A substantial amount of Democratic energy is focused on a quasi-panicky notion of getting rid of Bush at all costs, with a correspondingly sad and disproportionately small amount focused on figuring out addressing the basic dynamic of why Bush is even in power. Should Bush go? Of course. But the more relevant question to me is why this paragon of shallow viciousness is governing a country with the finest educational institutions in history in the first place.
The two candidates asking this question implicitly are Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, and insider suspicion of Dean is redolent of the fact that the question he asks carries some uncomfortable answers, answers that would indict a lot of the Democratic Party and the liberal intellegentsia and their behavior of cronyism writ small done in the name of the powerless.
It is insider cronyist behavior by liberals, whether it's having someone like Jayson Blaire at the New York Times or hiring only highly credentialled Ivy League graduates into Capital Hill jobs, that keeps the super-crony Bush in power. Bush has strong and dishonest convictions, and Americans respect him for that, like they do all popular rich kids. It's clear that Bush likes the rich, and that he'll help aggregates of power. That strength of conviction, conviction in something awful and dishonest but conviction nonetheless, suggests that he's a leader, who, while he doesn't know where he's going, is certain that he'll get there. Yet while his ideology allows for aggressive power grabbing and insider cronyism, the Democratic Party's ideology is not so tolerant and requires a higher standard of behavior. Democrats ostensibly stand for the 'little guy' and the outsider, so the hypocrisy of putting forward a job creation program while obviously hiring only those who have personal or Ivy League connections for one's office, newspaper, or campaign reveals an inconsistency that has formed the essential backbone of Republican talking points for the last forty years. As one of my blue collar friends put it after being disillusioned by the smarminess of a Democratic campaign operative, 'At least the other side gives us a tax break'.
You can parallel the rise of the Democratic political consultant with the fall of Democrats. The disillusionment of liberalism began in the 1960s, and has been accurately reflected in the media, from the abject moral poverty of 1972's The Candidate to the eery apolitical careerism of the 1991's True Colors to the more recent (1998) Bulworth and (1997) Wag The Dog, and finally to this year's quasi-reality show K Street. With Wag the Dog, auteurs had finally crafted the ultimate example of hypocritical and self-serving liberal insiders, symbolized by the operative, or more formally, the consultant.
Political consultants aren't nice people and don't help those who can't help them; that much is obvious. Political consultants wield power and grab control over what they can, with the most important lever of power that of control over 'message'. This is not because they are bad people, but because they have a job to do, and it's easier to do that job with more power. The tool of the consultant is the talking point. Karl Rove, possibly the most powerful unelected and unreviewed official in America, has an iron grip over the talking points from the White House, and uses them to project fear and dominance. Democrats have their own consultants, who write about the dishonesty of the administration, their 'callous' nature, and about how they truly want to 'help' the powerless. But these people are not the powerless, they are in large part insiders trying to exclude others, as control over message implies by its very nature. Why should their talking points about being trust, therefore, resonate with Americans? The Republicans simply ask Americans to fear; Republicans are scary bullies, and Americans like being protected by bullies, at least in the short-term. The Democrats ask Americans to trust, but they themselves, with that intense desire for control over 'message', are not willing to trust their supporters. While it may be true that the Democrats have a harder case to make, it's also true that they don't do a very good job finding the people who can make it. If you want to appeal to the NASCAR Dad, you can't expect to do so using Harvard interns. You've got to find a place for NASCAR Dads in the political space you create, and that can't be as a donor or sign-holder. It has to be a place of relevance. Otherwise, they'll just take a tax cut.
Fortunately, the internet has allowed for the creation of massive public spaces. Unfortunately, with two exceptions, the Democratics are refusing to make space for their supporters, because the cronyism of the Democratic Party won't allow it. Howard Dean is threatening to break the cronyism of the Democratic Party and replace it with his own version of Democratic politics, which at least brings in youth and passion. The Dean campaign office is filled with idealistic chatterboxes, many of whom just got on a bus one day to Burlington. The Draft Clark movement skewed older and more intellectual, but it too was a response to the lack of leadership (or 'hunger for leadership' as Clark put it), the lack of our leaders creating structures for political innovation and engagement. Yet these are not the first signs of political revolt; Buchanan and Perot in 1992, Perot in 1996, and Nader in 2000 were all responses to the lack of political space in the American political system.
The maturing internet has allowed for the creation of that space, and we are witnessing a nonpartisan war between those reactionaries who reject the widening spacial boundaries of politics and those visionaries who embrace them. This is why the bad blood between Dean and Kerry is actually worse than that between Dean and Bush. Kerry and Bush stand together on a very important plank, that politics should be narrow and focus on themselves. For Bush this is consistent, for Kerry hypocritical. The reactionary nature of both men benefits the right-wing more than progressives, because progressive reactionaries must compromise their way to power through inside channels, losing their moral authority in the process, while the right-wing doesn't achieve through moral authority in the first place. It's hard to wield power ruthlessly and retain the support of civil rights groups; it's much easier to do so and retain the support of oil companies.
