Political Animal


November 29, 2012 1:13 PM Fork in the Road For Progressives’ Uphill Climb

By Ed Kilgore

As I noted briefly yesterday, TAP is publishing a large number of essays in its November/December print issue (and rolling them out gradually online) based on the idea that progressives need a “forty-year plan” for a political revival similar to the strategy famously laid out for conservatives in 1971 by soon-to-be-Supreme-Court-Justice Lewis Powell. The first essay I’d like to draw attention to is by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, whose 2006 book Off Center remains the best analysis of how the conservative conquest of the GOP has changed the political dynamics of the country in a way that has produced a dangerous asymmetry in power and influence.

In their essay for TAP, Hacker and Pierson emphasize the structural factors—mainly involving money and institutional capacity—that have enabled the Right to create and prosper from ideological and partisan polarization. But then they posit this controversial choice for progressives:

If the strategic and organizational weakness of progressives is ultimately rooted in the breakdown of incentives for compromise around middle-class priorities, progressives have two broad directions in which they can move. They can fight for a more parliamentary politics, emulating the right’s capacity to take and sustain a tough stance while reducing the extent to which our institutions require compromise. This would mean taking a cue from the right to build issue-auditing organizations that increase pressure on Democrats to embrace progressive stands, while pushing back against the supermajority hurdle of the filibuster. Or progressives can argue that they inevitably lose from polarization because of its inherent asymmetry and because a durable progressive politics requires broader consensus. This posture seeks to reduce polarization through measures to empower centrists, such as open primaries and court-overseen redistricting, or through technocratic strategies to remove control from elected officials and place it in the hands of independent experts. Reducing the pull of the hard right might be worth reducing the pull of committed progressives—and sometimes of voters—as well.

The counter-polarization strategy—often called “fighting fire with fire”—is the most popular on the Left, and is obviously the more emotionally satisfying response. But given the imbalance of resources between Left and Right—and for that matter, between voters and the institutions they struggle to control—are measures to reduce polarization and increase political accountability for results a better approach?

It’s obviously an old question for progressives, but has rarely been stated more starkly by writers whose only real dog in the fight is the desire to make progressive politics a successful long-term movement rather than an occasional candidate-centered enterprise or an endless rearguard action against aggressive conservatives. It’s as good a time as any to ponder the choice.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • JMG on November 29, 2012 1:22 PM:

    I fail to see how the idea of limiting democracy can be said to be progressive in any sense. Technocratic thinking is one big reason we're in this fix.

  • c u n d gulag on November 29, 2012 1:25 PM:

    "This posture seeks to reduce polarization through measures to empower centrists, such as open primaries and court-overseen redistricting, or through technocratic strategies to remove control from elected officials and place it in the hands of independent experts."

    I'll go along with this, if someone can tell me, and then guarantee me, that totally un-elected, unaccountable, technocrats and independent experts, will lead us to the promised land.

    But you can't, can you?
    What's to prevent a nice healthy bribe from exchanging hands?

    Help - maybe some of you brighter commenter can explain this to me?

  • Josef K on November 29, 2012 1:38 PM:

    My main agrument against 'counter-polarization' is that it effectively removes consideration of the real human costs of policy and politics from the nominal equation. Everything and all effort is focused upon the agenda/cause/party/whathaveyou, irregardless of the actual consequences of its achievment.

    The modern GOP is a case in point. The entire caucus has been reduced to virtual sociopaths who have elevated party to The Party (in the old Stalinist mold) and essentially ignore the very clear, very real consequences of their avowed policy goals.

  • Blurp on November 29, 2012 1:56 PM:

    I actively participate in democracy and in political discussions, but I'm not really a strategist. At the end of the day, I'm a voter who uses his vote to express his views about the governance of the country.

    The reason I don't like many Centrists is not because I am some unrealistic, ideologically pure hippie. I don't like them because I disagree with them about a lot of things that have important, material impacts on people's lives.

    I don't consider this "fight fire with fire". I consider it my duty as a citizen.

    So whenever a centrist someone, like the DLC, comes along and shits all over me for having the balls to vote according to what I believe instead according to some kind of wishy washy centrist strategy riddled with the mandates of corporate special interests and other corrupting influences, I'm having a hard time understanding why I should listen to a thing they say.

