During the 2012 election, President Obama spoke hopefully that his reelection might break the fever in the GOP, so that something might be accomplished in his second term. By now, that hope is pretty much gone, which is why we belatedly have the EPA's global warming regulations, and rumblings about executive action on immigration policy.
We also have the first inklings of talk about Obama's legacy, and how to take all that fanatical opposition into account. Last Saturday, on "Up With Steve Kornacki," Erica Payne of the Agenda Project made an argument you might have heard some time ago in the blogosphere, but on cable TV, not so such: that the right was never going to cooperate with Obama, from the very beginning, and that the best thing he can do now to secure his legacy "is to actually build out the intellectual and communications infrastructure of the left," because that's how you build the foundations of the politically possible for the future.
"We've got to go back and look at Rahm Emanuel becoming chief of staff at the White House when President Obama first went into office,” Payne said. “Rahm Emanuel had lived through the Clinton years. If anyone knew what the right wing of this country is capable of it's Rahm Emanuel, and the Clintons. And I think he just fundamentally did not prepare President Obama for what he was going to face.”
And what was that, in her view? Payne explained:
You're never going to break this fever. This fever has been going on since Bill Clinton went into office. And we had Vince foster and blah blah blah, all of the things that the right wing threw at him, you know, and I think that President Obama very naively thought -- and it's the best spirit of hopefulness -- but thought he could come in and work with these people.
But that simply wasn't possible, she continued:
The right wing of this country wants to destroy everything that we think is great about this country, they're never going to end, the fever is never going to be broken, and the best thing President Obama could do to seal his legacy is to actually build out the intellectual and communications infrastructure of the left.
That infrastructure is vital, because of the real nature of politics, she went on to argue:
If you look at politics, it's basically like that picture of the iceberg, where you can see the top little bit of it. and then the ocean level, and then everything underneath it. The conservatives after the Goldwater election, Goldwater defeat, they built out a network of think tanks, the Federalist Society, CATO, AEI, the Heritage Foundation, those in combination with the Chamber of Commerce, with the Koch brothers ... this whole infrastructure is the problem. And the legacy needs to address that infrastructure problem.
This is not a new argument, really. It echoes Antonio Gramsci's concept of counter-hegemonic warfare on the left, and the infamous “Powell Memo” on the right. So what's remarkable isn't the novelty of Payne's argument — it's that it wasn't embraced long ago.
Consider, for example, how conservative messaging has created a dramatically growing partisan divide over the social safety net, identified in one graph from a 2013 Pew Research/New America Foundation report. Pew tracked agreement with three statements from 1987 through 2012, finding a widening Democratic/Republican gap in each case: "It's the government's responsibility to take care of people who can't take care of themselves" (D+17 to D+35), "the government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt" (D+25 to D+45), and "the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep" (D+27 to D+42). These figures reflect a massive shift in partisan GOP views over the period of time when the FCC got rid of the Fairness Doctrine, right-wing talk radio exploded across the country, and Fox News was launched by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. Questions of this sort are particularly strong indicators of ideological outlook, and they demonstrate just how successful the conservative infrastructure has been in making Republicans far more hostile to government spending helping the poor — at least on a philosophical level. This has had an enormous impact on the political discourse in the Beltway-centric media and policy circles, and progressives have suffered significantly as a result.
Yet, these sorts of ideological responses are often strikingly at odds with concrete policy positions, which tend to be much more pragmatically oriented, and thus more liberal. Indeed, over the same period of time, there were much smaller changes in attitudes when it comes to more specific spending questions asked by the General Social Survey. Looking at nine spending questions, covering items like Social Security, national education, health, assistance to the poor, to blacks and to big cities, I found that the Democrat/Republican gap changed less than 3 percent for six out of the nine — including all questions explicitly mentioning blacks, welfare or the poor. "Improving and protecting the nation's health" was the big outlier, no doubt because Republicans in 2012 associated it with Obamacare (causing their support to plummet by 15.3 percent), which made it an apples-to-oranges comparison. Of the two remaining items, the gap widened 6.3 percent for spending on "solving problems of big cities," but it narrowed by 8.9 percent on "improving the nation's education system." Thus, while the massive buildup in conservative infrastructure has produced a deep philosophical divide about America's safety net over the past 25 years, it has had only the barest impact on attitudes about specific programs.
Given how little such basic policy attitudes have changed in 25 years, despite a massive conservative ideological onslaught, there is real reason to hope that progressive can rally support for the sort of compassionate, pragmatic vision of America as they envision it, with the sort of broad-based political organizing Payne is talking about.
