PAGING FEDBLOG

Last week marked the first firing of a gay linguist for violating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the Obama Presidency. At the same time Obama has disappointed many equality supporters by not rising to the defense of service members attacked for their sexual orientation, his appointment of John Berry as director of the Office of Personnel Management opened the door wider to greater equality for other LGBT employees of the federal government. As my friend Alyssa Rosenberg wrote at the time, Berry is not just the highest-level LGBT federal appointee in our history:

During his time at Interior, Berry worked to create a grievance procedure for employees who experience discrimination because of their sexual orientation, expand relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of employees, establish a liaison to gay and lesbian workers, and eliminate discriminatory provisions of the National Park Service’s law enforcement standards — including a ban on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees…Leonard Hirsch, international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution and president of Federal GLOBE, which represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender government employees, said in a January interview with Government Executive that he thought Berry would reverse OPM’s benefits policy.

I was reminded of both of these stories today after a co-worker brought up Ronald Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers a quarter-century ago, a poignant reminder of the power a president’s handling of the federal workforce can exert for good or ill for workers across America, politically and culturally as well as economically. What could a progressive president do today with an equivalent impact?

Another question, as I contemplate the prospect of federal employees gaining domestic partnership benefits while service members continue being fired for having domestic partners: How are the rights and benefits of service members affected by those of the federal workforce? What about vice versa? (As Thomas Frank discusses in The Wrecking Crew, the disparity between public and private sector pay is a battleground in fights between liberals and conservatives over the role of government). Is there a relationship between the pensions of the military and civilian folks working for our government? While soldiers forfeit various rights of other Americans, I wonder how the conditions of the federal workforce affect their social and economic entitlements. And do organized federal employees speak out on these issues? Alyssa?

FAMILY MATTERS

This article, one of the last by the recently-deceased Ellen Willis, is one of the more articulate, accurate, and biting critiques I’ve come across of Thomas Frank and What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a book many pundits make reference to and few do justice.

Willis takes on what I think is the most glaring weakness of Frank’s latest book, one which goes totally unaddressed in the full-length reviews and tangential digs bashing him for his supposed elitism: Frank argues that Republicans elected on the basis of their social conservatism don’t actually deliver socially conservative policy. As we say in Yiddish, “Halvai” – if only. As Willis notes, conservatives have successfully used the powers of their offices all too successfully to reshape the country’s “social policy” more faithful to their dogma – including making it prohibitively difficult for women in large swathes of the country to exercise freedom of choice. Frank is of course right to recognize the Federal Marriage Act as a stunt and a sop, but the unfortunate truth is that many of the right’s sops to social conservative activists pack a real punch in diminishing the freedom of the rest of us to access contraception, access knowledge, and access partnership rights.

Rejecting Frank’s insistence that the social conservative legislative agenda is a chimera doesn’t much damage the rest of his argument though. Frank is right to argue that conservatives build a base for right-wing policy based on classed appeals to stick it to elites by fighting social liberalsim, and that that base make possible policies that make elites that much more decadent. And he’s right that a progressive politics that speaks to class and is willling to condemn George Bush’s congratulating a woman working three jobs as a mark of elitism would do something to sap the power that right-wing aesthetic class warfare has in the absence of the materialist class warfare Lee Attwater rightly rued could bring the left back into electoral power.

Willis is right to suggest that that won’t be enough, and that progressives need to speak with strength and candor in the culture war rather than simply feinting or punting (and she speaks perceptively to the way we project our owjn ambivalences onto the electorate, which then reflects them). But she’s wrong to lump Frank in with Michaels (say, Lind and Tomasky) who are set on shutting feminists up.

And of all the charges to level at Thomas Frank, excessive loyalty to the Democratic Party is one of the more inane ones Willis could have chosen. That said, it’s a compelling read.

Zichronah livrachah.

FIGHTING WORDS

Ezra Klein: “Siegel did not commit an act of pedophilia (or, for that matter, statutory rape), and he spent a decade plus feeling ashamed of it. And now, he has the gall to accuse Kincaid of pedophilia for believing that our culture sexualizes children.”

Greg Sargent: “When will Wolf Blitzer, Tim Russert and other bigfoot national pundits bemoan the fact that “sensible” and “courageous” moderate Chafee may have no place in his party?”

