So are we there yet? Some thoughts as they occur, probably to be consolidated in an omnibus post.
We begin where we are. Political science and philosophy lead to the same diagnosis: today’s America is a hybrid demotic-oligarchy. The hybrid qualifier? Existing institutions are deployed as both hammer and victim. Oligarchy, while increasingly bold, prefers to act through intermediaries. Economic difficulties may highlight oligarchical self-serving action. They still remain, good times or bad. But you already knew that.
All should know by 2011 oligarchy and the Movement are momentarily bed fellows. Koch money et al. funds the Movement. To agitate on tax cuts or issue X. The Movement remains distinct. Across history oligarchies typically are overthrown by authoritarianism. See, e.g. Venice, Genoa, Rome (and even Athens, which was never a republic but a democracy) Or your own example.
Oligarchical rule is never sustainable. It’s primarily extractive and self-interested nature leads to dissipation or opposition, usually chaotic or disorganized because political institutions have atrophied. Thus enters the Man on the White Horse to restore order. (Oligarchical money of course also famously funds Democrats).
Howard Fineman’s ‘we are watching slow rolling secession (from democratic pluralism)’ sums it up. He’s late to the realization; still a nice turn of phrase. We should be clear what this means. When societies reach this devolutionary point, there usually is no ‘re-set’. Things don’t just go ‘back to the way they were’ (see post on Audacity’s failure below).
Politics and society have changed. A by-product of Obama’s refusal to implement (and defend) roll-back of the 2001-2008 corrosion. We should adapt accordingly. For the post-Obama world.
Do Democrats want to challenge the game? Today’s circumstances demand a thorough intellectual re-boot. Secession from pluralism requires a new ideological response. Even if Dems must play the money game without reform. The hardest part? Just beginning it all. Democrats have paralyzed themselves with tropes like seeing a snapshot poll and muttering “America is center right anyway”. Forgetting *that’s* the result only after decades of almost totally unopposed Movement AgitProp. How far do Democrats really want to move the cheese?
Ideological entities to bend the social curve are long term endeavors. Today’s Movement’s success 2001-2011 began in the late 1970s.
Still interested? OK. On one post card. What does it mean to be a Democrat? Why does it matter? If one can’t do that, then don’t try. Simplicity is hard. Just ask anyone trying to copy Apple. Complexity is easy. Demotic politics make this priority number one. We’re deadly serious. Dump the laundry list of programs or special interests. Ideologically, why do Democrats exist? One post card.
We understand the old joke about ‘not an organized political party’. A past luxury. Two other hoary chestnuts no longer universally true: (i) ‘politics is the art of addition’; and (ii) ‘all politics are local’. In a ‘rolling secession’ ideological world, both now heavily qualified with ‘sometimes’.
A reader might be thinking by now, ‘But I know all this’. Likely if you found this site. You’d also probably agree that Democrats fail at the second requirement after postcards. How to build and sell narratives. Enrolling narratives are the key to success in a demotic environment. Democrats still don’t know how to build narratives. Worse than TEPCO after Fukushima. Snark? Democrats and their base do well. Narratives are more than a laundry list of interest groups or program names.
Successful narratives begin with foundational, animating concepts that speak to Ur Myths, Ur Truths. Democrats must grok in the very fiber of their beings that *everything* since William Jennings Bryan is up for grabs: empiricism, science, the notion of ‘progress’ as a linear path with direction. Presume and assume *nothing*. Those basic precepts built the American Century. They are the origins for American liberal democratic capitalism. Today’s standards of living, life expectancy, regulation, collective bargaining, the GI Bill, etc. All originated from them. Democrats forgot that all also were outlier ideas that had to overcome significant initial resistance. (See, e.g., Scopes Trial).
To tell a story that commands allegiance, Democrats must re-learn how those basic Enlightenment concepts triumphed. It’s not because they were ‘right’. They were marketed. And pushed. For example, the infusion of objective external data into legal analysis was once considered heretical. Hence the famous Brandeis briefs. The Roberts Court are moving backwards now. Government programs only have legitimacy when seen to be working and effective. (All the WPA plaques, WW II, Apollo, etc.) Increased standards of living, health, etc. are the *by-product.
Almost everything the modern coalition of interest groups calling themselves Democrats adhere to begins with empiricism, science and rationality. New narratives must begin there. If those basic concepts go, all the superstructure built upon them follows.
