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An Ideology, Not a Coalition

It took me a long time to see where Mark Schmitt was going with this post that starts out with problems in the environmentalist movement. But when the train pulled into the station, I liked the looks of things:

That's where I find the best argument for blowing up the whole "movement," along with the others. We can't possibly find ways to move society forward as long as everything is put neatly into boxes labeled "environment," "health care," "campaign finance reform," "low-income programs," "pro-choice," etc., and the coalitions that exist are made up of representatives from those movements. Trying to force environmentalists to think about health care doesn't solve the problem either. We need a whole new structure, built around a convincing narrative about society and the economy, and a new way to fit these pieces together.
I've got an article that should be coming out soon that reaches a similar conclusion starting from a completely different direction -- contemplating the Democrats' national security problem. That people could reach the same conclusion by contemplating problems related to the environment tends to give me hope that it's a problem we may be able to solve. Progressive politics isn't going to restructure itself just to make progressives more effective on my pet issue. But if a restructuring is necessary to make real progress on a whole bunch of different pet issues, we just might have an opportunity for restructuring.

As Mark says, what's needed here is something beyond "meetings or traditional coalitions around particular shared interests," which we do already have. What's needed, in short, is a real ideology that, as such, has adherents. The adherents would, of course, specialize to some extent as people always do. But what we have right now is really a coalition of lots of micro-ideologies and micro-interests that happen to collaborate with one another from time to time on this or that. I also liked the point earlier in Mark's post (which, again, will be echoed in my piece in the very different context of national security) about the problems with the over-technocratic mindset of too many leaders on the left.

February 11, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Feb 11, 2005 9:54:14 AM


I assume you read "Is Environmentalism Dead?" by Adam Werback http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/werbach-reprint/

And an article on how LA is uniting its liberal groups into a new "civic left": http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/01/09/RVGR6AJBD51.DTL

Posted by: Alison | Feb 11, 2005 2:49:39 AM

I completely agree with the point that our ideas about the environment (and health care, etc) limits our ability to understand the "nature" of the problem (much less possible "solutions").

However, I would argue that one of the most dangerous ideas of this type is that "environment" is a left-wing or liberal issue. True, progressives tend to staff professional environmental organizations, but too often we forget that Teddy Roosevelt was both a Progressive and a Republican.

The question is partly one of framing - by describing "the environment" as "that thing outside," where "all the unusual and rare plants and animales live," we shoot off our collective foot.

Every human that has ever lived has breathed, eaten, peed and pooped every day of their lives. We are inescapably ecological beings, regardless of our ideas about government.

Posted by: Ken | Feb 11, 2005 3:38:32 AM

Hmm. At what level do these micro-interests exist? It certainly seems that there's considerable overlap in the people who participate in each, at least in the basic paying money/getting the newsletter/keeping it in mind while voting sense. And similarly at the level of elected officials.

... Ok, read Schmitt's piece. I guess the idea is that a lot of us basically agree on these various goals, but because we funnel it through a bunch of narrow channels each focused on a particular aspect of policy, our strength is diluted and ineffective?

[and while the environment isn't a liberal issue per se--it's very true that conservatives also poop, most of them--a willingness to spend money or limit the power of industry in order to alleviate environmental problems comes more easily to those on the left.]

Posted by: mike | Feb 11, 2005 4:26:45 AM

Something as simple as increasing minimum wage by $3/hr or increasing mandatory pay for overtime work by 50% would make the Democrats a viable party again; standing in earnest for the universal healthcare would make the Democrats unbeatable, I think.

And then all the fellow travelers - environmentalists, pro-abortion-rights, pro-gay-rights, pro-helping-poor, and other liberals would see their causes advanced.

That's the only way, because Joe-six-pack will never get his fat ass off the couch to go vote for the environment or gays or poor. He couldn't care less about gays and the poor. It's as simple as that.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 11, 2005 5:04:51 AM

I couldn't find an e-mail link so Ill just leave the stuff here:

Also extortion robbery and murder. The drug war don't you know.

* The Biggest Cover Up of All

Glenn R. thinks the Russians are up to their bad old ways. I show it is SOP in America. The drug war don't you know.

* Russia vs America

Can we all agree that torturing sick Americans is wrong?

* Who gains from torturing sick people?


Posted by: M. Simon | Feb 11, 2005 5:19:25 AM

"What's needed, in short, is a real ideology that, as such, has adherents."

