Getting Comfortable with Disagreement

cross-posted on Dailykos

Simon Rosenberg at NDN and the New Politics Institute is a brilliant guy who introduced me into politics, and I'll always be grateful to him for that.  He framed a lot of my thinking about the party, and one point he made is that Democrats have traditionally been tremendously uncomfortable with disagreement whereas Republicans have traditionally loved to argue and debate.  He was of course right, and you can tell by watching the Republican primary and the Democratic primary.  

Here's Sam Brownback challenging Mitt Romney.

Have you seen anything remotely similar to this on the Democratic side?  The Obama campaign will send a memo highlighting subtle disagreements with Clinton, and candidates will present different plans.  But when push comes to shove, there's just this, I don't know, fear of seeming different.  Obama will not even broach a disagreement with Clinton, for some weird reason.  John Edwards is putting forward the most ambitious rhetorical campaign, by far.  He's attacking the frame of the war on terror, calling it a bumper sticker slogan and genuinely going after the whole intellectual edifice of the right.  Clinton and Obama are not doing that, though Obama occasionally makes stabs in that direction.

But why is he so uncomfortable with the fact that he believes different things than Clinton?  Here's what I mean, from the South Carolina debate:

Senator Edwards, you made a high-profile apology for your vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution. You have said, quote, "We need a leader who will be open and honest, who will tell the truth when they made a mistake." Was that not a direct shot at your opponent, Senator Clinton?

Former Sen. John Edwards: No, I think that's a question for the conscience of anybody who voted for this war. I mean, Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they've voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote.

Why couldn't he have just said yes?  I mean, it is a direct shot at Clinton.  It's not an 'attack', but it's a disagreement.  And that's FINE.  That's democracy.  Here's what he could have said.

Yes.  Senator Clinton is a good person, but she thinks the vote to authorize the war was correct.  I don't.  As President, she has said she will keep troops in Iraq.  I think that's a bad idea.  Senator Clinton and I have different ideas about America's place in the world, and it's good for the party to have this debate.

Watch the Brownback video, where he challenges Romney on a whole range of issues.  What's wrong with disagreeing and arguing based on that disagreement?  Nothing.  And yet, I'm convinced that a fair number of base Democratic voters do not believe that disagreement within the party is ok.  Take, for instance, the notion that Democrats need courage.  Do you think that Steny Hoyer or Rahm Emanuel are cowards for voting to fund the occupation?  Perhaps they are, and perhaps their decision was cravenly political.  But what if they genuinely disagree with us on the vote.  Maybe they have different ideas about national security and executive authority, ones we don't agree with.  Or let's take the notion that the problem with Democrats has something to do with a lack of messaging capacity.  We can't say one thing clearly and simply.  Maybe that's true.  Or maybe Democrats have different ideas about stuff, and it's not actually a messaging problem so much as it is that we disagree.

I'm a partisan Democrat, and will be for the foreseeable future.  But I believe in the power of ideas more than the power of political parties, which is why I never hesitate to make criticisms of anyone based on their arguments.  It's really quite silly to pretend that we all agree on stuff, and also that it's necessary to all agree on stuff to win elections or wield power.  The way you govern is you work through your disagreements by acknowledging them openly and submitting them to scrutiny.  That's called pluralism, and it's the basis of the scientific method and political liberalism.  

It's ok to disagree.  It's ok to run primaries against people based on good faith disagreements.  When I talk about Hillary Clinton being principled about her hawkishness, I am not any less inclined to want to see her defeated in a primary.  But that's because I don't agree with her ideas, not because she's this or that as a person.  It's really remarkable how many supporters of hers read into her ideas their own liberal instincts instead of trusting what she says.  And when John Edwards refuses to acknowledge that he disagrees with Hillary Clinton, while obviously dancing in the media with a high profile apology that implies a whole lot of disagreement with a whole lot of people, he's avoiding the argument the party needs to have.  Edwards is putting forward real and different ideas about America's place in the world.  He disagrees with Clinton and Obama about a bunch of stuff.  That's fine.  There's no reason to hide it.

Seriously, watch Sam Brownback's video clip.  What he does in that Youtube clip suggests a healthy party structure.  Republican Presidential candidates are willing to fight with each other to see who comes out on top, to see who's more persuasive.  In lower and mid-tiers of the party, the GOP isn't having a debate, just as there is a real debate on the left in some areas of the party (though not really on the Presidential level).  But it's instructive to see what a party that's comfortable with disagreement looks like, and to compare that to what we have.

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Campaigns, "Causes," and Membership: Young People as Donors

Reading Jared's post about Mitt Romney's latest fundraising gimmick and this post about how the campaign finance system is bad for young people has got me thinking broadly about the role of young voters as donors in our political system.

