy differences are between us and them.

In a sense this is what we did in the Social Security 'debate'. Rather than have competing proposals to solve a problem that we don't really think exists, we ran a campaign on the simple vision of what we think Social Security should be: Secure. Obviously the analogy from one campaign to the next is imperfect, as each one has its own vagaries, but nonetheless, i think it is worth exploring.

As for your other points, about mortar and all... I think you are right. The one thing I don't remember seeing in your post is an emphasis on the creation of a functioning enforcement mechanism. This is something that Grover and the Club for Growth have done so effectively for the right. It is not merely that they help develop ad hoc coalitions on different issues, it is that if they really need a few votes on stuff they can actually effectively threaten caucus members to get them to go along even if they aren't really happy about it. onward....

by Marc Laitin 2006-01-30 01:26PM | 0 recs
Re: How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington

I'll confine my comment just to the subject line.  

A lot of people in Washington are paid to transmit ideas, I used to be one of them and it's just amazing how a much needed paycheck can alter the opinion of even the most fresh-faced idealist.

The rest of the people in Washington are paid to be transmitted to -- paid to receive ideas.

There are a few people that don't get paid, but they don't really count.

by howardpark 2006-01-30 01:49PM | 0 recs
Where are all academics?

Most people in the universities are liberal, still none of them are engaged in politics - can this be true?

by Populism2008 2006-01-30 02:01PM | 0 recs
Re: How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington

I don't want questions, I want solutions.  

On dkos was a diary about blog convergence and blog leadership. It brought together three other diaries tht had been posted on dkos.  One diary mentioned in it was the Kos community telling kos to use dkos to lead the filibuster, the other diary is Armando saying its not his/theirs to fight/lead, and the third is a Rob Kohl Zogby diary in which he says: " Ironically, I received an email from Chris Bowers at that he and a group of bloggers had raised funds, commissioned a poll and were about to post their first results. We'd been working without knowing about each other's work."

I'm telling you, you guys have to get your shit together.  The progressive movement needs to be born again, and we need new blood and new leadership.  Like it not, want it or not, it has to be the net roots because the grass roots is dead.  If its netroots, we need coordination and leadership.  If not progressive bloggers (you guys) then who?  If not now, when?   Who else is going to bring us back to life, NARAL?  If you/we don't do something, they'll have us in gulags any day now.  

If you get a chance, look at the diary. 103038/872

PS -- like the site make over, good job.

by oakland 2006-01-30 02:31PM | 0 recs
Re: How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington

I am but a small time blogger, and I certainly don't expect that Matt, or anyone else has seen my blog, but nonetheless this is something I have written about in the past:

if progressive bloggers are going to be able to have any sort of impact in Washington, outside of just collectively coming together on our own to push an idea, then there are going to need to be some of these brokers.  Assuming the two-way communication broker, I took away from this post.  Without any sort of coordination, you end up with 50 or 100 bloggers/diarists/what have you all researching, and writing on the same topic, with no inkling that anyone else is doing the same thing.

Maybe everyone doing their own thing is desirable for many, but the large success of a few specific conservative bloggers is, as noted, this coordination by a few individuals of communications from the "grassroots" such as they are, to the media and politicans in Washington.

Perhaps coming into the 2006 elections, some people should put aside their antagonism towards some of the Washington establishment (certainly not all), and maybe we could see an infrastructure that will enable this two-way communication that will ensure future victories and improved communications from those of us outside to those inside.

by David Austin Tx 2006-01-30 03:25PM | 0 recs
Re: How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington

Actually, there is a substantial intellectual infrastructure of global policy thinking, but mostly it is a) way to the left of most Democrats (more realistic) and b) in the academy. When the Democratic party has really engaged with trying to lead the country (under FDR for example) it has drawn on people who would be excluded from contemporary political dialogue as "radicals." We won't have our own ideas to offer until we are willing to embrace genuinely left perspectives (distributive global justice) whereupon, we'll have something to say.

by janinsanfran 2006-01-30 04:17PM | 0 recs
Re: How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington


How can we say we have a progressive vision if we are laying our hopes with neo-liberalism? The whole point of neo-liberalism is to de-regulate de-regulate and de-regulate. If you're all for that then why not support privatizing social security?

And to bring up the FDR example, FDR would actually be closer to Hugo Chavez in ideology and policies than to Bill Clinton and Peter Beinhart.

Matt, why succumb to the conservative conventional wisdom that Hugo Chavez is a political boogey-man? What has he done that is not progressive?

by adamterando 2006-01-31 03:43AM | 0 recs
Re: How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington

What if Bill Clinton sits down with every Dem Presidential Nominee since '88 (minus Dukakis) who is NOT currently sitting in office and make them get off the couch. Spread our message and our brand. I'm talking Bradley, Hart, Bruce Babbitt, Cuomo, Ferraro, John Glenn, Gephardt, Carol Moseley Braun, even KerrEy... would they listen to Clinton? Would he do it? Be a camptain?

by dereau 2006-01-30 07:25PM | 0 recs
Re: How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington

My first reaction to the post was this: Progressives are still locked in a system of party politics of Dems vs Repubs when what they are in fact confronting is a "Movement", what Mark Rosenfelder called rightly in my opinion the Un-Communism. An ideological movement "on the march" so to speak has its own dynamics, which differ markedly from those of a political party.

If that premise of the Republican Party having morphed into an Ideological Movement is correct, then it follows that the struggle against it must take the form of something like the Resistance against Nazism in Europe. Be it the French Resistance or the German Resistance - many Germans joined the French Resistance against Hitler - that resistance was not party specific. So perhaps that the current struggle must go beyond the boundaries of the Democratic Party to include other partners. In a sense, bloggers are part of that additional support. However, they do not have much clout when it comes to disseminating ideas (because that is what it comes down to) to the general population. Progressives do have an infrastructure in place that they can use: students', workers' and feminists' associations, for example, who all have a stake in reclaiming their government.

One of the first things, I believe, that the Heritage Foundation did in terms of infrastructure was to establish a "Portal" to disseminate conservative ideas on the internet. Perhaps progressives could borrow that idea and build something permanent and dynamic along that line.

It would be interesting as well to link to very brave academics who are taking sides and getting involved. I am thinking of Juan Cole, for example, or Frank Furedi.

There should be perhaps a team who would put out short concise information that can fit on a leaflet that people can download, print, photocopy & distribute to family, friends, and neighbours.

Anyway, there are myriad of ways to meet this challenge. Those are just a few ideas some of which may have been tried already, others perhaps not. They are the poor man's tools compared to this or this for sure. But they don't have the numbers, do they?  

by Freedom 2006-01-31 08:42PM | 0 recs


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