The conservative era and the Schelsinger thesis

Chris Bowers posed a striking historical theory at Open Left this week: compared to Europe and Canada, the US has been a basically progressive country for most of its history, and the past 30-40 years of conservative dominance is a historical abnormality.  He also suggests three causes of this conservative dominance: the Cold War and its resulting military-industrial complex, high rates of religiosity, and the American apartheid state.  The election of Obama, so goes the theory, will seriously chip away at the apartheid state, and will thus help chip away at the era of conservative dominance.

Bowers's theory directly conflicts with the Schlesinger thesis, which argues that throughout its history, the US has cycled back and forth between eras of conservative and progressive dominance which have lasted about 20 years each.  While I think Chris makes some good points, I think he overlooks some important considerations. At the end of the day I'm more convinced by the Schlesinger thesis.

Follow me over the flip for my reasoning, and for some thoughts about what the Schlesinger thesis means for progressives...

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Firing On All Cylinders

Ealier Jerome mentioned Obama's lack-of-blog-outreach problem, and I wanted to add a little color to the discussion of why such outreach is crucial.

As noted, Obama's team has really nailed down the field/finance side of what internet tools and strategy can do. Volunteers are empowered to knock on more doors. Fundraising goals got scaled up. All the quantifiable metrics of a traditional campaign have improved.

But as an example of the other half of what the internet can do, roughly "communications/policy/research" in campaign shorthand, look back at the fight a few years ago to save Social Security.

In order to sell private accounts as an attractive policy solution, George Bush and the Republican machine first needed to convince the American public that Social Security had a huge problem that needed fixing. So they started telling the public that Social Security was in crisis and insolvent. If we didn't do something now, they told us, we'd all be eating cat food by Christmas. And they were looking to raise $100 million to fund the effort (click that link and check out the post's author).

At first, Bush's scheme started to catch on - traditional media outlets like the Washington Post, and even some Democrats, started internalizing and repeating the talking point that something was wrong with Social Security. The situation was dire: if Republicans succeeded in that first crucial step - convincing Americans that Social Security was broken - they would have an open door to introduce a convenient privitization "solution."

But the Democrats drew a line in the sand. In his book "The Good Fight," Harry Reid talks about the various pieces needed to save Social Security: pushes for intra-party discipline, outreach to allies, and a country-wide tour touting the benefits of the program.

Sites like and MyDD led the charge to beat back the lies about Social Security. BlogPac's "There Is No Crisis" was born. When traditional media outlets adapted the right-wing talking points about insolvency, blogs went after them to speak objectively and give the facts. Democratic surrogates took to the airwaves and reminded Americans of Social Security's history and its solvent economics. And when certain Democrats wavered on privitization, Air America hosts like Sam Seder and Al Franken encouraged listeners to call their Congressmen and push for a commitment against the scheme. At that moment, we were firing on all cylinders, together, as a movement.

It worked. The Republican plan to convince Americans that Social Security was a problem in need a privitization failed. The biggest Republican legislative priority had lost, but only when Democratic insiders and outsiders worked together. If elected Democrats and their allies, both online and off, share a strategy and a message, we can win.

So how might the lessons of that fight apply to John McCain and this election? How could progressive allies help bat down phony conventional wisdom?

Update [2008-8-21 5:57:58 by Josh Orton]: As pointed out, I was remiss in shorthanding the huge work our allies at Americans United and organized labor (outside groups?) did to mobilize people and help with pushback during the Social Security fight. Blogs and other online allies were not the only players. Certainly adds to the notion of "all cylinders."

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Defining Obama As A Progressive

I'm about to take on a new job that will prevent me from blogging about electoral issues through November, so I'd like to lay out what I see the general arc of the race being from now until election day, and where the progressive movement fits into that story line.

Barack Obama will no doubt continue moderating his positions, as most politicians do in general elections. Hell, he might even moderate his stance on Iraq a bit, though I doubt it will be significant. It will continue to piss progressives off, as it should.

Eventually, most folks will realize that Barack Obama is basically saying, "Trust me,"as he did Thursday with his response to the anti-FISA group on Once again, I feel this is pretty typical. Politicians make all sorts of campaign promises, both explicit and implicit. Obama will moderate his stances in an ambiguous way while trying to reassure progressives he doesn't really mean it, or at least that when it comes time to sort out those ambiguities, he'll come out on our side.

