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Issue No. 112 (November 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

State of our
vision, 2008

We ache for a comprehensive political vision for the 21st century. In today’s turbulent political waters, we cannot forge ahead responsibly -- let alone enthusiastically -- without one.

Now, suddenly, four major books about political vision have hit the stands, and among them they perfectly summarize the “State of Our Vision 2008.”

In The Argument, young journalist Matt Bai shows that liberal Democrats have no vision. In The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, leftist Todd Gitlin offers a concrete but far too timid vision. In Blessed Unrest, transformationalist Paul Hawken portrays a rhetorically bold but much too fuzzy and cloying vision.

In Break Through, released last month, environmentalists Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger offer a bold and concrete vision -- one that seeks to take us from the “politics of limits” to the “politics of possibility.” And they’ve started an organization that could translate their vision into practical reality. They call it the Breakthough Institute, but they could just as aptly have called it the Radical Middle or Post-Partisan Institute.

(Conservatives have also been developing new visions with affinities to radical middle politics. See our article HERE.)

The depth of the problem

Matt Bai is a wonderful young New York Times reporter who spent over a year interviewing liberal bloggers and fundraisers and organizers, as well as hanging out at their gatherings and meetings (including some not open to the public).

By the time you finish his intense and anecdotally rich book, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (Penguin Press, 2007), you’ll know people like “ideological millionaire” Rob Stein and “netroots” pioneer Markos Moulitzas as well as you know characters in good novels.

Unfortunately, you’ll also know this:

Even the most politically liberal funders and activists have little idea of what they want the party to stand for politically.

They are convinced of the Republicans’ depravity and of what Bai calls their own “intellectual superiority.” But there’s little in Bai’s book to suggest that they’d know what to do once in power.

One of the strongest scenes in the book occurs at a salon-style dinner in the conference room of a top Democratic operative a couple of days after the 2006 mid-term elections. Some of the Democratic Party’s most esteemed liberal funders, organizers, and policy analysts are seated all around. Bai shares a couple of pages of appalling quotes from them, then observes:

Here were some of the leading progressive minds in a party that had just days earlier taken power, at a time of disorienting change, and all they could think about was one thing: keeping power. It was, to them, an endless game between two teams, one blue and one red. . . . It wasn’t that they didn’t care about the problems of contemporary American life; it was more that they seemed to believe those problems would somehow be solved by the simple act of electing more Democrats.

Bai’s general conclusion is not only devastating, after 300 pages of example after example it conveys the unmistakable ring of truth:

There’s not much reason to think that the Democratic Party has suddenly overcome its confusion about the passing of the industrial economy and the cold war, events that left the party, over the last few decades, groping for some new philosophical framework. . . . Until they find [a new] governing paradigm, something more contemporary than merely defending programs of the New Deal and espousing the social justice rhetoric of the 1960s, it will be hard for Democrats to establish themselves as anything other than a slightly dated alternative to the mess that is modern conservatism.

A leftist cut at the problem

If anyone understands the need for a new “philosophical framework” or “governing paradigm” -- in short, a new vision -- you’d think it would be Todd Gitlin.

He was not only an SDS president back in the Sixties, he is the author of what I consider to be the savviest and most evocative book about the social change movement of that era, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (orig. 1987). And his career as sociologist and journalism professor -- most recently at Columbia University -- has given him a front seat at all the relevant arenas.

In Gitlin’s new book, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals (Wiley, 2007), an arguably new vision is offered. But what a timid and insufficient -- and needlessly partisan -- vision it turns out to be!

Democrats are, we are told, in need of a “dynamic leader.” I agree. But who might our Lincoln(s) or FDR(s) be today? And what might be their most necessary qualities? Gitlin doesn’t say. (I suggest that Barack Obama could turn out to be a dynamic radical-middle leader HERE, and Andrew Sullivan makes an overlapping case in the December 2007 Atlantic Monthly HERE.)

Democrats also need a new “narrative,” says Gitlin. Specifically, they should offer the vision of a “widening circle of people seeking liberty and pursuing happiness by challenging the authorities who would tread on them.”

But can a personal-choice-oriented narrative be anti-establishment? In our complex 21st-century nation, doesn’t personal choice require -- not that “the authorities” not “tread” on you -- but that national institutions be reshaped to maximize voting choices, educational choices, health care choices, retirement choices, etc., as Ted Halstead and Michael Lind carefully argue in The Radical Center (2001), reviewed HERE? And is the Democrat party, as currently constituted, really the party to pull that off?

Gitlin also suggests -- perhaps to counterbalance his choice-oriented narrative -- that Democrats develop a “convincing rhetoric of the common good.” But how “convincing” can that rhetoric be when the national narrative emphasizes personal choice? Or will such rhetoric go beyond mere verbiage to effect public policy? And if so, in what ways? Federally funded public schools? Mandatory national service? Again, Gitlin doesn’t say.

