Why Progressives Lost The Post-Election Narrative

One week from today, Democrats will take power both in Congress and in many states around the country. While there will be a change of power in Washington that will feature, among other things, the most progressive Speaker, the most progressive committee chairs, and even quite possibly the most progressive House majority in America since the mid-1970's, overall progressives lost the post-election narrative so badly that, at least at first, the overall ideological power shift will be quite small. This is because outside of the new Democratic majorities themselves, and outside of possibly Rahm Emmanuel, there are no progressive institutions that received conventional wisdom credit for the victory, and thus no progressive institutions toward which either the media or the Washington, D.C. political industry feels it must suck up to in order to remain relevant and / or seated at the Kool Kidz table.

When Republicans took the majority in 1994, and in most every election they won since that time, they were quickly able to forge a post-election narrative that so utterly dominated conventional wisdom that the cultural center of our national mass media shifted to the right. We all saw this after 2004 when it became conventional wisdom that in order to win elections, the Republican leadership had to govern in a manner that would appeal to the theocon base. Establishment media outlets drew the same conclusion when it came to boosting ratings, as they all hired "faith and values" correspondents and / or some new conservative pundit. Because the 2004 post-election narrative concluded that extreme social conservatives had won the elections, virtually across the board, the entire political industry concluded that in order to remain relevant, it was necessary to suck up to institutions that promoted extreme social conservatism. Granted, in an important way, this post-election backfired for Republicans, because to an increasingly pluralistic America it portrayed them as held captive by an extremist, and generally homogeneous, base. However, it did also lay the groundwork for media and political tolerance of the two most right-wing years of American governance since Richard Nixon's first two years as President.

Entering the era of our new majorities, we have no equivalent, progressive institutions toward which either the establishment media or political industry feels any need to capitulate. There is no new progressive version of pseudo-electoral demographics such as NASCAR Dads, Security Moms, or Values Voters. Heads of progressive advocacy organizations find themselves with nowhere near the same level of newfound respect given to James Dobson and other white, conservative, evangelical leaders following the 2004 election. Even the netroots don't have that much more respect that we had going into the election, although we did grow in stature a little bit. We won the election, but we still lack the sort of victory where the media and the political industry needs to respect progressives and progressivism all that much more than it did before the election.

Now, to a certain extent this has happened because the Democratic victory was earned across the board: the shift from 2004 to 2006 was by no means specific to any demographic group. However, it should also provide an important lesson: much of the political power in this country is not determined through elections. From schools, to churches, to workplaces, to the media, to families and neighborhoods--control of ideological apparatuses in this country is largely determined by mechanisms other than elections. Even legislative power is heavily influenced by non-elective institutions such as PACs, lobbyists, the judiciary, staffers, protests, and the media. Without control over these non-elective institutions, progressives will inevitably continue to lose, among other things, every post-election narrative. As much as it doesn't make any sense that even though Republicans lost, conservatives actually won, that is the closest any post-election narrative has come to achieving the status of conventional wisdom. That is the sort of thing that happens when you don't control the major ideological apparatuses in America, and when the majority of television pundits who "represent" Democrats thought Zell Miller was the best choice for Gore's VP in 2000.

Creating a solid, long-term progressive majority means we have to go beyond just organizing around elections and move toward greater organizing efforts within non-elective ideological and legislative power structures. Our current deficit in many of those structures will inevitably cause a lot of problems for our new majorities, no matter how well conduct ourselves in terms of message, crafting legislation, conducting oversight, or maintaining a unified caucus. Even in a democracy, much of the basis of political power comes from non-elective sources. We overestimate our current power, underestimate the work that still needs to be done to forge a progressive America, and set ourselves up for massive disappointment and disengagement as a result, at our own peril.

The End of the 1960's?

Over at TomPaine.com, Paul Waldman has an excellent article about the generational history of the "culture wars," which originally started, and are still deeply rooted, within the Baby Boomer generational conflict that began in the 1960's. I think his article also offers some useful insight in the appeal Barack Obama has in many quarters, including the netroots:

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Hegemony Is The Enemy--Pt2: Definition

Cross-posted from Patterns That Connect.

Although somewhat complicated, and somewhat debated, I like to put the concept of hegemony in a nutshell as "a dominant ideology in drag as a common sense." It's a very stripped-down way of putting it, but I think it suits our times. The concept is important precisely because it covers so much, and points to a common functionality across a wide range of topics and issues--the whole range of dominant ideology, and the opposing views it seeks to render as more or less "unthinkable," as readily dismissable at the very least.

In this installment of my "Hegemony is the Enemy" series, I'll delve a bit deeper into the concept to justify that description, while providing enough information to draw other conclusions as well.  The most important figure in describing, defining and promoting the importance of hegemony is Antonio Gramsci, and it's his concept that I, too, find most compelling.  However, his thought is extremely complex, and wedded to a developmental perspective steeped in European history.  I make no pretense to capturing that complexity in my definition.  Indeed, the very act of stripping it down suits it for adopting an entirely new framework, as we'll see in future instalments.

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Retaking Offensive Language

At some point over the last three years, being a progressive ceased to just be an answer to a poll for me. By this point, it is an integral part of my life, and cannot be separated out from other facets. Even most of the people in my life who I would consider friends work in politics pretty much full-time. Sometimes, when we are just hanging out with one another and holding conversations that are akin to bullshitting, we will make jokes that are variations on the following themes:
  • It is because we hate religion so much that will lead us to do x.
  • It is because we hate America so much that we mention x.
  • It is because we don't stand for anything that we fight for x.
  • It is because we hate the troops that we support x.
  • It is because we are such liberal elites that we enjoy x.
Regular readers of blogs might see humor based on these themes appear in the blogosphere from time to time as well. Basically, we are taking the slurs the Republican Noise Machine has thrown at progressives for decades and transforming them into internal jokes. While the invectives tossed our way are nowhere nearly as damaging and dangerous as the hate-speech the African-American and GLBT communities have dealt with for decades (or even centuries), the spirit of taking those hateful words and re-claiming them as your own is nearly identical. The idea is to take those words and rid them of their power. Or at least that is the idea.

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Hegemony Is The Enemy--Intro

Cross-posted from Patterns That Connect.

With the election behind us, the task before us is enormous, more enormous than most folks realize. Political scientists describe American political history in terms of a series of "party systems," which are divided from one another by decisive breaking points, known as "realigning elections." The last universally agreed upon realigning election happened in 1932.  While things have changed enormously since then, the Republicans were never able to dominate the political landscape with sweeping congressional majorities the way that Democrats were.  The New Deal Party System crumpled, but did not fold.

And yet, that system is held in universal disdain by the punditocracy, even as evidence and rational discourse is held in disdain by the media generally.  What has happened is the elite repudiation of the New Deal--an accommodation with the working [and middle] class necessitated by collapse of capitalism--even though the people still support it.

The elite repudiation can be understood in terms of the concept of hegemony. Whole books have been written about it, but basically it's a $10 word meaning "a dominant ideology in commonsense drag." This post sets up a series on hegemony, devoted to clarifying the battles ahead.

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