20
Feb
08

Liberal vs. Participatory Democrats

Another commenter somewhere in the ‘sphere tonight wished that this election cycle results in our two mammoth parties splitting into four.  I sort of agree, and wonder if such a shift is possible in my lifetime – not least because the M.A.S. reminded me that we’d have to change the Constitution (maybe we could tuck the ERA in there while we’re at it).

Within the Dems, what would our ideological fault lines be?  There are many like me who prefer the vetted, highly experienced and prepared Clinton over the relative unknown of Obama; as I’ve said before, there’s a strong risk aversion/cynicism streak involved in this.  I also dislike what I think is blatant disingenuousness and hypocrisy on Obama’s part, pretending to be a non-political politician.  Politicians are in the business of politics – let’s not pretend otherwise.  That theme of his alienates me more than any of the others. (I mean, what’s not to like about “hope”?  And “change” – as long as it’s not for the worse?)  In Clinton, those of us who support her see not only a seasoned, well-groomed, skilled candidate who is, as she tirelessly reminds us, ready to lead; we also see a person who is committed to doing her job, and who has a clear understanding of the structures, rules and responsibilities of the office she’d be entering, and someone who will fight – and negotiate – like hell to protect and uphold those systems (cue the haters who think she’s instead amply demonstrated her contempt and disregard for the Oval Office).  So we can theorize here that Clinton supporters accept or believe in our liberal democratic system.  We are the future Liberal Democrats of the U.S.

Who are Obama supporters?  They’d like the mantel Progressives for themselves, but if so, then he’s not their guy.  I like his call to increase the diversity of representation in the existing system (though Clinton’s actually the one practicing what he’s preaching – see their Campaign ethnic/gender staff composition, for ex).  Given I’m shaping up to work on this question of increased representation for the rest of my cognitive life, I’m the first to tell you that change at the top is key (hell, it’s why I’d love to see a female in office), but truly diversifying the ranks starts at the bottom – increase women or minority participation at the local level, and you’ll see change work its way up. 

Now, Obama’s campaign has done an amazing job at the grassroots level – their fundraising, their volunteer organization, their GOTV operation has been tremendous.  So much so that Obama has the free time to make speeches and meet people rather than spend so much time fundraising like Clinton is doing.  And for this he is rightfully praised.  But how will this translate into a Commander-in-Chief role?  I seriously wonder. 

Organizing, no matter how routinized, depends on a symbolic position outside the system.  Obama knows this and speaks to this when he talks about changing Washington.  But, and I’m embarrassed to quote David Brooks here, “what if the 261,000 lobbyists” don’t get Obama’s message about unity?  Organizing, especially the Alinsky model to which Obama is frequently linked, is about bringing in outsiders to train community members to become leaders so that they can fight for change themselves.  Obama is doing an excellent job with inspiring and instilling skills via his campaign operations.  But this positions him as the consummate outsider, training others to take on the system for positive change.  How can we then elect this person to be the consummate insider? 

Obama supporters, I think I’ll call them Participatory Democrats.  (No doubt they’ll come up with a much cooler moniker.)  Participatory democracy, it should be noted, has highly positive impacts, mainly related to increasing people’s and groups’ sense of civic engagement and self-efficacy, and in practice at the local level, can lead to decision-making power (I’ll find some links to projects in Latin America).  But it is not a practice that layers very easily onto our political bureacracy, and, in its most reviled characterizations (from academic haters, mostly), is disparaged as process over results, or, that the process is the result.

There is a reason organizing is a distinct institution from bureacracy; there is a reason that social movements wax and wane, and that protest and direct action is appropriate in some instances and negotiating and deal-making is appropriate in others.  One thing that has been made dramatically obvious during this primary is that our current electoral system is not a fair and open one, and we’ve got two tremendous candidates to thank for exposing that with their breathtaking contest and its accompanying voter and citizen participation.  Perhaps one outcome of this campaign season will be a re-tooling our our electoral system, or more modestly, the Democratic Party’s rules.  But I’m skeptical.  Bureacracies are pretty entrenched; hence the staying power.  As a Liberal Dem, I hope that if Obama secures the nomination, his inside game is as good as his outside one. 

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