Gitlin rescues his book, and us, from these airy abstractions by turning to the realm of policy recommendations. He suggests two domestic priorities, “universal health care” and “massive investment toward the intertwined goals of energy conservation, environmental sustainability, and manufacturing jobs.” (He also mentions “smart government” and defending Social Security and Medicare.)

Unfortunately, even his policy recommendations are too general to be useful. Who doesn’t want everyone to have health care or the environment to be sustainable?

A galvanizing political vision should -- must -- include exciting new ways for health care and environmental sustainability to be provided. (Would preventive health care be required, and if so, how? Should nuclear power be kosher?) Without more details than Gitlin gives us, we’re left with essentially the same well-meaning but vacuous liberal rhetoric that Gitlin and his friends used to rage against in the Sixties.

One root of Gitlin’s surprising reticence -- nay, timidity -- may be that he mistrusts and disrespects half the country, i.e. the Republicans. How else can you explain an outburst (from a Columbia professor! in a largely somber book!) like the following:

[The Republican coalition is] a focused coalition with two, and only two, major components, the low-tax, love-business, hate-government enthusiasts and the God-save-us moral crusaders.

The Democrat coalition, by contrast, is said to include “roughly eight” constituencies:

labor, African-Americans, Hispanics, feminists, gays, environmentalists, members of the helping professions (teachers, social workers, nurses), and the militantly liberal. . . .

Todd, before you or anyone engages in conversation with the country as a whole, you might want to cast your description of the Republican coalition as fairly as you did your description of the Democrat coalition. Thus, you might say that the Republican coalition includes “roughly eight” constituencies, as follows:

large & small business owners and managers, police & firemen, refugees from totalitarianism, married people, churchgoers, hunters, members of the most selective professions (lawyers, accountants, doctors), and the militantly conservative.

These are people one might want to listen to -- even engage with -- even get to know. And that is no small point. Gitlin urges Democrats to broaden their reach beyond big cities and the coasts to the “white working class” as well as to “thoughtful conservatives, independents and self-proclaimed [! - ed.] moderates.” But no one will listen if you don’t respect those you’re trying to reach.

And we have all got to be in the same conversation.

A “transformational” cut at the problem

In his book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (Viking, 2007), longtime environmentalist, entrepreneur, and business writer Paul Hawken claims that an invisible, non-ideological, and exceptionally life-loving political movement is arising in our midst.

If you read the book closely, though, Hawken’s invisible movement turns out to look suspiciously like what many journalists refer to as the antiglobalist or global-justice movement. It is hardly invisible. And it’s hardly non-ideological -- its ideology can be termed “neosocialist” or “neopopulist.”

In other passages in Hawken’s book, the movement he’s describing is just plain imaginary . . . consisting of all those nonprofits that are trying to do good in the world. And spread love. That’s so vague as to be applesauce.

And, as always, the promotion of Love as a political ideal has a shadow side -- Hawken disrespects his opponents just as much as Gitlin does.

Nevertheless, Hawken’s book is important and worth exploring. See our review of it HERE, which elaborates on all the points above.

A fresh cut at the problem

Last month, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) hit the stands -- and they’ve been on a remarkably successful book tour ever since. One event in Minneapolis drew over 300 people.

I attended one of their Oakland CA presentations this month, and at first you don’t quite sense what’s special. They appear to be your typical thirtysomething Washington Beltway environmentalists, obviously well-brought-up and well-educated, comfortable with themselves (both chose to wear casual black sweaters that night), comfortable with each other too (they’ve been friends since 1996).

But then they started speaking, and before you knew it a wall of exciting and provocative concepts was all around us. Put those concepts together and you have the contours of a vision -- an ideology, even (sorry, Paul Hawken) -- for a new kind of social change movement, one that dovetails with the radical middle impulse but pushes it well beyond the limited horizons of innovative public-policy analysis as exemplified by the New America Foundation.

Their book comes at you just as fast and dazzling as their talk did. So I sat back and reflected on their book & talk and came away with 20 key propositions, as follows:

1. There is a “religion” of environmentalism. Scientists like E. O. Wilson and activists like Julia Butterfly Hill are convinced that they have special and privileged access to nature, and that their understanding of what nature requires is somehow above politics.

2. Sorry, folks -- the religion of environmentalism has got to go.

3. Too many activists speak of nature as if it were separate and pure. In fact, we are an integral part of nature. We need not be ashamed of affecting “it.”

4. Nature is never harmonious or in balance!

5. Unless we support their rapid economic emergence, the developing nations of the Earth are not going to support global environmental measures no matter how much Al Gore hectors them.

6. Establishing “limits to growth” is NOT a realistic remedy for today’s ecological crisis. We need to develop an explicitly pro-growth agenda that defines prosperity differently.

7. Among other things, we need to develop “breakthrough technologies” that do not pollute.

8. Yo, activists: investment will be even more important to the political economy of the future than regulation.

9. High-tech is, or can be, good.

10. Even nuclear power and biotech should not be off the table.

11. People like Rachel Carson were mixed blessings to the social change movement. We’ve become obsessed with stopping or at least limiting the bad, rather than creating the good.

