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May 04, 2006

Who is the Enemy?

{Part of a broader debate over at TPM Cafe]

For all Tomasky talks about the politics of the "Common Good" and Ruy Teixeira document "definitional politics" for progressives, what they singularly lack is the naming of who is undermining that common good, or to put it more simply, Who is the Enemy? Enter Sirota with Hostile Takeover.

To analyze rightwing success without looking at their use of enemies-- communism, trial lawyers, unions and so on -- is to ignore one of the key engines of political unity on the Right. I throughly believe that progressives need a positive program -- I'm a policy wonk by day working with Sirota in the Progressive States Network (the new name for PLAN) -- but you also need to identify the enemy, since people unify as much around what they are against as what they are for. In fact, they often only discover exactly what they believe in once they identify what they dislike.

Teixeira and others want to dismiss the possibility of "class-based populism", yet they would never deny that most Americans are quite skeptical of corporate corruption, see low-wage sweatshops as an evil, and see corporate manipulation of the global economy as threatening their jobs.

So name that enemy. Define those forces as the enemy of the "aspirations" of American families. That's the populism that Sirota and other activists like myself see as the key to progressive success.

The reason such a definition of the enemy is needed is precisely because Americans are optimistic. If we haven't achieved the good life for all our citizens, there has to be a malevolent force involved. Identifying the causal force behind the frustration of that optimistic vision for America is critical, since if progressives don't define that enemy, the rightwing will fill in the blanks -- lazy welfare moms, illegal aliens, liberal media elites, etc.

But a strong progressive definition of the enemy of the common good -- corporations outsourcing jobs, companies breaking our labor laws, polluters of our environment -- is a key to defining not just what progressives are against but also emphasizes why the common good has not been achieved.

Populism is not about a retro-blue collar definition of class, but exactly what the word says-- defining the "popular" cause, a cause that is thwarted by the defined enemy of that popular will. As Sirota defines it, that enemy of the popular will is the corporate money manipulating politics for its own self-interest.

One of the key problems is that those same monied interests often scare off many progressives from naming that enemy, since Democratic politicians and institutions often go hat-in-hand for funding from those same sources. Which leaves many Democrats fighting with one hand tied behind their back-- trying to ape the "talking points" like their rightwing opponents, yet turning mush-mouthed when they articulate who is the enemy of the public good. The question anyone asks is-- If your idea is so good, why hasn't it already happened? And if progressives can't identify an enemy, it leaves them mumbling about "incompetency" of the opposition, which is pretty weak tea.

Yes, progressives need a positive vision that appeals to a broad range of the population, but they also need to explain who is blocking that vision and name that enemy. If progressives can't do that in a convincing manner, they will lose. Which is why Sirota's book is such a valuable manual for helping progressives name that enemy and its works.

Update: One commenter at TPM Cafe argued "If we play the "enemies" game, the conservatives will beat us--every time. That's not how FDR won.." Which of course is dead wrong, see FDR's 1936 Convention speech where he railed against the "economic royalists":

For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor-other people's lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people's mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.

Read that speech. It makes Sirota sound like a DLCer. In fact, FDR was quite populist:
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.
Whether the language of 1936 is appropriate for 2005 can be debated, but no one should be able to pretend that the New Deal itself was not built on rhetoric that carefully defined the enemy of freedom as the monied interests.

Posted by Nathan at May 4, 2006 07:24 AM