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June 06, 2012 12:14 PM The Liberal Path to Power

By Ryan Cooper

Reading my posts and their comments* from yesterday about political power and elite intellectual failure, I think the points could be clarified, brought together, and strengthened. So here’s the essence.

There’s a narrative among the elite DC insider media (think David Gregory, or Politico) that the way to get political power is to promise voters unreasonable things and get elected, and the way to keep it is to betray them and sell out to special interests and soulless DC “centrists” like Olympia Snowe. Because raw ambition is an unpleasant thing, it fits well into this unpleasant, cynical narrative. It is surely partially correct, especially during prosperous lulls when the population isn’t really paying attention, and also because selling out can get you enormous sums of campaign cash.

But this narrative is very badly mistaken during a depression. If the economy is terrible, and millions of people are out of work, the obvious, unmistakeable route to getting and keeping power is to actually fix things. If business elites don’t like your stimulus policies, or if Senate centrists insist on bleeding your stimulus dry, then you ignore, work around, or crush them. (I know, this isn’t possible now. I’m talking about when the Democrats had their huge majorities, and failed to consider reforming the Senate.)

Raw ambition and lust for power can be among the most powerful motivators in the human experience. Robert Caro’s Johnson books have some striking examples of this. When his political career was on the line, LBJ would work himself nearly to death trying to win. He jammed favors through otherwise-dysfunctional bureaucracies, whipped reluctant allies into line, and worked his staff to the bone.

Kevin Drum had a smart post yesterday dismissing the idea that Obama should be more like LBJ tactically. He’s right that we live in very different times, and have a very different Senate that just isn’t amenable to Johnson’ brand of persuasion. But I think what we could learn from Johnson is that sometimes ambition and liberal ideals line up. Johnson was a huge sellout for most of his career. But when he saw a path to power through liberal ideals, he went straight for it without looking back. He completely overhauled the Senate, passed the first civil rights bills in a century, and significantly strengthened the safety net, in large part due to that drive for power and accomplishment.

My fundamental point is that Democrats should learn to harness ambition. It points the right way more than people think. Despite Citizens United, we still live in a democracy (sort of). In the previous post, I didn’t blame Obama entirely for the too-small stimulus or the 2010 loss, because it’s not entirely his fault. Democrats have to learn to operate as a party, with coordinated leadership across Congress and the White House (Nancy Pelosi is a good example), and understand that the road to power for liberals lies through actual accomplishment. Because the remaining option is selling out to the wealthy, and the other party has that covered.

*I am reading the comments, by the way, and while I very much appreciate counterarguments and feedback, know that getting unreasonably angry and calling me lots of names is not a great way for your points to get honest consideration.

Ryan Cooper is the Monthly handyman. Follow him on Twitter @RyanLouisCooper.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper