WORLD’S SHORTEST POLITICAL QUIZ

Guess where you can read the following political history:

You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.

Is it the pages of Reason Magazine? The declaration of some self-described “classicaly liberal” professor? Nope. Those words were spoken at last night’s Democratic Debate by the party’s frontrunner.

This is what people mean when they complain about the Clintons’ much-vaunted triangulation – although this particular argument is really worse than triangulation, in that rather than positioning herself between two bad boogeymen of the hard left and hard right, she’s just defining her politics against left-wing “big government” (didn’t her husband already declare it over?). And she’s defining “individual freedom” against “big government” too.

It’s not a mystery why she would do this. Conservatives have done an impressive job of convincing people over the past decades that more government means less freedom. That’s how they’ve peddled their attacks on the majority’s ability to legislate against plutocracy. It’s how they’ve pushed forward an agenda that leaves Americans less free – prisoners of fear of disaster, dislocation, and disintegration of their communities and their hopes for their families.

Democrats have not done a great job over the past few decades of framing the debate in a way that elevates freedom from want and freedom from fear and challenges the idea that we are more economically free if your boss can fire you for being gay or fighting for more money. Right-wing frames are powerful. That means contemporary candidates need to either co-opt them or challenge them. Which choice they make is telling.

BEDROOM POLITICS

Last year, Grover Norquist told a New York Times reporter that he had little trouble getting the culture warriors over at the Eagle Forum to stand with the auto industry in opposition fuel efficiency standards because “it’s backdoor family planning. You can’t have nine kids in the little teeny cars.”

Certainly, leaders on the modern American right, as well as the left, struggles with how to keep its constituent movements working constructively together, or at least keep them from actively undercutting each other. But those struggles seem to turn out better on the right. Arguably, that’s because the right has real power to mete out amongst the groups and individuals who make it work and can therefore keep them in line. But there’s as strong a case to be made that being out of power is more unifying – that’s why, in the fall of 2004, well-justified and broadlyy shared anti-Bushism made it so much easier to imagine that there really was a coherent, unified left in this country. That example itself suggests one of the problems we face: while there’s more discussion these days about the importance of broad-based, multi-issue progressive coalitions, the people most vocally pushing for them want such coalitions to work essentially as extensions of Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees. “Netroots” folks like Kos actually pride themselves on their lack of ideology (and get vouched for on this count over at The New Republic).

Meanwhile, while a certain amount of the hand-wringing on the right about Bush’s supposed unconservatism is just a strategic response to his unpopularity – that is, an attempt to save the conservative brand from public dislike of its most prominent example – there is a genuine gap between certain aspects of what Bush is doing and the preferences of the grassroots activists and house intellectuals of the conservative movement, and it seems to be spurring renewed consideration at least in the pages of the right-wing mags about whether there can be a multi-issue conservative ideological coalition that’s not a partisan one. If conservatives do a better job than liberals of organizing across issues for a vision beyond the electoral fortunes of a party, even as conservatives and not liberals are running the government, then the left will have been outmaneuvered again.

That’s why folks across the left should be excited about UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, part of the union’s international Hotel Workers Rising project, through which hotelworkers in cities all over North America are using concurrent contract expirations to leverage strategic pressure on major hotel chains to raise the standard of living for all their workers and agree to fair organizing conditions for those without collective bargaining rights (I start work with HWR tomorrow; views expressed here are my own). Sleep With the Right People represents a crucial alliance of progressives committed to the dignity and empowerment of people too often marginalized based on sexuality, class, gender, race, or the intersection of these identities.

As Hugh argues here and here, this campaign represents a critical stand against the view that “difference” should be “a cause of fear.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of the freedoms to join a partner in building a life together, and to partner with co-workers to build a more democratic workplace, each without sacrificing safety from violence or freedom from want. It’s a step towards the ameliorating the too-frequent insensitivity of the labor movement towards identities other than class and the too-frequent insensitivity of the LGBTQ movement towards identities other than sexuality. There are more steps ahead.

