Monday, December 8, 2008

Trouble in the Obama Coalition

Obama's election was the climax of a process of political realignment in the U.S. Not so much a realignment of the Parties, as a realignment of the governing leadership.

The gradual morphing of governing coalitions is a constant in American politics. In 1992, Ross Perot stepped in from the center-Right and opened the door to Bill Clinton's President. Clinton was the last representative of the strategy of Democrats putting forward a relatively conservative, while Southerner to lead a Party that was increasingly liberal and non-white and culturally anti-Southern. Clinton was popular, but never got an electoral majority, and I am not one of those, who think Perot drew support from both Parties -- Perot drew away "independents" who would have voted Republican on election day, no matter what they may have told pollsters.

The 1994 Gingrich revolution was not just the triumph of the Republican Party, it signalled the triumph of the reactionary wing of the Republican Party. The post-WWII Republican Party was an alliance between conservatives and reactionaries, in which the reactionaries were mostly kept hidden. The experience of Goldwater in 1964 convinced many that the reactionaries were electoral poison, and, well in the 1970's and 1980's, a fair number of reactionaries were still voting Democratic for historical and cultural reasons. The "Southern Strategy" and the appeal to blue-collar, Irish-catholic "Reagan Democrats" gradually consolidated the reactionaries in the Republican Party. In the meantime, moderate, rational secular Republicans -- the realistic "liberal Republicans" like Nelson Rockefeller and Tom Dewey and moderates like Gerald Ford and Bob Dole, were becoming an increasingly extinct species. Gingrich's triumph signalled the ascendancy of reactionaries to the leadership of the Republican Party; the business wing stayed around to reap the benefits, but leadership in governance was in the hands of Tom DeLay, not Bob Michel.

The ascendancy of reactionary leadership in the Republican Party would continue, and was reinforced by the selection of George W. Bush as President, and Karl Rove's discovery that "the base" -- the authoritarian conservative Christian base -- could be motivated to vote in large enough numbers to win elections on the national level.

Governance in the U.S. since 1968, and even before, has been a "bi-partisan" affair. In FDR's World War II, bi-partisanship was national unity, and it was also a way to isolate the reactionaries and crazies, who were divided between the Parties. LBJ was still doing that to isolate the white supremacists in the Democratic Party, by working with liberal and moderate Republicans, to manage a centrist foreign policy and advance civil rights. Nixon and Reagan turned it around, and got into the habit of peeling off conservative Democrats in Congress to create majorities for conservative Republican economic programs. Bush enjoyed the support of corrupt, conservative Blue Dog Democrats.

Consigned to minority status, the Democratic Party became more purely ideologically liberal or progressive. But, the experience of Bush's Presidency, and its accelerating corruption and incompetence opened an opportunity to create a governing coalition in the Democratic Party, consisting of the progressive base, married to a moderate/conservative center. Obama was a master at cultivating an appeal to that moderate, secular pro-business segment of the political elite, which was disgusted with the Republican Right and ready to move into the Democratic Party.

The Democrats have a governing majority because the secular, rational, pro-business conservatives have moved into the Democratic Party from the Republican Party. And, because the liberals and progressives in the Democratic Party just managed to keep the Democratic Party a credible alternative to the Republicans, during the years when the moderates and conservatives in the Democratic Party were lending support to every crazy, stupid policy Bush proposed.

In other words, the Democrats, are, today, a governing Party coalition of liberals and progressives with moderate conservatives. Ideology in the Democratic Party is a two mode distribution. And, the Democrats got there, by, first, a long period in the wilderness, during which the progressive half of the Party was right about everything, preserving the Democrats as a viable alternative, despite the best efforts of Hillary Clinton and others to the contrary, and, second, by the willingness of principled, secular conservatives to migrate into the Democratic Party.

The struggle, now, is over who will lead in the dance between liberals and moderates in the Democrats' governing coalition. Will this be progressives leading conservatives? Or, moderates tolerating liberals along for the ride?

But, there are tensions.

Steve Hildebrand: A Message to Obama's Progressive Critics: "This is not a time for the left wing of our Party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-Elect Obama is making. Some believe the appointments generally aren't progressive enough. Having worked with former Senator Obama for the last two years, I can tell you, that isn't the way he thinks and it's not likely the way he will lead. The problems I mentioned above and the many I didn't, suggest that our president surround himself with the most qualified people to address these challenges. After all, he was elected to be the president of all the people - not just those on the left."

Open Left:: Mandate Watch: Were Democrats Elected to Attack "The Left?" Part II:
"Most progressives questioning Obama have done so rather gently, and have done so on the pragmatic substance. For instance, people wondering about the appointment of Larry Summers to a top economic position in the White House have wondered whether it's such a good idea to empower an ideological free market fundamentalist (pro-free trade, pro-deregulation) whose policies as Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary played a major role in creating the economic crisis. That is, most have wondered why Obama thinks that kind of ideologue is 'the most qualified person' to deal with our economic situation, rather than, say, a pragmatist like James Galbraith or Joseph Stiglitz who has been right all along."

Same thing for progressives concerned about the Iraq War. They have wondered whether the ideologues who got us into the war - who got us into the war on wholly ideological and non-pragmatic grounds - are really "the most qualified people" to get us out of that war. They believe that perhaps the pragmatists who opposed the war on the basis of a factual analysis of intelligence might be better suited to the task.

Are such questions really the inappropriate queries of a bunch of radical revolutionaries from "the left?" Or are the real fringe radicals - the real ideologues - those who say that we should all STFU and bow down to the Dear Leader? I think the latter, not the former - and I think Democrats (and especially the Obama team) who rightly protested Republican efforts to tar and feather Obama as a "socialist" should know better than to echo such silly, fact-free talking points. . . .

Last I checked, "the left wing of the Democratic Party" forced Democrats to take a stronger position against the war in 2006 and that was the key reason Democrats won Congress that year. Last I checked, "the left wing of the Democratic Party" has been the only voice in America that has been right all along in demanding more fair economic policies, an end to the war, better environmental laws, better diplomacy, etc. That is, as opposed to the Very Serious and Very Important D.C. elite who have been doggedly pursuing ideological ends, it has been "the left wing of the Democratic Party" whose policy demands have long been the most pragmatic, the most correct, and now not just positions held by those on "the left" but positions held by the vast majority of America.

Indeed, post-election polls suggest that because "the left wing of the Democratic Party" has been proven correct, Democrats are now in power.

digby at Hullabaloo on Hildebrand's letter: "Instead of writing a letter to, say, the actual people that are going to obstruct Obama's agenda, like the ones who will filibuster the auto industry rescue, Hildebrand finds it important to break up all gatherings of five hippies in a field. That's important to the survival of the nation. That's worth the effort."

TPM Election Central | Talking Points Memo | Top Obama Adviser Hits "The Left Wing Of Our Party" For Criticizing Cabinet Picks: "Really, one has to ask if Hildebrand is really trying to reassure 'the left wing of our party,' or whether he's trying to stir them up further out of some unknown political calculation or other. After all, many on 'the left' have also made Hildebrand's point: They've noted that Obama should be allowed to let his actual policies do the talking, while simultaneously asking completely legit questions about what his choices portend about the future direction of his administration. If merely asking such questions is enough to incite an attack on 'the left' from someone in Obama's inner circle, it seems reasonable to conclude that the motive here isn't to mend fences at all."

1 comment:

  1. Steve Hildebrand's commentary is repugnant. His contempt for citizen participation and democracy are truly offensive.