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Beyond whether Obama wins or loses

Tony Wikrent's picture

Cross-posted from Real Economics.

A week ago, Matt Stoller provoked a lot of discussion with his The Progressive Case Against Obama, a masterful accounting of this administration’s dismal policy record “on the grounds of economic and social equity.” Income and wealth inequalities, Stoller points out, have not just continued under Obama, but have actually become some fifty percent worse than during the Bush regime.

Sam Seder had Stoller on Majority Report, and it was a lively, often heated, discussion, as Seder tried to argue that a Romney administration would actively harm many millions more people than a second Obama term would.

But in all the shouting, and screaming, and general imprecating, everyone – including Stoller –  missed a key point. If American political history is any guide, focusing on the White House race is a huge waste of time, money and effort for progressives. The fulcrum for leveraging power to achieve real political change are down-ticket offices: local and state offices, and especially the U.S. House of Representatives.

That’s the way it’s worked in the past – and that’s the way it’s working now, with astro-turfed movement conservatism, such as the Tea Party these past three years, yanking the United States further and further to the wrong-wing. Targeting local and state races for attention is exactly what the wrong-wingers and the Tea Partiers have done. We all see and bewail the results. And, there is simply no parallel on our side for the depth and breadth of wrong-wing local electioneering. Emulating the conservative targeting of down ticket offices is what we have to do if we want to force through real, progressive change.

Simply stated, there has never been a single instance in American history where the progressive elements of the population were able to boost their preference to the Presidency. The few possible exceptions only prove the rule: Washington (there was no one else even close in stature for the job); Lincoln (his nomination was a national surprise resulting from very astute and aggressive manipulation of the 1860 Republican National Convention, not least of which was getting it to be held in Chicago); and Grant (seriously, who was going to oppose the winning general of the Civil War?)

After Lincoln’s 1860 win – which was exceptional because one of the two major political parties, the Whigs, had ceased to exist for all practical purposes - the second most successful third party run for the White House was Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 run as the Bull Moose candidate, garnering 28.7% of the vote. The third most successful was that of Millard Fillmore in 1856, who garnered 21.6% in an election most notable as the final death rattle of the Whig Party. The other significant third party attempts were Ross Perot (1992) 18.6%; Robert LaFolette (1924) 16.6%; George Wallace (1968) 13.5%; Eugene Debs (1912) 11%; Perot, again (1996) 9%; and John Anderson (1980) 7%.

That third parties can barely garner a fifth of the vote is, I believe, to be expected given how political power is arranged in America. The two highest totals were won by Teddy Roosevelt and Fillmore, both former Presidents – which points to something neither Stoller nor his critics seem willing to discuss. In each of these cases, there was a large part of the status quo political establishment behind these candidates in their third party attempt. The overweening power of this political establishment, however bitter and open might be its internal rivalries and discord, simply makes it impossible for a third party to get to the White House. The American political establishment draws its financial support and its intellectual direction from corporate America, plain and simple. This dependence is so complete, that even arguably the most progressive President, Franklin Roosevelt, did not make a single move to investigate and prosecute the Wall Street faction that attempted to organize a military coup against him. (This failure to attack and destroy this Wall Street faction was, I believe, the single most important failure of FDR. Following through on the evidence provided by Marine Corps General Smedley Butler may have had dire political consequences, but it would have rid the United States of one of its most virulent, and vicious, internal enemies.) 

Again, the political establishment may be riven by deep, even violent disagreement, but in the end, no one is going to get close to winning the Presidency if they are not acceptable to the people that have the money to fund political campaigns. Over a billion dollars are going to be spent on the Presidential race this election cycle, and progressives simply do not have the wherewithal to fund a credible competing run, plain and simple. So why waste so much time and effort screeching about whether Obama is progressive enough or not? More to the point – the point made by Stoller – why waste the time and effort to support a third party candidate for President who does not, by the very nature of our political system, stand a chance of getting elected?

Here’s another problem that neither Stoller nor his critics discussed: There is not much connection between the presidential campaigns, and the parties on the local level. Actually, I don’t really know about the Republican Party. But I know from personal experience where I live that the Obama campaign is a quite separate and distinct entity from the Democratic Party. They have separate offices, separate management structures, separate field personnel. You do not go to local Democratic Party headquarters to get an Obama lawn sign; you go to the local Obama campaign headquarters. And while the local Democratic Party is struggling to make sure that local candidates are also being touted by greeters at local polling places, the Obama campaign simply expects local Dems to also tout the President. Local Obama field organizers are brought in from out of town, and have little or no familiarity with local Democratic Party officials and office holders. There is little or no reciprocity. The county party organization is expected to freely share its database with the Obama campaign, but trying to get updates or information from the Obama for America voter database is like trying to hack into the computers at the NSA.

