Effectiveness, evolution and vision

Bob Salladay responds to my earlier post:

I happily come from a leftist-hippy family (see photo of my wood-fired hot tub – it’s semi-liberal), so I know from where progressives are speaking. But I am struck by how progressives feel the California Democratic Party establishment doesn’t represent their views.

Getting our sallow on at the AD13
meeting. Click the pic for more.

He then goes through a perfectly reasonable laundry list of things that California Democrats have accomplished or taken great strides towards: LGBTQ marriage equality, global warming standards, minimum wage increases, and health care. These are are all great and it’s true, seeing them in one place makes me proud to live here. But ideology, especially in the most basic “laundry list” sense, isn’t our beef with the state party and it never has been, as he notes:

For progressives, the deepest problem is the abandonment of true Democratic Party ideals when it comes to challenging the Iraq war (and another federal issue, immigration, to a lesser extent). That anger has perhaps prompted the attempted revolution inside the California Democratic Party today — even if the Democratic establishment here has been pretty aligned with progressives.

The short version of what we’re looking for is two things: vision and execution. The long version requires an understanding why people are still getting involved and staying involved (which are really two quite different processes), and why it’s growing, which requires a little bottom-up recent history of things. This was my personal experience, but it’s a pattern that I’ve heard repeated from dozens and dozens of other newly involved folks.
From what I can tell – and I don’t know if there are any numbers available on this, but it’d be nice if there were – one wave of energy rolled into the party after 2000 and then again after 2002, when I got involved. A lot of this was driven by more or less stark fear, the palpable sense that the country had been drifting towards something unpleasant – maybe not outright fascism, but maybe some form of virulently unpleasant authoritarian oligarchy – and had picked up a lot of steam quickly after 2000 and then more quickly still after September 11th.
The travesty of justice that was the Clinton impeachment and President Bush rolling the supreme court in 2000 were both troubling for a lot of us, and in fact I joined MoveOn originally to oppose the impeachment. But what really sparked that deep feeling of fear was not just Iraq, but the lack of meaningful opposition presented in the 2002 midterms. This was what caused me to get involved with the party itself, which I mark as the first time I truly stopped spectating. It seemed like the party itself had somehow blown it, so I called the CDP and asked them how they were organized, and eventually had lunch with someone from the central committee who invited me to come to a meeting and to serve as an alternate.
So initially, as Mr Salladay points out, I, like many folks, wasn’t frustrated with the CDP per se at all. My frustration with them came later, as I studied the recent history of this country more, and when I got to a point where I could better evaluate the state of the party’s infrastructure compared to both its opponents and to what was possible. I saw that we were being outflanked rapidly by things like superior messaging and narrative development, and very poor to (in too many cases) practically nonexistent use of the most basic of information technologies: all the fruits that the lavishly funded and by then very mature conservative movement provided on the other side.
Lakoff was such a revelation for a lot of people around this 2002/2004 period of time, because he was the first person to articulate (however roughly) an intellectual framework that explained how the two parties had broken down through all this. For the first time, people could at least sort of explain what we were about and what they were about and why all this had happened. Since it was the first time in a long time anyone had articulated a narrative for the left that seemed remotely coherent, even if that narrative hasn’t really stood up over time, it was a huge relief.
People initially go through a phase of wanting to “take over” the party, which goes away as they realize how the thing works. After that point, they mostly want to be the new energy in the party and to make a party that is able to kick electoral butt. What the new energy wants, I think, is something like this: a huge distributed superparticipatory full diversity vibrant functioning megademocracy. We want politics to be the new black. The party could do this inside existing resource constraints if it would just execute and evolve, if it would just innovate and come up with plans and make them happen, if it would try lots of different things and toss the ones that don’t work and keep the ones that do.