Thomas Frank: “What our modernized liberal leaders offer — that is, when they’re not gushing about the glory of it all at Davos — is not confrontation but a kind of therapy for those flattened by the free-market hurricane: they counsel us to accept the inevitability of the situation and to try to understand how we might retrain or re-educate ourselves so we will fit in better next time.”

LIVING ON THE WEDGE

Here’s CNN’s headline on the latest GOP response to not being so popular right now:

GOP hones its core agenda: Flag burning, gay marriage, abortion top Republicans’ Senate plan

This will certainly provide fodder for those left of the center who like to argue that the problem with Republicans is that they focus on intangible “wedge issues” rather than material issues that actually affect people. It’s an argument that has some popularity not only with centrist Dems but with a fair number farther to the left too. I don’t think it’s a good one. Thing is, these so-called wedge issues affect real people in ways that are all too real – and often are economic as well. The problem with Republicans isn’t that they focus too much on so-called “social issues.” The problem with Republicans is that they are wrong. The problem with Republicans is that they want to reverse social progress. Democrats need to expand the public understanding of what is an issue of values. But they also have to make the case better on the issues that are already commonly identified that way (Thomas Frank is right to argue that taking stronger populist stands on the economic issues could help to sap right-wing “culture war” politics of their ostensibly anti-elitist appeal).

All that said, one can hold out hope that the image of Bill Frist scheduling hearings on how to amend the first ammendment to ban flag burning will do some damage to his party’s credibility as responsible stewards of the Congress.

BROKEBACK BACKLASH?

Last week’s Oscar ceremonies brought a crescendo – at least for now – to the animus heaped upon Brokeback Mountain, and upon Hollywood, by the right. Judging by watching Tucker Carlson tonight, professionally outraged conservative cultural critics have moved on to V for Vendetta.

But it’s worth reflecting on the clever packaging of that supposed backlash by the main organs of the conservative movement. Tucker Carlson offered an emblematic shtick: He hasn’t seen the movie, he has nothing against gay people, but “at some point, Hollywood should give up its mission as a kind of, you know, evangelist for a political persuasion and just shut up and make the movie.” Such an argument ignores the ways in which politics shape and are shaped by any art that engages with power, identity, morality, desire – that is, pretty much any art out there (this is a position that’s gotten me in trouble before). But more importantly, it’s fundamentally mendacious, as Bryan Collingsworth noted for people who refuse to see a movie because of content they oppose (or, as some would protest too much, they simply “aren’t that interested in”) to claim that their objection is to the politicization of film. Conservative critics who boast that they won’t patronize a “gay movie” suggest the logical implication that they go to other movies because they’re heterosexual movies. In a context of sexual inequality, there’s nothing apolitical about that. Just a political position that dare not speak its name.

What we get instead is a perfunctory faux backlash whose dimensions are effectively presaged by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? One is the sight of blue-state urban media elites rising to defend the ostensible sensibilities of imagined heartland Americans. Needless to say, Bill O’Reilly and company aren’t doing them any favors by projecting their antipathy towards their imagined “gay cowboy movie” onto the imagined faceless cornfield-dwelling masses. But speaking for an imagined heartland, like speaking against an imagined “political correctness” regime (for extra credit, do both at once), provides conservatives an excuse to fulminate against unpopular minorities while touting their own tolerance. It’s not that their intolerant, it’s just that they take offense at the hated liberals’ supposed intolerance of other people’s supposed intolerance.

Such targeting, too, is laid out well in Frank’s book: The enemy isn’t people who are gay. It’s the liberal elites who think they know better than everyone else. Such anti-elite animus has a much broader constituency than naked anti-gay animus (even gay conservatives can – and do – sign on). The people who made Brokeback Mountain are the same ones, Coulter and company insist, who want to reach down and take away all the guns, who want to reach up and pull down the Ten Commandments, and who make an annual tradition of warring against Christmas. Despite its own contradictions (as Frank ably argues, the elite theory requires suspending the media from the principles of the free market in which good conservatives believe so fervently), the anti-elite animus serves to tap into the real class resentment of working Americans while giving those in the real elite a way to decry what the hated liberals produce without admitting to actual prejudice. It’s a colossal cop-out. But it’s also a brilliant way to broaden the supposed backlash and deepen its political cache.

So what do we do about it? Broaden the class depictions of gay men and women in politics and popular media. And build a progressive movement that can push the Democratic party to offer an agenda that speaks to this country’s real class divisions as compellingly as the Republican party speaks to imagined class aesthetics. For a start.

FIGHTING WORDS

Thomas Frank: “History will record that in the week our laissez-faire government fiddled while a major city burned, the fourth most popular non-fiction book in the land, according to the New York Times, was an itemized account of the ways in which liberals are ruining the country.”

Deborah Pearlstein: “We are not doing well. And the unlimited-power executive holds a lion’s share of the blame.”

Eric Alterman: “When you think about it, it is a tribute to the American people that they remain as receptive to liberal arguments as they do, given how infrequently they hear them.”

Alek Felstiner: “And the political contributions, which are supposed to enrage the common man, are comically small compared with industry counterparts. In fact, they’re small compared with the $5 million/year Berman plans to spend on this campaign.”

E.J. Graff: “For nearly twenty years, across the country, lesbians and gay men have been doing what Laurel Hester did: letting others see the injustice within their personal tragedies.”

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein: “But it isn’t just about refusal. It’s about “A Better Way,” about a democratic, constituent, immanent (sorry) vision for how universities can be reorganized and what kind of work they/we can do.”

John Nichols: “The problem with the Bush administration’s support for a move by a United Arab Emirates-based firm to take over operation of six major American ports — as well as the shipment of military equipment through two additional ports — is not that the corporation in question is Arab owned. The problem is that Dubai Ports World is a corporation.”

AMERICAN APPAREL

Last month, Zach linked to this Village Voice piece reporting that American Apparel, the New York clothing outfit promoting itself as worker-friendly and advertising itself in the left alternative press, treats its workers in a manner which falls far short of its progressive image (much like, well, the Village Voice itself):

In September 2003, American Apparel workers began organizing with UNITE to address concerns like no paid time off, problems with production methods, conflicts with supervisors, and lack of affordable health care…Charney resorted to time-honored bad-boss techniques: interrogating and intimidating employees, distributing anti-union armbands (and T-shirts!), holding captive meetings, and worst of all, threatening to close down the plant altogether if the drive was successful. The union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, the result of which was that the company had to promise to drop its union-busting tactics, but for now, at least, the union drive is derailed…three employees have filed two suits alleging, among other things, that Charney invited an employee to masturbate with him, gave an employee a vibrator as a gift, exposed himself to an employee, conducted business in his underpants, and instructed an employee to offer a shopper a job on the spot because he wanted to have sex with her.

Some other folks showed up to defend American Apparel in the comments section, and Zach responded ably, and further in a post here:

Attempts by commenters to dismiss the sexual harassment complaints strike me as contrived, as extremely sketchy, as insufficient, and cast doubt on the veracity of other claims they are making. Whether or not any of this goes to trial, these claims, like all claims of sexual harassment at work, need to be taken seriously. Otherwise you end up with Clarence Thomas. I find Dov Charney’s statement in the infamous Jane article, quoted by a Washington Square News columnist, that “women initiate most domestic violence,” deeply troubling…Commenters claim that UNITE HERE duped workers into believing Charney didn’t want the union but offer no proof of this. I remain skeptical…Commenter “Julio” argues that workers could have simply gone up the block to the LA Times to complain. I wonder how long they could have kept their jobs if they had done so openly or had been discovered doing so clandestinely. I’m not buying Julio’s argument…Why is Dov Charney so opposed to his workers having a collective voice? What kind of equilibrim has he created in which workers can’t speak unless through channels initiated and controlled by management? Just who printed those armbands anyway? How does an ostensibly “pro-labor” or “pro-worker” company justify captive audience anti-union rallies and threats of plant closure? High wages, benefits, and even paid time off are no substitute for a voice on the job. If American Apparel’s corporate brand managers want to keep representing their product as “socially responsible,” they have some questions they need to answer.

Check it out (as well as this intriguing digression reminding us of what noble and necessary worker resistance to reactionary unions actually looks like). Looks like – as is all too often the case (check out Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool– American Apparel’s “progressivism” exists more a marketing strategy than as a principled commitment. Just listen to Dov Charney – who claims his company is sort of “capitalist-socialist fusion”, defend busting unions: “”If you ask 1,000 CEOs worldwide if they thought a union would be an obstacle to the company, I think the majority would say it’s a risk.” No surprise from the man who believes that “women initiate most domestic violence.”