Those progressives who retained their moral authority in large part did so in niche areas (gay rights), in the nonprofit sector, or in relative political irrelevance (Paul Wellstone, Gary Hart, Ted Kennedy). Therefore, while there's been a sea of narrow progressive advance on micro-issues, it's been drowned in an ocean of reactionary effectiveness. Kerry pretends to progressivism, but is actually Bush-lite, though not because he voted for the war, or rather, because he is a reactionary progressive, he voted for the war but didn't want to. Bush is just Bush, and while he lies, well, that's just Bush.
The reactionary progressive, surely the ironic figure of this Orwellian political era, has flourished only because the top-down media environment encouraged a progressive implosion. With a limited number of channels and a limited amount of political space, control over message, and therefore Rove control, dominated, but this infrastructure is buckling under as the number of channels expands from the number of TV networks to the number of citizens willing to publish a web page. Indeed, blogs are merely the backbone of a larger shift towards relevancy in organizational structure, and both parties are facing internal wars between those who represent more space and those who represent reaction. 'Liberal' and 'conservative' are simply labels right now to keep score between two teams on symbol issues like ANWAR, late term abortion, gun rights, the lie du jour, but the real battle going on has little to do with any of the symbols. The real battle has to do with 'the insiders' battling to exclude and gradually losing, whether through having Howard Dean call Democrats in Congress cockroaches or Salam Pax, Iraqi citizen, blogging about how stupid the administration is in Iraq. McCain/Bush was the first battle of this war in the GOP; Dean/Clark/Everyone else is this war among the Democrats.
The new politics isn't going to do away with top-down structures of organization, but it will provide a powerful alternative. Top-down structures, and there is no better example than Bush himself, succeed at retaining power by engaging in four basic tactics:
- Buying off those who have leverage with which to threaten or hurt them. Some Bush examples include the Saudis, Pakistan, China (spy plane apology), energy companies, etc. Some liberal examples include tariffs for unions and the protection of trial lawyers.
- Buying off themselves and their friends and family (Halliburton, Harken, Enron, Delay PACs - The Kennedy family is the liberal example)
- Threatening and hurting those who have no effective concentrated leverage with which to protect themselves (veterans, minorities, the poor).
- Concentrating selective resources into creating factoids for later display in PR campaigns (steel tariffs, tax credits for some children, most likely a semi-bailout of California).
The critical element to remember is that all of these tactics cost, and none of them produce, which essentially means that the store of public wealth - whether that be fiscal surplus, creditworthiness, international sympathy for the US after 9/11, environmental treasurers - is consistently used by reactionaries and never replenished by them. Bush pushes out the costs and pulls in the benefits - tax cuts are not just the reactionary MO, they are the great reactionary metaphor.
This insider-itis produces a vicious and victorious right-wing agenda, and a pathetic pandering from the reactionary Democrats, who scurry to offer their own version of 'tax cuts', though this time for the 'middle class'. Of course, tax cuts are fundamentally a bribe for a populace that doesn't trust its leadership, and the Democrats win when the people trust government, not when they don't. A Democrat that offers a 'middle class tax cut' while also promising help for the poor is both engaging in cynical pandering to the electorate through selective bribery AND asking for trust from that same populace. But you can't have it both ways. Bush is a better crony than the Democrats, which is why the Democrats consistently lose influence through fights over symbolic issues, regardless of how much they compromise with Republicans or each other. Democrats think small; the DLC fights over gun control and marginal shifts in tax policy and trade, with the idea that removing the Republicans bludgeoning use of symbols will remove the source of their power. But it won't, because the source of their power is the very insider mentality that fights over symbols on GOP turf.
The fight, symbolized by the potentially realigning 2004 election, is not over 'liberal' or 'conservative'; those are just petty policy labels. The fight is over space, and whether to create more of it. Dean is creating more space, on his terms. Everyone else is fighting for the existing space, the existing channels. I support Clark because I believe he has the potential to create more space on wide progressive terms than anyone since FDR.
