Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Thunderbolts of Certitude

Back in the early 90s, I joined a Seattle foundation called A Territory Resource (ATR recently changed its name to Social Justice Fund Northwest). ATR redistributed membership dues and donations as grants to small, underfunded community advocacy groups in the five states of the northwest (Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming). We cast a wide net across a variety of areas, including environmental justice, human rights, economic and political rights, and even the arts. But the focus was on advocacy: We made grants to welfare rights groups, not food banks. An arts grant went to a group designing a poster to recruit union members.

It's a misconception that community organizers are out to change the system. They aren't, at least in my experience. Instead, they aim to either bring their consituency into the system or make the system work on behalf of their constituency. One obvious contemporary example is the coalition of immigrant rights groups, which has the overarching aim of making 11,000,000 disenfranchised people a part of the existing political economy. This differs greatly from the Civil Rights movement, which accomplished no less than defeating the legally entrenched racism of Jim Crow and in the process overturned an entire social and legal structure.

Most of the organizations funded by ATR (now SJR) operate on a shoestring budget. Whatever these groups' ultimate objectives, they come in the context of immediate, attainable goals. Progress is critical to attracting ongoing funds; this, plus the size of these organizations, mandates a small ball strategy by which they attack a long-term objective via methodically achieved small victories. Think of a squirrel preparing for winter by patiently storing acorns one at a time, and you'll get the idea.

The best community organizers are expert at working the system and squeezing the maximum possible out of it, while developing a keen understanding of what the possibilities are at any given time. Community organizing rewards such skills as political acumen, persistence, and working with others. You can see what drew Barack Obama to community organizing, and why he was good at it.

Although progressives once took pride in the president's background, a culture of complaint has arisen across a large swath of the progressive punditry and blogosphere. It criticizes President Obama for -- if you ask me -- not having performed the political equivalent of stopping a planet in orbit, reversing its rotation, and sending it back in the opposite direction. This culture of complaint mischaracterizes the president as a bloodless technocrat too timid to swing for the fences. It misunderstands -- or at least overly discounts -- his background in community organization, which has helped him become very good at assessing the potential of an issue and realizing it.

In a recent post on The Daily Beast, Peter Beinhart argues that President Obama has accomplished more in eighteen months than Presidents Carter and Clinton did in twelve years. Beinhart ticks off Obama's achievements ranging from the new health care law to persuading China to devalue its currency. He points out that while the while the financial reform law is unlikely to prevent investment banks from becoming too big too fail, it still reverses a trend and stands as the first successful attempt to liberalize the financial regulatory structure in decades. But the MSM focuses on the horserace of poll numbers (no surprise there) instead of the nuances of policy. Thus, they assume, Obama struggles even though he has amassed one victory after another.

So, why are so many progressives disappointed in the president? After all, we disdain the MSM as lazy and point to the horse race fixation as the essence of its weakness. But if the media focuses on politics at the expense of policy, many progressives have the opposite problem: They understand policy but can't or won't consider it in the contexts of politics, process, and history. For example, with health care reform, many expected and demanded a full-blown campaign on behalf of a single payer system, and were angered when President Obama opted to pursue a public-private partnership.

As I've written elsewhere, the uncomfortable fact is that a charge into the canyon of single payer would have been akin to Don Quixote joining Lord Lucan at the head of the Light Brigade. The president almost certainly consulted with Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic leadership, determined what he could get, and -- like a good community organizer -- focused on that. Events bore him out, too: When legislation passes with the narrowest of margins, the slightest movement to the right or left would sink it. In truth, the new law is a historic achievement that will rank Barack Obama next to Lyndon Johnson as a health care president.

But many progressives don't see it that way. To them, policy trumps all and a good idea needs only be explained in order for it to take shape as law. If that doesn't happen, it's because the president wasn't committed to the idea and didn't explain it with sufficient fervor. They won't admit to the influence of competing interest groups and dismiss the messy and convoluted legislative process as an insignificant obstacle: LBJ and FDR knew how to handle Congress, these progressives argue, and Obama should have taken a page from their books. This, of course, ignores the history of the thing; Roosevelt never actually pursued health care reform, and Medicare passed by the skin of Johnson's teeth. (And at no time did he seriously consider single-payer.) In fact, the only prominent modern day Democrat who pushed hard for single-payer was Edward Kennedy, and his own party rejected him when he ran for the 1980 nomination.

