The latest round of argument within the progressive coalition over the Obama Administration – touched off by Cornel West’s scathing criticism – has generated a lot of heated discussion. Most of it seems to simply repeat the same arguments that have been played out over the last two years: Obama is a sellout, Obama is doing the best he can, you’re not being fair to him, he’s not being fair to us. Leaving aside for this article the personality issues at play here, what’s really going on is a deeper fracture over the progressive coalition. Namely, whether one exists at all.

Whenever these contentious arguments erupt, a common response from progressives is to bemoan the “circular firing squad” and point to the right, where this sort of self-destructive behavior is rarely ever seen. Instead, the right exhibits a fanatic message discipline that would have made the Politburo envious. Grover Norquist holds his famous “Wednesday meetings” where right-wing strategy and message are coordinated. Frank Luntz provides the talking points, backed by his research. And from there, and from numerous other nodes in the right-wing network, the message gets blasted out. Conservatives dutifully repeat the refrain, which becomes a cacophony that generates its own political force. Republicans ruthlessly use that message, that agenda, to shift the nation’s politics to the right, even as Americans themselves remain on the center-left of most issues.

“Can’t we be more like them?” ask these progressives who understandably grow tired of the Obama wars. The conservatives’ disciplined communications strategy typically gets ascribed to one of these factors. Some see it as an inherent feature of their ideology – the right is hierarchical, the left is anarchic. (Of course, the 20th century Communist movement disproved that.) Others see it as an inherent feature of their brains – conservatives are said to have an “authoritarian” brain where everything is black and white and where values and ideas are simply accepted from a higher-up, whereas liberals have brains that see nuance and prize critical thinking, making them predisposed to squabble instead of unite. And still others just see the conservatives as being smarter, knowing not to tear each other down, with the implication that progressives who engage in these bruising internal battles simply don’t know any better, or are so reckless as not to care.

Perhaps some of those factors are all at work. But I want to argue that the truth is far simpler. Conservatives simply understand how coalitions work, and progressives 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.

A coalition is an essential piece of political organizing. It stems from the basic fact of human life that we are not all the same. We do not have the same political motivations, or care about the same issues with equal weight. Some people are more motivated by social issues, others by economic issues. There is plenty of overlap, thanks to share core values of equality, justice, and empathy. But in a political system such as ours, we can’t do everything at once. Priorities have to be picked, and certain issues will come before others.

How that gets handled is essential to an effective political movement. 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.

Conservatives understand this implicitly. The Wednesday meeting is essentially a coalition maintenance session, keeping together what could be a fractious and restive movement. Everyone knows they will get their turn. Why would someone who is primarily motivated by a desire to outlaw abortion support an oil company that wants to drill offshore? Because the anti-choicers know that in a few weeks, the rest of the coalition will unite to defund Planned Parenthood. And a few weeks after that, everyone will come together to appease Wall Street and the billionaires by fighting Elizabeth Warren. And then they’ll all appease the US Chamber by fighting to break a union.

There are underlying values that knit all those things together, common threads that make the communications coherent. But those policies get advanced because their advocates work together to sell the narrative.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is primarily a fiscal conservative. So why would he attack domestic partner benefits? New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is not an anti-science zealot. So why would he refuse to say if he believes in evolution or creationism? Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger supported marriage equality and refused to defend Prop 8 in court. So why did he twice veto a bill passed by the state legislature to veto marriage equality?

The answer to the above is simple: because they knew the importance of keeping the coalition together. They know that each part has to be looked after, or else the thing will fall apart as different constituencies turn on the person who failed to advance their agenda.

Members of the conservative coalition do not expect to get everything all at once. An anti-choice advocate would love to overturn Roe v. Wade tomorrow. But they don’t get angry when that doesn’t happen in a given year. Not because they are self-disciplined and patient, but because they get important victories year after year that move toward that goal. One year it could be a partial-birth abortion ban. The next year it could be defunding of Planned Parenthood. The year after that it could be a ban on any kind of federal funding of abortions, even indirect. (And in 2011, they’re getting some of these at the same time.)