May I suggest basing a lefty majority ideology on Community, Opportunity, and Responsibility?

Since these issues were grappled with over a decade ago, we have some archival documents we can use as a basis for proceeding.

And if warmed over Clintonism wrongheadedly strikes people as no longer relevant, may I suggest John Edwards' theme of Valuing Work instead of Wealth as a root ideological base all other lefty agendas can branch out from?

Posted by: Petey | Feb 11, 2005 5:51:21 AM

In looking at how Republicanism discovered an ideology that they could unify around to gain a majority, it's important to realize how vital an organizing principle it was for them to point out the excesses of 60's liberalism.

For lefties to do the same thing, it will be vital to organize around the excesses of Rush Limbaugh conservatism.

The beauty of using Community, Opportunity, and Responsibility and Valuing Work instead of Wealth as organizing ideologies is that they allow us to stand in opposition to the crony capitalism and economic royalism that so many Americans already have an inchoate distaste for.

We need to look at the way the Republicans chose their enemies. By taking on the unpopular trial attorneys, the GOP gave up a small source of funding in exchange for defining themselves to the public. The Democrats ought to do the same with Big Pharma. We'll lose some contributions, but we'll get to stand with the people and define ourselves in a positive way.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 11, 2005 6:00:54 AM

Q for you: does the following seem a fairly accurate breakdown of the prevailing paradigms as they are currently being expressed?

The distinction between Democrats and Republicans (or progressives and reactionaries) can be expressed as differences between their views of individual liberty and collective responsibility.

The Republican matrix, as it currently stands, seems to be this:
- Individual liberty is defined in solely economic terms: "it's my money"
- Collective responsibility is expressed through the corporation, the capitalist embodiment of collective activity

The Democratic matrix seems to be:
- Individual liberty is defined in behavioral terms: it's my body, it's my sexuality, etc.
- Collective responsibility is expressed through non-capitalistic means, i.e. government, the ultimate non-profit organization

This is, for me anyway, a nascent formulation. All input is welcomed.

Posted by: CaliBlogger | Feb 11, 2005 6:48:20 AM

"The Democratic matrix seems to be: Individual liberty is defined in behavioral terms: it's my body, it's my sexuality"

Since we'll lose any election decided on 'below the waist' issues, perhaps that isn't the best organizing ideology for the left.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 11, 2005 7:19:02 AM

"That people could reach the same conclusion by contemplating problems related to the environment tends to give me hope that it's a problem we may be able to solve."

Call me cynical, but easily identified problems are not always the easiest to solve. Especially when the solution is supposed to be: "What's needed, in short, is a real ideology that, as such, has adherents."

Posted by: Andrew Boucher | Feb 11, 2005 7:25:03 AM

I'm not sure it's fair (or ultimately useful) to paint all Republicans in this way - after all, if only those with vested interests in corporations supported them, they'd only get a handful of votes.

I suspect a greater number express their sense of "collective responsibility" through church and local community (never underestimate the power of a good BBQ).

I also suspect that the majority poignantly feel the loss of a dimly remembered age of innocence, and like progressives, find it easier to find fault with others, than within their own choices.

The real lesson that Gingritch, Reed and Rove have taught us over the past decade is that identity politics are alive and well in America. If you can convince someone they are being attacked for *who they are* they'll consistently vote against their own interests.

What Dems (or progressives or liberals) desparately need right now is an *identity* around which they can rally a nation. FDR's era wouldn't have been what it was without Woody Guthry, World War 2, and Mr. Smith (Goes to ...).

What can we learn about why Barack Obama set everyone on fire in Boston? It was a great speech, sure - but it was the man's spirit, his story that had me jumping up and down in my living room.

We need a new everyman/person.

Posted by: Ken | Feb 11, 2005 7:32:24 AM

I don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Sounds like some late-night bull session that got out of control after a few too many beers.

Posted by: Garuda | Feb 11, 2005 7:58:09 AM

Here're some related factors that helped the Left fragment into ineffectual micro-campaigns:
-a decline in civic participation and all forms of social interaction that Robert Putnam writes about and attributes largely to the rise of television.
-the cooptation of politics by professionally managed single-issue do-nothing membership groups that Theda Skocpol writes about.
-the cultural backlash that Thomas Frank writes about and the resulting decline of the Democratic Party.
-the corporate cooptation of the Democratic Party that Nader always reminds us of.
-the further conglomerization of the corporate media, the decline of newspaper readership, and the rise of television.