SIX POPULISMS

TPMCafe’s guest stint by Thomas Frank (One Market Under God, by the way, is a masterpiece) has stirred a spirited debate about the place of populism in a progressive future. Populism is a word which has rightly come up fairly frequently in more- and less-enlightened discussions of the left’s future, but too often it seems like folks are talking past each other. Here are six of the somewhat but not entirely related themes I think are in play in the way different people discuss populism:

Progressive Economics: In broad strokes, the economic policy proposals that get labeled as populist are the ones least popular with the Washington Post editorial board and the “Washington Consensus” crowd: fair trade or no trade; downward economic redistribution; unionization. Opposition to immigration often gets grouped in here as well as part of the same package, though for obvious reasons I’d rather apply the populist label to the push for equal labor rights for immigrants.

Direct Democracy: The other set of policy proposals which usually get the populist labels are the ones which bring political decisions under more direct control of the American public. This includes taking decisions away from judges and handing them over to legislatures and taking them away from legislatures and handing them over to public referenda.

Trust in crowds: Populism is also used to describe a posture – whether held by politicians or activists – of trust in the mass public and distrust in elites. Usually, trust in the public is justified by an appeal to the wisdom of common people in identifying their own problems and synthesizing their own solutions. And distrust in elites is justified on the grounds of their inability to understand those insights or, more often, their narrow interests.

Democratic Legitimacy: Populism also describes a particular kind of appeal made by elected or unelected political leaders. Candidates for office, especially, tend to get the populist label for seizing democratic legitimacy for themselves – that is, for framing themselves as the bearers and protectors of the people’s will. The corollary to the candidate as representative of the masses is the candidate as enemy of the elites, whose hostility is easily explained by their opposition to the popular policies and popular mandate.

Prejudice: Populism is also a frequently-invoked label to describe all manner of ugly prejudice, be it directed against Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or immigrants. In this conception, populism is the cry of some self-defined majority against unwelcome interlopers. This meaning of populism – which gives elites a lot of credit – is never far when someone’s looking to discredit one of the others.

Economic Focus: Maybe the simplest sense in which the word populism is used is to refer to a focus on economic issues (rather than a particular stance on them), to the exclusion of others.

That makes two kinds of policy approaches, two rhetorical/ philosophical postures, a question of focus, and a very bad thing (generally thrown into the mix by pundits like Joe Klein to make everything associated with the word sound ugly). Each of them, though, has a way of showing up implicitly in discussions about what is or should be populist.

What does it mean, for example, to ask whether Bill Clinton was a populist President? He often gets described that way, in large part because he ran on the economy (“It’s the Economy, Stupid”), and because his challenge to Bush benefited significantly from a sense that Clinton represented the concerns of the American people with which the President had fallen out of touch (and supermarket ray-guns). Others associate Clinton with the decline of populism in the Democratic party, and of the party in the country, pointing to his conservative stance on issues like NAFTA and the technocratic underpinnings of the “Reinventing Government” concept. I’m not going to say they’re both right (I’d say Clinton campaigned as a populist, but he didn’t govern as much of one). I will say that on those terms, it’s no surprise that those conversations don’t get farther than they do.

Thoughts?

AN ECHO, NOT A CHOICE

Faced with the the real possibility of a rejection of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the House, which would mark a significant defeat for George Bush and for the already-cracking “Washington Consensus” on free trade, the Democratic Leadership Council has stepped up to bat in CAFTA’s defense. As David Sirota writes:

As if the DLC is just an arm of the Bush White House, the organization timed this release perfectly to coincide with Bush’s final push for the legislation, as if they are just an arm of the Bush White House. Despite the DLC’s pathetic, transparent rhetoric about wanting to “bring a spirit of radical pragmatism” to the debate, what the DLC is showing is that it is an organization devoted to urging Democrats to sell their souls to the highest bidder. That may sell well with the DLC’s corporate funders in Washington, D.C., but out here in the heartland, that kind of gutless behavior only hurts the Democratic Party over the long run.

Sirota drew some fire from DLC folks after the election for a piece he wrote arguing that the version of “centrism” they promote is well to the right of the average American and thus not only morally but also electorally bankrupt. I’m even less interested now than I was then in trying to evaluate the claims and counter-claims which flew in the wake of the article about which politicians, or talking points have or haven’t gotten gotten the DLC’s approval at what times. As I said at the time, if the DLC wants on board with Elliot Spitzer’s prosecutions of CEOs or Howard Dean’s condemnations of GOP corruption, the more the merrier. We need all hands on deck, and the work is too important to let historical differences avert cooperation where there’s consensus.