The same logic follows with regulatory reform: The president didn't personally sunder the investment banks in eighteen months, therefore he is a corporatist. In 1980, Ronald Reagan capitalized on a sea change in American politics; it nonetheless took conservatives almost twenty years of chipping away, passing seemingly minor legislation and changing the national dialogue in favor of deregulation, before repealing the Glass-Steagall Act and replacing it with Gramm-Leach-Bliley. For all of their talk about tea parties and revolutions, conservatives understand the nature of the long haul and are willing to make the march by putting one foot in front of the other; the progressive culture of complaint wants systemic change without having to actually walk the talk.

At times, the naivete is positively staggering, as shown by the recent senatorial primaries in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. Some actually expected a sitting president to oppose incumbent senators in party primaries, something akin to a 10-year old asking his parents for an allowance of zillion billion trillion dollars. If the senator prevails in the primary and wins reelection, the president has a powerful enemy for the remainder of his tenure. Moreover, the other senators of his party will be less than thrilled if he opposes one of them, to say the least. You don't have to like the logic to recognize its inexorability.

Then there's the Gulf, where the complaining crescendos like rush hour traffic in Manhattan, but actual feasible alternatives remain scarce. Chris Matthews bleats about leadership, pines for the days of JFK, and makes truly witless suggestions. Robert Reich advocates putting BP into receivership, then succumbs to BP Think himself: He speculates on the advantages and ignores the potential drawbacks, which taken together are intractable. A blogger complains bitterly that the $20 billion escrow fund was negotiated instead of expropriated, but doesn't explain how the United States government is going to withdraw money from the bank account of a British corporation, or even why that's a better idea. Rolling Stone publishes a hatchet job on the president that, when it doesn't indulge in hindsight, assumes that he took office with nothing on his plate other than reforming MMS and preparing an idle federal government to get ready for an oil spill that he knew in advance would happen on April 20, 2010.

General Russell Honore avers that the administration should bring in the armed forces and declare war on the spill. General, how are the wars on drugs and terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan working for you? Even Obama supporter Hendrik Hertzberg has written that the lines of communication need improving. No argument, but this is a massive effort with a great many moving parts that involve municipalities, parishes and counties, the governments of five states, the federal government, and BP. There's no model or protocol that Obama can plug in and have run like an electric train around a Christmas tree; communications will remain muddled until trial and error improves them.

Once upon a time, such progressive movements as Abolitionism, women's rights, labor, and civil rights commanded the American political imagination, disturbed complacency, and ultimately effected profound change. Today, outside of immigration reform, there are no progressive movements even though the nation is in dire need of citizens to organize around such issues as financial reform, health care reform, a living wage, and old-fashioned good government. Today's self-satisfied progressives content themselves by sitting in the lounge chairs of a political Mount Olympus and hurling thunderbolts of certitude at people making an actual effort, however imperfect. William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, John L. Lewis, and Martin Luther King would see this and think that with friends like these, we don't need enemies...

And here I thought that conservatives believed deeply in the primacy and wisdom of state and local control. Guess I was wrong....

Five people discuss and criticize Obama's management of government. Of the five, only Elliott Spitzer has held elective office, and he strangled in the cradle his opportunity to contend with a vast bureaucracy and a legislature full of satraps, knaves, and ideologues. Spitzer criticizes Obama for not ramming things through Congress without noting that he himself had a disastrous relationship with the New York State Legislature. Huffington maneuvers around the Huffington Post's increasing role as a stealth weapon for the Republican party by disingenuously claiming that this -- whatever "this" is -- is not a matter of left v. right. (That's news to me.) There's wide agreement that the teabaggers are really about resentment over taxpayer bailouts of institutions that gambled and failed, but no one reminds listeners that the 'baggers were lockstep supporters of the policies that set the stage for the bailouts or, for that matter, that 'bagger notions are largely racist twaddle...

A few days after accusing Democrats of "snuffing out" his personal America, John "Hell No" Boehner piously intones that Capitol Hill has become too partisan, then brags about Republican unity and accuses Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi of lying. He also had these words of wisdom: "I have no idea," "I have no idea," and "I haven't thought a great deal about it"...


Roy said...

Considering the situation he inherited, I have to agree with you that the President has been making some significant gains. But it does get frustrating, and often he seems to be stuck in the same position as the Red Queen, running as fast as he can to stay in the same place.

I stopped paying attention to HuffPo a while ago; every day they seem to travel further into the weirdoshpere. And didn't Ariana start out as a Republican, anyhow?

