Election 2008 Liberalism Obama Politics

Transformational politics

Eric Schneiderman of The Nation has a must-read article for all aspiring political strategists, and all those who cannot explain their strong support for Mr. Obama called”Transforming the Liberal Checklist.”

The essence:

I respectfully suggest that if we want to move beyond short- term efforts to slow down the bone-crushing machinery of the contemporary conservative movement and begin to build a meaningful movement of our own, we need to expand the job descriptions of our elected officials. To do this, we must consider the two distinct aspects of our work: transactional politics and transformational politics.

Transactional politics is pretty straightforward. What’s the best deal I can get on a gun-control or immigration-reform bill during this year’s legislative session? What do I have to do to elect a good progressive ally in November? Transactional politics requires us to be pragmatic about current realities and the state of public opinion. It’s all about getting the best result possible given the circumstances here and now.

Transformational politics is the work we do today to ensure that the deal we can get on gun control or immigration reform in a year–or five years, or twenty years–will be better than the deal we can get today. Transformational politics requires us to challenge the way people think about issues, opening their minds to better possibilities. It requires us to root out the assumptions about politics or economics or human nature that prevent us from embracing policies that will make our lives better. Transformational politics has been a critical element of American political life since Lincoln was advocating his “oft expressed belief that a leader should endeavor to transform, yet heed, public opinion.”

Domestic issues Election 2008 Liberalism Obama Politics

Lawrence Lessig for Congress

Reihan, guest-blogging on Andrew Sullivan’s blog on the possibility of Lawrence Lessig running for Congress:

I think of Lessig as an almost paradigmatic Obamacrat, a smart and accomplished professional interested in reforming and revitalizing government for the betterment of all Americans through the embrace of disruptive technologies and, um, cherished American principles. If this is the animating impulse behind the new liberalism, the new conservatism that will rise to challenge it will be sharper and more forward-looking still.

Domestic issues Election 2008 Liberalism Obama Politics

Conversations on a train

[digg-reddit-me]To Tara from the train tonight:

You said something that I often hear – that Ms. Clinton knows how she is going to change things, while Mr. Obama is light on the details.   Yet each candidate has laid out detailed and similar plans.  They each have taken advantage of the growing liberal think tanks and combined the best of the various approaches.  Neither candidate can take credit for these ideas – as they are the product of a liberal consensus, and specifically, the consensus of many in think tanks and similar institutions in Washington, D.C.

There are minor differences in the goals each candidate is proposing – but I’ll leave those for another day – because what you said, and what I have heard many other people say, is not that Mr. Obama has different goals than Ms. Clinton, but that he has not thought out how to accomplish his goals.

This simply isn’t the case.  You can compare the level of detail in the plans on and Mr. Obama’s and Ms. Clinton’s website.

But Mr. Obama clearly talks less about policy specifics than Ms. Clinton.  The Senator from New York often will list a few dozen policies and rattle off some specific ways her plans will function.  It’s an impressive show.  But the show is also deceptive and ineffective.

Although Ms. Clinton explains how her plans will work, she does not explain how she will put them in place.  She cannot – because if she begins to, it ruins the illusion that is a great part of her appeal.  Ms. Clinton may have all the details planned out now, but her carefully wrought and nuanced proposals will not survive the legislative process.  When the time comes to make these policy plans into laws and programs, legislators, business interests, bureaucrats, and anyone else remotely affected by the policy will get their say – and the details will quickly change.  A major reason why her health care initiative during her husband’s administration failed was that she failed to change the details – and threatened to “demonize” anyone who got in her way, including the friendly liberal Senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley.

Given Ms. Clinton’s history, she realizes that detailed policy plans don’t survive attempts to enact them.  Yet she still insists on presenting them as if they were what she would do, rather than what she would attempt to do.  There’s nothing wrong with this – but it is deceptive.  I don’t blame Ms. Clinton for this.  This is standard politics – and it is also a major reason why so many Americans are fed up with politics, and those candidates who “say they will do one thing” but don’t.  Part of the problem is that candidates promise things that they do not control – and enacting Ms. Clinton’s policy proposals will not be entirely up to the President.

