All Politics National? All Power Local

Newark      I recently read a fascinating argument by Yascha Mounk, a Harvard instructor in The New Yorker that was wrapped in the cover of a review of some new books trying to puzzle through the political life of the nation currently.  The heart of the argument Mounk and some of the cited authors made, to boil it down, was that in these days and times “all politics is national” a rejoinder to the classic expression from former Speaker of the House and Democrat from Massachusetts Tip O’Neil that “all politics is local.”

Much of this argument was hung on a current book by the University of Pennsylvania’s Daniel J. Hopkins called The Increasingly United States.  So, full disclosure, I’ve just added the book to my Kindle, but haven’t read it yet, so I can’t pretend to do justice to him and the rightness or wrongness of his argument, but I can follow Mounk’s argument pretty well.

There is a lot going for it.  National party platforms have become more easily distinguishable.   Issues are more ideological, though the divisions in both parties between moderates and extremes within these platforms are stark, there are signposts that are easily observable by most voters.  Certainly, communications through daily news channels have become heavily nationalized with less and less local coverage past the blood and gore, traffic and crime beats.

The point is made that voters “have grown less able to name their governor and less likely to vote in local elections.”   The structure of the ballot and the diminishment of standard civics undoubtedly plays a role as well, but there has been a falloff from the top to the bottom of the ballot virtually forever unless there are heated local contests.

I don’t want to quibble though.  The real issue that leaves me scratching my head as I try to absorb this argument is less about politics and more about power.  Parties are still pretty weak in resources, structure, and their roles in daily life outside of the direct election cycle, so it is hard for me to believe that they have reached peak power in our democracy in the way being speculated in these reports.

Power is still very diffuse.  The impact of money is huge and the right with the Koch’s and the left with the Steyer’s have proven that money is especially powerful in moving the dial in the more localized frameworks of states and cities.   The way power devolved to the states and the stark differences between life and citizen expression and benefits in blue versus red states, Democratic versus Republican states, continues to make a case that pretending that all politics is national puts all of us in peril.

The truth still remains that without a strong local base, it is hard to move the political needle nationally.  My advice for what it is worth continues to be:  don’t move to Washington.  If you want to change the country, dig deep, and do the job where you are.


Alternative Parties have to be Built Now to Contend in the Future

third-partyNew Orleans    In recent weeks Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor with deep roots on the left dating back to the 1960’s, the student movement, and the Students’ for a Democratic Society (SDS), wrote an interesting survey piece called the “Bernie Sanders Moment” in the New York Times.

He looked at the rise of Bernie Sanders from alternative politics in the sparsely populated conservative communities of the frozen north in Vermont to these days where he is exciting crowds with progressive plain talk on the presidential campaign trail in what many had assumed would be at best a quixotic exercise. He quoted Lee Webb, another former student activist and director of a program on alternative state and local politics from DC decades ago as having advised Sanders that “you’re never gonna get anywhere in politics if you don’t join the Democratic Party.” He astutely underlines a strategy for progressives that he refers to as building “the left wing of the possible,” attributing the line to writer, activist, and socialist Michael Harrington. He then runs through the long shots, near misses, and moon shots sometimes exploding on takeoff from the Citizen Party and Barry Commoner through Jesse Jackson’s two shots within the Democratic ranks and Ralph Nadar’s Green fling, saying “…to put it mildly, third-party politics has not been popular on the left.” For Gitlin it’s enough for Sanders, like so many others before him, to be “a force” and for his brand of progressivism to achieve a longer half-life with “influence” that will “persist.”

As a broad brushed overview all that seems fair enough, but part of his conclusions are based on a weirdly perverse view of organization and party building and a contradictory understanding of his own analysis of Sanders’ success in Vermont as someone who proved he could deliver to voters and constituents. Perhaps the victim or participant in too many sectarian political debates, Gitlin believes working within the Democratic Party is hard, tedious labor and building alternative parties that achieve electoral success as Sanders did, is somehow easier, saying “Because deliverable results are so hard to come by, progressives of various ages have gone for electoral politics of the proudly, defiant independent sort.” Contrary to Gitlin’s argument or assumptions or whatever is driving his viewpoints here, not only is independent politics brutally hard work, as veterans of the New Party, Working Families Party, Richmond Progressive Association, and countless others can attest, but also, like Vermont, with persistent effort and commitment, such work elects people!

So, fifty years of organizing and what do we have to show for it, many days older and deeper in debt? Building an alternative progressive party is long, disciplined work, but it needs to be done. If Gitlin’s point is that it cannot – and should not – be done from the pride and presidential level down, then I heartily agree, but whether it is or not, the work absolutely needs to be done from the ground up now, so that ten, twenty, thirty, or another fifty years from now there is a viable political party formation that may have roots and branches in various other local and statewide manifestations, but can legitimately contend for power at every level from bottom to top. And the work needs to start yesterday, as it has in a number of communities and states around the country, and it needs to be pursued earnestly and aggressively today in the wake of what Gitlin calls the “Sanders Moment,” and build the momentum to carry forward into the future. I even think that Sanders needs to help out in the building.

The existing two-party political structure is not ordained from on high or embedded in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. These were built environments and not part of a natural order. They are political institutions welded together by people and politicians in other circumstances in local soil. These parties have been deeply embedded and privileged for a long, long time, but around the world we see regular evidence of similarly calcified institutions unshaken and unseated. It confounds me to believe that it is impossible to imagine, and then to build, something different and something better.

Or, that it is impossible for quite a long time for us to walk and chew gum simultaneously, as Sanders is doing now. Progressives can make it for a long time into the future by voting as Democrats, if that’s the best choice, every four years, while building an alternative formation from the ground up in the meantime. Candidates walk on their knees to move independents to vote for them every cycle, why should progressive not be wooed with the same ardor, rather than forced to vote by default, hand pinching nose?

That’s just sound tactics, but sound strategy is building now so that we have real options – and real power – in the future.


Please enjoy Pattie Griffin’s There Isn’t One Way.

Thanks to KABF.