Progressive activism and the politics of federalism

Kos is right to say that progressives who don’t like Clinton should focus on non-presidential politics. But this brings up a bigger point about why Progressives have come to think like monarchists.

An eon ago in blogtime, Kos dared to tell the truth that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee in 2016. More controversially, he argued that, given Clinton’s organizational advantages and broad, overwhelming popularity in the party, progressives who don’t particularly love her politics, as Kos doesn’t, should avoid wasting their time and donations supporting a populist Democrat against her in the primaries—which will only break their hearts—and focus instead on down-ballot races. Those races really matter, for reasons that shouldn’t need stating (though Kos lists a few) and progressive candidates might actually win some of them.

I agree with about 90 percent of what Kos wrote. I would only add that down-ballot races not only matter in themselves—legislatures, by the dog, make the laws—but also provide excellent opportunities for slowly taking over a party. When the religious Right in the late 60s and early 70s felt outraged by what it saw as creeping secularism (especially the Supreme Court’s ban on school prayer), it voted for the relatively secular Nixon for President but focused its real energy on taking over school boards, city councils, and local Republican precinct organizations. Now, in many parts of the South and West, and to a large degree on the national level, the religious Right is the Republican Party: not every Republican must adopt its rhetoric, but none may oppose its core policy positions. More recently and on the other side, the Working Families Party, which leans social-democratic and regards the Democrats as frenemies, has scored impressive successes, where the local demographics and ideology lean in its favor, by starting with school boards and city councils.

In some sense, Kos’ point should be obvious. It combines three basic insights: that the efforts of one person make the most difference in the smallest settings; that it’s good strategy to pick one’s battles; and that the U.S. political system is sprawling and decentralized, with multiple centers of real power—which is bad for accountability, but good for activists looking for somewhere to make a difference. Surely smart people, on reflection, already know all three of these things. But why, judging by the comments Kos has earned, do progressives have a hard time drawing the conclusion?

One problem is ideological: rightly believing that certain redistributive and regulatory achievements would only work effectively and efficiently if implemented at the national level, progressives mistake our desire for a more centralized and uniform national government, commanding wide respect and authority among ordinary citizens, for a reality that is—and will remain, for the foreseeable future—very different. But the larger problem, not unique to progressives, lies in the incentives and capabilities of presidential campaigns, in their systematic, structural (and rational) attempts to obscure the above lessons in the service of driving donations and turnout. National campaigns, through the best technology and psychology money can buy, persuade us that giving them our money and time means becoming part of something important. (True! But it’s a small part.) They portray the consequences of every election as more epic and final than they are likely to be. They encourage the Hollywood fantasy that the presidential speeches that inspire partisans have the potential to sway huge numbers of moderate, and inattentive, voters. They crowd out our background awareness of how much policy that really matters—regarding taxes, roads, public transportation, schools, colleges, policing and public safety, public health, Medicaid coverage, and now health exchanges—is set by states, counties, and cities, not primarily by the President, nor by Congress. And the media, desperate to attract mass readers and viewers whose attention is drawn to the excitement and pageantry of national campaigns, have an interest in reinforcing these distorted impressions.

I’m by no means immune to all of this. I love presidential campaigns and follow them avidly. But we should all realize that when this happens, we’re basically spectators and critics fooling ourselves that we’re effective agents.

As the President would say, let me be clear. I am not denying that certain policies require national action. If the only political issue that really grabs you is foreign policy, or spying, you have to focus on the Presidency or Congress. The same goes for the Affordable Care Act—though Clinton is hardly likely to abandon that—and international climate policy. These and other issues provide more than enough reason for some activity on the presidential level—voting, urging others to vote, donating small amounts—and somewhat more than that on the Congressional level (as Kos does not deny). Nor am I denying that progressives’ long-term goal should be to weaken the hold of wealthy interests in general on the national parties, and of Wall Street in particular on the Clinton-Rubin branch of the Democrats. But the first concession leaves plenty of room for substantial, and probably more consequential, action on the state and local level. And the second provides all the more reason to think that the parties need to be recaptured from the ground up: given their cost, presidential campaigns will be the last ones to change.

People who call themselves Democrats shouldn’t be fooled into thinking like monarchists. No presidential candidate’s ambitions should be allowed to foreclose our own.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

4 thoughts on “Progressive activism and the politics of federalism”

  1. Maybe because Kos is wrong.

    If a primary challenger just slung mud, he might have a point. But there are tons of very important substantive issue that *need* debating. Such as, the direction of the country, the health of the middle class, and so forth.

    I am pretty cranky right now and not inclined to vote for Hill at all, unless she really shows me something, and I don't see it happening without a push.

    1. Sadly, in our current system your real choices will Hillary or whichever horror floats to the top of the GOP cesspool. (There is a small probability that someone whose name is not Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party's nominee, but it is small.)

      On the other hand, a primary challenger who made Hillary talk about things like how to complete implementing of the ACA and how get us out of the National Security State Bush and Cheney shoved us into post 9/11/2001 would be worthwhile.

  2. "down-ballot races not only matter in themselves—legislatures, by the dog, make the laws—but also provide excellent opportunities for slowly taking over a party."

    Tip O'Neill learned this 80 years ago: "All politics is local."

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