12 November 2005

"How the Left Lost Teen Spirit"

I've been reading Danny Goldberg's How the Left Lost Teen Spirit". The book is part memoir, which I found interesting for the stories, and in part admonishment to the (U.S.) Democratic party for the repeated failures brought about by pandering to the swing vote rather than speaking to their base.

Goldberg makes some great points (and a lot of this I didn't know, or it hadn't yet clicked), including:
  • While young voters were strongly courted, they were treated dismissively because of a perceived low voter turnout. However, the turnout rate for those 30 years and younger was a whopping 51.6%, compared to 42.3% in 2000! (Since overall voting was up, the ratio of young voters had stayed at 17%.)
  • Goldberg points out that the "majorities of the American public regularly tell pollsters they want national health insurance, tighter gun control, better pay for schoolteachers, energy independance, and stronger environment regulation" [pp. 33-34].
  • It is a myth that the Democratic party was able to regain political power "only when it embraced traditional politics and rejected the idealistic fervor of the sixties" [p 49]. This myth ignores the role that various left movements (pro-choice , women's, environmental and civil rights) movements have played in virtually all subsequent victories.
My favourite passage from the book (from the intro to the second edition):
There is no more effective cultural populist on the left than Michael Moore. He is emotional. He speaks about class issues through the prism of his own childhood. He knows how to make complex subjects understandable to average people. Yet Michael's very populism, his gift for expressing political ideas with humor and emotion, is resisted by some of the liberal snobs who, to me, are part of the problem. Shortly after the election, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, "firing up the base means turning off swing voters. Governor Mike Johnson, a Nebraska Republican, told me that each time Michael Moore spoke up for John Kerry, Mr. Kerry's support among Nebraskans took a dive." Patrick Goldstein quoted former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta as saying, "The party of FDR has become the party of Michael Moore, and that doesn't help the party."

Of course, Nebraska is not a swing state, and it is implausible that there were polls that measured the effect of Michael Moore's utterances. It is also pretty silly to ask Republicans for advice on how Democrats can win. They want Democrats to lose and they know that anything they say in the media is part of what political pros call "the permanent campaign." It seems likely that the Republicans who counsel Democrats to put Michael Moore and Hollywood liberals at a distance are trying to psyche out their opponents - the way they did when they convinced Al Gore to steer clear of Bill Clinton in 2000.

Panetta and his ilk seem to think that "rallying the base" was a political mistake depsite the fact that this was the primary strategy of Karl Rove, the mastermind of Bush's victories. It is unimagineable that conservative columnists or politicians would suggest that Rush Limbaugh did more harm than good for Republicans... and that is one of the reasons they won [pp 27-28].

The 2000's are a great decade for activism, with anti-globalisation struggles and the anti-war movement active in virtually every country. Certainly it isn't up to the political leaders to "save us". That's for us to do for ourselves. However, now would be a good time for them to join us.

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