Which brings us to Mr. Obama.  He also has detailed policy proposals – but he does not present them as one of the basic pillars of his campaign.  Rather he focuses on creating a movement, an active citizenry, that will demand change; on changing the processes by introducing elements such as transparency and direct accountability.  Mr. Obama explains his approach and his thought process – two elements Ms. Clinton guards as a tactical secrets – because he acknowledges that he cannot promise specific items.

Not only is Mr. Obama’s approach more honest – it is also more effective.  Think of the last presidential candidates who spouted policies versus those who campaigned on broad themes.  Senator Kerry campaigned on policy; President Bush on themes.  Vice President Gore campaigned on policy; Governor Bush campaigned on themes.  President Clinton campaigned on some amalgamation of policy and theme – in a way I have only seen Mr. Clinton fuse them – and Senator Dole campaigned … you know, I don’t know what Mr. Dole’s campaign was about.  But going back further over the past half-century – most winning presidential candidates have focused less on policy, and more on character, themes, and narratives.

Drew Westen wrote a book about the matter last year – explaining why Democrats were losing.  His diagnosis of the problem was simple: Democrats focused on policies; Republicans focused on character and narrative.  Republicans did this because it was effective.  Now, we have Mr. Obama who can compete – indeed, dominate – the Republicans in rhetoric, in character, in creating election narratives, in weaving political themes into his moving speeches.

President Ronald Reagan was able to create a major realignment of the electorate in a conservative direction because, infused with a proud conservatism, he was able to explain to the American people why they needed Republican values.  He told the story of America and his punch line was: that is why you need someone who believes what I do in the White House. So, in 1981, it was Morning in America.

Mr. Obama is the only candidate today who could create a similar shift – who could reinterpret the American story and reshape the electorate to create a lasting liberal majority.

Election 2008 History Liberalism Obama Political Philosophy Politics

A Dream Deeply Rooted in the American Dream

Commentators and candidates have drawn many parallels from today’s Democratic candidates to historical figures and elections.

[via reddit]

[digg-reddit-me]Hillary Clinton has been described as Nixon and LBJ, including the latter by herself. John Edwards has been described as a FDR (mainly by himself), William Jennings Bryan and a Bobby Kennedy. Barack Obama’s historical analogues have been far-ranging. Ken Burns has compared Obama to Lincoln. David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has as well, as seen above. JFK’s top speechwriter has compared Obama to President Kennedy. Before his Iowa win, intelligent pundits saw parallels to failed liberal candidates: Adlai Stevenson, Bill Bradley, and Gene McCarthy.

But it wasn’t until Hillary took a swipe at Obama that the parallels to Barack to Martin Luther King, Jr. became evident. The main theme of the 2008 is, and will be, change. Americans know that we need to tackle many long-term issues:

  • global climate change;
  • radical islamism;
  • the erosion of civil liberties;
  • executive overreach;
  • the instability of the American economy;
  • globalization, the entitlement crises;
  • health care reform;
  • the inequality of opportunity and the rising gap between the rich and the poor.

Our current politics – based on tears and smears, on the Bushes and the Clintons, on money and more money – is unable to produce meaningful or lasting change.To vote for Clinton or Giuliani or Romney or Thompson or Huckabee (and to a lesser extent McCain ((The McCain of 1999 to 2002 could have changed politics. The McCain of today is still an honorable man – but despite his commendable honesty, I am not sure how much he would be able to, or willing to try to, get done.)) ) – is to vote to continue the politics of the past decades, producing gridlock and negligible progress, even as Cassandras continually point out our impending doom.

There are three candidates who embody three very different approaches to change: Ron Paul, Barack Obama, and John Edwards.

