By Guy T. Saperstein
An organization has emerged in Washington, D.C., Third Way, which claims to be both centrist and progressive and which has gained a foothold of influence with some Democratic lawmakers. It is important to assess if Third Way's political strategy makes sense, and to examine whether Third Way is undermining progressives' efforts.
Third Way's seminal political philosophy is set forth in the "The Politics of Polarization," written by Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck, which informs Third Way's perspective and direction. "The Politics of Polarization," which Third Way rolled out under the banner, "Third Way Releases Groundbreaking Report," is a long document, but it is predicated on one core premise -- a premise that I think is not only utterly fallacious, but one which attempts to lead Democrats in the wrong political direction. The core premise of "The Politics of Polarization" is that more people self-identify as "conservatives" (32%) than "liberals" (20%), so polarizing the electorate favors Republicans, not Democrats. Thus, Democrats must trend toward the center and/or conservative positions to attract the "moderates," and avoid supporting clear, but polarizing, "liberal" positions.
If the fact that more people self-identify as conservatives were used only as description, there would be no problem, but the problem arises from the failure to understand why this is so, what it means and doesn't mean, why it is not immutable and what we should do about it.
The fact that more people self-identify as conservatives, of course, should surprise no one and required no poll: Conservatives have had the benefit of a huge infrastructure -- approximately $400 million per year -- attacking liberals and advancing "conservatism" for nearly 30 years, with little response from Democrats or the left in defense of "liberals." Even today, with the tide shifting to Democrats, I don't hear Democrats calling themselves "liberals." Indeed, most of us call ourselves "progressives," at least in part to avoid being designated as "liberals." So, with a viciously effective 30+ year attack on the very concept of "liberal," it should surprise no one that more people self-identify as conservatives.
But what does this mean? Indeed, what does it even mean to be a "conservative?" "The Politics of Polarization" doesn't help much here, as the terms "conservative," "liberal" and "moderate" lack any definitions in it. And, here is where "The Politics of Polarization" and Third Way makes their first big mistake: They fail to understand or factor into the analysis the single most dominant political fact of the past 30 years, to wit, the radical change in the meaning of "conservative." What conservatism meant to Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, or even Barry Goldwater, is radically different than what it means today in the Bush/Cheney world of phony-conservatism.
To put the point another way, I can even imagine a world where I might be happy with 32% conservatives if we could get back to Teddy Roosevelt's environmental conservatism (he called it "conservation") or Eisenhower's understanding of the limitations of military power and his distrust of the Military-Industrial complex. But that would require dealing with content, not just categories and self-definition, which "The Politics of Polarization" fails to do.
By accepting the content-less self-identification landscape as a given, "The Politics of Polarization" and Third Way essentially accept and "lock-in" the conservative/liberal status quo disparities. What "The Politics of Polarization" and Third Way choose not to do is precisely what made the conservative movement so effective: Challenge the existing status quo and educate the public about a new vision. What "The Politics of Polarization" and Third Way fail to do is precisely what progressives need to do: change the underlying terms and norms of political discussion.
"The Politics of Polarization" and Third Way back away from any such ideological confrontation because, in their opinion, "polarization" works for conservatives but it won't work for progressives. What flow from this, predictably, are policy positions which don't stray far from conventional wisdom -- see the Iraq example, which follows below -- despite the fact that conservatives in a relatively short period of time moved from the downside of 2-1 disparities to a dominant position in American politics by challenging then-conventional wisdom(s) and pushing the electorate in their direction. What "The Politics of Polarization" and Third Way miss is that the public is elastic and willing to move in the direction of new ideas, even liberal ideas, if they make sense and progressives promote them. While this has worked best for conservatives in recent years because they invested in, and disseminated ideas, it is neither inevitable nor permanent that conservative ideas will prevail -- unless, of course, we "lock in" current perceptions, fail to challenge them, and move millimeter-by-millimeter to attract center/moderate/conservatives, accepting many conservative assumptions in the process.
The DLC, Third Way and why their politics don't work any more
The Democratic Leadership Council, from which Third Way has descended ideologically, has long contended that Democrats need to align themselves with a so-called political center, and, to some extent, the election of Bill Clinton validated this strategy. The problem with continuing to adhere to this strategy, however, is that nearly two decades later, there is not much of a center to attract. The conservative movement, by declaring ideological warfare on Democrats, destroyed any remnants of a center consensus.
Conservatives recognized what they had wrought sooner; in fact, former Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd wrote Karl Rove a game-changing memo in which Dowd marveled that the unaligned "center" of the American electorate had disappeared, and, as political scientist Tom Schaller has well pointed out, in the 2000 presidential election, the number of split-ticket voters, which historically had been close to one quarter of the electorate, was 6%; the middle had disappeared. Soon thereafter, Bush's "compassionate conservative" theme disappeared and Rove announced publicly that he and the conservatives would target 4 million "likely Bush" evangelicals; by 2004, in an interview with The New Yorker magazine, Rove made clear that he didn't believe the center was a significant electoral factor and that, in any case, the "center" moves to the party which states its ideas with greater force and resolution, which Bush proceeded to do, while Kerry struggled to define himself as standing for anything. Mushy ideas do not beat clarity and conviction.