About those historical differences though: There’s a constellation of consultants who see class-conscious economic populism as roughly equivalent to racism, see “big government” as a menace to be tamed by technocrats irregardless of the will of the governed, and see the salvation of the Democratic party in policies which fulfill CEOs’ wishlists in the name of liberating their employees. And they have exerted massive, and unfortunate, influence over the direction of the Democratic party over the two decades since their founding, particularly the eight years of the Clinton Presidency. At least for those years, the major proponents of that “business-friendly,” “free-trading” ideological position with the Democratic party, as they themselves would tell you, were the Democratic Leadership Council as an organization and its affiliated thinkers. As Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On?, and even self-described “radical centrist” Michael Lind in Up From Conservatism (on DLC: “an echo, not a choice”) demonstrate, the consequences included ceding the support of all too many working class voters and the control of the US Congress.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that there’s a tendency amongst some of us on the left to throw around the term “DLC” liberally (so to speak) in reference to an ideological position we disagree with rather than to the organization itself, at times even in describing policies the DLC, as an existent think tank and not a symbolic construction, may not fully support (they were indeed in favor of weakening class action lawsuits, but I’m still waiting to know what they make of Bush’s bankruptcy bill). I’d like nothing more than to be convinced never to use the acronym that way again – it’s not hard to come up with other epithets for Democrats who vote for Corporate America’s interests over everyone else’s. But there’s a reason that so many of us associate the DLC, judiciously or not, with corporate courtship and not with, say, crusades against corruption. It’s epitomized, sadly, by the choice to come out swinging for a trade agreement even “dogmatic free trader” Matt Yglesias recognizes as “an effort to impose low labor standards and a misguided intellectual property regime on Central American nations.”

The right has been heaping outrage on Senator Durbin for saying this Tuesday night about an FBI account of torture at Guantanamo Bay:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, this is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course. The President could declare the United States will apply the Geneva Conventions to the war on terrorism. He could declare, as he should that the United States will not, under any circumstances, subject any detainee to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

It’s a shame that President Bush, Senator Frist, and the Right-Wing Blogospheric Noise Machine can’t summon the same level of outrage they’ve mustered over Durbin’s comments over the account he read in the paragraph before – or the countless others like it:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold…On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been ssince the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

You won’t find that paragraph, unfortunately, in the news accounts of the latest from the GOP’s manufactured outrage machine. And don’t hold your breath for a word from Bush or Frist this week to condemn the use of starving and freezing as interrogation techniques.

Instead, they’re accusing Senator Durbin of comparing all of America’s servicemen and servicewomen to Nazis, a charge as willfully inaccurate as Frist’s claim that Durbin called Guanatanamo a “death camp” (that’s what happens when you get all of your news from the (Washington Times). While Durbin’s phrasing is awkward, his plain meaning is clearly not that America is a Nazi state but rather that torture is a practice which better befits an oppressive regime than the United States. Leaving people restrained without water in oppressive heat to defecate on themselves, Durbin reminds us, is a violation of the values of this country. The obvious question, then, for Durbin’s critics is this: Do you see leaving people restrained without water in oppressive heat to defecate on themselves as as expression of the values of this country. Only a truly perverse definition of patriotism would demand, when we see unamerican crimes perpetrated under the American flag, that we change our values as a country to justify our behavior rather than the other way around. There’s no need to mention Nazis in order to make this point. But there’s no justification for reading it as a smear of the US as Nazi Germany or men and women in the service as Nazis.

The latter – the accusation that Durbin attacked Americans in the military – is even more insidious than the accusation that he attacked America itself. The implication is that anyone who criticizes a policy military personnel carry out is expressing scorn, distrust, or murderous rage towards every American in the service (this is analagous to the strategy Thomas Frank documents in One Market Under God of dismissing criticisms of business as expressions of elitism towards the American consumer). It’s a strategy we saw in the Presidential debates, as Bush implied that criticism of our Iraq policy showed a lack of faith in our troops in Iraq. It’s a strikingly tendentious rhetorical move and a pox on a discourse we desperately need to be having as a nation.

Most of all, pretending to hear criticism of the policy as an attack on the troops is a show of incredible cowardice. Faced with much-deserved rhetorical volleys, George Bush is essentially dragging American soldiers in front of him as an unwitting buffer between himself and the rest of the American people. In this rhetorical draft, American soldiers are called to act as a symbolic first line of defense against justified outrage over the administration. Never mind the number of those soldiers and their families who share that outrage, or who have no interest in being drafted -voiceless – into ideological warfare on behalf of the chickenhawks and policies which lead to needless death. Critics of torture and critics of war are taking on our leaders, not our troops. That those leaders, rather than defending their choices, make a show of rising to defend the honor of the troops just shows how little shame they have.