Ron Paul is quite clearly a reactionary – and in this case, I do not mean it to be derogatory. He wants to trim government to a radical extent – back to the period before the Civil War. I doubt the change he desires is possible – and, although I agree with his positions on many contemporary issues, I believe he goes too far in rejecting the American tradition after 1860. I believe there is much to criticize in the American tradition after the Civil War – but also great progress. Ron Paul’s opinions are a valued addition to the public debate.

It is easier to compare Barack Obama and John Edwards to each other, rather than to Paul. They agree on many policies and in their general themes. Their differences are about how they would lead us to the future – how they would accomplish change. When Hillary said that Barack was not Martin Luther King – it occurred to me that the movement he represents, and the figure he projects, recalls the relationship of Martin Luther King to John Edwards’s Malcolm X.

In many ways, the success of Obama is due to Edwards’s harassment of Clinton.

  • Obama is trying to bring together people of varying political persuasions and to reach consensus on the major issues America faces. Edwards believes we must fight for them – by extreme measures if necessary.
  • Obama calls on Americans to look past their race, gender, class, religion, and other social groupings to the values we share – to build on this consensus to achieve lasting change. Edwards calls on middle and lower class Americans to look to their self-interest, and to their children’s self-interest, and to be forceful in taking what they believe is their birthright.
  • Obama focuses on community organizing, bringing new people into the process and the party, and convincing skeptics; Edwards focuses on rallying the base.

Anyone can see the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X can see the parallels. (Which makes Clinton, unfortunately for her, LBJ again.)

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s disagreements about how to accomplish change were more fundamental than the current divide between Obama and Edwards; but both King and Malcolm X recognized in the other the same desire for change, and respected each other as individuals and as leaders. When I saw John Edwards defend Barack Obama against Clinton – this is what I thought of – not that the boys were ganging up on her as she suggested.

Martin Luther King succeeded where Malcolm X did not because King bet that he could bring achieve more by appealing to all Americans, rather than a select group. Barack has made a similar bet. While in King’s day, the Jim Crow laws divided Americans into blacks and whites, our politics today has divided America into Red States and Blue States, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. We have been divided into two teams – we on our respective team, often without a clear rationale, adopt positions and defend our teams against all opposition. Many others are turned off from politics by the partisanship entirely. Yet polls show that agreement exists among working majorities on how to tackle some of our major long-term problems; and even larger portions of Americans agree that something must be done to attempt to deal with the major problems we will soon face.

Obama’s bet, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, is that with a respectful and intelligent dialogue, he can change our politics; and by changing politics, we can change America’s path together.

It is supremely unlikely that he, or we, can accomplish this. But we owe it to ourselves to try.

Election 2008 Law Liberalism Libertarianism Morality Political Philosophy Politics The Web and Technology

The libertarian liberal

Liberty Bell

[digg-reddit-me]My post of a few weeks ago got a bit of attention. I was called a Communist by one person. Someone else suggested I was a secret member of the long-defunct FBI program COINTELPRO. Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos approvingly linked to it from the main page of The Daily Kos. The Freedom Democrats had a small discussion, including the notation that they could tell that “the person who wrote it is not really a libertarian.” Enough people on reddit believed the post would cause damage to the candidacy of Ron Paul and down-modded it.

I have written this article in response to a few comments:

Libertas questioned:

Umm.. how exactly does ‘Kos Libertarian’ differ from the standard Democrat, other than opposing the various lobbies?
…What you are describing is not Libertarianism; it is the noble, but slippery slope to government expansion and to the loss of freedom.

A “Jay” opined:

It appears then that ‘Libertarian Democrats’ need to go look up the definition of ‘corporation’. If you would have done that first you might not have made an ass out of yourself and completely discredited yourself with such an absurd quote.

symphonyofdissent argued that:

… there is a real distinction between a progressive and a left-libertarian…Progressivism does not view the individual as the critical unit, but instead views society as a whole. The sacrifice of individual liberty is justified if it benefits society on the whole Libertarianism views individuals as the primary unit of interest.

erw wrote:

i think checking corporate power is seen as a non-issue for libertarians, since they believe:

1) the place to check corporate power is in the courts, if and when they harm you or your property.
2) corporate lobbies and special treatment are all by-products of a large federal government…

i think it just shows how much influence ron paul has. he is pulling democrats into his camp with fearless stances.

