FIGHTING WORDS

Nathan Newman: “If progressives want a killer political response to Bush’s calls for making the Estate Tax permanent, it’s to keep the estate tax and devote the proceeds to long-term health care. The purpose is the same — preserving assets for the next generation — but ending the “sickness tax” would have far broader appeal than conservative wailing about a “death tax” that applies only to a a tiny percentage of the population.”

Sam Smith: “It was on this show that I got conservative journalist Marc Morano to admit he was a ‘a la carte’ socialist since he used Washington’s subway system. ‘You’re a subway socialist,’ I had told him. ‘You’re just not a healthcare socialist.'”

David Sirota: “This blunting of the left’s ideological edge is a result of three unfortunate circumstances. First, conservatives spent the better part of three decades vilifying the major tenets of the left’s core ideology, succeeding to the point where “liberal” is now considered a slur. Second, the media seized on these stereotypes and amplified them – both because there was little being done to refute them, and because they fit so cleanly into the increasingly primitive and binary political narrative being told on television. And third is Partisan War Syndrome – the misconception even in supposedly “progressive” circles that substance is irrelevant when it comes to both electoral success and, far more damaging, to actually building a serious, long-lasting political movement.”

Beth, like me, is excited by this piece in the Times on the resurgence of grassroots organizing this election season. As she writes:

That’s great for democracy.

It’s also great for Democrats.

It’s always nice when the interests of the big-D and small-d (D/d)emocrats converge…

Beth argues, inter alia, that door-to-door campaigning makes it possible to customize the candidate for the voter. To which I would say, yes, with a caveat. Yes in the sense that politics in perhaps its best sense is about communities and about the harnessing of political institutions to effect tangible change in individual lives, and when Democrats fail to articulate a vision which speaks to individuals’ and communities’ circumstances and issues, they lose. As Sam Smith argued in a tremendous essay oft-cited on this site:

We got rid machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.

One Tammany politician, George Washington Plunkitt, claimed to know every person in his district…In the world of Plunkitt, politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King or George Will. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

So the first non-logical but necessary thing we must do to reclaim democratic politics is to bring it back into our communities, into our hearts to bring it back home. True politics, in imitation of baseball, the great American metaphor, is also about going home.

Back in December, I chided the Times for an article in its magazine about the Dean organizing strategy which portrayed the belief of regular people that their political involvement, rather than a technocratic project, could be a natural outgrowth of concerns borne out of their personal lives as some sort of leery veureristic parallel to an Alchoholics Anonymous meeting. I’m glad to see the Times get it better this time around, and am hopeful that the rest of the Democrats are beginning to as well.

My caveat would be that crossing the line from customizing the emphasis to customizing the policy tends not to work out so well either. The one thing I’ll say for TV is that it holds candidates accountable nationally for the messages they put forward locally, and helps to curb excesses of “customization” like Lincoln’s two speeches in favor of and against racial equality while stumping on the same day. One political scientist like to compare the nationalization of political campaigns and soft drinks. Apparently, back when my parents were walking to school in the snow (uphill both ways, no doubt), patrons at individual establishments could manually set the ratios of syrup, sugar, water, and whatever the hell else goes into their cola. Once Coke became a product that was the same everywhere, it was necessary to choose a formula that would appeal to the most folks national wide. The same has happened for campaigns, as it’s no longer feasible to customize the message for each district once much of the campaign happens on national television.

The good news here is that it means candidates are responsible in one part of the country for what they tell another and so my gloss on Beth’s point would be a warning that what Kerry can’t do is spin himself on one side of the issue in California and the other in Oregon.

The bad news about the shift away from the grassroots is something I’ve railed against to no end here, but the corollary to this particular piece of good news is the bad news that Democratic candidates have responded to the nationalization of the campaign by whoring themselves out to an illusory median voter rather than bringing new voters into the process by articulating strong progressive visions for the country from New York to Arizona to Pennsylvania to Florida and beyond.

