THE BLOG
04/25/2008 06:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and the New Politics

Over the past couple of months it has become commonplace for the talking heads to refer to the Democratic nomination race as a contest between the "top down organizational politics" of the Clinton's and the bottom up "New Politics" of the Obama campaign.

You can see why. While Hillary got most of the early endorsements from Democratic mayors, governors, congresspeople and the like, Obama has put together an impressive grassroots organizing team and an even more impressive grassroots, internet based, fundraising effort.

However Obama's campaign is not first time the "New Politics" have been invoked in Democratic party politics.

The last wave of New Politics to crash up against the then formidable bulwarks of the Democratic Party was in 1969. That year veteran activists of the McCarthy and the Bobby Kennedy campaigns came together to create a Democratic Party Reform movement, represented organizationally by the New Democratic Coalition (NDC) and the older, Americans for Democratic Action.

These Democratic reformers not only wanted to end the War in Vietnam and extend the social justice programs of the "Great Society," they wanted to destroy the "Democratic machine" that had engineered what they saw as the "undemocratic" nomination of Hubert Humphrey for President in 1968.

Though Pennsylvania in particular has always been a rough sell for the New Politics, the New Democratic activists of forty years ago did fairly well there. In 1970 they helped elect a liberal Democratic Governor, Milton Shapp, while contesting State House, State Senate and Congressional seats across the Commonwealth. In Philadelphia they took over four or five Democratic Wards committees (out of 66 Wards in the city) from the supposedly all-powerful Philadelphia Democratic Machine.

In 1972, after the collapse of the Machine's favored Presidential candidate, Edwin Muskie, the Pennsylvania reformers suddenly found their slate of McGovern delegates running unopposed in many places. Though the goal of the reformers had been to destroy the Machine, some of them suddenly glimpsed the possibility they might become it instead.

Needless to say, the relative successes of the New Politics glossed over weaknesses that were apparent to some even then. In New York, a small group of left leaning journalists including Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin and Doug Ireland participated in what seems to have a drinking society called "The Boss Tweed Memorial Democratic Club" dedicated to mourning the passing of old time machine politics in America.

In 1971, two former Bobby Kennedy associates, Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield, wrote "The Populist Manifesto" which proposed another style of political organizing rooted in the implicit message at the core of the Kennedy campaign. That key theme was the over riding importance of the Politics of Class.

Class Politics were an even trickier terrain to negotiate in 1972 than they are today. For one thing, the Post War economic boom was still in effect and so was American manufacturing. It was a hard sell to working class whites that their self- interest was tied to the interests of poor and working class blacks, not to mention the impoverished masses of the third world. However, the Democratic reform movement never really tried to make the case. The truth is that, broadly and objectively speaking, the reformers were a bit scared and contemptuous of working class people.

In retrospect, the high water mark of the New Politics was the nomination of George McGovern for President in 1972. Remarkably--just as the reform activists had envisioned--the Democrats not only nominated an anti-war liberal as the party's standard-bearer that year, they changed the rules of the nominating game.

Now all delegates were to be elected and the perks of power were largely stripped from the Party leadership. Democratic Party organization rule was to be replaced by "party democracy."

What happened instead was that without the perks of power to dispense, the National Party organization of the Democrats withered away altogether. Nationally and locally, television advertisements replaced the machine endorsement as the preferred route to public office. Money once again trumped power and ironically this--the death of the machine and the triumph of money in politics--is the lasting legacy of the Democratic Reform movement.

The New Politics of Barack Obama differ in several key respects from the New Politics of the '70's. For one thing, Obama doesn't have the problem of attracting black people to his "movement" that the middle class liberals of the early 70's did. The alliance of white liberals, independents, black people and young people that the Obama campaign represents has already proved a potent electoral force.

The New Politics of Obama also has as it raison d'etre, the Internet, and more specifically his campaign's unprecedented ability to raise unprecedented amounts of money using it.

On the downside, Obama's New Politics differ from the earlier effort in its frank lack of political sophistication. For all it's problems, the Old New Politics came out of the anti-Vietnam War movement and Civil Rights movement, not out of the blue, like Obama. In 1970, if a candidate--even a black one--had the nerve to call himself a movement he would have been reviled as a cultist.

What the Old New Politics and the Obama Politics have in common though is a determinedly middle-class orientation and reluctance to take the politics of class at face value.

Even more problematically the Obama campaign has locked itself into a rhetorical call for "Unity" that vitiates the possibility of a "fight the power" anti-corporate candidacy that could reach across racial and cultural lines. Perhaps the Obama campaign believes that a black candidate cannot win that kind of national election, but whether they're right or wrong, it's the absence of an unadulterated, unambiguous class message that has now come back to bite Obama in Pennsylvania.