12. Instead of a politics of limits we need a “politics of possibility” -- a politics that talks excitedly about investment, innovation, and growth (both material and human).

13. For example, we might want to conceptualize global warming "not as the result of too much economic development but rather as the result of too little clean economic development" (emphases in original - ed.).

14. Ambition, individuality, modernity, and technological development are aspects of WHO WE ARE, and it’s self-defeating for activists to disparage them.

15. Too often we seek to “constrain human ambition, aspiration, and power rather than unleash and direct them.”

16. A new politics requires a new mood of gratitude and pride.

17. We need to embrace a new story about America, one more focused on aspiration than complaint. We need to counter the politically correct, resentful narrative of tragedy with a grateful narrative of innovation and overcoming.

18. And we need to stop trying to convince Americans that they’re poor. Most Americans are neither unhappily poor not happily affluent, but are experiencing “postmaterial insecurity.” Tragically, many of us are slip-sliding down Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs -- away from the fulfillment values and down toward the survival values that manifest as status competition, thrill-seeking, and hedonism.

19. We need to create a new kind of political economy and society that actively encourages us to climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs . . . and permits us stay there! Call it a new social contract.

20. To that end, we need to stop asking, “What can we do to save the environment?,” and start asking, “What new environments can we imagine and create?”

One caveat

The only thing I find dismaying about Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s book is that they give few props to earlier exponents of their views.

For example, Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies anticipated their distinction between the politics of limits and the politics of possibility (she called it stasis vs. dynamism), Gregg Easterbrook’s A Moment on the Earth prefigured their “bad boy” environmental stance (see HERE), Jennifer Cobb’s Cyberspace anticipated their loosening of the distinction between nature and human creations (see last page HERE), and Ted Halstead and Michael Lind anticipated their call for a new social contract (see HERE). Over the last 10 years, many radical-middle authors have expressed Break Through-like socio-economic views (see HERE).

The failure to acknowledge the work of Halstead and Lind is especially curious, as those then-thirtysomething authors marched into public consciousness two national elections ago with a book and a think tank just as Nordhaus and Shellenberger have now, and their perspectives overlap profoundly. There’s even a slight physical resemblance.

In truth, Break Through is more like an evolutionary step -- made possible by the work of many contemporaries -- than it is a sudden breakthrough. I find it hard to believe that well-educated author-activists like Nordhaus and Shellenberger are not cognizant of this. Perhaps they are trying to impress once and future funders?

Next steps

If so, I wish them well. Their think tank -- named, inevitably, the Breakthough Institute -- deserves all the support it can muster, since it promises to translate the vision in their book into concrete public policy initiatives (“large, bold . . . and internationalist,” as they happily put it). Nearly all the initiatives are radical-centrist, in the sense that they borrow ideas from all points of view and are innovative and practical.

The radical centrism, aka post-partisanship, is palpable. Nordhaus and Shellenberger describe their institute’s agenda as a “set of Strategic Initiatives.” Each initiative is intended to “create new alliances that go beyond the traditional left-right divide and change the way people think about ‘the issues.’” And each has been or will soon be introduced on Capitol Hill under the auspices of Jeff Navin, formerly employed by Senator Tim Johnson (once named the “most visionary Senator” by Radical Middle Newsletter; see HERE).

Some representative Strategic Initiatives:

-- a “New Apollo” project calling on government to invest $30 billion a year for at least 10 years into all arguably new energy technologies -- solar, biofuels, the works;

-- a “Work Redeems” project that would make sure all economically poor Americans who have jobs would not be denied health care, day care, or retirement security simply for lack of money;

-- a “Healthy Generation” project that would restore physical education to every grade in every school, improve the nutritional quality of school lunches, ban junk food advertising to children, and create a national advertising campaign to help children and parents learn good eating habits, reduce TV watching, etc.

We need such measures badly. We need concrete measures reflecting a fresh and positive vision more than we need wizened, Todd Gitlin-like measures to renew the old Democratic Party vision, or hyper-idealistic, Paul Hawken-like broadsides against the industrial capitalist system; though of course in the long run everyone’s deepest passions will be needed to turn this country around . . . so long as it doesn’t mean disrespecting others.



Although I deeply admire all the books we've discussed from the year 2007, the 2007 Radical Middle Political Book Award -- the 28th annual book award we've given out (going all the way back to Renewal and New Options newsletters) -- goes to Nordhaus and Shellenberger's Break Through, above.


The other articles in our “State of Our Vision” series are: “State of Our Vision 2009” (2009, see Section III therein), “The Human Qualities We Need Now” (2007), “Remembering the Questions” (2006), “Mushy Middle? No Way! A Twelve-Point Creative-Centrist Agenda” (2005), “Five Books That Would Make a Radical Middle Revolution” (2004), “Where’s the Juice?” (2003), “Nine Ways of Looking at the Next Great Social Change Movement” (2002), and “Four Books, Four Visions; or, Where Have You Gone, Herbert Marcuse?” (2001).



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