PET ISSUES

A characteristic comment from Kos:

we won’t have a governing majority until the energy expended in pursuing pet interests gets redirected toward getting Republicans out of power and getting Democrats — even some of the imperfect ones — elected to replace them…take a look at the new progressive organizations arising the past few years — MoveOn, the blogs, Democracy for America, National Political Hip Hop Conference, etc — all of them movement-based multi-issue organizations. That is the future of the American progressive movement. Not the single-issue groups that continue to hold their narrow interests above those of the broader movement.

What’s frustrating about comments like this is the uncritical conflation of the “broader movement” and the Democratic party. What’s a “pet issue”? Well, it’s an issue taken up by people you think could spend their time better doing something else. Since Kos’ goal – certainly an urgent and worthy one – is to replace Republican elected officials with Democratic ones, he tends to snipe at progressives who focus on pretty much anything else – be it reducing poverty or expanding civil liberties – as a higher priority. And his hammering on the all-too true point that the Right in this country has demonstrated much stronger long-term strategy than the Left over the past few decades only makes it that much more disappointing each time he makes the short-sighted argument that progressive groups which too strongly criticize or withhold support from Democrats who don’t share their values are selfish for not subordinating their cause to the goal of winning the next election. That’s not how conservatives accomplished their takeover of many of the powerful institutions in this country.

What really gets me about this particular post, though, is the way it conflates Kos’ “every left-wing group in the country should work to elect anyone to Congress who will vote for Pelosi for Speaker” critique with a critique I agree with: the left hasn’t done a sufficient job of building lasting multi-issue coalitions, and progressive activists have too often failed to see and articulate the connectedness between their causes. For Kos, the latter critique must be the former, because the only legitimate form for multi-issue cooperation to take is the Democratic party or organizations or websites mainly devoted to electing Democrats. But that’s not the view of many of the most articulate exponents of the latter critique, including the “Death of Environmentalism” essay which he rightly highlights as a crucial document (here too, I agree). In fact, the very excerpt he quotes in his post is:

Our thesis is this: the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

“What’s that,” you say, “it’s possible to have a long string of defeats under a Democratic President? (For a sobering account of just how poor a job NRDC and the Sierra Club did at cashing in on their work electing Bill Clinton, check out Randy Shaw’s Activist Handbook). So much for the idea that all progressive groups have to do to advance their causes is get Democrats elected.

CULTURAL CRITICISM, LEFT AND RIGHT

A series of dust-ups in the media about the media this summer – from the flap on Kos about an ad with women mudwrestling to Jon Stewart’s arguments with Bernard Goldberg, Zell Miller, and Rick Santorum about whether the culture has coarsened – has gotten me thinking about the different ways liberals and conservatives consider and critique what’s in the movies and on TV.

One clear but too-often-obscured distinction is between criticism and calls for censorship. Rick Santorum gets at this in his book when he insists in his book that “If it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral.” If one accepts Santorum’s frame – which is also Catherine McKinnon’s – then the question of what should be in the media and the question of what should be censored from the media are – at least in particularly agregious cases – mapped onto each other. Too often, progressives answer other progressives’ media criticism as if it were an implicit call for censorship, rather than as the “more speech” which the left has traditionally and rightly seen as the answer to bad speech.

Liberal and conservative approaches to media criticism are also distinguished by choice – or at least prioritization – of boogeymen from amongst sex, violence, bigotry, et al. And, arguably, by the question of how much we should care at all.

But related, and – I think – more interesting – is a distinction I haven’t seen discussed: Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses? By asking the question and making the distinction, I guess, I’ve already pegged myself in the liberal camp that says that the distinction is a meaningful one and that what’s endorsed is a more worthwhile ground for consideration or condemnation than what’s exposed. That’s not to say that it’s possible to present images or actions with neutrality – only that it’s possible to present the same ones with a whole range of meanings and judgments.