Third Way is quick to point out that the electorate is close to evenly divided, but, as Schaller also has argued, an evenly divided electorate does not mean a centrist electorate. Political scientists have been observing for years a more uniform and consistent set of ideologically divergent opinions among voters.
In short, America is more polarized and the focus on converting "centrist" voters is becoming less and less effective. Second, converting non-aligned "centrists" is very expensive and the results are highly over-rated. Many "converted" voters are unreliable voters, not only ideologically, but also in terms of voting at all; they may vote in a Presidential election, but they miss other elections, and may need much encouragement even to vote in the next Presidential election. By contrast, appealing to base voters is ideologically easier and more consistent with a party's self-identification because it doesn't require the sort of policy distortion and compromise which, in the long run, repels rather than attracts voters, and base voters, once motivated, are more likely to become permanent voters. Chasing the illusion of the center, as conservatives move further and further to the Right, doesn't work. It digs a deeper hole.
And a strategy to move toward the "center" clashes with the investment in civic engagement and voter mobilization, particularly in minority, women and working class communities. Such a strategy is particularly risky for Democrats because Democrats have a much greater potential for base mobilization growth than do conservatives because a larger percentage of the conservative base already votes, while a far greater percentage of the progressive base does not vote. In fact, as Schaller notes, the only demographic on the Democratic side which are relatively better mobilized are women relative to men and union members relative to non-union voters. Every racial minority -- with the possible exception of Cuban-Americans -- and non-union working class voters are under-mobilized, as are unmarried women and especially working class minorities: African-Americans reliably vote 90% for Democrats; Native Americans 80-90%; Latinos 55-65%; even Asian-Americans, whom Bill Clinton lost by 24 points, voted for Kerry in 2004 by a 17-point margin. The Democrats' "evangelicals" are working class minorities, particularly unmarried women, but all are short-changed by Third Way's theory of centrist-driven change.
The ideological war declared by the Right has caused Americans to take sides. The core question is what progressives have to offer. Only the old Democratic consultancy class and short-term thinkers like Third Way think the so-called "center" remains the key to victory. Republicans figured this out years ago, while the Democrats failed to learn the appropriate lessons from their 2000, 2002 and 2004 defeats. Amazingly, some groups like Third Way are proving equally incapable of learning from the 2006 victory, as well.
Iraq: A short case study
Up to this point, I have been discussing mostly political theory, but where does Third Way political leadership and messaging lead, in fact? Let's look briefly at Third Way's wandering and ineffective path on Iraq to see where pandering to the center goes.
Third Way supported the War in Iraq (all history of this support has been wiped from its website); Third Way has continued to tout its association with Ken Pollack, who, among other things, wrote "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq," which was one of the major intellectual underpinnings for invading Iraq. With polls running against the war, Third Way moved with the polls, but slowly: In June, 2006 Third Way did training for the DCCC and advocated a "Tough and smart Iraq strategy -- one that protects our national security interests, calls for an exit based on events, not the calendar, and gives Iraq a real chance to succeed." At the time, George Bush was saying, "We will not put a date certain on when each stage of success will be reached -- because the timing of success depends upon meeting certain conditions."
Can anyone identify the differences in the Bush/Cheney and Third Way positions? I can't.
Ironically, the poll on national security released by Third Way last fall found that 30% of Democrats were unsure where Democrats stood on Iraq or which party would do a better job. Could the fact that Third Way at the time was training House members to espouse a position on Iraq that was indistinguishable from George Bush's have contributed to this voter confusion?
On March 29, 2006, three months before Third Way published its Iraq training materials, the House Democratic Leadership had released its "New Direction for America" platform, which among other things, called for 2006 to be, "A year of significant transition to full Iraq sovereignty ... with the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces."
So, while the public was confused about where Democrats stood on Iraq, Third Way was promoting positions on Iraq -- ones without timetables -- that the House Democratic leadership had repudiated! Events have moved to favor the imposition of timetables and the Democrats have become reasonably united on this approach, but Third Way, while claiming national security expertise and leadership, provided neither. Should Democrats follow an organization that has had a hard time differentiating itself from Bush/Cheney on Iraq? Should Democrats take advice from an organization that is trying to teach them how to mumble?
Third Way's later stuff on Iraq has been better, but it is tactical -- mainly attacking operational performance -- not the underlying assumptions of the war, and often missing the best arguments. Its most recent statements also have been written by someone with no apparent credentials on national security.
Without my launching into a long discourse, let me just mention a few things that the Third Way materials seem to have missed about Iraq. Third Way has argued that "Timetables are not popular," but this misses two very big, readily available, arguments: (1) 72% of GIs on the ground in Iraq think the US should withdraw in 6-12 months; and, (2) in the latest Pew Poll, 82% of Iraqis want the US to withdraw within 12 months and 61% say that killing Americans is justified. Why are we planning to stay in Iraq indefinitely if the guys on the ground know staying is futile and the Iraqis, for whom we allegedly are fighting and dying, don't want us to stay and, by a large majority, say it is OK to kill us?