Guest-blogging over at Ezra Klein’s site (mazal tov!), Dan Munz is suggesting the possibility of a Mfume v. Steele Maryland Senate race as a chance for Democrats to take on and shoot down the GOP argument that Democrats take Black voters for granted. I think Dan’s absolutely right that a concerted, rigorous response from the Democrats is long overdue. I’d say part of the problem, though, is that the Democratic party establishment does indeed take Black voters for granted, in much the same way it takes most chunks of the party’s base – union voters for example – for granted, and in a way the GOP simply doesn’t treat it’s own base. Wherever one comes down on the Katha Pollitt vs. Thomas Frank debate on whether or not evangelicals who vote Republican to erode reproductive choice get their money’s worth, the Republican party makes a serious, year-in and year-out campaign of selling itself to its base while the Democratic party more often treats its base like the weird uncle who always shows up drunk to Thanksgiving (the pundits who complain about how short-sighted the NAACP is for wanting Democrats to swing by when the NRA doesn’t ask the same of Republicans might spend their energies better considering why the parties’ records might leave NAACP members with more concerns about how loyal the candidates they vote for will be).

Granted, President Bush’s appeal to Black voters to better defend their interests by spreading their votes more evenly is pure condescending silliness (I’d like to see him apply the same logic to, say, Enron executives: “As long as you all keep voting for us, what incentive do we have to keep giving you those invisible handjobs?”). More fundamentally, of course, the problem with Bush’s case is the idea that Democrats brazenly push forward with liberal policies they know are bad for their Black constituents. The reality, unfortunately, is that Democrats tend not to do nearly enough brazenly pushing forward with much of anything. The problem isn’t that the Democrats are too far left; the problem (I know I know, I’m the guy with the hammer, and look – it’s another nail!) is that the Democrats are failing Black constituents, as well as White ones, by not offering a program or an approach that’s progressive enough. The Republicans are hard at work rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, while the Democrats, even when they had branches of government of work from, have shown precious little initiative in extending them. Republican national candidates have mastered the art of the coded appeal to racist voters, while Democratic candidates remain anxious about looking like they’re trying too hard to attract Black voters (or, god forbid, “dependent” on them).

What might an aggressive Civil Rights agenda look like? An aggressive push for comprehensive voting reform, including a constitutional individual right to vote, uniform standards for ballot access and machinery, paper trails, and abolition of felon voter disenfranchisement. An aggressive push to transform the crimminal justice system into one which takes seriously the equal protection rights of Americans of different races and classes and which rehabilitates rather than stigmatizing those who pass through it. An aggressive push for drastically increased investment in education at all levels. An aggressive push to raise the minimum wage and strengthen the right to organize. An aggressive push to strengthen anti-discrimination legislation. An aggressive push for universal health care. An aggressive push for real affordable housing. That would be a start. Some of these areas have attained greater prominence in the Democratic party’s agenda of late, to a lot of people’s credit; others are still waiting. As Dr. King observed not long before death, the reforms that will achieve real progress in Civil Rights will cost billions. All of these reforms are changes in which Americans of all races have a stake, and which could be achieved such that the great majority of Americans would benefit. And this summer in Florida, I had infinitely more conversations with African-Americans reluctant to register to vote because of the party’s silence or meekness on continuing the progressive work of the Civil Rights movement than because they wanted school vouchers or felt demeaned by affirmative action or were scared of gay people.

So yes, the Democrats need better answers to the Republicans’ cynical appeals to Black voters, and they need candidates who are better at articulating them. But any message which boils down to “No, Democrats don’t take [you/us] for granted, they care about [you/us] very much” is doomed to fail. What the Democrats need, as Al Sharpton put it several times during the Presidential debates, is candidates who can give the donkey the kick it needs (not something Sharpton accomplished a great deal at). And the most powerful kicks tend not to come from candidates at all. As much as Dan talks about a “traditional” relationship between Democrats and Black voters, the tradition is fundamentally one of tension and contestation, one which envelops both Jack Kennedy’s supportive call to Coretta Scott King and Bobby Kennedy’s call to John Lewis pleading him to cancel the freedom rides. As with so many other cases, the job facing the leaders of the Democratic party is as much about improving its record as defending it.