Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Progressive movement needs to reinvent itself before it can reinvent government

This past Saturday, the 2010 Legislature reconvened for a second, one-day special session to address the latest shortfall in revenue, which was creating a big hole in the current budget. The hole had to be dealt with, since the current budget is supposed to carry us through the first half of 2011. I couldn't go down to Olympia to observe the special session in person (nor did I want to) but I did keep TVW on in the background as I alternated between cleaning and debugging software.

As I watched the proceedings — obviously choreographed in advance — I was reminded of the one-day special session held three years ago to reinstate Tim Eyman's Initiative 747, which had been struck down by the state Supreme Court, and Barack Obama's more recent announcement that he had reached an accord with Mitch McConnell to unconscionably extend all of the Bush tax cuts.

The sorry business that took place on Saturday is just more proof that if there's anything elected Democrats are good at, it's robotically betraying progressive values in bad times, and acting like Republicans.

The right wing doesn't need the presidency or the governorship or even legislative majorities to wield power either in This Washington or That Washington. They're nominally in charge of things anyway, because their thinking pervades elected Democrats' response to the recession.

Here in the Evergreen State, Chris Gregoire, Frank Chopp, and Lisa Brown are presiding over the dismantling of state government. They will all say they're trying to make the best of difficult circumstances. They'll say they're making cuts with heavy hearts because they have no other choice.

Well, that's not true. There's always a choice — but it's not always easy to see.

We don't blame Gregoire, Chopp, and Brown for what happened on Saturday. The reality is, the progressive movement in Washington State has failed to provide them with the ideas and tools they need to govern responsibly, failed to effectively reframe the debate about economic security, and failed to win most of this year's ballot measure battles (of seven, four were lost, and by large margins).

Because it is out of shape and out of sorts, the progressive movement isn't in a position where it can lead the reinvention of government.

Consequently, Democratic elected leaders have committed themselves to courses of action that would otherwise be unthinkable.

Lawmakers just took away millions of dollars from the University of Washington, Washington State University, and Western Washington University, for example.

What kind of Democrat votes to defund public institutions of higher learning? A Democrat with (seemingly) no other options, that's who.

My state senator, Eric Oemig, who narrowly lost a reelection bid to smooth-talking Republican Andy Hill, offered amendments both in committee and on the floor to lessen the severity of the cuts. His amendments were predictably rejected, but he had anticipated that. His point in offering them was to remind his colleagues of the point I made earlier in this post — that there's always a choice.

The morally appropriate thing to do, ironically, would have been to break the law (Initiative 1053, which went into effect on December 5th) and raise revenue to cover the shortfall by majority vote.

And incidentally, while I'm on the subject, the reason I-1053 is on our books at all is because the progressive movement didn't organize against it.

Leaders of key constituencies within the movement (who control most of the available resources) concluded that I-1053 couldn't be beaten, and deliberately chose to do almost nothing to stop it.

This is no exaggeration. It's not like they didn't know it was coming. Tim Eyman announced it before 2009 was over, filed the measure in early January, and was collecting signatures by February. He ran out of money midway, but the Association of Washington Business Association of Greedy Lobbyists came to his rescue.

By now, it should be evident that Tim Eyman isn't going into retirement anytime soon. He's going to keep running initiatives as long as he can find a sugar daddy to underwrite him, whether that's wealthy individuals like Michael Dunmire, the gambling industry, asphalt pavers, or Wall Street banks and oil companies.

That was actually apparent to me almost nine years ago; it's why I founded Permanent Defense in February of 2002.

Sadly, Permanent Defense remains pretty much the extent of efforts to fight Tim Eyman year-round. You'd think by now there would be a well-developed coalition working around the clock to organize early, strong opposition to Eyman's next destructive scheme to wreck government. But there isn't. Which leads me to the first major problem I think is afflicting our movement: We don't think long-term or plan strategically for the future.

When the right wing loses, it regroups, plots a return to power, and then attacks. That was the story of the 2010 midterms.

Since Permanent Defense was founded in 2002, Eyman has lost more battles than he's won. But it doesn't matter. Even if Eyman is failing most of the time, his occasional success keeps him relevant. He's relentless.

We need to be relentless. We need to be thinking long-term, and visualizing where we want to be a few years from now. We need to lay the groundwork for our future success. We need idea factories, communication channels, a leadership pipeline, and more advanced tools for voter engagement.

We need to build a permanent campaign to sustain momentum in between elections and apply lessons learned for next time.

Most importantly, we have to decide where we want to go and how we're going to get there. Institutions and constituencies need to collaborate on developing a plan of action for the movement so we can take control of our destiny. Collaboration must be broad-based: nobody who wants to participate should be left out.

The second major problem afflicting our movement is that we don't communicate effectively. For years, George Lakoff has been trying to explain that you can't understand twenty-first century American politics with an eighteenth century brain. He's written several books on the matter: Moral Politics, Don't Think of An Elephant, Whose Freedom?, Thinking Points, and The Political Mind. Psychologist Drew Westen has also written authoritatively about the role of emotion in politics.