More fundamentally, anyone with a passing knowledge of Middle East history (except, apparently, Ken Pollack) should have known the U.S. was walking into a hornet's nest in Iraq with virtually no chance of success. Iraq is not a natural nation; it is a nation cobbled together by European imperialists 90 years ago for purposes of oil exploitation and the underlying religious and sectarian conflicts predate the US invasion by at least 600 years.
If Third Way understood the historical landscape, they would have understood how fundamentally ridiculous Bush's "stay-the-course" and "victory" claims are; there simply is no way the US can outlast the religious, sectarian and regional conflicts that exist, and have existed for hundreds of years, in Iraq. The only remaining question is how many American soldiers and Iraqi citizens will be killed and maimed, and how deep America will be driven into financial insolvency, before sanity and rationality prevail. My prediction is that it won't be long, but Third Way has been in the way, not leading the way.
Here is the point of this recitation of recent history: At the same time the Democratic leadership was moving cautiously toward the inevitability of timetables for withdrawal, Third Way was telling Democrats to stay away from timetables ("Our exit must be based on events, not the calendar...."), and criticizing Bush for "not planning for victory," as though "victory" was actually possible (sound like John McCain?). Instead of explaining how hundreds of years of religious and sectarian conflict in a country cobbled together by European imperialists would make "victory" impossible, Third Way wrote, "The decision to go to war is a debate for historians," as though the historical forces that were making the American misadventure in Iraq fail were simply irrelevant.
And this is not all: In response to the charge that, "The situation in Iraq is a full-scale civil war, and our troops are just ducks in a shooting gallery. We have to get them out of there," Third Way counseled Democrats to defend the war and told Democrats the correct response was, "The situation in Iraq is very, very serious, but it is not a full-scale civil war, and I don't believe that it will be as long as our troops are there." By the way, Webster's Dictionary defines civil war as, "War between factions or regions of a single nation." In short, Third Way accepted the fundamental assumptions that underlay Bush's war. To put it another way, Third Way managed to lag behind the Democratic Party on Iraq! Third Way managed to be even more cautious, less visionary, more ahistoric -- and more fundamentally wrong about policy -- even than the Democrats. That is a pretty amazing accomplishment, but not one we should want to replicate.
Of course, by failing to criticize the assumptions of the Iraq mistake and, instead, claiming "victory" was possible, groups like Third Way open up the Democrats to the post-war claim -- which the Republicans are certain to make -- that the war was winnable, but for the fact that the appeasers and Democrats did not provide full, unflinching, unending support (the same claim they made about Vietnam). If future follows past form, Third Way will blame Democrats for not being sufficiently "tough and smart."
In the recent fight against the troop escalation in Iraq, some members of the broad coalition opposing escalation reached out to Third Way for support. Third Way did not support the coalition against escalation, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, or even return phone calls, and apparently did no lobbying on the bill.
Remember, Democrats were able to pass the bills by one vote in the Senate and just a handful of votes in the House. Third Way is an organization that touts its connections in Congress and claims expertise and leadership on national security and foreign policy, but it was missing in action on these crucial votes. I have also been told that on other issues involving national security and foreign policy, Third Way does not collaborate or share information with other progressive organizations. Collaboration is supposed to be a progressive value, but you wouldn't know it watching Third Way.
Blowing up public housing is not a progressive value
Recently, Third Way's President, Jon Cowan, made a presentation to the Democracy Alliance, a center-left organization that is attempting to build progressive political infrastructure. Cowan spent his speech shouting at the audience and half his time explaining that when he worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department under Andrew Cuomo, he worked to "blow up public housing" and replace it with two and three-story public housing. He characterized his work as "modernizing" progressive ideas.
What Cowan failed to explain, however, is that much of the public housing blown up was sitting on valuable urban land and was replaced, not by low-income housing, but by developments of mid and high-priced condominiums, while the poor were moved farther from cities, and that some of the blown up housing had been recently built and was in good condition. More significantly, Cowan failed to acknowledge that the number of replacement units did not match the number of housing units blown up and thousands of low-income tenants were left homeless by this "modernization." The next day, Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of Center for Community Change, an organization that works on behalf of low-income people, called this demolition of public housing, with the insufficient housing replacement, "immoral."
Blowing up public housing and leaving thousands homeless may be Third Way's idea of "modernization," it may even appeal to some Democratic real estate developers, but there is nothing progressive about it.
The question for progressives is not whether we want to influence the Democrats -- of course we do. The question is do we want to invest precious time and resources on inside-the-Beltway cautiousness, bad policy analysis that makes no waves, takes no chances and doesn't differentiate itself from the conservatives, or do we work to build something more real, vital, honest and progressive -- based on better policy -- ideas that change America because they change the terms of debate, not simply pander ineffectively to a mythological, out-dated concept of the "center." If we don't, if we think that type of ideological myopia is counterproductive, we better keep watch on Third Way.
Guy T. Saperstein is a Democracy Alliance partner and past president of the Sierra Club Foundation; previously, he was one of the National Law Journal’s "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America."
Source: This originally appeared on Alternet, May 14, 2007.