What weed is Boehner smoking? Republican unity? Yeah, right, while half the party stands mouths agape at the latest public insanity from Michael Steele, and all of them are wondering how soon they can lose McCain and Palin. Heh, heh! I think the RNC is finally beginning to realize that they created a monster with ex-Gov Sarah! The party is being ripped apart by conflicting allegiances to Tea Party or Religious Right affiliations (and try as they might, the RR is making no headway with the teabaggers at all!). The only thing they're actually united on is shouting NO to anything any Democrat anywhere says. They have no alternative policies because internally they're so split between conflicting rightist ideologies.

And Boehner has no idea and hasn't thought about things because he hasn't the equipment to do so.

K. said...

Roy, first of all, thanks for reading the entire rant! It's been building up for a while. The red queen analogy makes sense -- Obama inherited a massive mess that started with Reagan.

The idea of these clowns -- the 'bagger, the religious right, the ideologues -- controlling a house of Congress is frightening. The country will grind to a halt for at least two years. Oh, well: At least we'll have the spectacle of John Boner and Eric Cantor being called dangerous liberals by half their caucus.

I've quit reading Huff Post too, unless I need an article for a citation. And, yes, her ex-husband was a wealthy Scott Brown type who spent @28 mil in a near miss running for the Senate against Dianne Feinstein in 1994. (You have to read his political biography to believe it.

For the record, I don't side with Obama on everything. We should get out of Afghanistan, for instance. But at least it's a policy difference -- I don't think that Afghanistan is about an Oedipal complex, a fixation on military power, and corporate desire to control massive oil fields.

Darlene said...

I confess to being one who had high hopes that sanity would prevail and we could enact a single payer health care system. I guess I forgot how entrenched the conservative machine was against it was and that it would be impossible to achieve politically.

I'm waiting to see if Congress confirms Dr. Donald Bernick to head the CMS (Center of Medicaid and Medicare Services.) Obama warned the Insurance Companies to not increase their rates or cut services and they are doing so without any obvious penalty. Will Bernick take them on? I think he is our best bet.

K. said...

Berwick is a good man. The right-wing demagoguing about him supporting rationing of health care only shows their unwillingness to seriously debate a point, one that should include the reality that insurance companies and the free market ration health care already.

I'm single-payer all the way. It makes the most sense fiscally and as health policy. I figured that that alone would be enough for a Democratic administration and congress to take it up. Then I started digging into the history of health policy and came to realize that the constituency for it wasn't there, and that it hadn't been a serious policy player since Carter defeated Kennedy.

Polls show that people like it, but those numbers are soft and have never been tested in the heat of battle. Opponents could drive them down in a month if it came to it unless you figure out a way to harden the numbers. That takes the kind of organizing that proponents just haven't done.

injaynesworld said...

That was a lot to absorb, but thanks for putting it out there. I, too, shudder to think about the Republicans winning back the House in November.

Obama's a tough guy to read. We've never had anyone quite like him. I've been all over the map on the guy, but anyone who can scare the bejeezus out of the Rethugs and the right-wing like he does must have a whole lot more going for him and we impatient progressives often give him credit for.

Good post.

naomi dagen bloom said...

Thanks for this thoughtful "heads-up" to us cranky progressives. You sound like my 40 year old son, the urban historian, who like you, me, & countless others dread the endless war script.

K. said...

Thanks, Naomi, and thumbs up to your son!

Obama faces the age-old dilemma of liberal politicians: Do you take what you can get, or do you stand on principal and risk getting nothing? The former means that there will be times when you don't gauge the situation properly and settle for less than you might have gotten, but the politicians who go that route figure it's a lesser risk than nothing at all.

The accusations of being a sellout and a Republican clone arise but, seriously, name me a Republican who would have accomplished anything like Obama's record so far. John McCain's top priority would have been making the Bush tax cuts permanent, and now he'd be demagoguing a border fence from the bully pulpit.

And nobody of either party could have done more or better on the oil spill; they might have made different mistakes, but that's about all anyone can realistically claim. Bureaucracies are not designed to respond to sudden change, and take time to bring resources to bear effectively. Now it turns out that the hesitancy to act on specific requests often has a sound basis: The sand berms that Boob Bob Jindal raves about are supported by no underlying science and pose environmental risks, plus the delays have been because of the scope and scale of the project, the schedule for which keeps moving out.

I suppose Bush would have postured and delivered on the MSM requirement for "leadership" -- a speech that sounds good followed up by complete inaction. But a Republican forcing an oil company to establish a $20 bil escrow fund? Give me a break.

Thanks for stopping by and getting me started!