Transforming the Liberal Checklist

Transforming the Liberal Checklist

It’s time for progressives to demand a bolder, “transformational” politics.


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.”

As a state legislator, I deal with the devastating effects of the right’s transformational work every day. When I first got to Albany, I received a T-shirt, a cup and a toothbrush from a “tort reform” group, all emblazoned with the slogan Trial lawyers: They don’t make the things you use, they make the things you use more expensive. I have seen the NRA work on the public’s perception of gun control from Buffalo to the Bronx to stop us from passing legislation to ensure that gun store employees receive proper training and that gun dealers are held accountable for knowingly selling guns to criminals. Last year, after one of the gun lobby’s mobilizations, my office was flooded with critical e-mails from New Yorkers who had been convinced that legislation to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and convicted felons was a threat to their right to own a hunting rifle.

Let’s face facts. Very few checklist liberals will focus on transformational work if they are rewarded or punished only for their transactional work. Questionnaires capture how we vote or promise to vote, and our voting is often predetermined by manipulations of the legislative calendar. For example, legislators often get permission to cast a “checklist” vote against a bill once the legislative leadership has assembled enough votes to ensure that it will pass.

So here’s a proposal to inspire a transformational focus by our candidates. On every issue, with every group of activists, politicians who claim to be doing transformational work should be required to prove it. All politicians who seek your support should produce articles, videos, transcripts–anything that demonstrates that they are challenging the conservative assumptions that frame virtually all discussions of public policy among America’s elected officials. How do we talk about abortion? As a duel between “prochoice” and “prolife” extremists–or as an issue of basic human freedom for women denied the power to control their own bodies? What do we say about health insurance? That it requires a delicate balance between the free market and socialism–or that it is an essential investment in our most important national resource and a basic right, without which our commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is meaningless?

Here in New York, where we have one of the most regressive tax systems in America, we are finally confronting the trauma produced by decades of right-wing transformational work on this central pillar of the common good. And, I believe, the analysis and language we need to change the debate over taxes is ready and waiting for us. In All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy Jared Bernstein provides a simple but devastating framework for attacking the neoclassical economic assumptions of Reaganomics. Bernstein’s catchy narrative is based on an understanding of the economy as a collective endeavor (We’re in this together) that can and should displace the Hobbesian basis for economic life proffered by conservatives (You’re on your own). Bernstein’s framework should be as regular a part of Democratic rhetoric as the mantra of “low taxes produce economic growth” is for Republicans.

Then there’s Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who has concisely refuted the Bushism that “it’s your money.” He points out that, in fact, taxes are the government’s money, with which we pay for the government services provided to us. Baker points out that anytime someone doesn’t pay his fair share of taxes, others have to pay more. The loophole-loving scofflaw is in effect stealing from those who pay their honest share.

The point of the transformational/transactional paradigm is not for everyone to be singing the same ode to change all the time, but for every would-be progressive official to pursue transformational themes as a central part of our conversation with our constituents and colleagues. We will never overcome decades of brilliant conservative propaganda on the economy until our representatives begin to reflect the basic ideas of Bernstein, Baker, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich in our stump speeches to political clubs and our talks at senior centers.

Finally, this is not a proposal to abandon the day-to-day struggles of transactional politics, which are still a central part of our work. Nor is it a proposal for self-immolation. Progressive candidates in tough races or in swing districts may not always be able to lead in transformational politics (although many conservative warriors displayed such self-sacrifice in the course of their movement’s march to conquest). But most Democratic officials are in very safe districts, and they should be pressured to pursue transformational as well as transactional work.

The good news in all this is that because conservatives have pushed their agenda beyond most people’s sense of decency or reason, pol-friendly opportunities for progressive transformational work are all around us. House Ways and Means chair Charlie Rangel’s comprehensive tax reform plan provides an opening to focus on who gains and who loses under our current tax code. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sweeping new urban environmental proposal (PLANYC) and Congressman Jerry Nadler’s dogged advocacy for a rail freight system in the city offer the opportunity to move the debate over the future of American urban life away from the elitist narrative of think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and toward a case for shared investment in our infrastructure.

Almost all of us are capable of taking examples of good public policy and placing them in a transformational progressive framework. But history teaches that the overwhelming majority of elected officials follow movement builders outside government when it comes to the new and risky. So it’s time for progressive activists to focus their demands on transformational as well as transactional work. Once you recognize it, demand it and reward it, it will happen.

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