I don't have a grand thesis, but there are a couple of dynamics that are in play that are worth exploring, I think, as well as some long-term questions that should be posed.  This is especially relevant with the 2nd Quarter fundraising deadline being just around the corner, and in light of new FaceBook applications capable of raising cash for 501 organizations (and soon PACS and Campaigns) presumably from young people.  Here it goes.

Conventional wisdom says that young people don't have a lot of scratch to throw at political campaigns, yet I expect that when all is said and done, young people will have donated quite a bit of money to the efforts of our top candidates.  All though they have not yet released figures, the Obama campaign has already suggested that one of the largest donor blocks to the campaign (online) is students.  I know that in 2004 Dean was the first candidate I ever gave to ($50), and Obama seems to have that magic and more with young voters.  I'm guessing that by November 2008, young people will have donated at least in the high millions to low tens of millions to the Democratic presidential candidates. I hope (and encourage) the Obama campaign to release some data on this so we can start to get a baseline about just how much young people are donating this cycle.

Conventional wisdom also states that young people do not financially support the organizations that are dedicated to engaging them in politics.   Speaking from personal experience, and after talking to the Executive Directors of a number of youth organizations, this is a true statement that presents a rather large problem for the long-term sustainability of the infrastructure built by the [dot]org Boom that has revitalized progressive youth politics.  

Thus far, the new progressive youth movement has been funded by a cadre of mega-donors like the Rapaports and Lewis family and a few foundations like OSI.  In many instances though, this funding is contingent on these organizations progressing along a path to sustainability.  In order to do that, they need to build membership and expand their donor base.  At some point, that will require that young people contribute directly (donations, membership) or indirectly (purchasing some sort of fundraising premium, special event attendance) to the organizations in which they participate.

Recently, there are new developments that may point towards a solution to that problem.  

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Partisanship is not Enough

wapost poll.jpg

The poll is from the Washington Post.

Progressives are in a bit of a bind these days.  The Republicans are still sadistic extremists, and with the challenge to Hagel in Nebraska, they will remain that way for at least another few cycles.  Despite the victory in 2006, liberal Democrats are still cut out of power and policy-making.  House Democrats want to fund abstinence only education, Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher and Michigan Democrat John Dingell are trying to block California's actions on global warming, the CBC is sucking up to Fox News, Hillary Clinton is saying that she understands the war on terror because she is from New York and that we are safer since 9/11, and lobbyist and blog-hater Steve Elmendorf's business is exploding.

Abortion opponent and religious theocrat Jim Wallis may not have been quite right when he said"The Religious Right and the secular Left both lost on Election Night", but he wasn't far off.  Democrats haven't been able to restrict Bush in a possible attack on Iran because they can't get a majority to vote against yet another war.  And then there's the big betrayal, of course, on Iraq.   This piece by Mark Udall should give all of us pause in our strategic understanding of where we are in the party hierarchy.

Opponents of the war claimed moral high ground by voting against funding, knowing all the while that a presidential veto saved them from the consequences of actually scaling back the equipment and medical supplies that sustain our soldiers, while advocates of the war shed tears and thumped their chests about defeating "terrorists" without ever explaining how deploying our soldiers to referee a civil war does anything but weaken our national security.

Meanwhile, labor looks strategically unwise.  Three weeks after it's become clear that the Democratic front-runner's chief strategist profits from union-busting, two labor leaders, James Hoffa and Bruce Raynor, wrote a tentative whiny note to Clinton asking her to consider their concerns.  She promptly told them in PR-speak to go fuck themselves, and they don't seem to care.  And this has real consequences - here's a high level Democratic staffer talking to a business lobbyist on the Employee Free Choice Act in Roll Call:

"My pitch to the business community was, `You want a lot from us, but you're now siding with the hard right,'" said the second senior House Democratic aide. "This card check bill is never going to see the light of day, and this is what you're going to spend your political capital on?"

This is in Roll Call.  Roll Call.  Labor is the pillar of the progressive community, and is openly being dismissed as irrelevant.  And that's before getting to Rangel's utter betrayal and moral corruption in his trade deal.

The progressive movement on the internet isn't recognizing these realities either.  Read the op-ed above; Mark Udall thinks we hate the troops, and he's going to be coming around to us for cash in his Senate bid in Colorado.  And a lot of people are going to give it to him.  

Now, this might sound depressing, and it is.  But it's also a reality of politics these days, and it's the consequence of 35 years of organizing by the right wing and only around eight years on our side.  The people in charge of the political system are the swing votes and the people that those voters want to work with.  Steny Hoyer and Rahm Emanuel have positioned themselves to be this swing vote, and they have chosen to basically throw some crumbs our way (minimum wage) while voting with the Republicans on the big issues, like Iraq.  

