It's time for progressives to forget about winning the battle and start concentrating on winning the war

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.

18 replies »

  1. I think the hardest part is the long-term part. We have been conditioned to demand immediate gratification, so “this is going to take decades, and by the way, you’ll be dead” is a REALLY hard sell. I mean, I’m a long-term critical thinker from hell and it’s hard for me to get my own head around.

    Your handbook needs to find ways of tapping into America’s long-held ideologies of sacrificing for the greater good – if we can’t do that, let’s just pack and head for Canada tonight, huh?

  2. Yes, getting the “long term” groove on is going to be a challenge. I’ll put my thinking cap on for that one. Let’s not run for the border just yet, but have an emergency chute ready just in case we need to make a quick exit.

  3. Unless we’re willing to take the long view, we’re doomed to 1) play hunt + peck every election cycle, missing more often than hitting; 2) as Sara Robinson said, “Each and every election, our folks are working three times harder, because they have to sell not only themselves; they also have to re-write and promote some kind of larger progressive narrative as well” (; 3) forever be on defense, forever being defined by the conservative noise machine; 4) forever waiting for messianic leaders, when reality says that movements form, and smart leaders get out in front of them. Where’s the proof? The proof is all around you. It’s called the modern conservative movement. It is a remarkably clear case study in how to fund, build and nurture the people and organizations that advance your agenda. It is NOT by nature manipulative, though it is used in that way by the GOP/corporate/media complex. It DOES require long-term, widespread, consistent and SHAMELESS advocacy for (progressive) values and an understanding of how people think AND how they vote. Sam Smith, the author of this post nails it: “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.” Like the author, I’m in this for the long haul. I’m 56. I don’t really expect to see the fruits of whatever effort I put into this in my lifetime. But just maybe, my kids or my grandkids will.

  4. Just need to clarify. When I used the word “shameless”, I mean speaking about progressive values and our progressive worldview unapologetically and without embarrassment. “Empathy, empowerment and protection” (George Lakoff). And a lot of credit to Joe Brewer: “…You should invest wisely in the infrastructure that is capable of elevating progressive ideas so they dominate public discourse. Stop dumping all your money and time into reactionary campaigns to save progressive policy from the conservative hammer. Break out of the election cycle mold and build for the long haul.” (

  5. Bullshit, Slammy. Postponing hopes for a more democratic society–at least of the sort we had before Reagan toppled it and W and a Republican congress pounded it into the ground (with a lot of assistance from Clinton and the republican congress and democratic sellouts along the way)–until 2050 (!) is not giving up the dream of the promised land. It is accepting the turning back of the clock to the late 19th century, before the last Progressive movement had made significant gains, or to the 1920s, when selfishness and greed and the apathy or despair of Progressives were the precipitating causes of the last Great Depression. And it is entirely possible it could actually bring about the kind of postindustrial apocalypse depicted in almost every work of speculative fiction since the 1980s or earlier.

    Fuck that. I’m not making my kid wait until he is 45 to live in a better society than the one he lives in now.

    So I’m heading down to the courthouse to support the folks who got arrested on July 29 for supporting the Bill of Rights, and in 2011 I will be volunteering for the Obama campaign (unless he decides not to run, in which case I will work my ass off for the best alternative candidate). His failure to work miracles in less than two years and his pragmatic decisions to try to compromise with the forces of darkness in order to get anything at all passed do not make him the Great Betrayer any more than he was ever the Great Black Hope.

  6. The traditional republican party is dead and it all started in Reagan’s second term. You can call the remnants of republicanism Fascists, Neo-Nazi’s, or National Socialists, but you cannot call them republicans.

    These Fascists have adopted the Nazi propaganda od Herr Hitler and Herr Goebbels and their actions in or out of office is that of Fascists. The Nazi “Big Lie” worked in Germany and it worked in the US for the Fascists. Tell lies, even preposterous lies and repeat them over and over and the unconscious, the ignorant, and the haters will believe them.

