"Before the Storm” is an important work of American history. It captures what it was like to be an angry right-winger in the 1960s, and has been praised by rightwingers like William Kristol and William F. Buckley for telling it as it was. But if it was just a piece of political history, it wouldn’t have been as influential as it’s been. It’s also an argument about politics, and a gameplan for pissed-off Democrats who feel (as Goldwater’s conservatives felt) that they’re badly served by a complaisant party hierarchy. In Kos’s words:
The parallels to today are startling, a sort of Dean bizarro world stuck on opposite day — a Republican Party that was trying to be "Democrat-lite" and an establishment hostile to "outsider" forces. With Goldwater railing against his party’s establishment and the special interests that controlled it. Throw in innovative use of tactics and technology (Goldwater pioneered the use of direct mail) and a crushing defeat, and you’ve got the Dean phenomenon.
This is right, but it’s only part of Perlstein’s story. Before the Storm does have a lot to say about movement politics. It’s not Goldwater who’s the main protagonist in Perlstein’s account; it’s the conservative activists who used his candidacy to rebuild American politics from the grassroots. But Perlstein also is interested in ideas – as the subtitle says, the book is about the “Unmaking of the American Consensus.” Perlstein wants to know how the smug liberal consensus underlying the Affluent Society of 1960s America was shattered, and replaced by a new, conservative-friendly, set of received wisdoms. “Before the Storm” only begins to describe how this happened, but suggests that it surely had its origins with Goldwater’s supporters. In short, Perlstein tells us that you have to understand both movement politics and ideas if you want to understand why the conservatives won.
Ideas are at the fore of Perlstein’s pamphlet The Stock Market and the Super Jumbo, where he draws out the lessons of the conservative movement for today’s Democrats. Perlstein argues that the Democratic party’s key problem is that it isn’t prepared to commit to a long-term political vision. Goldwater’s conservatives “made sure everyone knew what it meant to be a Republican” by committing to a set of ideas which were pretty unpopular at the outset. They pushed these ideas again and again until they gained legitimacy, and finally became received wisdom among the political classes. They spent sixteen years in the wilderness before they won; but when they won, they took the prize. They were able to reshape the political consensus in their image.
This is the reason why ‘centrist’ and ‘bipartisan’ pundits like David Broder are so damaging to the Democratic party. They’ve internalized Republican talking points about where the political center of gravity is, and how to enforce the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ debate. Progressives are at a perpetual disadvantage, because the terms of political argument are rigged against them. Perlstein’s solution is for the Democratic party to reconnect with the core interests of its voters by “making commitments that do not waver from election to election.” Specifically, they need to commit irreversibly to economic liberalism, and “stick with it even if they lose, in order to win big.”
So Perlstein’s argument isn’t about movement politics alone. There’s a second battlefield that’s nearly as important – the battlefield of ideas. This is one of the main points of David Frum’s recent essay on the fate of the conservative movement. Frum acknowledges that conservatives are in trouble, but claims that they have succeeded, at least in part, in permanently reshaping American politics. They stopped 1960s liberalism in its tracks, and may continue to have influence through their ideas, even if they disappear as a movement altogether. Frum may be right – even if the Democrats win overwhelmingly, they’re going to have problems in implementing a genuinely progressive agenda, (assuming they want to) unless they reshape the underlying political consensus at the same time. Look at what happened to health care reform in Clinton’s first term.
Even so, ideas aren’t anything without political movements. As Mark Schmitt says in this perceptive review of Before the Storm, the typical mistake of pundits and academics like myself is to concentrate on the battle of ideas and ignore or denigrate movement politics. The lesson of the Goldwater campaign is that “it is persistent and aggressive citizen-organizing that makes the difference between ideas that have consequences and those that are just ideas.” Even more than that: the ideas that won out often weren’t the ideas batted back and forth by academics and policy wonks. They were the ideas of the people who started out on the fringes of debate.
In short, I reckon that an important part of Perlstein’s book is about the relationship between movement politics and ideas. People interested in ideas tend not to understand the importance of movement politics; people interested in movement politics tend to underestimate the power of ideas. This suggests some questions for further argument – I’m sure that more will come up as the discussion gets going.
(1) Winning the battle of ideas vs. winning elections. Perlstein wants to get the Democrats to win the battle of ideas and hence become a dominant party. As he says in Stock Ticker and Super Jumbo, this is a very risky strategy, which could lead to losses over the short and medium term, and has no guarantees for working out, even in the long term. But if it wins, it wins big. The netroots, if I understand Jerome and Kos’s book right, are more interested in winning elections and letting battles over ideas sort themselves out afterwards. Are these strategies incompatible? If not, how to reconcile them (or at least to minimize the clash)?
(2) Core ideas. If the Democratic party is to commit irreversibly to a set of core ideas, what should those ideas be? Perlstein suggests vigorous economic liberalism (I heartily agree). Are there other core ideas that Democrats should be committing to? Should people who don’t agree with those ideas (i.e. certain DLCers etc) be shoved out, or brought into the coalition?
(3) Talking to the other side It isn’t only lefties like Todd Gitlin and Mark Greif who liked Before the Storm; so did conservatives like Kristol and Buckley. This is because Perlstein treats conservatives with respect, no matter how much he detests their ideas – indeed he calls them “political role models.” This allows him to really bring home how much they’ve betrayed their own principles. Perlstein argues elsewhere that journalist Paul Cowan’s “ability to probe where those he disagreed with were coming from while still understanding why he disagreed with them” was a sign of moral seriousness. But Cowan also understood the risks of doing this when he said “I would like to think there is room for fundamentalists in my America. But I’m not sure there is room for me in theirs.” How to deal with this – take conservatives seriously, calling them on their hypocrisy when appropriate, or recognize (if it’s true) that there isn’t any possible way for conservatives and progressives to live together?
(4) Taking the movement to the Democratic party. Today’s Democratic party is probably less open to takeover by activists than the Republican party of the 1960s was. Even so, we’re beginning to see netroots people actively running for office within the party – and winning. What kinds of strategies are needed to reshape the Democratic party organization and really get rid of the hacks? What specific lessons, if any, do the conservative activists of the 1960s offer on how to do this?
(5) Winning the battle of ideas. Chris Bowers had a post a while back suggesting that consensus among netroots bloggers was creating an alternative conventional wisdom to that of the Washington political elite, and that this could be a valuable political weapon. He also suggested that there was a tradeoff between “changing progressive infrastructure [and] changing progressive policy.” More policy-oriented types (i.e. myself) would argue back that there aren’t necessarily tradeoffs between progressive infrastructure and progressive policies. I’d further suggest that creating an alternative needs to go together with (a) a shared vision of what policies the left has to offer and why they’re better than those of our opponents, and (b) a reshaping of underlying understandings of politics along the lines of what the conservatives did between Goldwater and Reagan. Is consensus among the netroots enough, or do we need something more?
(Many thanks to Henry, Rick and everyone joining us here today. There may be up to 30 second delays between the time people comment and the time it registers on the screen due to some server issues we’re trying to work out today and we appreciate your patience. Please join us at the same time next week for Pt. 1 of Glenn Greenwald’s How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. — JH)