Saturday, June 10, 2006


Kossacks at the Gate: A Book Review

Crashing The Gate (Armstrong and Zúniga) describes the formation of communities over the Internet and how that has facilitated grassroots political activism. Frustrated by the inability of the nation's elites to solve the pressing problems of the day, citizens can now form their own interest groups, rather than be manipulated into set-piece battles over issues like gay marriage or the minimum wage. In so doing, they may bridge traditional political battle lines or define new ones. Since most of this review is a critique of the book's weaknesses, let me make my overall assessment clear: (1) buy the book, and (2) read the book. The primary deficit of the book is that its authors lack the historical depth to recognize how the struggles of today are merely a continuation of a much longer dialectic between the inclinations to centralize or disperse political power. That deficit leads to a misidentification of the causes of the crisis, saying that historians debate whether "liberals lost their way" because of a bad economy, corporate hostility to government, or civil rights. There's really not a debate. Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act knowingthat southerners and some blue collar northerners would leave the party and leave it gravely weakened. Indeed, the Dixiecrat movement had done just that in the 1940s when Truman integrated the army, helping to usher in the McCarthy era. Johnson, alas, had also been unwise enough to march the nation into a war he knew was pointless and had reason from the Korea experience to believe was unwinnable. The war further fractured the young, who were its draft fodder, from their elders, with their glowing memories of service in World War II. And, of course, wars have an economic price, which the nation paid as the deficits collided with declining American manufacturing. But eyes on the prize: the "success" of the right was, as Kevin Phillips so ably demonstrated, based in exploitation of racism. And so, the Armstrong and Zúniga wrongly imagine that "interest groups" are the basic problem. Except in Massachusetts, where elections are considered a form of sporting event, people do not become activists for recreation. They work and contribute to get something, be it the monetary spoils that the Republicans hand out to their contributors, or the laws and regulations that Democrats hand out to theirs. Interest groups are perfectly normal and were envisioned as inevitable in the Federalist Papers. Ironically, the authors pan the special interest groups NARAL and NOW for blocking Jim Langevin from the Democratic senatorial nomination in Rhode Island at a moment when the blogs are crowing about their success so far in extracting Joe Lieberman from the Senate. For the record, I support Ned Lamont and would have supported any reasonable opponent (including Jim Langevin) to Linc Chafee. But I recognize that both campaigns are examples of interest group politics. It just depends on whether you agree or disagree that the interest is important. If Langevin had been a great leader, he might have persuaded NARAL and NOW that it was in their interest to support him. It is not up to people of other interest groups to tell another interest group to sacrifice itself for the greater good. And there lies the real problem, that Democrats-- like the rest of the nation-- have lost the sense of community, of solidarity, of the reality that we are all in this thing called "life" together. As I pointed out in the post on an anti-Christian screed that appeared in Smirking Chimp, fragmenting us from one another is the mechanism by which Republicans centralize power: turn black against brown and white, religious against secular, middle class against poor, and so on. When we are divided, we turn to authoritarian leaders to control the chaos that they themselves have sowed. Leaders like Nixon and Bush. Armstrong and Zúniga's criticisms of consultants are correct, but incomplete. First, the financing system makes incumbents entrepreneurs independent of the party. The result is poor coordination between poorly-funded state parties and the national party. Consultants are generally attached to the national party and disconnected from state politics. A second major failing of consultants is that they don't understand local dynamics well enough to use them effectively. Despite the rise in Netroots funding, most of the money financing elections comes from wealthy individuals and business interests. Also, the authors would do well to analyze the time in the election cycle when money comes in. One campaign I know about lost in part because the money came in so late that ad buys simply couldn't be done. As Armstrong and Zúniga's point out with Senator Feingold's refusal to accept PAC money, the Democratic Party does not have to be a financial underdog. Indeed, if every person who voted for John Kerry donated $10 or $20 every year, there would be enough money to finance elections independent of moneyed interests. My preference would be for Democrats to use means other than major media to reach the voters, stripping away the mask of the so-called "free" press to reveal just how moneycentric it is, and making campaigns cheaper. But at the moment, power centers like the DCCC have the clout because they have the money to pay the press to run the ads. One final deficit needs mention: the sense that change takes time. When the Abolitionists won the Civil War, they perhaps imagined that racial justice would be achieved in a few years. Many generations later, we are still working to fulfill their vision. But decade after decade, despite a massive disparity in funding and in the face of a vicious-- often violent--reactionary movement, progressive causes have won victory after victory. Sure, it's hard to lose territory that we thought of as secure. Who imagined that the promise to our veterans that we would care for the wounds they suffered in battle, fulfilled in the creation of the Veterans Administration, would be under threat? All too many people become disheartened imagining an America where gays are stoned and women made subordinate... and so rather than fight the good fight, they defeat themselves. Certainly, we can't sit back, neither because we are complacent in imagining that victory is inevitable, nor in depression over imagining that defeat is inevitable. But as Martin Luther King said, "the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Every generation before us did their duty, and now we have an opportunity to make them proud by doing ours. The strengths of Crashing The Gate are in its inside look at how campaigns are done, especially its description of the Dean campaign. The observation that consultants are paid to spend, not to win, is important and one that Democrats of whatever persuasion should address. The skill of the Republicans in narrowcasting (once called "knowing your constituents") is one to be emulated. The call to challenge every district is very important, although Armstrong and Zúniga would have done well to dwell a bit longer on why this is good strategy. It's not so much a matter of showing you care or identifying activists or the many other reasons. Even in Republican states, there are usually statewide races that hinge on turnout in marginal districts. Those candidates for governor, attorney general, and judge are often critical allies-- think what Ohio 2004 would have been like if the Secretary of State had been a Democrat-- and also form the farm team from which Senatorial candidates are drawn. A&Z know this, but bury it rather than headlining it. What form should this district-by-district challenge take? There isn't enough money at present to put $500,000 or more into each congressional district and $2-$50 million into each senatorial race. A logical allocation would be a minimum of $5,000 to every congressional district to set up an office and a website for six months even if no candidate runs, $50,000 to districts that produce a candidate capable of running, and $500,000 and up for districts that can produce at least 35% for a Democrat. As important or more important than money is support on issues. Having informally advised a number of wannabe candidates, convincing them that they don't know as much as they think, that they need to think through their positions six moves ahead, and that should talk a bit less and listen a bit more was more work than I would be willing to do for pay. [Added] At YKos, Markos noted the importance of the Net as a backbone for low-cost distribution of information, but emphasized the fact that unless people take that information back to their geographic communities and act on it, it's all for naught. Ironically, I had exactly the same conversation with one of the earliest Netroots activists ten years ago. No one listened then, either. I guess it's easier to talk than to walk. Bottom line on Crashing The Gate: Buy it. Read it. Think about it.
As I pointed out in the post on an anti-Christian screed that appeared in Smirking Chimp, fragmenting us from one another is the mechanism by which Republicans centralize power: turn black against brown and white, religious against secular, middle class against poor, and so on. When we are divided, we turn to authoritarian leaders to control the chaos that they themselves have sowed. Leaders like Nixon and Bush.

That sums it up beautifully, Charles.

Eliminationist rhetoric shouldn't be avoided merely because it's immoral; it should also be avoided because it leads into the either/or, black/white thinking patterns that make for a culture whose members are easily led by the nose.
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