Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Back from the Dead: Obama and Political Process

As a first step to reviving this dormant blog, I'm going to cobble together various thoughts from discussions in email and elsewhere over the past half year or so. These thoughts are perhaps less novel and certainly less timely now with the primaries concluded than they were when they initially occurred to me, but I think they're still worth discussing.

Back when the Democratic primary was still hotly contested between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards (who, let's not forget, was the clear favorite among the netroots), Obama was not infrequently attacked as a "process" candidate. This charge was advanced derisively, with suggestions that such focus on process was a sign of vanity with little appeal beyond upper-middle class young white professionals who don't care about Real Issues. Typically it was accompanied with comparisons to other such vanity candidates like Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas, and Eugene McCarthy.

In response, I first must concede that I believe these critics are correct: Obama is a process candidate. While some conservatives have looked to Obama's liberal policy positions and scoffed at his supposed post-partisanness, Obama's post-partisan approach is a matter of process, not policy. Post-partisanship has to do with refocusing the process on substantive issues rather than the partisan circus we've seen the past 10-15 years, with having amicable disagreements, treating everyone with civility and decency instead of demonizing political opponents, with having a willingness to critically analyze issues without viewing them solely as an opportunity to score political points, with prioritizing competence over patronage and loyalty in government bureaucracy, with not letting elections be dominated by hot-button bullshit issues (e.g. Terry Schiavo) instead of the actual and quite serious issues facing our nation. This is really the defining attribute of Obama's campaign, particularly in comparison to his Democratic opponents with whom he had relatively few policy differences. So, yes, Obama is a process candidate.

I must strenuously disagree, however, with the position that Obama's process-focus is a matter of vanity, or is in any respect a political weakness. John Edwards thought that the Democrats needed to move left and take more populist positions in order to win. Hillary Clinton initially seemed to think we needed to move back towards her husband's centrist approach (i.e. the Democratic Leadership Council position). Later she seemed to adopt the Edwards populist angle, and later still she decided the Democrats needed be more ... white. The reality is that Democrats don't need to do any of that. What Democrats desperately need to do is fight back against the political circus and force people to look at real substantive issues. This is what Obama's post-partisanship is meant to achieve.

Along with criticism that he was too process-oriented, one of the chief netroots complaints about Obama was that he is insufficiently harsh on Republicans. He failed to call them out for being the repugnant, evil, spiteful people that, in the eyes of the netroots, they so obviously were. Obama failed to demonize the opposing party. What Obama understands that the netroots failed to grasp is that this road leads to tribal politics. That's the Republican way, the grand political circus. Everyone will retreat to their old familiar identity groups and fling flaming dog poop at each other and we'll rehash the same election we had in 2000 and 2004. In a year where the fundamentals so strongly favor Democrats, we might even win with that approach. But as a long-term strategy, it is a loser.

Bitterly divisive partisan politics is a game that Republican will always ultimately win. It's the game they've chosen and written the rules for, and they did so because it best fits the philosophy of their party and the memes they're trying to sell. It demeans politics, belittles the political process, and sows cynicism and distrust of politicians and government alike. For Democrats to fight back on the same terms concedes a decisive advantage to the Republicans right up front. For Democrats to succeed people need to believe in government, and for that to happen they need to first believe in the political process.

In order to break out of the long downward spiral of hyper-partisan politics it will be imperative to get some people to vote on issues rather identity. This is a difficult task, because it so easy for people to flee to the comfort of their identity groups. But the upside is we don't need a lot of them. All it would take would be to flip 10-15% of voters who've gone Republican in the last two election cycles to win a landslide victory. And here's the real key: these voters already agree with Democrats on all the major policy questions. A large majority of Americans favor universal health care (including a majority of Republicans!). A large majority of Americans believe the government needs to take serious action on climate change. A large majority of Americans want our troops out of Iraq within a year. A large majority of Americans agree that we should have diplomatic meetings with Iran without preconditions. Let me say this again: Democrats do not need to change their policy positions to go after independent and Republican voters. They already agree with us! The only key to victory is to figure out how to bust people loose from identity politics.

If Democrats can only break off a chunk of the Bush voters and get them to vote on issues instead of identity, they will win big. Hillary Clinton could never have succeeded in this task because she is a creature of hyper-partisan politics. Her political career was born of it, the hard feminist core of her support was built on it, and she personally revels in it. Her pitch to the primary voters was that we should support her because she could play this game better than anyone. And John Edwards, having failed with a more moderate, centrist approach in 2004, embraced identity politics himself this time around, pulling together an odd alliance of white working-class union voters and the most vociferous leftists of the netroots. But the fiery rhetoric and demonization of others required to win these groups was self-limiting, and Edwards consequently had no success extending his appeal beyond these identity groups. Neither of them could have avoided the trap of hyper-partisanship. Neither of them could have significantly altered the playing field. Either probably could have won, given the overall dynamics of this election, but neither would have been a game-changer.

But Obama did something different. Obama has built a campaign around rejecting the circus. His campaign is constructed from the ground up precisely to be a game-changer. He properly understood that concern over the political process is not a vanity issue; it is the difference between continued frustration for Democrats and clear political dominance. Obama treats all Americans with dignity and respect. He discounts no one and tries to engage everyone. He wants voters to believe that under his administration
the government will take into account all of their views, positions, and beliefs and negotiate them in a reasonable and sensible manner. He recognizes that people don't always need to win every argument as long as they feel the system is fair and that their voice is heard. His campaign is built around these basic values.

It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to break the cycle. I think the approach is right, and Obama personally has demonstrated a level of
wisdom, charisma, and leadership that leads me to believe he can really pull this off. But I don't underestimate the difficulty of the task. The Republicans wouldn't have invested so much in this approach if it didn't work so goddamned well. But if Obama prevails, this could be an incredibly meaningful victory, and a breath of fresh air that we all, at this point, desperately need.

Update (6/12): just for added emphasis, check out this Obama quote that they've put at the top of their anti-smear page: "What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, or patriotism as a bludgeon -- that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize. Because we may call ourselves Democrats and Republicans, but we are Americans first. We are always Americans first."

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