Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: Todd Gitlin, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent

Why do the Republicans keep winning elections? How have the Republicans, despite their hypocrisy and failure to deliver to many of their constituents, been able to consistently turn out those same constituents? Conversely, why do the Democrats appear to be so inept at running national campaigns? Why have the Democrats not been able to politically capitalize on Republican failures? Todd Gitlin explores these questions in his new book The Bulldozer and the Big Tent.

Honestly, I have always had trouble with Todd Gitlin. At a certain level, I should like him—after all, he was a sixties radical and SDS organizer. He is also a political pragmatist. Although I was too young to be a “sixties radical,” I was an “eighties and nineties radical,” when radicalism was much less cool. Today, I consider myself a utopian realist—perhaps best represented by Casey Kasem’s advice to “keep both feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” I believe that we need to constantly be thinking about the best case scenarios for humanity and the world, while at the same time understanding realistically where we are and what obstacles lay before us. This is one of the reasons why two years ago I registered as a Democrat, after years of being proudly independent.

Nevertheless, more often than not, I find myself in opposition to Gitlin. I have found many of writings to be dismissive of street politics, and his unequivocal support for the Democratic Party to be troublesome. Those themes are present in The Bulldozer, and are the worst part of the book. On the other had, the book does offer some interesting, if not totally original, insights into the problems of the Democratic Party.

The majority of the book deals with what the Republicans are doing right, rather than what the Democrats are doing wrong. The Republican Party, despite its claims of being “states rights” party, has successfully nationalized campaign strategy, creating a top down organization coordinating local electoral strategy. The have successfully exploited the flaws of the winner take all district system and the over representation of sparsely populated areas to create strategic regional “majorities.” They have mastered marketing techniques, appropriated from their corporate allies, including direct mailing and market (voter) analysis, to know exactly who to target and how to target them to get them to show up at the polls. They have capitalized on the deregulation of the communications industry to create a “noise machine” which creates talking points in a lock step manner, successfully framing issues in terms favorable to conservatives. In short, they have created a relatively monolithic party organization, a “bulldozer,” capable of not only of burying its enemies, but shaping the political landscape in a way that makes conservative “faith” a reality, or at least close enough for its adherents.

Conversely, the Democrats are still mired in a post-1960s malaise. Unlike the relatively homogeneous (white, protestant, heavily male) Republicans, the heterogeneous Democrats are comprised of a multitude of interest groups with differing priorities—feminists, civil libertarians, African Americans, Hispanics, labor, “helping” professionals, homosexuals, and environmentalists. Although many of these groups are well organized internally, they don’t always cooperate well beyond their particular interests, and when they do, they are not very efficient—their “Big Tent” easily flapped by the slightest wind (sometimes internal "hot air") and certainly no match for the Republican bulldozer.

So what is Gitlin’s prescription for the Democrats? Well, not surprisingly, the Democrats need to take a page out of the Republican playbook. The Democrats should become more of a “party”—using more centralized organizing, setting aside differences for the common good, and sharing information with one another. Many of these things seem to be already happening. Since Howard Dean has taken over election strategy, the Democrats have improved their party activism, compiled mailing lists, and worked with internet savvy groups like MoveOn. Additionally, the Bush Administration has done a pretty darn good job of getting otherwise complacent liberals mobilized, and politicizing the otherwise unpoliticized. It has yet to turn into a major realignment, but one can sense the tide turning.

The “liberal” media has not done the Democrats any favors either. Although many major news outlets appear superficially liberal, largely due to their size and the need to advertise to a diverse consumer market, opinion typically features both liberal and conservative voices. The biggest fear of the “liberal media” is appearing liberal, which has tamed the aggressive advocacy reporting that characterized the 1960s and 1970s. There is no liberal equivalent of the Murdoch Group, Sinclair Broadcasting, or Christian Broadcasting. There are some efforts to counter this—Air America and parody shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show—however, they are too few and far between.

Although many of the things that Gitlin says are true, I disagree with some of the implications of his analysis. Although it may be true that the Democrats are more heterogeneous and appear to be more of a debating club rather than political party, I have considered the unwieldy multitude that is the Democrats to be one of its more redeeming qualities. I have no desire to see them impose a false universalism upon a party which I believe is strengthened by its diversity. I also disagree with the notion that “sixties radicals” and ongoing political activism bear the blame for the demise of the Democrats. Although it may be true that sixties idealism lent itself to the revolutionary adventurism and ideological purism that has beleaguered the left, the greater culprit has been the “pragmatic liberals” who abandoned their most loyal and best organized voters (organized labor) in favor of supply-side economics, “free trade” deals, and welfare reform. It has been pragmatic liberals which have taken the votes of the Democratic multitude for granted and given them little in return. “Radicals” like Ralph Nader are not the problem; it is the failure of the Democrats to offer clear alternatives to the rightward shift. Even Gitlin’s support for “the uniquely gifted” Clinton is tepid—the best things he says about him is that he obstructed the pro-corporate DLC from totally cannibalizing the liberal wing of the party (Thanks Bill!) and that he won twice despite a right wing propaganda onslaught. Gitlin does not give sufficient credit to Clinton for his real crime, his support for NAFTA—a potential capture point for a substantial portion of the electorate, including the white working class, but which pragmatic liberals passed.

The real lesson of the Republican success is not that, in order to win, one must rush to center; one needs to create “positive polarization.” The Republicans have been masters at this. Rather then avoiding fights with the Democrats by blurring the party lines, the Republicans have continued to move right and mobilize the most reactionary voters on specific issues against the “evil” that is liberalism. In one of the final chapters, Gitlin explores public opinion and to what extent the Democrats should “move right” to win. Based on his statistics, such a move is unnecessary and “positive polarization” is not impossible. Although roughly 22% of voters consider themselves to be liberal compared to 36% conservative, this is largely a fiction of labels and the product of effective propaganda. Studies of issue based opinions indicate that, regardless of how people define themselves, 52% of the population is “operationally liberal”--meaning that they hold predominantly liberal opinions. The biggest stumbling block seems to be “cultural issues”—which is a reflection of the Republicans success at defining the terms of the debate. This at least suggests that a Democratic breakthrough is possible within the existing framework of public opinion. It also suggests that economic issues, if properly packaged and aggressively pursued, could trump abortion, prayer in schools, and creationism. In short, the Democrats need their Barry Goldwater—a visionary who may seem extreme, but who provides a language and strategy for the party.

Gitlin’s analysis is short on the issue of demographics and class which often undergirds political realignments. The Democratic success of the 1930s and 1940s rested upon a base of second and third generation immigrants, many of whom felt outside the mainstream of American society economically and culturally due to Gilded Age excesses and xenophobic cultural puritanism. The Democratic New Deal ushered in a "Golden Age" for the American middle class and for many workers and created opportunities (even if reluctantly) for an emergent civil rights movement. As Kevin Phillips and others have argued, the US is passing through a second Gilded Age, and if history provides any lessons, a populist correction is in the offing, if the Democrats are prepared to reach out to new voters, particularly Latinos, but also frustrated white workers and young people. Which is ultimately part of the problem, the Democratic Party leadership has been scared of its constituency for decades; I think it is about time they embraced them.

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