Nonetheless, there are serious obstacles that such a strategy has to deal with, and I contacted Payne to ask her about them, in part because they must be dealt with in order for such a strategy to succeed — and because Payne is unusual in speaking out so openly about this need, considering the world she's long worked in, having served as deputy national finance director for the Democratic National Committee during Clinton's reelection campaign in 1996.
But she's also not just spouting off thoughtlessly; organization building and citizen empowerment have long concerned her as well. She went on to be a co-founder of the Democracy Alliance, a donor collaborative that has invested more than $100 million in progressive organizations, before founding the Agenda Project, which says its goal is “to build a powerful, intelligent, well-connected political movement capable of identifying and advancing rational, effective ideas” and “to return normal Americans to the center of the policy debate.” Clearly, if progressives are going to finally engage in a systemic response to 50 years of conservative infrastructure building, she's just the sort of person to help bring that about. The answers she offered don't really solve the problems these obstacles represent; they aren't intended to. But they do get us engaged in the process of finding solutions — a process that's been delayed for far too long.
I began by asking about a major problem facing progressives trying to counter conservative political infrastructure — the basic political power imbalance, shown by recent research — by Martin Gilens, most notably — which favors the wealthy over average Americans. While there's more to right/left than just economics, there's little doubt that economics are a crucial driving force. For most of the past 50 years, Thomas Frank's formulation from "What's the Matter With Kansas" has held true:
Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking....
Because economics has been so central, the evidence uncovered by Martin Gilens is particularly troubling for any effort to build power on the left. His 2013 book, "Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America," considered thousands of proposed policy changes, and the degree of support for each among poor, middle-class and affluent Americans. Summarizing his results, Gilens wrote, "The American government does respond to the public’s preferences, but that responsiveness is strongly tilted toward the most affluent citizens. Indeed, under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt."
This year, Gilens followed up with a paper co-authored by Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” In that paper, they analyzed a data set covering 1,779 policy issues, and found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
So how does Payne see a left infrastructure-building project dealing with this heavily tilted playing field?
“As research and common sense have shown, there can be no doubt in any rational person’s mind that the agenda of wealthy Americans takes precedence over that of regular citizens,” she readily agreed, going on to say:
Recent case in point, the overwhelming – and bipartisan -- support for increasing the minimum wage and the failure of the Senate (due to Republican opposition) to even bring the issue up for debate. But it isn’t just the fault of conservative politicians and their donors, the blame also lies with Democrats. President Obama just a year ago called for a $9 federal minimum wage – it was only under intense pressure that he raised the proposal to $10.10.
This is a crucial point: Don't discount the impact we can have on our own side. But Payne had more to say about the long view of history:
To give in to feelings of hopelessness in the face of “unequal representation” in our (so-called) representative democracy would be to misunderstand the arc of history and to grossly underestimate the power of regular people to make profound societal change. The obvious examples are the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. It has been done in the past and it will be done again in the future. The question – both for the wealthy and for un-wealthy – is this: What side of history will you be on? And what will you have done to realize both the American experiment, but also more interestingly the human experiment.
Along these lines, it's worth remembering that when the abolitionists started out, Northern elites were as committed to slavery as Southerners were. Before that, you had slave revolts, led by the likes of Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey, the most extreme example of the economically powerless nonetheless organizing to change the course of history.
Even on a shorter time frame, Gilens himself wrote that “there are exceptions to this pattern, and conditions that are more conducive to the representation of the middle class and low-income people.” Which means the odds are stacked against us — which we already knew — but that we still have chances to win.
Next, I asked Payne about the internalization of right-wing ideas on the left, and gave the example of Obama's endorsing the notion that the government had to tighten its belt in a recession. “I don’t agree with the frame of this question,” Payne began, saying:
The stimulus of 2009 was big – it just wasn’t big enough to do the job. So it was less that President Obama wanted to tighten the belt in the recession and more that he wasn’t willing to loosen it enough to jump-start the economy. This could be an internalization of right-wing ideas on the left, or more likely it could be a misunderstanding of the “possible.” To quote Daniel Burnham: “make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood ... Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.”
Broadly speaking, it is less that Democrats (and I’m consciously leaving out Wall Street Democrats in this analysis) have internalized right-wing ideas and more that they have lost their courage – if they had it in the first place. President Obama has not demonstrated political courage during his presidency. From Wall Street reform to tax policy he has played it safe.
I think that Payne is certainly onto something here. But the diminished sense of the “possible” she refers to is strikingly at odds with the campaign that candidate Obama ran — and this in turn feeds the notion that he's internalized some ideas that clash significantly with how he campaigned, and built the support that made him president in the first place. It may be more than just playing it safe; it may be a misguided notion of what counts as reasonable, something he's not alone in, by any means.
