How Ideas Are Transmitted in Washington
by Matt Stoller, Mon Jan 30, 2006 at 09:25:53 AM EST
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.