Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Taking Orders from the Phoenix?

By now you might have heard about Matt Bai's impressive and very important piece in last Sunday's New York Times magazine, about the emerging network of deep-pocketed donors, activists and thinkers who are trying to build a new infrastructure to advance progressive politics. In the surest sign that a piece is rippling through the intelligentsia, it's already inspired a meta-analysis from the usually worthwhile Michael Tomasky at The American Prospect, which in turn sparked a retort from the usually annoying Eric Alterman at The Nation. (I can't find the exact link, but trust me, you're not missing much.)

Bai's story works well as instant history, but somewhat less so as snap analysis. Toward the end of the article, he suggests that just as the network of conservative activists financed by Richard Mellon Scaife and the Olin and Coors Foundations, among others, drove the Republican Party hard to the right, the Phoenix Group--for so this entity, led by liberal philanthropists George Soros and Peter Lewis, has dubbed itself--could push the Democrats leftward, and totally extinguish its chances to compete in much of the country:

To see the potential effect of such motivated ideological donors on a political party, you need only study the modern Republican Party. The families who contributed the seed money for what would become the conservative movement were philosophical rebels who followed Barry Goldwater. Like the new venture capitalists, these ideologues started out not with specific policy ideas but with a broad sense of fear, a notion that the system of free enterprise was under siege from radical forces. (The guy who most kept them up at night, oddly enough, was Ralph Nader.) Their money spawned academic proposals, some of which, like privatized Social Security or missile defense, were so far beyond the mainstream of their time as to be considered ludicrous. Not only did these ideas ultimately infiltrate mainstream Republican thought, but much of the agenda ultimately triumphed in the broader arena of public opinion.

That success built a governing majority for Republicans, but it may have come at a cost to politics as a whole. In 1965, the Republican Party was an inclusive organization, comprising not just Nixonian pragmatists and Goldwater zealots but also liberal followers of Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge. Forty years on, it is getting increasingly difficult to find a true moderate in the Republican Party, let alone a liberal, so far to the right has the party's equilibrium tilted. This was in large part -- if not entirely -- a consequence of the kind of political philanthropy that Stein and Rosenberg have come to emulate. The culture of the party came to reflect the ideology of the men who subsidized it, and the national dialogue, as a result, has grown less temperate and less tolerant.

Perhaps the New Age, liberal analogue of this can already be seen in a group like MoveOn.org, which has leveraged its big donations to create a remarkably committed and democratized membership; in April, the group raised $750,000 from its followers in a national bake sale. As a reactionary force, it also demonizes Republicans with an apocalyptic fury. MoveOn was castigated by its critics for displaying on its site an amateur ad comparing Bush to Hitler. Lately, MoveOn has called, repeatedly, for Congress to censure Bush and for Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

Every time I talked with someone about the Phoenix Group, I posed these questions: even if you succeed in revitalizing progressive politics, might the Democratic Party, like the G.O.P., be pushed toward extremism? And if so, might that make it all but impossible to repair the party's standing in huge swaths of the country -- the South, the West -- where Democrats are fast becoming a permanent minority?

''Deep down, that question is in the subconsciousness of all the people who are involved in this, if not in their consciousness,'' Stein said. But he didn't have an answer. Perhaps the most illuminating reply came from Robert Boorstin, a former White House aide who now works on national security at the Center for American Progress. ''Everything has risks,'' he said. ''I would rather take that risk than keep it the way it was.''

This is a bit silly. Obviously, the Republicans' rightward drift hasn't cripped the party in statewide or national electoral contests. Yeah, there are probably fewer voters in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago who support Republican presidential candidates today than there were in 1968 or even 1980... but then again, Republicans have held City Hall in New York since 1994, and they control the governorships in the country's two most reliably liberal states, New York and California. In all these cases, local Republicans remain competitive because they "agree to disagree" with their national leadership on selected issues like abortion or affirmative action, and they offer other points of appeal to the voters. There's no reason why Democratic candidates can't do the same--as they are already in states like South Dakota, where the Dems hold both Senate seats and the one House seat despite Bush's overwhelming win there in 2000, and Oklahoma and Kansas, which elected Democratic governors despite their deep red national orientation.

But this also assumes that voters make choices based on ideology and party identification, not individual candidates. Could a Republican without Rudy Giuliani's personality and charisma, or Mike Bloomberg's wealth and trans-partisan appeal, win in NYC? I doubt it. Similarly, even when you take the temperature of rabid conservatives regarding past Democratic icons like John F. Kennedy, FDR or Harry Truman, you'll generally hear more praise than condemnation. They offer nonsense about how "the Democrats have drifted to the left," which is absurd on its face: these were the proud liberals who championed the 70 percent top tax rate, national health insurance and unprecedented growth in the public sector. Ask most mainstream Democrats--at least before Bush radicalized us all--about Reagan, and you'd probably hear somewhat the same story. It's personal attributes, not ideology, that's generally decisive when voters evaluate politicians.

Which is not to say that infrastructure doesn't matter. If this Phoenix Group is going to accomplish anything, maybe it will be to bring in all the disparate entities that have sprung up or grown since Bush took office--many of which, from Moveon.org to the Center for American Progress to America Coming Together to Music for America, were either founded or substantially funded by the same donors at the root of this effort, like Soros and Lewis--and organize them within an integrated flow of policy thinking, message generation and propagation, and advancement of champions on a range of issues. It took the right wing a good twenty years to get their act together; the Democrats don't have that kind of time, but with so much energy out there already, they might not need it.

The one thing in Bai's article that really bugged me was the sentiment that the drive to rebuild and reorient the party might be better served if Bush won this year. This logic, which echoes Ralph Nader's "worse is better" rationale from the 2000 campaign (a logic that I, to my enduring shame and dismay, somewhat bought into that year), neatly evades the possibility that after four more years of one-party government led by Bush and the jihad wing of the Republicans, the fiscal problems and the continued erosion of public discourse both could be so severe that there just wouldn't be enough left to build upon.

In other news, the Phils are now just three outs away from a mind-bending 21st loss in 24 games against a not-all-that-good Marlins team, and I think their 12th straight loss at Pro Player Stadium or whatever the f**k it's called. And with Abbott and Myers on tap to pitch the next two games, it's likely to get worse before it gets better. Un-freakin'-believeable.

But Barack Obama's speech--at least, the half of it that I saw--was also un-freakin-believeable, in the good way. The transcript is probably up at C-Span's website. This guy is really gonna be fun to watch.

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