    To defeat the Nazi “Big Lie” only requires that we tell the truth and repeat it over and over to those who have been brainwashed, not to the captive audience of Democrats. A letter to every American showing the historical record of Democratic accomplishments and asking which ones they want the republicans to eliminate will work. The people that I am referring to do not have access to the internet. Start a letter every month explaining the health care reform act and why, Social Security and Medicare, Education, and physical infrastructure improvements, and Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.

    The so-called republican party is not a political party because it has no record of accomplishments, therefore they are not legitimate. They are more of a criminal party than a political party.

  7. You don’t have 40 years, babe. You will have a massive economic meltdown long before then (and quite possibly a fascist moment and a world war), which means you have to take some high risk shots. Incrementalism is not going to get you where you need to be in time.

  8. Actually I’d argue that Obama has won. Given his support for the Blue Dogs and Lieberman while simultaneously beating down liberals in the house/senate during the Health Insurance Industry Profit Protection Act, I think he got exactly what he wanted. Same goes for the halfassed financial reform that won’t prevent another crash.

    So far he’s getting exactly what he wants, it just isn’t what we want or what he promised us he wanted. So yeah, win for him, lose for everyone else.

    • @JThompson: Actually, I have made clear my thoughts about Obama and I think I’m in your camp. In the post, my views are certainly among those I label “progressive idealist,” although in truth I think of myself as being pretty pragmatic. However, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about who’s on “our team.” There are people in the S&R community who some would label “O-bots,” people who defend Obama in ways I simply can’t. You can find lots of blogs and lists out there where people in my camp and people in their camp are at each other’s throats.

      I’m not terribly happy about this. I might think they’re wrong, but the fact is that they and we agree on 99.9% of everything, and yet we have at each other like latter-day Hatfields and McCoys. Whether the path to victory is long-term, short-term or non-existent, THAT is a guaranteed loser.

      I have been intemperate and behaved in ways that do us all no good. Somewhere Karl Rove is reading these violent disagreements and laughing his fat, evil ass off. That alone should be all we need to focus less on the .01% and more on the 99.9%, don’t you think?

      A winning progressive movement cannot be about a particular candidate. The conservatives won not by building a platform that would enable Superman to win, but by building one that would enable a monkey to win. Then, to prove the point, they went out and elected a monkey. I don’t want us to aim for a ChimpoDem, but the point is clear enough: we have to build a movement that transcends candidates. Only then can we insist that candidates march to our drummer.

  9. I’ am not an O-bot. I do think he has done more progressive stuff than a lot of folks give him credit for, and I think the stuff he has caved on was strategically intended to get more of a consensus than was either possible or necessary, instead of riding the election wave and pushing stuff through while there was still a Democratic congress. But Clinton pandered way more to the right beginning with the election, since one of the few campaign promises he actually delivered on was “ending welfare as we know it.” Well, that was accomplished about as completely as humanly possible.

    I just don’t see anyone I like more than Obama who is likely to run or has a chance in hell of winning, and I still think he is way better than either of the Clintons and half the Democratic leadership. My main problem is all the horrible people he appointed to key posts, including Clinton, his entire financial team, and Napolitano (for whom I voted for gov several times, while holding my nose precisely because of her totally hawkish views on “homeland security”).

  10. “I just don’t see anyone I like more than Obama who is likely to run or has a chance in hell of winning, and I still think he is way better than either of the Clintons and half the Democratic leadership.”

    My point, in a nutshell.

  11. There’s an argument to be made that those of us who feel this way should leave the country. There’s only one Western nation in the world that feels this strongly about the role of government in people’s private lives and refuses to deal with the extraordinary growth of economic entities in shaping the political process. We have lots of options.

    One of the reasons for India’s move from Fabian socialism was fifty years of brain drain. If we do the same, then that sends a message.

  12. Hi! My husbands an anarchist- he’s been trying to convince me that what we need is a Palin/O’Donell ticket. Perhaps he is correct. They deserve to be holding the reins of power when the fit hits the shan. Its their derivative. These are the same folks who insist loudly that it was really cold last winter so that global warming stuff is a myth. (facepalm) Never took physics, I guess. Never wondered how their air conditioner worked, just ran for Congress!