Why are Harold Ford and others from the more paternalistic and condescending quarters of the Democratic Party so keen on discrediting the rising progressive movement? What have been the consequences of their obsession with "the middle"? Most importantly, how have the Tory Democrats managed to bury the expression of deep progressive values, and what should the progressive movement do about it?
For three decades, advocates of "centrism" have used their money to monopolize the Democratic message and leave the progressive base out in the cold, not spoken to. Since its founding in 1985, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) has been leading this effort. How did they pull this off? Before we get into that, let's call them what they are. "Centrist" implies conciliation, moderation, compromise. It reinforces the mistaken idea that our political life falls along a neat, linear scale from left to right . That metaphor makes the center a pretty good and safe place to be. And that it certainly is not.
The plutocratic Democrats should be referred to not as centrists, but as industrial authoritarians. Their movement was born after the Nixon re-election in 1972. They blamed that landslide on Democratic Party rules changes that audaciously sought to include Americans formerly excluded from the back rooms of power. They fronted for older corporate interests - oil and gas, finance, insurance. The are really 19th-Century paternalists who would save us from ourselves by keeping us far from the plantation's Big House.
These industrial authoritarians figured out how to dominate Democratic messaging. When DLC chairman Harold Ford lost his cool in his Meet the Press encounter with Markos Moulitsas on Sunday, it was clear just how determined they are to continue their domination.
Most of the messages delivered to voters were delivered in the course of elections, not between elections. It took a good deal of money. They had money. So their movement aimed at influencing those messages, making sure no alternative visions or values were discussed. Hence, the decline in the national and state Democratic parties, and any semblance of a progressive infrastructure. Their monopoly on message was achieved at the very same time the Right was building a message machine - think tanks, radio shows, magazines, local grassroots networks - that was all about delivering message and influencing the opinion environment before election seasons ever arrived.
Their campaign model intentionally inverted the logical plan, in which you would maximize your base vote and get just enough votes from outside the base to win. The centrists wanted to win with just enough base voters and the largest possible number of votes from outside the base.
With the centrist strategy, the base got a little mail and a few GOTV phone calls, the "swing voters" got messaged.
The development of so-called "coordinated campaigns" grew out of and advanced this strategy. Coordinated campaigns were pioneered by shrewd strategists in the South. Using efficiency as an excuse, the strategists developed coordinated efforts in which candidates for statewide office would pool resources to pay for base voter programs. These programs were usually light on message. It was all "get-out-the-vote" and very little "we stand with you for these values." Aware that white voters in the region were bolting the Democrats in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the plutocrats wanted to reassure white voters that the Democrats remained loyal to their interests. The bulk of campaign money - television ads for instance - were targeted to more affluent, white audiences.
It's not difficult to see the consequences of this strategy. Progressive base voters, especially in African-American, Latino, and other disenfranchised communities, were abandoned when it came to Democrats voicing their values. Democrats could appeal to voters in the so-called middle with technocratic policies, promises of competence, and wonkish mumbo jumbo that either: 1) avoided values altogether; 2) Or, appealed outright to the authoritarian, "strict father" side of white suburban voters. Crime is a great example. The industrial authoritarians promised super-heroic crime-fighting sprees that would even embarrass Republicans. Forget the root causes of crime, like inescapable poverty, illness, crumbling schools, the disappearance of hope.
Another consequence was the meek response to GOP voter suppression. These Democrats seldom challenged the Right's voter intimidation and suppression efforts, including the parade of police that prowled polling places in minority areas, phone banks into black precincts that gave incorrect polling locations or threatened arrest for those who might vote in the wrong place. Oh, there was the famous felon-purge of the voting rolls, used by Karl Rove in Texas in 1982. It had to be withdrawn after a non-felon, very white candidate turned up on the list.
Why so little concern for the progressive base? A growing progressive base was viewed as a threat to the industrial authoritarians for the same reason it threatened the GOP. Also, fears of being painted by Republicans as the party of Civil Rights made the industrial authoritarians exaggerate their distance from the true heart of their party.
As time went on, of course, their strategy became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It got harder and harder to boost turnout among minorities. Who could blame such voters? No one was listening to them, no one was speaking to them. If you want to have some fun, get a member of the Democratic consultant class to honestly tell you how many African American polls or focus groups they have conducted relative to their opinion research among the so-called "swing voters."
At the Rockridge Institute we look for better ways of expressing progressive values, but we also analyze various reasons for the dominance of conservative values in the political sphere. Our work is not partisan, but the partisan structures that effect expression of core democratic values must be examined. There is no doubt that a critical reason is that the industrial authoritarians used their election-cycle monopoly of message to erase messages that spring from recognition of our social responsibility for one another, for the maintenance of an empowering government that protects while allowing every citizen a chance at flourishing. There was no egalitarian messaging from Democrats because those in charge of the messaging were not egalitarians.
The rise of the progressive movement in the early years of the 21st Century challenges this monopoly. The movement is listening to progressives of all kinds and colors, and it's driving new messages of hope between and right through election cycles. MoveOn, Huffington Post, DailyKos, new think tanks like Rockridge, growing local and state progressive organizations, all of them are influence the opinion environment outside the old monopolized vehicles.
And a funny thing is happening. The core values of progressives are appealing to Americans of all kinds. It turns out that many of those so-called swing voters share these core values. They were longing to hear them expressed just as those formerly identified as the core progressive base were.
Hence the DLC's vicious attempts to discredit the movement. And that's what they want. They don't seek to win an argument over policy. They seek to destroy the credibility of their opponents and restore their message monopoly. If they don't, they may face the creation of truly universal health care, for instance. And then what in the world will their friends in the insurance industry do? Why, they won't have the money to keep the industrial authoritarians in power.
Glenn W. Smith is a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.