It was Sun Tzu, I believe, who first suggested that in order to win the war, you sometimes have to lose the battle. This precept has been on my mind quite a bit since the results of the recent election began rolling in. For instance…
Earlier today one of my political lists was discussing the aftermath of the elections and pondering the future of the progressive movement, such as it is. In response to a couple of thoughtful comments I posed the following question:
In terms of what’s best for the country in the long run, which would be better:
- Obama gets re-elected in 2012? Or,
- Obama gets beaten in 2012, allowing Dems to realign and get started gearing up for 2016 assault on Mt. Mitt?
This is a cynical question, but it is not an insincere one.
The always level-headed Guy Saperstein made an important point:
We have to reverse the Citizens United decision and the only way that is going to happen is to have a Democratic President during 2013-17, when at least one and maybe as many as three Supreme Court Justices will retire. If a Republican President appointed one, two or three more Alitos or Roberts, you could write off the Supreme Court for the next 20+ years.
Guy’s Supreme Court argument is compelling, for a couple of reasons. First, as he says, you’re going to have a bench stacked with neo-libertal corporatists for quite some time, and that means that any and all progressive issues that make it that far are going to get poleaxed. Worse, though, is the legacy such a Court would leave. You can do a lot of mischief in a couple of decades, and the policy landscape by the time the last of these appointees dies off could leave the well poisoned indefinitely. That means that “hosed for a generation” is the best-case scenario.
Beyond this, though, I keep thinking that every small battle the good guys win, or try to win, keeps us from winning the war. (And make no mistake, all our victories these days are microscopic.) The Right spent 30-40 years laying the foundation for the “Revolution” we’re living through right now and they were able to do it via well-financed “intellectual” activities at conservative “think” tanks. The upshot is that they have successfully engineered a deep-seated dogma that permeates too much of our popular opinion, and it’s all reinforced a million times a day by a ubiquitous media that’s just about exclusively owned by conservatives. “Liberal” is automatically a dirty word, as is “tax.” As is “government.” If you offer evidence that these concepts are actually not inherently bad, you are automatically dismissed as a socialist propagandist. Pay attention: to hold these positions automatically dismisses the credibility of your argument.
Person A: Sam is a dirty socialist.
Person B: How do you know?
Person A: He said socialist things.
Person B: How do you know they were socialist?
Person A: Because Sam said them.
The upshot: We. Can’t. Win. Not in this context. And the more we aim low, the more we settle for compromised victories, the more we rationalize settling for less, the more we lose.
Let me use the health care case to make an important point. Barack Obama has been a polarizing figure not only in America, but within the party that elected him. On the one end you have a crowd we’ll characterize as “idealistic progressives.” They argue that Obama sold out meaningful health care reform, that he cut a backroom deal with the insurance companies and Big Pharma before the “debate” ever started, that he reneged on his promise to insist on a public option (this one is less an argument than a documented fact), and that the resulting law mainly benefited the very insurance industry it set out to tame.
Obama’s defenders make a case they see as more pragmatic. In a nutshell, they reply, Obama inherited a toxic greasefire from his predecessor (true enough) and faced a nearly insurmountable uphill battle with an obstructionist GOP minority and a none-too-helpful Democratic majority. The bill that got passed and signed, they contend, was the best that could have been accomplished under the circumstances.
Similar arguments play out on other issues – the bank bailout comes to mind. But the same dynamics replicate regardless of the policy being discussed (and all too often “discussed” doesn’t adequately convey either the volume or vitriol of the debate). On the one hand, Obama is characterized as a corporatist “ConservaDem”; on the other, he’s a genuinely good-faith executive who’s doing the best he can in a corrupt system.
We can have that debate if you like, but it’s important to boil the positions down a bit to make this essential point: one group argues that Obama sold out; the other argues that there are significant reasons why he didn’t accomplish more. But nobody is arguing that he won. Nobody except the Obama camp, anyway.
For purposes of this conversation, then, let’s agree that progressives are, at best, coming away from the battlefield with very little to show for their efforts.