Back in 2008, the Obama campaign had the makings of a genuine grass roots movement, with millions of small donors and volunteer activists. But did not know what to do with it - or had no interest in deploying a genuine grass roots movement to upset the balance of power in American politics. By which I mean, the Obama campaign was not truly revolutionary and had no intention of changing the monetary and financial system. As David Plouffe describes events in his 2009 book, The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory: Team Obama stumbled into building a grass roots movement as the means of bringing in new caucus attendees to be able to win the Iowa caucuses. They never had any conception of bringing millions of new participants into the political process in order to actually create a political movement. For Plouffe and the Obama team, it was merely a tactic to be used to win the primaries.

Moreover, at no point in his book does Plouffe discuss national policy problems, and what concrete policy achievements Obama wanted. It’s not unfair, reading Plouffe, to summarize the Obama campaign's approach as “the country was wanting change, so we developed a marketing campaign promising change." So, the Obama presidency thus far is an exact replica of how baby boomers respond to personal problems in the modern American "consumer" society: you buy a product that's supposed to fix the problem, and - presto - the problem's fixed. Got acne? Buy acne medicine. Got a dirty toilet? Buy toilet cleaner. Got a dirty sink? Buy sink cleaner. Got a dirty tub? Buy bathtub cleaner. So, the Obama team figured there was this terrible problem the country wanted solved - the Bush (mal)administration. They thought they would get Americans to buy their "solution product" and the problem would be fixed. But, the problem wasn't really Bush, it was over three decades of consistently wrong policies. And it's going to take some real, hard work to fix, not just a successful marketing campaign.

As Stoller wrote Saturday at the beginning of Why is the left defending Obama?, his response to critics of the previous week's The Progressive Case Against Obama:

Let’s start with a basic problem – why is Obama in a tight race? Mitt Romney is more caricature than candidate, a horrifically cartoonish plutocrat whose campaign is staffed by people that allow secret tapings of obviously offensive statements. The Republican base finds Romney uninspiring, and Romney has been unable to provide one good reason to choose him except that he is not the incumbent. Yet, Barack Obama is in a dog fight with this clown. Why? It isn’t because a few critics are writing articles in places like Salon. The answer, if you look at the data, is that Barack Obama has been a terrible President and an enemy to progressives…. Obama came into office with a massive mandate, overwhelming control of Congress, hundreds of billions of TARP money to play with, the ability to prosecute Wall Street executives and break their power, and the opportunity for a massive stimulus. Most importantly, the country was willing to follow – the public believed his calls for change. Yet, instead of restructuring the economy and doing obvious things like hardening infrastructure against global warming, he entrenched oligarchy. 

Seder’s radio program with Stoller was supposed to include discussion of building a political movement, but unfortunately both Seder and Stoller became too emotionally involved in their arguing whether Romney or Obama were the lesser of two evils. This is highly unfortunate, because in his original article Stoller makes the far more interesting, and in my opinion, correct, argument that voting for a third party in this election is “practice” for the task of building progressive electoral capabilities. This is indeed the path that progressives must now take, but building electoral capabilities focused on winning seats in the U.S. Congress, not the White House.

Because the simple fact remains that progressives of the late 1800s and early 1900s achieved great success in getting many of their policies adopted: direct election of U.S. Senators; significant reform of House of Representative procedures to curtail the power of entrenched interests by curbing some of the administrative power of House Speaker Joseph Cannon; crop insurance offered by state governments; federal regulation of railroad rates and labor practices; federal regulation of meat packing, food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industries; passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act; government programs to store and disburse grains to smooth out market and crop fluctuations; state government testing of farm tractors (the Nebraska Tractor Laboratory); a not-for-profit state bank in North Dakota, and many others.

How were these things accomplished? The key was focusing electoral efforts on down ticket races, and getting progressives elected to local, and state offices, and no small number to the U.S. House. There were 13 members of the Greenback Party elected to the House of the 46th United States Congress (1879 – 1881), and ten in the 47th Congress (1881 – 1883). Around 45 members of the People’s Party served in the U.S. Congress between 1891 and 1902, including six United States Senators. And, eleven governorships were held by progressives from 1887 to 1901.

But note that at the same time, progressives' choices for President were being embarrassingly trounced. James B. Weaver ran as head of the Greenback Party in 1880 and received only 3.3% of the vote. Weaver tried again in 1892 as the People Party candidate, and got 8.5%. When Georgia firebrand Tom Watson ran as head of the People’s Party in 1904, he did not even reach one percent of the vote.