This isn't permanent.  In four to six years and after a few more losses, it's possible that the GOP is going to realign around a more moderate agenda, and in the meantime we can broaden out and build bridges between progressives and independents.  We can learn to educate and/or cut off people like Udall, and encourage labor to stand up harder for workers.  But that hasn't happened yet, so moderate patsies like Rahm Emanuel and Steny Hoyer are still large and in charge.  We are still losing credibility among antiwar independents (see above graphics), and Bush is retaking the initiative as leader.

We're going to get there one day.  I date the beginning of the open left to the fall of 1998, when Moveon was founded in response to the Clinton impeachment.  We've taken huge steps forward with our primary challenge to Lieberman and our new crop of freshmen in 2006.  And we've branched into policy, and now have a few inside players on a few key issues.  

The ultimate point here though is that we are not a partisan movement and should no longer think of ourselves as such.  We are an ideological movement.  We have ideas, and want to see those ideas driven with power.  This means that we need to get down to the hard work of disabusing ourselves of candidate-centric politics, and work to create primary challenges wherever possible, as well as keep building forums for the dissemination of new ideas.  Udall may or may not be a good guy, though certainly he seems like an immoral coward.  I could probably not bring myself to support him, though I wouldn't blame others if they did.  But the point is that Udall has been persuaded that conservative ideas work, even if he's a Democrat.  And that's what we have to tackle.

Update [2007-6-8 18:34:3 by Matt Stoller]:: Democrats.com has a list of candidates who voted against the McGovern amendment and possible primary challengers.

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Deconstructing Progressive Youth Activism

Before I start, I want to thank Chris for giving me the opportunity to write here on MyDD, and congratulate my fellow weekend writers, who've thus far set a high bar with some incredible posts. It's good to be here and in such good company.

Some of you may already know my writings here at MyDD, and know that I focus primarily on the youth vote which, to quote a buddy of mine, I see as the keys to a future, long-term progressive majority.  Needless to say, that idea gets a lot of pushback, both in the blogosphere and in the political establishment.  A lot of activists feel (rightly or wrongly) like they got burned by the youth vote, whether that was in 1972 or in 2004, and a lot of campaign operatives view young voters as cheap campaign labor, but not as a viable voting bloc worth their time and limited campaign resources.

Seeing as the youth vote and the growing progressive youth movement will be my topic 9 times out of 10 here on MyDD, I thought I should use my first post to lay out what I see as the value, and current state of the youth vote and progressive youth infrastructure.  Rather than write out a narrative, I thought it'd be interesting to try something a little more modular and maleable.  A kind of 95 theses of the youth vote, if you will (a la The ClueTrain Manifesto).  

In light of the impulse every four years to create a new Port Huron Statement or youth manifesto, I'm tempted to throw this post up into a wiki and let it be a living document to be revised over time.  Maybe I'll do that, eventually.  But for now I think it'll be good for all of us to have a conversation about the many aspects of that commonly misunderstood entity, "The Youth Vote." I've linked to examples, reports, and polling as much as possible. To be sure there are more links to be made.  This turned into a bigger project than I'd anticipated for an afternoon (now evening) blog.  

These are the basic assumptions under which I'm operating in all of my writing, but I absolutely view this as a draft.  This is too huge a project for a single blog post.  If you've got better ideas, or more relevant links, please propose them.  Out of all the major progressive blogs, MyDD is the most youth-friendly, and the most strategic minded, so I can't think of a better place than here to start refining and sourcing this document.  

Introductions completed, I've tacked my scroll to the door (after the jump).  Let's debate.

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The Last Progressive: A Review of Al Gore's The Assault on Reason


Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Al Gore


[Cross-posted at ProgressiveHistorians, Daily Kos, and My Left Wing.]


Reading Al Gore's book The Assault on Reason has served to reinforce my view that Gore is perhaps the last living Progressive -- that is, the kind from the Progressive Era, not someone who agrees with Dennis Kuninich.  Big-P Progressives, unlike Kucinich, were essentially middle-class moderates who blended reform-minded populism with support for "good" business, environmentalism, moralism, and war hawkishness.  (Okay, Gore obviously doesn't fit that last one.)  In The Assault on Reason, Gore has outdone himself in the Progressivism field; indeed, he has written a bona fide Progressive tract.


The type was pioneered in 1909 by Herbert Croly's masterful The Promise of American Life, the book that inspired former President Theodore Roosevelt's radical 1912 Presidential run on the Bull Moose ticket.  Croly, the founding editor of The New Republic, was trumped in readership five years later by his friend and co-editor, Walter Lippmann, whose volume Drift and Mastery is known today as the outstanding example of the genre.  Both books bear striking similarities to Gore's new work -- in particular that of Lippmann, to whom Gore refers three times in The Assault on Reason (though not in particularly favorable terms).  In fact, all three volumes follow the same general formula:


  • 1) Describe American society as in danger, flawed, ill, and otherwise bereft; and


  • 2) Propose a universal panacea to renew America and solve all its problems at one stroke.

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