Eventually, I'd hope that progressives realize the answer to Obama's strategy is to outflank him, positioning ourselves to hold his accountable to his statements in the way that we want. Electoral strategy says define your opposition before they define themselves. If Obama can be considered "the opposition" once he's elected - and I think he can - then we need to position ourselves to define him as a progressive president as soon as he gets in office. We must keep track of his statements and his rhetoric, and being ready to use it to push him towards progressive policies or use it against him if necessary.

This positioning won't be easy. It will help if progressives make a point to reward good behavior during the electoral season. We should loudly cheer Obama's progressive positions, and certainly pressure him however possible to adopt more of these positions. He'll probably ignore these efforts for the most part, or at best acknowledge the opposition without changing his position. But through these efforts we keep our integrity. Over the election season, progressives can develop a critique of Obama and keep their credibility, both of which can be effectively used to push him once he's in office and we have actual leverage for accountability.

On a more specific level, though the presidential election tends to suck all the fundraising money into their vast machine, we should try and focus on building strong progressive institutions. Grassroots groups like, think tanks like the Center for American Progress, and netroots activists like Blue America will need to be at their best to effectively move an Obama administration in a progressive direction.


No president was every great without strong forces pushing him towards greatness. Even FDR experienced strong pressure from mounting pro-labor sentiment sweeping America in the 1930s. In fact, FDR's presidency represented the beginning of labor's peak in America; in 1945 they represented over 1 in 3 American workers. These outside movements have traditionally built the political clout necessary to move administrations. That's what we need to build in preparation for an Obama presidency.

The role of the progressive movement as we move from an outsider group in a minority party to a strong presence in a ruling party is going to make for lots of wrenching changes. Preserving our credibility, building an independent power base, and positioning ourselves to define Obama as a progressive and hold him accountable to that definition are going to be key parts of those changes. If we get it right, we'll have real power to sway Obama's policy positions. If we don't, we'll find our cries falling on deaf ears.

But this is just one man's view of things to come. What do you think? How can the progressive movement best position itself to hold maximum power over an Obama administration?

J Ro's opinions are his own, and do not represent those of any other individual or organization.

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Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics

Cross posted at Future Majority.

Since I've been traveling so much, I've taken the opportunity afforded by long plane flights to revitalize my reading habits.  So far I've read and reviewed Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, and David Kinnaman's UnChristian.  I've been enjoying this chance to read again.  It's a good habit that unfortunately dropped well below previous levels as I worked on my book and struggled to juggle a full-time job and blogging.  I've been able to do a new book every 12 - 15 days, and hope to keep that  up through the spring and summer (no promises once the Fall gets here and the campaign really kicks into high-gear).

Most recently, I finished Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics by Morely Winograd and Michael Hais.  Winograd is a former policy advisor to Al Gore, and Hais is a retired executive for communications research firm Frank N. Magid Associates.  Together, they've pooled their expertise and produced a compelling look at the historical, demographic, and technological trends that have shaped American political history, and how those cyclical trends might play out as the Millennial Generation comes into it's own as a force in American politics.

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Outlining a progressive grand strategy, part 1 - goals and assessment

Yesterday's blog post about the Progressive Strategy Brain got me thinking about a problem which the authors of Finding Strategy (PDF) have discussed in the past: what would a grand strategy for progressive power look like?

In addition to giving blog posts like this one a really cool-sounding title, grand strategy is a coherent composition of several different strategies which together address all of the different forms of power relationships in society.  It's quite a tall order, which would explain why no one has really developed a grand strategy for progressive power.  (Full disclosure: As I mentioned yesterday, one of the authors of Finding Strategy is a personal friend.)

I don't pretend to have the answer to this question, but I'd like to piece together some thoughts on what such a strategy might look like. As Finding Strategy argues, strategy consists of six components: goals, assessment, tactics, resources, dynamics, and evaluation.  Today, I'd like to focus on the first two components; I'll delve into the other four in follow-up posts.  Follow me across the jump for more.

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