So maybe that’s a little boring and technocratic (or even a little sallow and depressive?), but that’s what one horn of what we want boils down to: effectiveness, pure and simple. The good news is that the actual process can be exciting, even fun. The stakes may have been relatively insignificant, but we sat through some pretty tense votes on the central committee. And I have a stack of stories and great memories from travelling around doing stuff. So many late night, wine fueled strategy/bull sessions. The squint of the strawberry farmer at her table when I drove in late to set up the voter reg booth at the Santa Barbara farmer’s market. Long, rambling conversations working this or that table or in hotel suites at conventions. So many victory and loss parties. For someone who spent too much of the decade before this staring at a computer screen, this was a really healthy change for me. I think it may be a fundamentally healthy thing for anyone.
Probably more important even than effectiveness is the other horn of what’s missing from the laundry list: my own personal political imagination and, I have reason to believe, the collective imagination of my generation, finally started to sputter back to life. It had been squashed under decades of conservative “government isn’t the answer” rhetoric, but for reasons I could only speculate about, after I got involved, it came back. We still have a long way to go on this, but it seems very clear that this process is very much starting to kick over and fire.
This may be a case of California exceptionalism that’s no more useful than the American variety, but it seems as if it matters that this is happening here, that this state has a particular story to tell. Amazing things have risen here: technologies have sprouted that have spawned entire industries, created untold quantities of wealth and changed the course of humanity. These events occurred here for a reason: the people who led this state made bold, public investments in the future and created a civilization that deliberately socialized a lot of the costs of risk. Now those public investments are being either starved or slapped down onto the credit card, and the risks are being shifted mercilessly back to individuals because it’s easy to make a quick buck (or a few billion of them) that way.
Unless, that is, progressives put a stop to this insanity. But the salient point here is that the progressive vision doesn’t even really exist yet. Stopping the slide towards the unpleasantness was the first step but we are juuust getting started on the rest. All the political imaginations of all the new people who are getting involved, all 960 people at these AD meetings and the countless others at various stages of involvement, are maybe just now starting to slowly come together.
I think we can start to speculate a little at what it the progressive future looks like. This is a deeply transformative vision, but not a particularly radical one: practically no aspect of the lives of Americans will be untouched should the movement even partially succeed, just as few aspects of our lives have not been touched by the conservative movement’s dominance.
To sketch this out: we are building a society that is profoundly committed to social justice and to protecting the environment. There’s going to be a new economic common sense, one where government is very much acknowledged as the answer some of the time. There’s going to be a new version of the American (and Californian) dream, focused less on what you own and how much of it than the quality of the relationships the built environment can support. We’ll drive less and walk and bike more. We’ll work less and have more fun. We’re going beyond simple tolerance and towards the true celebration of diversity. We’ll create more and read more and talk more and listen more and and explore more and spend more time with our families and kids. We are going to share the incredible wealth of our country better and make work pay for everyone. Only some aspects of this change will come about through politics. The contours of all of this are just emerging now, but it goes far beyond what has come to pass so far.
It’s arguable at this political moment that we are indeed bearing witness to the birth of a social movement. How this will play out in the era of post-partisanness is anyone’s guess – if in fact anything like that is happening, and isn’t anything more than Schwarzeneggerian smoke and mirrors. But it’s definitely an interesting time to be alive and an even more interesting time to be involved.
Two updates: First, another way to summarize this would be “people joined the movement/party for the fear, but they’re staying for the hope.” And second, another bit of speculation on where the movement is headed: the conservative movement ticked along for a couple decades until the Powell Memorandum was written in 1971, which unlocked a lot of corporate money and greatly accelerated their organizational capacity. Today, there are entire industry sectors that have growth curves that are, in part, functions of the rate of expansion of substantial freedom and cognitive liberty. The case hasn’t been made to these organizations yet, but if there is in fact a bottom-line rationale for investment in the progressive movement, that would likely trigger a nonlinear increase in the funding and subsequent capability of the progressive movement analogous to what happened with the conservatives during the 1970s and 80s.