Robert Cruikshank, who is one of the best political bloggers around, has a fascinating piece today on Calitics about Cornel West's attack on Obama, the politics of coalitions, and the fate of the Democratic Party. His thesis: The Republicans know how to make a coalition work, and the Democrats don't.
Conservative communication discipline is enabled only by the fact that everyone in the coalition knows they will get something for their participation. A right-winger will repeat the same talking points even on an issue he or she doesn't care about or even agree with because he or she knows that their turn will come soon, when the rest of the movement will do the same thing for them.
Progressives do not operate this way. We spend way too much time selling each other out, and way too little time having each other's back. This is especially true within the Democratic Party, where progressives share a political party with another group of people - the corporate neoliberals - who we disagree with on almost every single issue of substance. But within our own movement, there is nothing stopping us from exhibiting the same kind of effective messaging - if we understood the value of coalitions.
If one part of the coalition gets everything and the other parts get nothing, then the coalition will break down as those who got nothing will get unhappy, restive, and will eventually leave. Good coalitions understand that everyone has to get their issue taken care of, their goals met - in one way or another - for the thing to hold together.
He points out, correctly, that the Democratic Party these days is actually two parties, and the only thing that holds them together is social issues. The neoliberals generally support same-sex marriage and abortion rights and can't join the religious nuts who have taken over the GOP. But on economic issues, they might as well be two entirely distinct parties with very different messages.
It's worth thinking about in the context of San Francisco politics, where a lot of people -- including Board President David Chiu -- talk about being part of a progressive coalition. And on a lot of issues, six of seven members of the board -- and most people who call themselves progressives -- agree. There ought to be a progressive coalition tha controls the political agenda in San Francisco, and there's no reason that can't happen.
But those of us who are part of what we can only call the economic left -- the people who believe that the rich don't pay enough taxes and the poor don't get enough services and the public sector (yes, Government) is part of the solution -- aren't getting much of anything out of the coalition right now. Our issues (new revenue that matches or exceeds any cuts and a vigorous campaign by our elected leaders to make that happen) always disappear when the final deals are cut.
We're always there on the non-economic issues -- there was some grumbling, but in the end the progressives on the board all voted for Chiu's yellow pages ban -- but when it comes to budget time, we get thrown under the bus. And in the long term, that's not going to hold a progressive coalition together.