If we’re concerned about sex, we can worry about whether sex happens on TV or we can worry about whether the sex on TV is portrayed as a good or bad (or healthy or unhealthy, or cool or uncool) thing. If we’re concerned about sexism, we can worry about whether people are portrayed being or acting sexist on TV or we can worry about whether that sexism is presented in a favorable light. In each case, I’d say that if you see the thing as an evil (my take: sexism is, sex isn’t), your time and energy is better spent worrying about how good or bad that evil is portrayed to be than about how often it appears on the screen.

That’s why the fixation on nudity on TV is doubly conservative – conservative for the contention that human sexuality is what media consumers should be guarded against and conservative for the concern over the naked image itself rather than the social meaning with which it appears. Sure it’s easier to keep a tally of naked breasts than of positive portrayals of behaviors you think are negative, but the tendency of right-wing critics to go for the former approach seems to be about more than convenience. And that approach – grouping together breasts shown breast-feeding, breasts shown in an intimate moment between spouses, and breasts shown on a child being molested – leaves them looking that much more like middle-schoolers.

Among the problems with an approach to media criticism which fixates on what viewers are exposed to rather than what they see endorsed is that it lets pass all kinds of social meanings which are problematic but not explicit. Whatever your values, your chances of seeing them spread in society are affected more by G-rated movies than Playboy.

SEEKING SOLAR SOLIDARITY

Nathan offers a good example of what a missed chance to build a broad-based pro-environmental constituency looks like:

California is debating a Schwarzenegger-backed bill to subsidize solar panels on homes and businesses across the state– on a level that could supply energy equivalent to 10 average-sized coal-fired power plants. Sounds good, but in a classic move to pit labor and environmental interests, the GOP cosponsors, as this article details, oppose a requirement that public money only go to installers paying prevailing union wages in the state. Labor in California has fought a long struggle to require that, if government pays for it, the labor has to meet union wage levels. Now, the GOP wants to open a multi-billion dollar loophole in the rule: somehow the hipness of solar panels makes using public money for sweatshop labor acceptable. This is a perfect chance for environmentalists to stand up for the principle that green policy can also be a pro-labor policy, but few environmental leaders have stepped up to champion prevailing wages for the workers who would actually install all these solar panels across the state.

It’s this kind of failure build not just a momentary majority but a stable, inter-generational, cross-cause constituency that caused some environmental leaders last year to declare “The Death of Envionmentalism.” Of course, where Nathan says,

And the enviros wonder why some labor unions joined the GOP in supporting drilling in ANWR when they promised that all those jobs would pay union wages

one could with equal justification fire back “And the union people wonder why some environmentalists are willing to screw them to get solar energy in the wake of ANWR.” The stakes for both movements – fostering an alternative to a laissez-faire race to the bottom and building an economy which values and invests in human beings and the earth – are too high not to work together. Everyone has on the left has some work to do to get their own house(s) in order. If you want to see what the payoff from broader-based, cross-issue organizing looks like, just check out the modern Right in this country.

We had a great crowd of undergrads and prospective students at our ice cream social last night to discuss the strike and progressive activism on campus. The event was made that much more interesting by a protest outside by the Committee for Freedom (right-wing undergrads from the Party of the Right) with slogans like “GESO caused the tsunami.” Nice to know that at least some of the folks in the Committee for Freedom see public protest as legitimate. I think their failure, after a couple hours of tabling at the bazaar for prospective students, to recruit a single prospective student, or more than four current undergrads, to come make posters and protest us speaks nicely to the sentiment on campus.

This morning we revived Education in the Streets and, just as we did two years ago, set up classrooms on College Street in which graduate employees, undergrads, and community members taught classes on the issues at the center of the strike and of the social movement in this city. Scores of students turned out for classes on diversity, debt, contract negotiations, community benefits, and the challenges facing women in the sciences. Attending the latter was a particularly appropriate reason for me to miss my seminar on the Political Economy of Gender.

After moving words from John Wilhelm and others, we picketed a panel of Yale alumni in Battell Chapel including Roland Betts, Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the doors were locked and Betts refused to come out and speak with us, valuing the discussions in our sections as little and fearing disucussion with the people who lead those sections as much, apparently, as President Levin.