More importantly, they know that even if their issue doesn’t get advanced in a given year, they also know that the other members of the coalition will not allow them to lose ground. If there’s no way to further restrain abortion rights (Dems control Congress, the voters repeal an insane law like South Dakota’s attempt to ban abortion), fine, the conservative coalition will at least fight to ensure that ground isn’t lost. They’ll unite to fight efforts to rescind a partial-birth abortion ban, or add new funding to Planned Parenthood. Those efforts to prevent losses are just as important to holding the coalition together as are the efforts to achieve policy gains.

Being in the conservative coalition means never having to lose a policy fight – or if you do lose, it won’t be because your allies abandoned you.

This is where the real contrast with the progressive and Democratic coalitions lies. Within the Democratic Party, for example, members of the coalition are constantly told it would be politically reckless to advance their goals, or that they have to give up ground previously won. The implicit message to that member of the coalition is that they don’t matter as much, that their goals or values are less important. That’s a recipe for a weak and ineffectual coalition.

There are lots of examples to illustrate the point. If someone is primarily motivated to become politically active because they oppose war, then telling them to support bombing of Libya in order to be part of the coalition is never, ever going to work. If someone was outraged by torture policies under President Bush, you’ll never get them to believe that torture is OK when President Obama orders it. If someone is motivated by taking action on climate change, then Democrats should probably pass a climate bill instead of abandoning it and instead promoting coal and oil drilling. If someone supports universal health care and wants insurance companies out of the picture, you need to at least give them something (like a public option) if you’re going to otherwise mandate Americans buy private insurance.

The LGBT rights movement offered an excellent example of this. For his first two years in office, not only did President Obama drag his feet on advancing LGBT rights goals, he actively began handing them losses, such as discharging LGBT soldiers under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy or having his Justice Department file briefs in support of the Defense of Marriage Act. Obama argued that he could not advance the policy goals of DADT or DOMA repeal, but even if that were true, he was breaking up his coalition by also handing the LGBT rights movement losses on things like discharges and defending DOMA. It was only when LGBT organizations, activists, and donors threatened to leave the Obama coalition that the White House finally took action to end DADT.

A good coalition recognizes that not everyone is there for the same reason. The “Obama wars” online tend to happen because its participants do not recognize this fact. For a lot of progressives and even a lot of Democrats, re-electing President Obama is not the reason they are in politics. And if Obama has been handing them losses, then appealing to them on the basis of “Obama’s doing the best he can” or “the GOP won’t let him go further” is an argument that they’ll find insulting. This works in reverse. If someone believes that Obama is a good leader, or that even if he isn’t perfect he’s better than any alternative (especially a Republican alternative) then they won’t react well to a criticism of Obama for not attending to this or that progressive policy matter.

Cornel West has basically argued that he is leaving the Obama coalition because Obama turned his back on West’s agenda. That’s a legitimate reaction, whether you agree or not with the words West used to describe what happened. Cornel West won’t sway someone whose primarily political motivation is to defend Obama if he calls Obama a “black mascot” and an Obama defender won’t sway Cornel West if they’re telling West that he’s wrong to expect Obama to deliver on his agenda.

The bigger problem is that it is very difficult to successfully maintain a coalition in today’s Democratic Party. Michael Gerson has identified something I have been arguing for some time – that the Democratic Party is actually two parties artificially melded together. I wrote about this in the California context last fall – today’s Democratic Party has two wings to it. One wing is progressive, anti-corporate, and distrusts the free market. The other wing is neoliberal, pro-corporate, and trusts the free market.

These two wings have antithetical views on many, many things. Neoliberals believe that privatization of public schools is a good idea. Progressives vow to fight that with every bone in their body. Neoliberals believe that less regulation means a healthier economy. Progressives believe that we are in a severe recession right now precisely because of less regulation. Neoliberals believe that corporate power is just fine, progressives see it as a threat to democracy.

The only reason these two antithetical groups share a political party is because the Republicans won’t have either one. The neoliberals tend to be socially liberal – they support civil unions or outright marriage equality, don’t hate immigrants, and know that we share a common ancestor with the chimps. 35 years ago they might have still had a place in the Republican Party, but in the post-Reagan era, they don’t. So they came over to the Democrats, who after 1980 were happy to have as many votes as possible – and whose leaders were uneasy at the growing ranks of dirty hippies among the party base.