The netroots effort in this regard must be judged a non-success. Not just because they were among the biggest Obama kool aiders. And helped enable this disaster. They don’t really understand what they’re up against. Tactically they were caught by surprise in Wisconsin and Ohio. Inexcusable in 2011. After 2001-08. Moreover, they remain marginal within the Democratic Party after 8 years of Bush-Cheney. More time might help. The nation – if it is to arrest, let alone reverse ‘slow rolling secession’ – doesn’t have it.
One sign of for optimism? The Stewart/Colbert rally on the Mall drew almost half a million people for ‘sanity’. There is a yearning for a non-Movement organizing narrative. Stewart and Colbert excel at narrative. They chose not to pull the trigger and galvanize their audience to concrete political action. There is an audience.
Even if the Democrats do the hard postcard work and begin to speak narratively, organization needs build out. Our background is in Movement/Republican politics and fund raising. However they reconfigure, Democrats must build something new, an organization prepared to wage protracted ideological conflict. ‘Slow rolling secession’ is about ideological struggle beyond the ‘Tea Party’s’ energy level. A demotic society requires constant engagement. That’s one reason Fox manufactures fake narratives like the ludicrous ‘War on Christmas’. Democrats needn’t copy Fox. But they do need to understand the why. To keep people enrolled beyond an election cycle.
The post-Obama world requires Democrats to wake up. It’s a new kind of politics. It’s about prevailing in seeming tectonic rigid ideological combat marked by bursts of sudden Movement radicalism.
A new post-Obama political party designed to win must have: (a) its identity clear (the postcard); (b) it’s story clear (the narratives); (c) surrogate ‘re-tweeters’ (if you will) to help sell the narrative (including faith-based); (d) a clear understanding that it’s AgitProp not designed to be ‘objective truth’; (d) coalition support ; (e) cadre recruitment and training; and (f) finances. All focused on offensive politics. To reclaim lost ground. To propose new approaches.
Let’s use the current FAA shut down over unions as a case study. How can Democrats be surprised? Bush Cheney in 2002 immediately after 9/11 held the entire Homeland Security Act hostage to de-unionizing government/making sure TSA couldn’t unionize. The War on Terror took a back seat to union bashing. The FAA? Small change. (Granted the country might be better off without Homeland Security). The Movement wants to rip the guts out of Old School Democratic support mechanisms. The Democrats have had *years* to build a strong narrative to promote organized labor. Nada. Zip. Nothing.
Democrats going forward ? The time to defend coalition partners is immediately, when they are strong. That’s why the Movement counter-attacks at any perceived slight right away. Narratives work better when partners are healthy too. A stand now on organized labor? After Democrats themselves undercut American labor and manufacturing with NAFTA/Davos/Friedmanisms? If the dilemma is to decide between oligarchical funding and an allegedly key coalition power base? Says it all.
Peter Daou famously wrote a memo in 2004 about how Democrats needed to copy Republican techniques. His premise? Democrats need to copy Republicans’ triangle among elected officials, activists and think tanks, etc. Ariania’s website grew from those conversations (now subject to a lawsuit). New structures did follow. D.C. think tanks, and accidentally MSNBC. We all know it’s not working.
It’s all relatively young. It lacks the postcard exercise and shared narrative. There is no synchronicity because the output is not generating enrolling stories. That are seen to be acted upon on the political stage. Without the postcard exercise and narrative focus it becomes random factoids. We have yet to see a Democratic think tank generating a meme (report) that became the organizing basis for a sustained AgitProp and political offensive. Just the other night one of the MSNBC hosts, fuming over the deficit deal, read a list of programs that would be cut. It was Gore and Norwood Dingle all over. That person might as well have added General Tsao’s Chicken.
Powerful narrative also means discipline, orchestration. Winning narratives? Demotic societies (either through decay or primativism) respond to simplicity. Peace. Bread. Land. Or No New Taxes.
That’s a lot of work to do. Protracted ideological conflict requires a human capital plan. Not just to copy the K Street Project. It all begins and ends with cadres. People. Resume banks. Leadership training. Youth campaign seminars. In duplicate. Triplicate. The formal party apparat should not be the sole or even primary vehicle in current circumstances. For example, Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute existed for years very happily — and deliberately — apart from the RNC. None of it will matter, of course, without understanding who they are (the postcard) and why (the narrative) – and why always must be more than ‘against’.