    My job isn't to support the Democratic Party, the DLC or whatever. It's to support those beliefs I care about. And I will support the Democratic Party and other partisan outfits only to the degree they support me. That's how it works.

  • N.Wells on November 29, 2012 2:06 PM:

    The choice between fighting fire with fire and compromising is a false dichotomy. The right does well because of the reasons already outlined, but also because a large percentage of the populace votes against its own interests and without correct information. The Right Wing media noise machine is part of the Right Wing advantage, and has to be countered effectively. Broader than that, however, the part of the population that benefited hugely from rural electrification, the New Deal, and ongoing blue-state to red-state tax subsidies has to be retaught that Democratic policies are good for them while Republican policies aren't. This is an uphill struggle because selfishness, greed, and fear are pretty simple, while tolerance, infrastructure, investing in other people's kids, and the like are less self-evident. Too many Democrats simply assume that the benefits of sensible Democratic policies and regulations and so on are understood by the average voter and only rarely needed to be mentioned, but this needs to be re-explained basically every time a Democrat gets near a microphone.

  • Steve LaBonne on November 29, 2012 3:31 PM:

    What JMG and c u n d gulag said. The cure for insufficient democracy is more democracy. Screw technocratic centrism.

  • NCSteve on November 29, 2012 3:41 PM:

    I think the correct answer is somewhere in the middle.

    Sorry. Couldn't resist. And, fortunately or not, on the Internet, no one can see you smirk.

  • SadOldVet on November 29, 2012 4:17 PM:

    The counter-polarization strategy—often called “fighting fire with fire”—is the most popular on the Left, and is obviously the more emotionally satisfying response.

    Ed, are you pulling this out of your DLC centrist @ss or do you profess to speak for "The Left"?

  • Doug on November 29, 2012 8:45 PM:

    The only problem I see with "fighting fire with fire" is its encouragement of that very polarization that's causing so much of the problem now. That and the fact that Democrats just don't "do" radical and never have.
    The various reforms introduced during Wilson's first administration weren't "radical". Nor were the ones introduced during FDR's first two administrations. Or under Truman. Nothing LBJ did in the way of social programs, including the CRAs, was in any way or shape "radical". Had they been, they wouldn't have been enacted. Everything done by those administrations had been floating around the political scene for decades or longer; it was only once those ideas weren't considered "radical" by a majority of the citizens that they stood a chance of becoming law.
    People keep arguing over whether the majority of people in this country are "center-left" or "center-right" and miss the important point - we're neither. We operate on consensus and whichever party can best represent that consensus, or appear as if it can, will win elections.
    So, since according to polls, most of the policies supported by Democrats are supported by a majority of the population - why aren't we winning more elections? It seems to me that where Democrats fail is in ensuring that voters, all voters, know what Democratic policies are and mean, as opposed to what Republicans SAY about those policies. And how closely those policies reflect what the voters believe - or say they believe, anyway.
    We tend to get the message out well enough during Presidential election years, why not do so EVERY election year? There may very well be sections of this country where running a Democrat for an office is considered a waste of time and money because that candidate isn't going to be elected, but even if the candidate DOES lose, the message has still been spread.
    Democrats win based on the contents of that message; we lose when we base ourselves on the "messaging"; therefore we should work for consensus rather than indulge ourselves in confrontation.

  • avahome on November 30, 2012 7:07 AM:

    Where is the edit undo button for the likes of Tom DeLay and the moneys he used to upend TX? Nothing ever gets undone..........and DeLay still the little peacock...fix that!

  • jeffreydj on November 30, 2012 1:57 PM:

    I have to align with the "false choice" position here. The problem with Option Two is simply that nothing is being sold to the American populace there. All that is mentioned there is electoral reform, which could grab a few more votes for liberal candidates, but why? With no message, no platform, eased electoral access would gain us nothing.

    Option One may sound unappealing, but the other side is now dominated by loonies whom would demolish not just the nation but the planet, if allowed the power. They must be stopped, and the "fight fire with fire" approach does raise the alarm in a way that judicial redistricting decisions cannot compare.

    The choice is false in that both approaches are of critical value to us liberal's electoral prospects.