Anyway, the (old-school) way I see it is that the uniting ideology (of all progressive issues from national security to the environment) that is seriously lacking these days should come from a class analysis of why these problems exist, and the reason is we have a political process that is controlled by the ultra wealthy, where 1/10th of 1 percent of the population contributes over 80% of all campaign money. The banner of real campaign finance reform (i.e. public financing of campaigns, free tv/radio airtime, and proportional representation) is something that all progressive groups should be waving prominently.

And more than that, all these different groups need to do more than just ask for money from their members. We need to build social capital and get people more involved. I think the key to this is for it to be a largely volunteer movement with volunteer grassroots political organizing, in the style of union organizing.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 11, 2005 8:15:04 AM

I think you need to give it up, Matt, because it's a hopeless enterprise. The progressive movement isn't just a bunch of special interests focused on pet issues; it's a bunch of people who have radically different views of society and their place in it. The idea that all of these people are going to give up the things that they do in fact believe in favor of a different set of beliefs that you come up on the grounds that it will be good for the electoral prospects of the Democratic party is too absurd to merit refutation.

I think this shows in the kinds of "ideologies" that the other commenters, like Petey, are coming up with. An "ideology" like "Community, Opportunity, and Responsibility", is content-free. Anyone except the Ayn Rand Institute - libertarians, social conservatives, Marxists - could sign onto "Community, Opportunity, and Responsibility".

Posted by: Elliot | Feb 11, 2005 8:40:37 AM

With all due respect, bullshit.

Republicans gain power not as a coalition or an ideology, but as an organization. The currency trader in NY and the pro-lifer in Kansas do not have a philosophy of government in common, at least in an instrumental fashion. What they have is a centralized system of resources, available at the price of party identification and propaganda.

Tried to find John Emerson's old articles at STF that went over this, but failed...I hope he shows up. He said(IIRC) that the difference between parties was the nationalization of resources. The anti-abortion group in Portland,Oregon could make a phone call and get slogans, PR support, a little money, advice on organizing.

In other words environmentalists on the West Coast and pro-choicers in South Carolina do not necessarily need different ad agencies. If they used the same Manhattan ad agency soon you have a national party.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 11, 2005 8:58:08 AM


I like this perspective, but I'm not convinced. I do think that, for whatever reason, Environment and Energy have not been handled well. They were MIA in the campaign and are even further removed from public consciousnes now. They certainly should not be broken down to "small bore" issues, as if accomodating the small bore stuff will be marginally helpful.

I don't understand how this relates to the dems and national security.

Posted by: John Kubie | Feb 11, 2005 8:59:29 AM

Elliot has a point. It may not be necessary (in fact, it may be disadvantageous) to have a philosphically coherent all-encompasing ideology that corresponds closely to talking points. Such a lack of correspondance actually helps the right wing get away with an awful lot.

That might fit with Ken's point about "identity." We don't need to figure out a way a Green can feel equally wedded to women's rights, or develop an argument that links national defense with health care.

Is there a difference between Naomi Klein's ideas about the Republican brand and the concept of identity politics? Does this all boil down to coming up with a (?pseudo?) populist formulation that will rally a plurality?

Posted by: tinman | Feb 11, 2005 9:05:20 AM

Matt, you need to start delving into the social movement theory literature, as I told Mark. Start with David Snow Robert Benford.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 11, 2005 9:06:18 AM

"The progressive movement isn't just a bunch of special interests focused on pet issues; it's a bunch of people who have radically different views of society and their place in it."

But surely we can find some overarching principles that we all agree with, and that also help us find a majority among the larger electorate.

The right is also comprised of people who have radically different views of society, but they've been able to unite under a few broad principles.

An "ideology" like "Community, Opportunity, and Responsibility", is content-free."

Just because something is broad, sweeping, and general doesn't mean it's content-free.

Community, for example, has always been a byword of the left, indicating in biblical-speak that we are all our brother's keeper. Note how communism comes from the same word root.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 11, 2005 9:07:12 AM

How was the Democratic party built? What do Teamsters and Auto-workers and southern rural blacks have in common? An ideology of class-interest?

Those damn out-of-state organizers who came into town and helped local groups achieve their local goals and interests. How to organize, how to negotiate, how to resist, how to communicate.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 11, 2005 9:10:59 AM

So it's a Grand Unified Field Theory of Leftism that's wanting, eh? Good luck. You're going to need it. Personally, I'd sooner take up looking for the Abominable Snowman or perhaps have a go at discovering a Philosopher's Stone to make gold from lead.

Obstacle #1: Sentimental attachment to obsolete theories of social order, mainly Marxism and its innumerable glosses.

Phil says you need more class-based analysis. That'll be about as useful as trying to figure out how to make synthetic rubber by combining the right proportions of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. If your basic theory is crap, you can't expect your results to be anything else but.

Classes don't have interests, people, individuals do. That's why industrial capitalism wrecked class-based social orders more thoroughly that any army of Bolsheviks ever could. As soon as sharp nobodies with hustle could become richer than titled nobility, the jig was up. If Marx hadn't been a life-long remittance man and consort of drones himself, he might have realized this as well and saved us all a lot of trouble these last 150 years.

Before the enviros or any other subset of the left build a new plan for action based on "investment," for example, it would be reassuring if the left had a coherent theory of wealth creation - which, at present, it does not.

Obstacle #2: The left includes a number of "tendencies," I believe is the Britishism, that have fundamentally incompatible goals.

The biggest such split is between those who are resigned to modern capitalism as the horse which pulls the economic cart, and merely wish to succeed in designing the harness it wears, and those who still seek to overthrow capitalism.

The latter, in turn, divide further:

1) Those who are still old-fashhioned Marxists/socialists and want to control the means of production. These folks don't have a problem with industrial means of production or with technology, per se, they just want to collectivize it.

2) Those who oppose "globalization" and wish to restrict industry to a fairly modest scale in keeping with their desire for universal economic localism and autarky. These folks want to seriously limit, as well as control, the means of production.

3) Those who, for reasons of environmental concern, wish to pretty much repeal the 19th and 20th Centuries and return humankind to what they view as "sustainable" ways of life. These folks pretty much want to abolish the means of production.

There are a lot of other circles the left must square in order to engineer a grand Anschluss of progressives marching shoulder to shoulder into the bright future of - what? - but the two above will do for a start.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Feb 11, 2005 9:21:25 AM

"What do Teamsters and Auto-workers and southern rural blacks have in common? An ideology of class-interest?"


A commonality of class interest. Wanting the government to help them gain more opportunity. Not having the cushion of enough resources to survive as islands in a dog-eat-dog world.

Looking at the old FDR coalition that held a pretty constant majority from '32 - '68 is an excellent blueprint for finding the center-left majority of today and tomorrow.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 11, 2005 9:24:58 AM

I think we need to become the political equivalent of Unitarians. The only unifying factor that I can discern is "Quality of Life".

Republicans try to cubby-hole quality of life into GDP, "values" and security. The middle of the road voter is, usually irrationally, always going to give these issues to the Republicans. Making ourselves appear stronger on these issues is only going to have a marginal effect.

We need to make voters either see, or believe they see, a bigger picture. Relentlessly project a broader mindset onto the electorate. Tell them they are sophisticated, and appreciate the many things that go into making a good life - prosperity, security yes, but also education, health care, community, a clean world, job security, civil liberty, and CIVILITY.

While I'm not one of those who thinks that there has never been inter-party animosity like we have today, I do believe we are at a particularly contentious point. It will not always be so. People will get sick of it. Democrats have a huge advantage in this regard. If we embark on a mission to create amity within our many factions, we can be seen as the party that builds bridges, WITHOUT ever making significant concessions to the Republicans. They can't really do it. Their factions - wall street, the neocons and religious fanatics - don't have conflicts that lend themselves to compromise.

Posted by: Njorl | Feb 11, 2005 9:27:25 AM

Matthew quotes Schmitt: "We need a whole new structure, built around a convincing narrative about society and the economy, and a new way to fit these pieces together."

Reading through the comments here, I'm amazed that people find this to be a controversial statement.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 11, 2005 9:35:21 AM

"Phil says you need more class-based analysis"

Considering the Republicans just spent twenty years ripping off the working man of trillions of dollars while simultaneously bankrupting the government, class struggle as a narrative looks as relevant now as in 1935. Not that FDR really played that game hard.

But I still say the reason Limbaugh delivers Rove's talking points is party organization and discipline, not ideology. Discipline. Consequences. Lieberman oughta be gone.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 11, 2005 9:43:37 AM

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