As to those progressives, destroying their values and institutions is the reason today’s GOP exists, so they clearly can’t go to that party. They don’t have the money to completely dominate the Democratic Party. Neither do they have the money to start their own political party, and right now they don’t want to, given the widespread belief that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election and led to the Bush disaster.

To our north, the neoliberals and progressives do have their own parties. The Canadian election earlier this month gave Conservatives a majority, but it also gave a historic boost to the New Democratic Party, home of Canada’s progressives, while the Liberal Party, home of Canada’s neoliberals, lost half their seats. Those parties have an easier time holding together their coalitions, and that enabled the NDP to break through and become the party that is poised to take power at the next election once Canadians react against Stephen Harper’s extremist agenda.

Still, for a variety of structural, financial, and practical reasons most American progressives are not yet ready to go down the path of starting their own party. And that makes mastery of coalition politics even more important.

Cornel West needlessly personalized things. He would have been on stronger ground had he pointed out, correctly, that Obama has not done a good job of coalition politics. Progressives have not only failed to advance much of their agenda, but are increasingly being told to accept rollbacks, which as we’ve seen doesn’t happen on the other side and is key to holding conservatism together as an effective political force. Obama told unions to accept a tax increase on their health benefits, and promptly lost his filibuster-proof majority in the US Senate in the Massachusetts special election. While Republicans are facing a big political backlash for actually turning on members of their coalition – for the first time in a long time – by proposing to end Medicare, Obama risks alienating more of his coalition by promoting further austerity. Civil libertarians have seen loss after loss under Obama (which explains clearly why Glenn Greenwald does not feel any need to defend Obama). Obama has consistently sided with the banks and has done nothing to help homeowners facing foreclosure. Hardly anybody has been prosecuted for the crimes and fraud at the heart of Wall Street during the 2000s boom.

There’s no doubt that any Democratic president faces a difficult task in holding together a political coalition made up of two groups – progressives and neoliberals – who distrust each other and are in many ways fighting each other over the basic economic issues facing this country. But Obama has not made much effort to keep progressives on his side. He halfheartedly advocated for their goals, did some things to roll back progressive gains and values, and expects progressives to remain in the coalition largely out of fear of a Republican presidency. That’s a legitimate reason to stay, don’t get me wrong. But it won’t work for everybody, and nobody should be surprised when some progressives walk. Everyone has their limit.

It has been clear that Obama is of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party. He always was (and so too was Hillary Clinton). It’s far easier for a neoliberal Democrat to win over just enough progressives to gain the party presidential nomination than vice-versa. Progressives are debating amongst themselves whether it makes sense to stay in that coalition if the terms are, as they have been since the late 1970s, subservience to a neoliberal agenda. I do not expect that debate to end anytime soon.

What we can do – and what we must do – is ensure that within the progressive coalition, we DO practice good coalitional behavior. If we are going to stay inside the Democratic Party, then we have to overcome the neoliberal wing. To do that, we have to be a disciplined and effective coalition. And to do that, we have to have each other’s back. We have to attend to each other’s needs. We have to recognize that everyone who wants to be in the coalition has a legitimate reason to be here, and has legitimate policy goals. If we have different goals – if Person A cares most about ending the death penalty, if Person B cares most about reducing carbon emissions, and if Person C cares most about single-payer health care, we have to make sure everyone not only gets their turn, but also make sure that each does not have to suffer a loss at our hands. If we find that we have goals that are in conflict, then we have to resolve that somehow.

One thing is clear: no coalition has ever succeeded with one part telling the other that their values are flawed, that they are wrong to want what they want, that they are wrong to be upset when they don’t get something. We are not going to change people’s values, and we should not make doing so the price of admission to a coalition. Unless we want to. In which case we have to accept the political consequences. I’d be happy to say we will never, and must never, coalition with neoliberals. But that has political consequences that many other progressives find unacceptable.

If we are going to address the severe crisis that is engulfing our country, we need to become better at building and maintaining coalitions. That means we have to decide who we want in the coalition, how we will satisfy their needs, and what price to maintain the coalition is too high to pay. Those are necessary, even essential political practices. It’s time we did that, rather than beating each other over the head for not seeing things exactly the way we do ourselves.

Only then will be become the disciplined and effective operation that we want.

About the Author

Robert Cruickshank

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