The insider cronyism applied to progressive ends leads not to extreme left-wing policies (in fact it puts little pressure on the political direction of policy proposals) but to extreme incompetence, and unified incompetence across the messaging of the party. Democrats are 'right' on basically every policy according to the polls; why is it that the Democratic Party has lower approval ratings than it's had since before FDR? How is it that the more 'right' the Democrats become, the more they lose to the Republicans? Why can't they craft a communications strategy to show that going to war based on fraud is a bad thing and not just playing politics? These are important questions, and you cannot chalk it down to the American people being stupid. Americans may be misinformed, but it's not like Democrats are explaining rocket science here. People are losing their jobs, schools are closing, we're taking casualties, Bush is lying and beholden to corporate interests. Again, not rocket science. The generic counterattack that effectively defrays liberal attacks is that the Democrats are just as bad (the 'blame Clinton' argument is an amusing and depressingly effective spinoff of this line or argumentation) and that they are just playing politics. I had no idea this was true until I actually went inside to investigate, determining that while 'all politics might be local', 'all politics was certainly petty'. Eventually, the incompetence and dishonesty I saw around me on the inside mirrored itself quite clearly in my eyes in the incompetence and dishonesty in post-war Iraq. All politics is petty, I realized, and I saw that the man I worked for voted for the war because he is a reactionary individual, as is the organization that he put together to put him in the White House.
One of the things that strikes me as odd about several 'insider' Democratic campaigns that I have worked in is how no one talks about politics in the office. I started volunteering for John Kerry in late 2002, and the first time I showed up to lick stamps, sitting around the table were nine nice milquetoast individuals who were shocked, just shocked, that I would be angry enough to discuss how betrayed I felt by George W. Bush and our leadership. After a few wan parries of what I was saying, they just kind of got back to the random chit chatting about their careers, where they lived, whatever. I had entered the office steaming mad, sure that the anger I saw on the blogs about the mid-term elections would find a ready echo among those volunteering for the then front-runner among the Democrats. Yet, in fact, the lack of passion and embrace of mediocrity was staggering. Few knew or cared about the mendacity of the Bush administration, or to the extent they did, it was a vague distaste that our team wasn't 'in'. One of the chief fundraisers there told me about how her whole goal was to get into the White House, and got angry at me for talking about politics.
I quickly shut up, and eventually was offered a job doing online strategy, a dream opportunity for someone with no experience and no connections. Yet while it was clear that they were willing to make room for me, it was as clear that they weren't willing to make room for anyone else like me. The bloodless insider mentality had expunged passion from the system, and rewarded friends and those with connections but no talent. I was the rare exception in terms of job offers; someone with no connections and no conventional political experience who had proved that he could be valuable. Nevertheless, I turned the job down to work for the Draft Clark movement, because space was what I sought, and space was not what the insiders sought. They hired me to copy the idea that they were creating space because they saw Dean winning, but they would never have allowed for the actual creation of space, because that would have made the insider/outsider split less relevant.
I couldn't put my energy towards the construction of a rigid hierarchical pyramid, because it was obvious that the Dean campaign was going to win with its decentralized structure that semi-broke down the 'insider/outsider' paradigm. John Kerry talked about building the largest grassroots campaign in history. He wasn't telling the truth, because if he truly cared about the grassroots, his campaign would not have worked through cronyism writ small.
The Draft Clark movement was different, and expanded as it grew, filling itself with more space, generating more leadership, encouraging more people to grow into it as it grew into them. The message was controlled through the beautiful consistency of Clark's articulated ideas, which are in the mold of Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Truman, and JFK. Howard Dean and Wesley Clark are the two men who can represent the Democratic Party in 2004; both men seek to create space for new constituencies, for old constituencies to reassert themselves, and in seeking that space threaten vested interests that seek control over channels and a limit to the number of channels that can exist. Dean is creating space on his terms, with a coherent critique of our institutional infrastructure but a lack of ability to see beyond that breakdown. Only Wesley Clark has articulated that ability to see the value of space, and the challenges that come with it. It's scary, and threatens every Americans' assumptions about how the world works, because openness frightens a litigiously oriented defensive society.
But The Greatest Generation sold millions of copies because a trusting society is exactly what we hunger for. Indeed, open societies threaten a lot of what lies in our hearts, and it is our challenge to meet that challenge with exhaustive soul searching. Without meeting it, we will be living in Bush's America, even if Bush is defeated. Bush or his ilk will return in 2008 or 2012 or 2016, and the catastrophic North Korean, Iranian, and terrorist threats will still exist. In order to change the country we cannot just change Presidents; we must change politics. We must do it as we did in the draft.
There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come, said Clark, and I believed him, not because of simple hero-worship, but because that statement is everything I love about America, and contains the seeds for more space than can hold our greatest dreams. Wesley Clark's one faith based belief is that the speed of light is not fixed; I share this belief, because I do not accept limits, I do not accept the ability of mankind to cease achieving, and I do not accept Clark's rhetoric as just rhetoric. I accept it as reality. The Clark campaign is off to a start, and I am excited in some ways and feel there have been a few stumbles, but I have faith that the man who invented a new chapter in world history with his Kosovo campaign can actualize his vision to our political system.