Payne went on to argue that there was far more internalization of right-wing views during Clinton's presidency:
No one I know on the left – with the exception possibly of the foreign policy community – has internalized anything the right believes. This is why I see change on the horizon. During Clinton’s presidency, there was substantially more of that internalization. In many ways, President Clinton was the best Republican president since Ronald Reagan – his three signature accomplishments were NAFTA, welfare reform and dismantling the rules that governed Wall Street. In his defense, he didn’t know at the time how they would turn out. Today’s Democrats don’t have that excuse. They know exactly how all three of these ideas turned out.
But given the failure to restore Glass-Steagall, for example, I'm not really sure how well those lessons have been learned. More important, even 20/20 hindsight tells us nothing about foresight.
This led directly to my next concern, the continued dominance of right-wing intellectual frameworks — such as neoliberalism or law and economics — despite well-articulated, but widely neglected critiques. Payne's response was encouraging, but only a start, I feared:
Again, I think this is changing – and where it isn’t changing, I think there is a greater understanding on the part of progressive funders that it needs to change. Look at Soros’ investment in INET [the Institute for New Economic Thinking]. What is important here is to attack university presidents who sell out their intellectual credibility to the highest bidder. Look at the Olin Center at Harvard and the Hoover Institute at Stanford : Both centers paid for the imprimatur of these prestigious universities; housing these centers at these universities was deliberate.
I agree with everything Payne said here, although the battle against neoliberalism has only fitfully been joined, due to some fundamental misunderstandings, as Philip Mirowski has argued. But even more underappreciated is a very specific, powerful critique of law and economics, from Harvard Law professor Jon Hanson, and various collaborators, which shifts the focus from an unrealistic, theoretical model of individual choice to a realistic account of human action embedded in complex social and cultural settings, based on findings from a broad range of mind sciences. Law and economics is grounded in the soil of neoclassical economics, with its rational actors and other empirically questionable assumptions, but then exports such thinking into the legal realm, and thus into far-flung policy realms as well. In the name of exulting the individual, it actually flacks for the hidden power of the largest corporate actors.
Hanson's approach, described as “critical realism” or “situationism,” deftly dispels the illusions involved — but unfortunately remains far too little known in wider policy circles. (For a broad, informal introduction, see this Harvard Law School interview.) The awareness of implicit racial bias, which spread rapidly in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, is just one example of the powerful kinds of mind science findings that situationism incorporates into a rich tapestry of understanding — a tapestry that's essential to accurately describing our social world in all of its complexity, so that we might better navigate it individually, and reshape it collectively so that it better serves us all. We desperately need a much wider awareness of situationist tools if we are to successfully reshape the world.
Next, I asked Payne about unrecognized sources of internal incoherence and conflict within the progressive community as a whole, in part related to the previous two issues I raised. I cited the example of Anat Shenker-Osorio's work on the problems progressives have in communicating about economics, in her book "Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy" and elsewhere.
“I think Anat’s work is brilliant and cutting edge,” Payne responded. “It will take time for those ideas to take root, but they will get there. We are on a long trajectory.” Perhaps the same could be said about Hanson's.
Expanding on her last point, Payne elaborated:
It was just 12 years ago that people woke up to what the right wing had built since the 1964 Goldwater defeat. I was in many of those early meetings in which we shared the research about the right-wing intellectual and communications infrastructure with activists, funders and political leaders. The idea that there was a world outside – or, more accurately, underneath and behind -- electoral politics was paradigm shifting. Now, 12+ years later working together, those people have built some of the institutions that will change the country for the better. But as trite as it sounds, you have to walk before you run – and these organizations have just now begun to get to the place where they can start to run.
If this progress sounds distressingly slow to you, well, isn't that an argument for Payne's proposition that building this capacity is the most sensible form that Obama's legacy should take?
One final obstacle I asked about was the functional imbalance between progressives and conservatives that flows from being more interested in making government work, and thus put a lot of time and effort into service providing, research and the like, as opposed to constant political warfare, which is the only thing that many on the right seem to care about.
“Progressives are learning how to fight – it’s slow but they are learning,” Payne said. “Democratic politicians will learn too. If they can fight with moral certainly they will win.”
I'd like to end with something else Payne said about one of her core concerns: courage.
The question they [today's Democrats] have to answer now is, “Are they brave enough to change?” And understand the word "brave" – and its sister word “courage”: Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the understanding that there is something that is more important than fear. What political leaders must assess is whether they think our country – and its citizens – are more important than their next reelection. And as long as they continue to think their next reelection is more important than the country, we will continue to underperform our potential as a nation. In the same way that companies who focus on short-term returns ultimately underperform.
What better long-term legacy could Obama want than to encourage others to take the long view as well?