Politics of the Future vs. Politics of the Short-Term

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET
  • David Sirota Newspaper columnist, radio host (AM760), bestselling author

This is a cross post from a heated Book Club discussion we are having about Hostile Takeover over at TPM Cafe. Come over there and join in the discussion!

One of the more destructive habits of progressives in Washington today is the refusal to think long-term. Every battle is about the next election, every narrative is crafted to try to fit the exact political topography only of the moment. There is no long-term campaign of consistent themes that continues between elections, or that ties one two-year election cycle to the next. Then on election day, folks throw up their hands and don't understand why Americans think Democrats stand for nothing.

Some of this destructive behavior is fueled by the not-so-secret career aspirations of former Clinton administration folks in Washington, still clinging onto hope that they can get their old White House jobs back. Many (but certainly not all) of these folks want to believe the short-term skirmishes are the quickest way back to their glory days. These are the folks who endlessly go back and forth between their Beltway holdover jobs in the lobbying/nonprofit world and the jobs on the campaign of the latest Democratic presidential nominee, desperate to get back to where they were. They are less interested in waging the long-term battle that is required to fight the hostile takeover, because that long-term battle does not provide them a short-term path back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. - even though it provides the most effective way to empower ordinary citizens to take back their government for the long-haul.

But this obsession over short-term tactics is not merely sad. As I have touched on before in an article entitled Partisan War Syndrome, it is both politically destructive and morally reprehensible at a time when ordinary citizens are crying out for real leadership to fight the hostile takeover.
I began thinking about this topic after reading Ruy Teixeira's commentary on my book. He points to a study by the Democratic Leadership Council essentially saying that class-based politics is a loser (I know, big shocker that the Chevron/Dupont/Enron/Merck-funded DLC is railing against class-based politics).

Let's be clear - Ruy and the DLC aren't necessarily wrong about the data. Americans are an optimistic people, and desire an "aspirational" politics (which, by the way, I don't think is mutually exclusive from the politics I discuss in Hostile Takeover). But they are wrong in rejecting class-based populism because the short-term poll numbers tell us its not yet a sharpened political weapon.

For the DLC (as opposed to Ruy, who is truly an honest broker) that's by design: if you look at the blunt edge of a spear and cite its bluntness as an excuse to never try to sharpen it, it will never be sharp. That's exactly what the DLC and Corporate America wants - a rationale to convince politicians never to embrace class-based politics, no matter how successful it could be or has proven to be. They don't want a movement to change the corrupt Establishment, because they are part of it. They want us think that populism doesn't work as electoral strategy even though, as Andrei Cherney notes, "Every successful Democratic campaign of the last century (including Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and Bill Clinton in 1992) was built on a populist - us against them - appeal." This is much the same today among successful red-state and red-district Democrats.

What we have to remember, though, is that movements don't start by exclusively focusing on the poll numbers in front of us - they start by focusing on the vision down the road. As I argue in Hostile Takeover, Big Money's conquest of our government has been a 30 year process. The forces who perpetrated the takeover didn't say "well, polls say the public doesn't want massive tax breaks for the wealthy, gutting of pension protection laws, atttacks on the minimum wage, and the general handing over of our democratic government to Big Business, so let's not do it."

No, they rejected that circular rationale of self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, they had in their mind what they wanted to do, and then got down and fought to create their own class-based politics - one that represents moneyed interests against the rest of us. Over the years, on issue after issue, they softened up public opinion through their (dishonest) storylines. Put another way, they waged a public education campaign to make the public opinion topography more favorable to their cause. Now, as Hostile Takeover details, we are living through the consequences of the public policies that Big Money's earlier efforts laid the groundwork for.

This is what those of us who want to fight the takeover must be willing to embrace: the politics of the future, not just the politics of the short-term that too much of the Democratic Party Establishment in Washington has gotten comfortable with. As the Washington Monthly noted in its review, Hostile Takeover was not written as a guide to political strategy - it was written as a public education tool. The primary goal of the book is not to help Democrats win the 2006 or 2008 election (though that would certainly be nice). The goal is to help raise awareness among ordinary folks about exactly what's going on, exactly how they are being screwed, and exactly what we can do about it - so that over the long term, the public opinion polls that Ruy cites fundamentally change.

Let's put into real terms what that means by using a specific example. Ruy correctly says voters tell pollsters that they "remain optimistic about class mobility" with "an amazing 45 percent believed it was very or somewhat likely that they would become wealthy in the future" and with "80 percent [saying] it's still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich."

But here are the real facts underneath the public perceptions, according to the Wall Street Journal:

"The reality of mobility in America is more complicated than the myth. As the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1970, the odds that a child born in poverty will climb to wealth -- or a rich child will fall into the middle class -- remain stuck. Despite the spread of affirmative action, the expansion of community colleges and the other social change designed to give people of all classes a shot at success, Americans are no more or less likely to rise above, or fall below, their parents' economic class than they were 35 years ago."

Similarly, The Economist noted:

According to a long-term research project carried out at the University of Michigan, led by Gary Solon, America's score on social mobility is not particularly high or low, but middling...If you are among the poorest 5% of the population, your chances of achieving an average income are only one in six. If you are among the poorest 1%, they become very dim indeed. Moreover--and this was the most surprising thing about the study--despite America's more flexible labour markets, social mobility there is no longer greater than in supposedly class-ridden Europe, and if anything it seems to be declining. A study by Katharine Bradbury and Jane Katz for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that in the 1970s, 65% of people changed their social position. In the 1990s, only 60% did...The authors also found decreasing amounts of social mobility at the top and the bottom. This is squeezing the middle class. Americans may be sorting themselves into two more stable groups, haves and have-nots."

Thus, the challenge is to connect public opinion to the actual facts, and perhaps even more challenging, to get progressives to realize that our highly touted "new infrastructure" must invest in this kind of unglamorous, pride-swallowing public education work rather than only focusing on the next election and on being a rah-rah squad for the Democratic Party Establishment. Like our opponents realized 30 years ago, we cannot be successful unless we better educate the public. Instead of pandering to voters in with zig-zagging campaign messages that reinforce a lack of conviction, we must have the guts to go out and show America how their views of economic opportunity diverge from what's actually going on, how the hostile takeover of our government is helping cause that divergence, and how America's corrupt politicians are making the problem worse.

This is the objective of a real movement, not just the short-term political campaigns commandeered every two years by opportunistic, washed-up political operatives in D.C. Rather than simply saying "well, the public already believes what they believe, and there's nothing we can do about it" we must stop arrogantly treating the public as too stupid to understand the world around us, and we must start having the guts to fight back - even when we know we will be criticized, even when the poll-tested climate doesn't initially seem as favorable as pollsters would like. In the words of President George H.W. Bush, we need to have that "vision thing" in order to start unifying Americans in the long-term fight against the economic war we are all facing, rather than pursuing a short-term, short-sighted politics that pretends this war doesn't even exist.