A more interesting third party attempt was the People’s Party nomination of Democratic Party nominee William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Jennings was also nominated by another third party, Free Silver. Despite this “fusion” with one of the two major parties, Jennings only reached 45.8% of the vote, to lose to McKinley. “Fusion” with the Democratic Party might again, in a few years, be the way disaffected progressives come close to boosting their choice to the White House.

But by 1896, progressives had already achieved a strong string of electoral successes in down ticket offices all across the country. These races had served to season and battle-harden many progressives, forging them into a powerful cadre able to dominate entire Congressional districts and even states.

The primary example of a progressive movement taking control is the Non-partisan League seizing control of North Dakota in 1916. Robert L. Morlan's 1955 book, Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915-1922 (reprinted by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1985) was a book recommended by ACORN to train activists and community organizers by using a real-life example of successful political organizing. In an amazingly brief span of less than two years, the Non-Partisan League signed up nearly 40,000 members - in a state with a population of just 600,000 - and seized complete political control of the state from the railroad, grain trade, and financial interests centered in St. Paul, Chicago, and New York. Once in power, legislators and state officers backed by the Non-Partisan League created a number of state-owned enterprises, such as grain terminals and elevators, designed to end the monopoly power of these out-of-state interests that had been looting North Dakota farmers of an estimated $55.9 million a year ($1.04 billion in today's dollars). These progressive innovations still survive, including the State Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned bank in the country. Jon Larson of Real Economics just pointed to an article the other day on how the State Bank of North Dakota helped the city of Grand Forks recover from a flood that destroyed the town in 1997, while a town across the river in Minnesota, with no non-profits state bank to turn to, recovered much more slowly and painfully.

In the historic light cast by these progressive achievements, we can look back and identify Ned Lamont’s 2006 defeat by incumbent Senator Joseph Lieberman as a major disaster for progressives. Had Lamont won, a foothold in the U.S. Senate might have been gained that could have been shaped into an incubator of progressive electoral talent and Congressional staff talent – assuming, of course, that Lamont had turned his back on the largely corrupted “Village” people who have floated in and out of Democratic staff positions for the past few decades, and instead selected real progressives for his staff.

Another major disaster for progressives was this year’s redistricting in North Carolina. Under Republican control, redistricting forced two incumbent Democratic Congressmen to compete for the same seat. Unfortunately, the much more progressive of the two, Brad Miller, decided not to battle David Price, who first entered Congress in 1987. Two years ago, when I cornered Price at a Democratic Party County Convention and told him that there could never be an economic recovery until the Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs were destroyed, Price turned crimson and tried to run away.

Miller, by contrast, authored the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act, which passed the House in 2007 and again in 2009, but was never even considered in the Senate either time; introduced the Financial Product Safety Commission Act of 2009; and in 2007 introduced Emergency Homeownership and Mortgage Equity Protection Act of 2007, making Miller the first member of Congress to propose that bankruptcy courts be allowed to modify the mortgage debt of persons in foreclosure (the law never passed in the House).

By the way, in case you’re wondering what happened to the seemingly miraculous political power of progressives at the beginning of the twentieth century, I have little doubt that the extraordinary police state measures enacted and enforced to suppress disloyalty during the First World War (see the first chapters in Chris Hedges’ 2020 book The Death of the Liberal Class) were in no small part the elites’ response to this outburst of progressive populist political power.

There is another, more fundamental problem with Stollers’s article, as well as his critics. They all agree that we have some seemingly intractable political problems, such as the failure to address climate change, and an increasingly authoritarian corporatism. But they never consider the root cause of these problems, which is also the cause of the political paralysis that prevents the development and application of workable solutions. These problems are traced back, ultimately, to the failure to control and regulate society’s mechanisms for the creation and allocation of money and credit, and the closely related failure to prevent the aggregation of financial and economic power that has always been the basis for usurping political power. James Madison, in Federalist Paper "Number 10," warned that most political factions are caused by economic interests. And in the notes he made as he prepared for the Constitutional Convention, Madison wrote that the rich can be as much a threat to the survival of a republic as a standing army.