Message discipline is going to get harder for all concerned as we slide further into demotic dissolution. New technologies exacerbate matters. All the more reason for the postcard simplicity and concise narratives. Easy to build, easy to re-Tweet. The original core idea should originate outside of ephemeral social media. Democrats (and non-Rightists) going in are disadvantaged. Demotic societies by their nature favor irrationality, fear, greed and the transient. The Movement’s petri dish.
Is any of this doable? We think so. Even in Fineman’s ‘slow rolling secession’ frame? As mentioned, no republic has ever walked backwards from an oligarchical state. It’d be foolish not to try. We should be honest with ourselves. ‘Virtue’ (in the non-moral, belief sense) once lost doesn’t come back. But perhaps its memory will be enough.
All of the above assuming Democrats even want to move the rice bowls. Non-Rightists care only to the extent it might arrest further decline. Restoration would be double plus good. What about other options?
What are the chances of reclaiming a non-radicalized Republican Party? They’ve gone through this before. Had their Goldwater phase. Republicans (Nixon, too) took back their own institutions. The goal of this exercise is admittedly limited – to defuse Movement radicalism and subject oligarchical rule to some restraints for the public good (such as real FinReg reform, etc.)
Those inside the Republican Party trying to wait out the current radicalism say time will exhaust today’s Movement excitability. The argument runs that one should participate in Republican politics, primaries, fund raising — and pretend to go along with the Movement — as an investment. To have a seat at the table when the Movement parasite rests and the Republican host’s future is up for grabs. We’ve talked about this together in comments here a bit. Why some have observed voting for Romney might be objectively the best political act open to a Non-Rightist or even a Democrat.
Republicans more than Democrats also understand power and are comfortable wielding it. It’s a big point. As Democrats showed 2006-2010, what’s the point of a majority if it can’t and won’t stand for anything?
A reclaimed party still is a very long shot. Beyond money for non-Movement candidates. There are so few ‘traditional’ Republicans left. Say in the Howard Baker mold. They don’t exist. The goal posts have moved too far. Those ‘moderates’ lying low in the Republican Party are objectively right wing and Movement semi ex-pats.
There’s also the 3rd party option. Ala Nader they typically have been minor and spoilers. Perot lived and died by Larry King, then today’s version of FB and Twitter. National Town Halls were a siren call from Perot. So it’s not surprising that the 3rd Party candidate idea finds new allure via voting on the Internet. Even less surprising that a hedge fund is doing it. It’s wholly demotic and decadent. The very process accelerates the transition for oligarchy to authoritarianism. Politics also crafted for current circumstances.
The Movement will love it. A demotic direct selection of president plays out largely on its ideological and motivational turf. The Movement has the postcard done. It is masterful at narrative. Most important is the notion of leader principle legitimized by plebiscite. As we’re reported before, Ashcroft told us over lunch not long after he stepped down from Attorney General that a presidential election is all that mattered because the people voted for him. Thus the president could ignore Congress. As a senator he understood and accepted that. A presidential re-election also meant approval of all of that president’s acts, even those still secret. Ashcroft is not alone in this view. It’s not atypical within the Movement.
Don’t ask if a 3rd Party Internet candidate can ‘win’? More important is how much damage would be done.
An American Tahrir? Egypt removed Mubarak. But the Army remains. And the protestors are back to square one. Public theater is most effective when backed by an organized political agenda or entity. In history, public demonstrations are a typical response to an oligarchy in decay. Prompting calls to ‘restore order’ (ala Napoleon, for example, in a slightly different context).
We share the frustration of those who call for public demonstrations. American historical experience with peaceful demonstrations makes it attractive. The great causes like civil rights were tied to clear political goals. The Stewart/Colbert rally became an airball because it lacked organized politics. Without some entity doing the postcard thing and narrative discipline in the ready to translate the public spectacle into concrete political action we can’t see an American Tahrir as anything more than a precursor to clampdown.
We rate the chances of Democratic re-invention low. 30% or lower. Most likely scenario is the existing Democratic apparatus re-energized led by one with slightly more spine. Counter-punching the Movement successfully is not wholly unimaginable but it would be DLC/Clinton-esque. Imposing some constraints on oligarchy? Possible. Recapturing the Republican Party from the Movement parasites et al.? High risk, high reward scenario. Success for a Republican host to recover from Movement parasitism ultimately depends on campaign finance reform. That’s the alpha and omega there in our opinion. 10% at best. And not for some time. “Depending on the breaks” per Buck Turgidson. More likely is the dangerous puppet 3rd party construct with a direct appeal to a radicalized demos.
Our first stab at paths ahead. YMMV and probably does.