The New York Times Magazine, in its cover story, makes an awkward, leering, occasionally illuminating, mostly misguided attempt to understand the grassroots movement that (deserved or not) has built around Howard Dean. What’s most stunning is the incredulity and confusion with which the Times confronts the prospect that politics could be built around – and create – communities, and that it could arise from and inform personal narratives in ways other than serving as a tool for the performance of privilege. Much of the article is full of accounts of bad break-ups meant to make these folks look pathetic and descriptions of personal eccentricities meant to make them look perverse:

He stripped to his underwear, lay on the floor in a fetal position and remained there for days, occasionally sipping from an old carton of orange juice. ”I was completely obliterated,” he says. ”I didn’t know something like that could actually cause physical pain.” Johnson’s friends kept calling, trying to think of something that would get him out of the house. Finally they hit on one: Howard Dean.

This paragraph, however, is perhaps more absurd:

It felt as much like a support group as a political rally. As they did at Clay Johnson’s meet-up in Atlanta, everyone went around the circle describing what drew them to Dean, usually in very personal language. Bob and Eileen Ehlers haltingly explained the problems their children, in their 20’s, have with health insurance, while Tony Evans nodded sympathetically.

That the most reputable newspaper in the US sees people choosing to get involved in campaigns based on personal experience and personal struggles as pathological is sad. That this is seen as a bleeding heart newspaper is just absurd.

There’s also Howard Dean as siren:

Long before Howard Dean was considered a plausible candidate for president, he seemed to emit some sort of secret call that made people, many of them previously apolitical, drop everything and devote themselves to his campaign.

Yet the Times also acknowledges that whatever this strategy is, it seems to be working:

By organizing its national network of Yogis, Howards, Dykes and Disney Employees for Dean, the campaign built an alternative to institutions like the D.L.C. Dean has raised $25 million, mostly through small checks — the average donation is $77 — and those checks have placed Dean at the top of the Democratic fund-raising pack. Dean’s opponents have begun to mimic the trappings of his campaign. Many of the Democratic candidates now have blogs. Even President Bush has one, though comments from the public — an essential element of Dean’s blog — are not allowed.

The article’s close suggests a glimmering, even at the New York Times Magazine, of understanding of what a grassroots campaign could be:

”What’s happening is an unusual and unprecedented correspondence between the campaign and us,” she says. It takes me a moment before I realize that when she says ”the campaign,” she doesn’t mean the people running the headquarters in Burlington. She means the people she’s going to visit in her Airstream.

I doubt I’m the only one who’s skeptical of quotes from supporters like

”But the strongest thing was that I could tell he is a good man,” Brooks says gravely. ”And if a good man were president, it would change everything in ways we can’t even imagine.”

But more important to me than whether Howard Dean is a good man is whether he’s a good organizer – and so far, he’s outpaced every one else by a long shot. Reading this piece reminded me of a recent essay in which Sam Smith wrote:

Come with me for a moment to the time of when politics was so much a part of New York City that Tammany Hall had to rent Madison Square Gardens for its meetings of committeemen – all 32,000 of them. . In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to send a mailing to its workers some years back, it found that no one had kept a list. The party had come to care only about its donors.

We got rid machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.

…politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King or George Will. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude. So the first non-logical but necessary thing we must do to reclaim democratic politics is to bring it back into our communities, into our hearts to bring it back home. True politics, in imitation of baseball, the great American metaphor, is also about going home. Yet like so much in our national life, we are only going through the motions, paying ritualistic obeisance to a faith we no longer follow. In fact, we have lost our way home. We must not only make politics a part of our culture but make our culture a part of our politics.

I share much of Sam Smith’s – and others’ – skepticism both about what Dean’s record portends for working people and about the depth of his commitment to a new new American politics that would include much of the strengths of the old one. But at least he’s a good enough organizer, and an innovative enough politician, to merit incredulous, confused pieces in the New York Times Magazine.