Stop and think about that for a minute. When have you ever heard anyone point back to the Founding Fathers as a source for explicitly attacking millionaires and billionaires as being a threat to republican self-government? Oh, progressives will attack the rich for being against democracy, but they will lump in George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton as just so many rich white men who created a structure of government designed to secure their private property and wealth. Besides being largely untrue, this is a disastrous forfeiture of a very potent and powerful weapon in the battle for public opinion. It has allowed wrong-wing extremists to posture themselves as being valiant defenders of the ideas and ideals of the Founders, when the exact opposite is the truth. Consider John Adams' 1765 A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law:

The poor people, it is true, have been much less successful than the great. They have seldom found either leisure or opportunity to form a union and exert their strength; ignorant as they were of arts and letters, they have seldom been able to frame and support a regular opposition. This, however, has been known by the great to be the temper of mankind; and they have accordingly labored, in all ages, to wrest from the populace, as they are contemptuously called, the knowledge of their rights and wrongs, and the power to assert the former or redress the latter. I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, - Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws - Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe…. Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers…. The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country.

Masaccio on FireDogLake recently attacked Useless Liberal Intellectuals who “have nothing to contribute to understanding or a method for change.”

Deconstruction and poststructuralism have proved to be a disaster for participatory democracy. They are a disaster for the public sphere. This is the outcome of the life’s work of academic “liberals” trying to solve the problem of the hegemony of words. 

The point hits home precisely, because unlike today, progressives of the late 1800s and early 1900s were concerned first and foremost with what was called for decades The money question. Echoes of "the money question" still reverberate, a full century after Bryant’s “Cross of Gold” speech. The greatest tragedy of American history, fully as damaging and blighting as slavery and Jim Crow, because it in fact underlie them, is that the power of money creation has never, with the exception of the early 1800s and during the Civil War, been taken away from the private bankers and placed back in the hands of the federal government, where it Constitutionally belongs according to Article One, Section 8 . The money power – the ability to create and allocate money and credit - is the ultimate basis of the power and longevity of the financial oligarchy. If the money power and the credit mechanism of a society’s economy is not in some way bent to the will of society by "the state" then how can that financial oligarchy ever be opposed and curtailed?

Stoller may not have it all right, but he poses an important question. He also see the possibilities that are open to us if only we exert ourselves to seize them.

After all, if a political revolution came tomorrow, could those who believe in social justice and climate change actually govern? Do we have the people to do it? Do we have the ideas, the legislative proposals, the understanding of how to reorganize our society into a sustainable and socially just one? I suspect, no. When the next crisis comes, and it will come, space will again open up for real policy change. The most important thing we can use this election for is to prepare for that moment. That means finding ways of seeing who is on our side and building a group with the will to power and the expertise to make the right demands. We need to generate the inner confidence to blow up the political consensus, against the railings of the men in suits. If there had been an actual full-scale financial meltdown in 2008 without a bailout, while it would have been bad, it probably would have given us a fighting chance of warding off planetary catastrophe and reorganizing our politics. Instead the oligarchs took control, because we weren’t willing to face them down when we needed to show courage. So now we have the worst of all worlds, an inevitably worse crisis and an even more authoritarian structure of governance.

At some point soon, we will face yet another moment where the elites say, “Do what we want or there will be a meltdown.” Do we have enough people on our side willing to collectively say “do what we want or there will be a global meltdown”?

....We need to build a different model of politics, one in which people who want a different society are willing to actually bargain and back up their threats, rather than just aesthetically argue for shifts around the margin. The good news is that the changes we need to make are entirely doable. It will cost about $100 trillion over 20 years to move our world to an entirely sustainable energy system, and the net worth of the global top 1 percent is $103 trillion. We can do this. And the moments to let us make the changes we need are coming. There is endless good we can do, if enough of us are willing to show the courage that exists within every human being instead of the malevolence and desire for conformity that also exists within every heart. 

In Seder’s interview with Stoller, both men agreed that “political movements are of paramount importance.” Progressives need to recognize that getting just one man elected to the highest office is not really the change we need. We need to get personally involved, more than we ever have, in the political and electoral processes at our local, state, and Congressional district levels. We need to out-perform and out-hustle the wrong-wing Tea Party extremists despite – in fact, because of – their astro-turf funding advantage. Get two or three dozen Bernie Sanders elected to the House, and the stream of national politics will bend sharply our way. No matter who is in the White House.

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Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

Party is "run out of Washington," or top-down, since Al Fromm and buddies took it over. And the Republican Party is actually a grassroots party.

Sounds like you've forgotten more history than I know. However, I do know that the local Republicans where we live, actually have a say in their party, but the local Democratic Party serves as "window dressing," for a lack of a better expression.

Before I gave up on the Democratic Party, I was in two chapters of DFA. Joined one almost 40 miles away--great independent-minded members.