What unbalances the scorecard even worse is that not only are progressives not racking up real wins, the ideology machine spins every pissant little hint of a librul victory into yet more evidence of the Great Socialist Takeover™. When I started hearing the phrase “government takeover of health care” in ads this past election cycle, well, we’ll never know for sure why Elvis shot his television, but we know why I wanted to shoot mine.
In short, the “pragmatic” policy of incrementalism, of registering the best results you can under the circumstances, of accepting the corruption of the system, of being realistic about the need to follow each step forward with 100 steps backward, this is a strategy that guarantees one thing and one thing only: more losing.
No matter what, I don’t see that we can win the war in 2012 or 2016 or even 2020. The only hope we have is to forget about winning battles and start thinking very long term. Big picture. Think 40 years out, like the conservatives did so very successfully in the late ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
If we accept that 2012, 2016, etc. are chimeras and start thinking about 2050, we immediately find ourselves asking a completely different set of questions. We begin by accepting that we’re going to lose a lot, and that the losses are going to be painful. A lot of innocent people are going to pay a heavy price. Literally, many will pay the ultimate price as the GOP’s Runaway Dumpster Fire Express signs the Fuck Everybody Who Isn’t Hyper-Rich Act of 2013 into law. But all wars mean casualties. And it isn’t like the path we’re on is necessarily casualty-free, is it?
The very hardest part for so many us is this: the strategy I’m suggesting here requires many of us – millions and millions of us – to accept that we will never enter the Promised Land. When our efforts finally yield victory, we will be dead. So, what are we willing to sacrifice for our children and grandchildren, understanding that a refusal to make these sacrifices condemn our children and grandchildren to the same problems we’re now facing?
If progressives adopted the strategy I’m talking about, we’d de facto abandon any hope of winning the White House or either wing of Congress for the foreseeable future because we’d start pushing a legitimately progressive frame. We’d win some races, for sure, but we’d win them on our terms. No more whoring out for Blue Dogs and DINOs, hoping that once we helped elect them they’d be true to their promises. We’d play hardball and whether we won or lost, we’d do it behind candidates who carried our standard and believed that it was better to lose a noble fight than to “win” in ways that made you feel the need for a shower.
Our primary focus, though, would be on fighting the linguistic battles and altering the ideologies underpinning every corrosive phase of American life. We’d begin by tackling the conservative lie about wealth in America and we’d devote massive amounts of energy to winning the terrain of America’s “non-political” culture. We’d build the platform that would, eventually, draw those to the only practical source of hope remaining. When the only thing left in the US that’s conservative is its overt political infrastructure, the war is as good as won.
In the meantime, the GOP ascendancy would be hard at work providing us with the one thing that the voting public could no longer ignore. Right now, as long as the Dems control any piece of power, any and all failures get blamed on them. That’s the price of losing what Stuart Hall called the “battle of signification.” However, what happens when you get 8/12/16/20 straight years of absolute GOP/teabagger control of Washington? You get an unmitigated mess that would make the Great Depression seem like a Weekend at Bernie’s, but you also reach the point where the source of the mess is now too obvious for even the butt-stupidest voter in America not to understand.
Then the pendulum swings.
There are lots of objections to the scenario I lay out here, not the least of which is that we might not make it to 2050. As noted earlier, what do you do about a Supreme Court that has helped set into stone a hundred-year slog through a minefield? I’m also making some iffy assumptions about my fellow progressives – for this Hail Mary to have even the slightest chance of working, it requires us to get everything right on our end, and frankly that’s not the safest bet.
Maybe all I’m really communicating here is just how deep I think the hole we’re in really is. I see precious little hope in the short term, a hellish fight in the long term, and I’ve also suggested that I’m not sure I see a path to sanity that doesn’t require a few shots being fired. As ugly as that thought is, we also have to understand that America’s best-armed citizens are not its most progressive.
I have considered that I may have to leave the US at some point. I’m not happy about this possibility, but I’m also not sure what place there is for people like me in Sarah Palin’s America.