Defeating Republicans, 101

by Randy Shaw on September 28, 2006

Now out in paperback, Crashing the Gate is authored by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of and Jerome Armstrong, formerly of who now coordinates the netroots for Mark Warner’s presidential campaign. Although the book was widely reviewed when released earlier this year, I have been surprised by the number of activists who have not read it because they wrongly assume that it focuses on blogging and Internet activism rather than on the authors’ salient critiques of the Democratic Party/progressive electoral playbook. The authors are right on the big points, but their discussions of single-issue politics, environmental activism and other issues sometimes reach the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Given the book’s many insights, understanding what the authors got wrong is also important to its political analysis.

Daily Kos has become America’s most indispensable electoral politics site for many reasons, not least of which is the effective communication skills of its founder, Markos. Both Moulitsas and Armstrong know how to get right to the point, which is why they were able to discuss a multiplicity of ideas in less than 200 easy to read pages.

One of the key arguments in the book is that “single-issue groups not only hurt the Democratic Party in its search for a common identity, but they help provide the Republicans with a treasure trove of attack opportunities.” The authors cite the role played by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and National Organization for Women (NOW) in dissuading a Democrat who is progressive on all issues but abortion-rights from running against Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee. Polls showed this Democrat would easily beat Chafee in November, and the authors are angry that the two groups used a single issue to drive him from the race, making a Democratic victory against Chafee less certain.

But the problem with the influence of NARAL and NOW is not that they are single-issue. Rather, it is that they have no mobilizable political base. Simply put, there is no political justification for any candidate to be influenced by them. These and other Democratic-leaning groups have primarily if not exclusively direct-mail memberships, and their leaders are granted a level of political credibility that is not warranted.

The Republicans have shown on gun control that single-issue politics can bring electoral success—but unlike NARAL and NOW, the National Rifle Association mobilizes money and volunteers and plays a major role in winning campaigns.

The authors find support for their attack on single-issue politics from an analysis advanced by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in October 2004 called “The Death of Environmentalism. This argument blames major environmental groups like the Sierra Club for the alleged “death ” of the environmental movement, and attributes this outcome to “the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self- interest.” Moulitsas and Armstrong accept this analysis, concluding that the environmental community has failed to “tap into a broader progressive ideology.”

I am a big fan of Shellenberger’s public relations skills, but his analysis—which will come out as a book in February 2007—is without merit. Environmental groups have not failed. In fact, they have been remarkably effective in light of the right-wing Republican control of the federal government.

Blaming environmental groups for America’s rightward shift, and the decline in political debate and media coverage after 9/11 and the Iraq war, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus do, is akin to arguing that that every progressive group in America has “failed.” While this latter assessment may be correct, it has nothing to do with the “narrowness” of environmental politics.

Ironically, Shellenberger himself was funded to promote an end to gun violence. Yet the gun control cause has gone further backward in recent years than almost any other progressive issue. Shellenberger is not to blame for this decline, but nor should the Sierra Club be blamed for an anti-environment President.

Moulitsas and Armstrong cite no conversations with Sierra Club leaders, or those of other environmental groups, before concluding that these groups “are stuck in neutral” and are no longer “hungry.” This may explain the authors’ mistaken conclusion that environmental groups do not work in coalitions with other progressives, a claim that a single conversation with Gene Karpinsky of the League of Conservation Voters or the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope could have corrected.

This sloppiness could be overlooked, because the authors correctly identify that a single-issue focus can be a major problem for progressive campaigns. But unlike abortion-rights groups, whose support for politicians like Rhode Island’s Senator Chafee have brought no victories, environmentalists have used a single-issue focus to win key Republican support against Alaska drilling and other key issues. The successful “Dirty Dozen” campaigns against anti-environment politicians also show the effectiveness of single-issue campaigns.

The test for having a seat at the political table should be whether a constituency can politically deliver, not whether it is single issue.

I also question the author’s acceptance of the conventional wisdom that what progressives need is money to create the “idea factories” and “noise machines” that are said to have built Republican power. Instead, what the progressive cause most needs is funding for ongoing local, state and national organizing. Think tanks and media outlets are important, but key portions of the potential progressive base can only be reached through grassroots organizing.

While the authors are careful to cite the importance of such organizing, their chapter on “laying the groundwork” does not discuss how funding ongoing community organizing groups like ACORN should be a national progressive priority. Moulitsas and Armstrong are correct about the importance of building longterm institutional bases, but replicating the Republicans approach does not address the demographic and cultural differences between organizing in Latino and African-American communities and mobilizing white Christians in the Florida suburbs.

The most important chapter in the book, appropriately titled “The Gravy Train,” explains how Democratic Party campaign consultants squander millions, lose elections, and then keep get hired. Or as a Republican political official puts it “when a consultant on the Republican side loses, we take them out and shoot them. You guys keep hiring them.”

Moulitsas has used dailykos to pound this critique of how Democrats waste money, and Crashing the Gate will hopefully help convince politicians to change this practice. Many experts were incredulous that John Kerry turned his presidential race over to the multiple-loser and expensive Robert Shrum, but he did. And like other Shrum clients, he lost.

As the authors note, “the problem is that millions of small donors are footing the bill for the consultant feast that feeds people like Bob Shrum and his cohorts.” Ned Lamont and Jim Webb have both run excellent advertising campaigns this season, so perhaps Moulitsas and Armstrong’s message is starting to be heard.

With Crashing the Gate now in affordable paperback, there is no excuse for not reading it. It should be a staple of politically-oriented book clubs, and will keep you discussing its contents long after completion.

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