Then, a DFA organizer came here to set up one (in this University town), and he recruited the head of the local "conservative" Democratic Party. Lasted about 3 meetings before it fell apart. My point being--it was clear that DFA was interested in "foot soldiers" for the Democratic Party, not truly liberal or progressive activism. Eventually the Crossville chapter disbanded, but it was one of the largest and most productive in the state, for about five years.

After the 2008 election, Republicans got a permanent HQ. Dems shut down, and opened a temporary office which was only open 3-4 hours a day, three days a week, the last time that I checked. [In fairness, that was 4-5 months ago. They may have extended their hours, since then.]

One of the problems that I observed when I was still affiliated with the Democratic Party (and DFA) was the dearth of young people in the Party. Mr. Alexa and I were "the kids" (late forties) at the time. Many of the members of the active DFA Chapter were late fifties, but mostly sixties and seventies! Seriously. And no one could "scare up" a high school or college student. The University enrollment here, this year, is approximately 15,000 students. But if the College Democrats chapter is like it was when Howard Dean was running, it is close to "moribund."

I believe that the real problem is the hugh "disconnect" between the values and goals of the Democratic Party leadership, and the folks that they supposedly represent, or "the base."

You don't see that with the Republican Party. In the Republican Party, "the base says jump," and you know the saying, "they--Republican leadership--say, how high." Generally speaking, the Republican base in "in sync" with the Republican leadership. Which is not to say that there are no factions. However, Republicans do generally agree on several core issues of importance.

Not so, of the Democratic Party. It is a party of mostly "wedge issues," within the Party.

And example of a core issue that the entire Democratic Party could have rallied around, would have been "truly saving the social safety net." But what did the Democratic Party do instead--it lead the charge (with the appointment of the Fiscal Commission, etc.,) to dismantle our social programs.

THAT'S the reason that there is no enthusiasm or interest in doing the "building from the grass roots," which you describe.

I hope this doesn't sound harsh--but it's the "inconvenient truth" that no one seems to want to acknowledge. Or maybe folks in DC, etc., really don't get it. I've never been able to figure out which it is, frankly.

Thanks for all the history. I know very little, admittedly, and always find it interesting.

I believe that progressive politics is in shambles, at this time. And, I imagine that another four years of a conservative Democratic President who's eviscerating the social safety net and imposing austerity, should just about finish off what's left of the Democratic Party.

But, I do thank you for your willingness to stay active, and keep fighting the good fight. I wish you the best of luck, and much success in your endeavors. :)

P.S. BTW, if it seems that I missed the entire point about the party not revolving around a President, etc., I didn't. I understand your point perfectly well. But the truth of the matter is that most "common folk" don't think that way. And unless, or until, they see party leaders whom they admire and respect, and whom they think really represent them, many folks won't be willing to do the hard work of building a movement from the ground up. [And maybe I'm just plain wrong. It wouldn't be the first time. BTW, we listen to Sam Seder, too. Been listening to him since he was first on with Janeane Garofalo, on Air America.]

Submitted by YesMaybe on

Well, I don't know squat about the party organizations, but your comment about how the democrats are top-down and the republicans are more grassroots reminds me of a term I coined a while back:

Grasstrooturfing: A movement whose supporters believe is grassroots and whose opponents believe is astroturfing.

Granted, you were saying the opposite, that the other side was the one that was more grassroots. Still, it reminded me of this.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

that the Democratic Party is the more adept at "co-opting" any truly liberal groups, or movements.

Example: The conservative evangelical churches are a "true force" to be reckoned with in the Republican party. They wield tremendous power.

Compare their power, to that of the unions (today).

And, of course, the difference is that these churches are genuinely grassroots, and not run by DC Republican power brokers. (And unions are run by DC Democratic power brokers.)

As an aside, counted approximately 60 cars at one of our local conservative churches in the 'hood last night. For months, they have been phone banking, etc., several nights a week. Yet, during this election cycle, there has been almost no mention of "values voters."

I will be interested (having made the observations that I've made) what the national turn-out rate will be for this crowd, when all the figures are in. Folks betting on anti-Mormanism dampening the evangelical vote, are somewhat misguided, IMHO.

Their turnout was down last cycle (2008). My theory is that they truly did not believe that President Obama "was electable." That is why they have been going "all out" in their organizing. The Republican Party HQ here become permanent. The Democratic Party only opened a HQ here about six months ago.

What an interesting evening this will be . . .

Submitted by YesMaybe on

I don't doubt that there is real grassroots and real astroturfing. What I meant had more to do with spin/bias in the media and partisan blogospheres than with the reality (if it's on our side it must be grassroots, if it's the other side it's obviously astroturfing).