While a few individuals and institutions have taken Lakoff and Westen's advice to heart, they are the exception to the rule. This becomes apparent when examining most of the paid media created by the Democratic Party, well-established progressive organizations and their consultants. Ads typically do not employ progressive frames or even reinforce the progressive moral system, which stems from empathy and mutual responsibility. The logic of progressive values is simply missing. (For example, an ad boasting that a Democrat delivered tax relief for constituents is actually making use of right wing framing).

Then there's the jargon problem. Too often, jargon finds its way into talking points, op-eds, and even advertising. Insiders may know the meaning of terms like "GAU" (General Assistance – Unemployable), but voters don't. To his credit, Speaker Frank Chopp has devoted a significant amount of energy to addressing this problem. He insisted on renaming GAU to Disability Lifeline, which is a much better name for a vital service. Chopp also came up with Apple Health for Kids.

Overcoming the framing and jargon problems would be easier if we became reacquainted as a movement with the art of storytelling.

A story is memorable; it sticks with people. Statistics and dry appeals to the dispassionate mind, conversely, are forgettable.

Case in point: The speaker I remember best from this year's Netroots Nation is Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. Most of his address to us consisted of richly told stories. Some were humorous. Some were discomforting. All were captivating.

When we communicate, we need to tell our story, we need to tell it authentically, and we need to tell it in the language of progressive values. We need to appeal to voters' and taxpayers' emotions.

The third major problem afflicting our movement is that we spend very little energy or resources tackling the root causes of our problems. We spend most of our time, talent, and treasure dealing with symptoms. For instance, corruption is a civic disease that has infected our politics. Money talks, and it's used by corporations and powerful lobbies to purchase loyalty, votes, and even laws.

The Supreme Court, years ago, interpreted the Constitution to find that money is speech, and more recently, it decided that since money is speech, Congress can't create laws restricting money's use in electioneering.

Corruption is killing progress on a whole host of policy directions. So why haven't we done more to address it? I think it's because symptoms often seem like emergencies that have to be dealt with immediately.

We're so busy putting out fires that we're not thinking about the conditions that are allowing the fires to burn in the first place.

Corruption is what Lawrence Lessig calls a "first problem" ... it's not necessarily the most important problem, but it's a problem that has to be solved before it will become possible to make progress towards solving other problems.

A weak common wealth is another "first problem", since all vital public services require money to function. We can't do much to protect the environment, for instance, if we can't appropriate any resources.

The fourth major problem afflicting our movement is that we confuse what we do with how we do it. In other words, the movement is stuck in the past.

At the end of the King County Democrats' biannual reorganization meeting earlier this month, one of the precinct committee officers who had traveled to south Seattle to participate stepped up to the microphone to rant about the disappointing results of the 2010 midterms, complaining that the Democratic Party didn't communicate effectively with voters. At several points during her "good of the order' monologue, she suggested that the party attempt to increase its effectiveness and visibility by holding more marches.

It's this kind of mentality that is holding us back. We have to embrace new tactics and technologies if we want to make progress.

We simply can't confuse what we do with how we do it.

Marches may have helped advance progressive causes decades ago, but these days, they're ignored by the gatekeepers in the traditional media, so they don't have an impact. If we had a stronger network of progressive media outlets, we could cover our own protests, and force the traditional media to pay attention (like the right wing's noise machine does) but we don't.

We have to spend our time, talent, and treasure as wisely as we can. In order to do that, we have to be willing to abandon the status quo.

As Clayton Christensen, a professor for Harvard Business School, told Steve Hamm and William C. Symonds of BusinessWeek a few years ago: "The more successfully you use a way of working, the stronger your culture is, which is a great strength right up to the time when you need to change."

Progressivism has needed to evolve its means for many years now. If we want to reinvent government and save it from the clutches of the right wing, we need to reinvent our own movement first so we can get the job done.


Blogger Howard Garrett said...

The corporate billionaires are more successful in manipulating political thinking in America because they have all the money in the economy. I would like to see NPI publish a long series, and in fact tilt its entire editorial focus toward exposing, describing and shining a bright flood light of attention on the network of multi-billionaires like the Koch bros. - the owners of diversified portfolios that include big oil, big coal, big banks, big auto, big ag, big media, big chemical, big pharmaceuticals, big insurance, big EVERYTHING, who have systematically conducted a lavishly funded, highly organized and outrageously successful public manipulation campaign to convince people to distrust government, scoff at science and defund education, to the point that now the uneducated, uninformed and unthinking masses have put agents of big multi-national corporations into power, which they use to funnel even more wealth into their pockets, and out of ours, leaving impoverished families and communities, a drained economy, a paralyzed democracy and a devastated planet behind.
Coral reefs are dying fast. The oceans are becoming acidic. Ice packs are receding. Droughts are spreading and forests are disappearing. The planet is heating up faster by the day and still we hear daily that the economy demands we extract and burn more carbon.
Please have a meeting at NPI and redirect your editorial emphasis toward educating the public about these oligarchs, their propaganda campaigns and their hidden agendas.

December 23, 2010 2:13 PM  

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