Transforming the Liberal Checklist
Check off the boxes, copy the paragraph from two years ago, mail it in. As an election year approaches, I again face the piles of questionnaires that progressive organizations use to evaluate public officials. Environmentalists, feminists, campaign finance reformers, housing advocates and labor unions have all come to rely on these lists of our positions--often on issues that never even come up for a vote. It should come as no surprise that, for the most part, all we get out of this cumbersome process is a long line of "checklist liberals" who answer correctly but do little to advance the progressive causes that underlie the questionnaires.
I respectfully suggest that if we want to move beyond short- term efforts to slow down the bone-crushing machinery of the contemporary conservative movement and begin to build a meaningful movement of our own, we need to expand the job descriptions of our elected officials. To do this, we must consider the two distinct aspects of our work: transactional politics and transformational politics.
Transactional politics is pretty straightforward. What's the best deal I can get on a gun-control or immigration-reform bill during this year's legislative session? What do I have to do to elect a good progressive ally in November? Transactional politics requires us to be pragmatic about current realities and the state of public opinion. It's all about getting the best result possible given the circumstances here and now.
Transformational politics is the work we do today to ensure that the deal we can get on gun control or immigration reform in a year--or five years, or twenty years--will be better than the deal we can get today. Transformational politics requires us to challenge the way people think about issues, opening their minds to better possibilities. It requires us to root out the assumptions about politics or economics or human nature that prevent us from embracing policies that will make our lives better. Transformational politics has been a critical element of American political life since Lincoln was advocating his "oft expressed belief that a leader should endeavor to transform, yet heed, public opinion."
The need for a renewed focus on transformational politics is obvious when we compare the success of the conservative movement over the past thirty years with the collapse of the American progressive coalition. The important thing about contemporary conservatives is not just that they won elections--it's how they won. They didn't win by changing their positions or rhetoric to move toward the voters--or where polls told them the voters were. They won by moving the voters closer to them, paving the way for the last decade of conservative hegemony.
In 1977 most Americans didn't think government was the problem. Neoclassical economics was not our national faith. A serious presidential candidate couldn't denounce the theory of evolution. The profound changes in public opinion on these and other issues were brought about by the conservatives' excellent work at transformational politics. And they didn't just do it. They honored it. They celebrated it. And an entire generation of Democratic consultants made millions by advising their clients to stay away from it.
Think about the transformation of America's ideas about taxes over the past thirty years. There has never been any credible evidence that "supply side" policies promote growth, but the relentless advocacy of this peculiar theory has radically shifted most Americans' basic view of taxes. The history of Grover Norquist's antitax crusade is well-known. It features all the essential elements of transformational politics: identify a set of assumptions that control the public's understanding of an issue; develop a language and message to shift those assumptions; maintain a sustained, disciplined effort to bring about that change over a period of years. From the Laffer curve to the Americans for Tax Reform's Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which all candidates were asked to sign--regardless of whether they would actually have to vote on tax reform anytime soon--Norquist mobilized a bipartisan phalanx of elected officials to preach the gospel of tax cuts. And lo and behold, what had once been considered "politically impossible" became inevitable.
Now let's compare the honors and "access" heaped on Norquist and his colleagues with the way most Democrats have treated transformational work. In 1980 a young Senator Al Gore held the first Congressional hearings on global warming. He challenged the fundamental framework for debates about environmental policy, which too often went something like "clean air and water versus faster economic growth." He offered a new way to think about the relationship between progressive economic policies and the environment. Virtually every Democratic official backed away.
During his 2000 presidential campaign, amid a growing body of evidence supporting his arguments, Gore actually abandoned his transformational stance. He took the advice of the "consultant class" and retreated to his transactional checklist. In fact, as Stephanie Mencimer wrote in The Washington Monthly, "as early as 1997, people inside and out of the [Clinton] White House were urging Gore to steer clear of contentious environmental issues as he positioned himself to run for president. They did not see his visionary efforts on climate change as an asset, but as a huge liability that could galvanize formidable opposition to his candidacy should he actively promote it."