Friday, June 24, 2005

Mini Book Review - The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo by Rick Perlstein

Difficult as it may be to pull attention away from the outrages of the day, in particular, the dead-eyed Bolshevik agitprop antics of Karl Rove ; and loathe though I am to risk inducing an ear worm in any of Eric's readers, the weekend is nigh, and a little perspective might be salutary. In other words, Fuck Karl Rove - Fuck Him Very Much - but let's think about what happens next, too.

The crux of the basic disagreement in this little debate-book is, in a sense, implied in the title of Mr Perlstein's larger work from earlier in the year: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. The Stock Ticker.... begins with an essay by Perlstein, followed by short pieces of rebuttal or agreement by disparate Democratic and Progressive voices, and ending with a Perlstein rejoinder. The two camps are roughly as follows: Perlstein and others, on the one hand, argue for a rhetorically bold, systemic rebuilding of the Democratic party for the long-term, with a principled and unwavering focus on economic populism; and, on the other hand, some Clintonista or DLC-types argue that the party is actually doing alright, and would even be in power now if not for various factors (the Blue Dress, 9/11). It's a pretty lively exchange, and interesting things are said by all. But Perlstein's side is ultimately most convincing. For all their hard-won achievements, the Clintonistas/DLC-types seem to be assuming an environment of some kind of at least very basic consensus across party lines - a conservative one, a post-Reagan one. It is this reporter's opinion (and, obviously, Perlstein's thesis in the other book) that there is no such thing. It's a subtle but vital difference between world views.

Perlstein uses as a 'parable' the story of the Boeing Corporation. In the earlier part of the 20th century, Boeing traded short-term profit for a dogged, single-minded long-term investment (time and billions of dollars) in what eventually became the fantastically successful Boeing 707, then did it again with the 747. The fruition of these huge gambles made the company the overwhelmingly dominant aircraft manufacturer in the world from the late 50s until recently. The company only fumbled - and capitulated to Airbus - when it changed focus and became the kind of firm 1990s Wall Street preferred: one focused on ever-greater quarterly earnings, and never mind about the long-term. Perlstein argues that Democrats' strategic tacking right-and-left (mostly right) in an effort to peel off just enough 'independent' voters to get 50%+ 1 has 'hollowed out' the party, much as short-term profit-maximizing has demonstrably hollowed out Boeing.

[G.H.W.] Bush, with the economy as it was [and with Perot in the race], had the lowest approval rating of any president seeking reelection in history[:] my little mutt Buster could've beaten George H. W. Bush in 1992.

Ruy Teixeira's dismissal of this line as 'unusually silly' is telling in its humorlessness and literalness (salient problems for liberals lately). Perlstein is an historian, and should be allowed his FDR reference ('my little dog Fala'). Indeed, his point is serious: any decent Democrat should've been able to beat Bush 41 in '92, and too much cause-and-effect shouldn't be read into Clinton's 'New' Democrat innovations. Beware: Post hoc, ergo, propter hoc.. Perlstein's emphasis on the importance of party ID is also taken a bit literally by Teixeira, who points out in his rebuttal that Democratic Party ID dipped only slightly in recent years and is inching back up. Perlstein's point is not about polling data per se, but about personal identification with the Party; people don't personally identify with the Democratic Party because they don't have a clear, basic idea of what they're identifying with. He notes:

Judis and Teixeira make a fascinating observation about the increasing number of voters who refuse to identify with a party: "When the new independent vote is broken down, it reveals a trend towards the Democrats in the 1990s and a clear and substantial Democratic partisan advantage...Once those independents are assigned the party they are closer to, Democrats enjoy a 13 percent advantage."

Here's the riddle: what is a swing voter? More and more, it is an American who thinks like a Democrat but refuses to identify as one.

DLC person William Galston and Clintonista Elaine Kamarck argue - generally speaking - that in the Clinton years, the country saw solid progress, pointing especially to the economic growth of the 90s, and the EITC. They are not wrong, but their baseline is different from Perlstein's and others who tend to agree with him (and who also point out the inevitable bubble-burst at the end of the 90s); Perlstein writes:

The traumas that shaped the world view of a Teixeira, a Greenberg, a Judis, were the post-60s backfirings of left-of-center boldness. The same goes for Al From, whose formative political experience, he has told me, was McGovern's loss in 1972. The traumas of my own political generation, conversely, were the backfirings of left-of-center timidity

Clinton's achievements (we can't call them 'triumphs') - like the expansion of the EITC - were essentially defensive. You don't become a majority party - the subtitle of the book is, How The Democrats Can Once Again Become America's Dominant Political Party - playing defense. Perlstein argues not that it's OK to lose (Boeing didn't lose until they chose to), but for being willing to lose - sticking to the core principle of economic justice - in order to actually win. He's calling for political imagination.

One of the more interesting chapters in this little book is by Daniel Cantor, the Executive Director of the Working Families of New York Party. WFP is a fusion party, something which, at the moment, is legal in only NY, CT, DE, MS, SC and SD, although there evidently is lobbying going on in other states to make it legal elsewhere. Cantor explains:

Fusion is simple. It refers to the electoral tactic of two parties 'fusing' on one candidate, meaning the candidate appears twice on the ballot under two separate party labels. "Vote Perlstein for State Assembly' we might say in New York, "but vote for him on the WFP line and send him a message care [or taxes, or living wages, or whatever else the WFP chapter in his district thinks important." [....] Rick gets 45 percent as a Democrat, his Republican opponent gets 47 percent, and the last 8 percent shows up on the WFP line....Rick wins 53 percent [total] to 47 percent, but he owes us 8 percent of his victory [...]

Fundamentally, fusion is the peculiar, American form of proportional representation, in that it allows political minorities - understood arithmetically - to show their strength and to make coalitions with other parties.

A sly and brilliant way to move parties (any party) in the direction you want! What's not to love? The duopoly will resist in the majority of states where fusion parties aren't yet legal, of course, but it sounds like a good fight to me. The Republicans already kind of have a fusion 'party' of sorts: the right wing evangelicals. This sounds to me like a very practical way to corral the famously unwieldy Democratic party, and to insert some proportionality into our politics.


Despite what some of his interlocutors see (perhaps with a little justification) as glibness, Perlstein is definitely on to something here. Notwithstanding literalist quibbles, the Boeing metaphor is exactly right in a fundamental, even non-metaphorical way. The paradox of the rise of the modern Republican party is that the GOP used long-term planning and doggedness to ultimately promulgate a regime of decidedly short-term, short-sighted policies, in effect nationalizing the 'quarterly earnings' fetish of Wall Street: 'starve/bleed the beast' fiscal policies; maximum political polarization ; the one-time-profit sell-offs of public properties in the 80s; the reckless throwing of the only lately-rebuilt military into a less than considered land war in Iraq - an entire culture of 'eat, drink and be pious, for tomorrow we shall die': the Armageddon Culture. Perlstein's antidote for the Democratic Party is also the antidote for the country as a whole. It is irresistible.

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