Fred Fnord had a thoughtful comment, which you should read in full.

This post is responding to a number of these points. As always, feel free to comment. ((As some people have noticed, your comment will not appear until I have approved it. This is only an anti-spam measure. I approve every comment that is not clearly spam; and I try to check as often as possible.))

The essence of libertarianism
I cannot do justice to the philosophy of libertarianism in a single post, and I will not try. But I think we can all agree that there are two main ideas at the base of a libertarian politics:

  1. I exist as an individual and I own myself; and
  2. “Where the State begins, individual liberty ceases, and vice versa.” ((By Mikhail Bakunin. I don’t mean to cite Bakunin as a typical libertarian, but only to take this quote and use it to express in a simple form one of the main precepts agreed to by all libertarians. I thought of using Ronald Reagan’s “Government is not the solution, it is the problem,” but that seemed a bit too specific. It was a conclusion, rather than a base.))

In a pragmatic sense, the goal, or the teleological end, of libertarianism is the promotion of individual liberty.

Coming to the libertarian liberal philosophy

To summarize the point both I and Markos Moulitsas were making:

Kos Libertarians ((I think the term “Kos libertarian” best describes the current movement of libertarian-minded Democrats, but that the term “libertarian liberal” best describes the pragmatic politics and philosophy.)) believe we do not need a government small enough to drown in a bathtub as Grover Norquist famously said. Rather, we need a government that is as small as possible, while still allowing it to act as a check against corporate power. In other words, Kos Libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our life, but that guards our rights against others. ((As a commenter pointed out, the original phrasing (“that protects our rights against others”) can be read as an unfair interpretation of traditional libertarianism. Traditional libertarians would see the courts as the appropriate place for the government to mediate between parties and protect basic rights. What I should have said was that “Kos libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our individuals lives, but guards our rights against others.” Libertarians liberals believe that the government must take an active role in pro-actively guarding individual rights.))

History has proven time and again that individuals and liberties will be trampled upon by the powerful without preemptive action by the government. Corporations take advantage of their special status ((Specifically limited liability provisions. And in response to “Jay”, although corporations are legally considered individuals, this is something commonly called a “legal fiction.” Philosophically, morally, pragmatically, physiologically, psychologically, and in every other way they are not. They are collectives.)) in order to circumvent legal responsibility for their actions. The kind of libertarianism favored by many towards the right-wing of the political spectrum involves going back to the 1890s, when corporations were first granted the rights of individuals and had few regulations imposed on them; and also when the government had fewer powers and intruded less on the life of the ordinary person.

But the changes that occurred after that point happened for a reason. The traditional libertarian remedy of requiring individuals to bring suit against companies for any harm done to them failed. Corporations exerted enormous power and subverted the courts to their will. They forced workers to toil in unsafe conditions; they made faulty products; they exploited natural resources without giving anything back to the community; they polluted the air, water, and soil. If the government had not stepped in in the early 1900s under Teddy Roosevelt and in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, the capitalist system of free markets guided by “an invisible hand” would have perished. Government began to assume more power in a large part to act as a check against the corporate abuses of their growing power.

Yet by the 1980s, it was obvious to many Americans that the government could do great harm, even when it was trying to act beneficently. The welfare program helped entrench people in ghettos; the Vietnam War, fought to save the Vietnamese from Communism, had accomplished nothing; the national security system created to respond to the domestic and international threat of the Cold War had turned against dissenters and political opponents; the growing domestic spending led to huge deficits and inflation. The government was clearly a problem.

The libertarian liberal philosophy is a response to this moment in history – synthesizing the critique of capitalism inherent in the New Deal and the critique of government inherent in the Reagan Revolution.

What does a libertarian liberal believe

At the heart of American liberalism, there has always been a contradiction. American liberals have long fought for individual rights against the state – especially in matter relating to criminal law, civil rights, minority rights, and free speech. ((The American liberal’s record on free speech in the past twenty years though is significantly more checked.)) At the same time, American liberals fought for greater state intervention in the economy and daily life of the nation. The American liberal tradition had not acknowledged that by giving the state greater power, we were in effect conceding individual freedoms. Even if that power was required to be used to help individuals, it would inevitably have negative side effects, making these individuals dependent on the state and giving the government more power and ability to manipulate individuals.

Today, many liberals have come to see this reality. While we still believe that government can be used for good, we are much more cautious about what government can and should do.

The libertarian liberal approach is pragmatic rather than ideological. It is about maximizing individual liberty with one caveat: the moral duty to empower the impoverished and the disadvantaged. Maximizing individual liberty means using the government as a check against corporations; it means setting up checks and balances within the government itself; it means a strong media, willing to challenge the government and corporations; it means strong individual rights to keep the government and corporations in check; it means elections that are meaningful. To maximize individual liberties, we need to constantly balance the many competing forces in such a way as to give each person the rights that are their birthright.

The difference between a liberal and a libertarian liberal

The goals of liberals and libertarian liberals are similar if not the same. The difference is in the approach. For example, let’s look at health care. As a traditional liberal, Dennis Kucinich does not see value in a libertarian view of the problem. Government, for him, cannot be the problem; it must be the entire solution. He wants to eliminate the system as it is and impose a government-run health care plan on everyone, whether they want it or not. To take another example of a more pragmatic traditional liberal, Hillary Clinton, does not want to eliminate the system, but wants to work within it. She wants to take a number of steps to make it easier for the average person to buy health insurance, including opening up the plan used by members of Congress to the population at large. But she also plans to mandate that every person get and maintain health insurance.

Barak Obama’s plan is similar to Hillary’s but with one crucial difference. He too plans on taking a number of steps to make health insurance more affordable, and to open up Congress’s plan to the rest of the country, to invest more in health care infrastructure, and take a number of steps to reduce costs. But he will not force anyone adult to get health insurance. ((There is a rather large debate going on now between Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Robert Reich, and Hillary Clinton about this. Hillary is saying Obama’s plan won’t cover everyone because it won’t have a mandate; but Hillary’s plan actually won’t either – it will just require that everyone get insurance. Krugman has stepped in to attack Obama mercilessly again and again and again as the Clinton shill he has become; and Reich stepped in to look at both sides, and come down on the side of Obama. Jaydiatribe has a good overall view of the conflict.)) This is the difference between a traditional liberal and a libertarian liberal. ((I wouldn’t necessarily say Obama is a libertarian liberal, but on this issue, it fits. He also seems closest to the position of all the current crop of candidates. And certainly, as a member of a different generation, he has learned the lessons of the 1980s better than Hillary.)) Both see a problem – a problem that the free market is making worse – and both believe that the government must act. Neither believes that a complete overhaul of the system can happen – for pragmatic reasons, if nothing else. Both lay out similar steps that need to be taken – to reduce prices, to enable individuals to afford health care, and to make it more available. But Hillary believes the government needs to force independent and competent ((Added “independent and competent”. I, for the life of me, cannot think of the correct term to use here. There is a philosophical term on the tip of my tongue used to describe people who are able to make independent, self-conscious decisions.)) people to get health care; Obama does not.

There are arguments to be made as to why the government should force people to get health care – Paul Krugman has been harping on these for some time – but if one believes that the government should only use force when it is absolutely necessary, as a libertarian does, then Obama’s program is better because it respects individual rights. The best use of government in a libertarian liberal view is when it is able to empower individuals and act as a check against corporate abuse of individual liberty. Obama’s plan does this; with Hillary’s plan individuals are empowered to act against corporations, and corporate power is checked – but the government is given yet more leverage over every individual, creating another regulation for individuals to comply with, and another reason for the government to penalize the exercise of freedom.