The Stakes in this Election: Incredibly High | Mike Lux discusses “The Progressive Revolution”

originally published on October 20, 2010

Welcome to the second interview in our series.  This week we feature progressive organizer, strategist, blogger, and author Mike Lux.  Mike is the CEO of Progressive Strategies, the Co-founder of Open Left, and he has been active for thirty years on many progressive issues.

Mike is the “outsider’s insider.”  He has one foot in the door (having worked on five presidential campaigns, and having served in the Clinton White House health care reform war room), and he has the other foot on the outside (having worked on many issue advocacy campaigns and on building independent progressive infrastructure).

Mike wrote a book called The Progressive Revolution which looks at the threads of conservative and progressive thought and action in the United States since the Declaration of Independence.

Listen to the full interview with Mike Lux here:

Read the full interview here:

BTC: Why don’t we start by you introducing yourself – a little bit about yourself and your work.

Mike Lux: I’m Mike Lux.  I have been involved in politics full-time for 30 years now.  This is my 30-year anniversary, actually.  I have done a lot of different things in progressive politics: community organizer, state-wide consumer group, labor organizer and leader. I’ve worked on a lot of different campaigns. I’ve worked inside of five different presidential campaigns.  And I’ve also done a lot of projects outside of campaigns to affect those campaigns.  I worked in the Clinton White House.  I’ve done consulting work with a wide range of progressive organizations.  I cofounded a blog called Open Left about… I think it was three years ago now.  And I am now working with MoveOn on some major projects, and with Daily Kos on some major projects, and writing for Huffington Post quite a bit.  So, I’m in the middle of a lot of different things.

BTC: Thanks for taking a little bit of time out in the middle of it.  Really appreciate it.  You wrote a book called The Progressive Revolution.  What is it?  And why did you write it?

Mike Lux: The reason that I wrote it is that I’ve always been a lover of history.  And I would be out working on campaigns or working on issue fights in my day job, and I would come home and catch a few minutes of reading a good history book.  And what I kept finding over the course of the years was that the arguments echoed each other; that in fact, you can trace back all the way back to 1776 consistent lines of arguments from progressive- and conservative-minded political leaders and activists and newspaper columnists – all the way back.  And you can find them arguing with each other, sometimes using more blatant language about certain things.  And of course the issues have changed over the years in some areas, not in others.  But the sort of basic argument about what kind of society that we have has gone on.  And so basically I decided to write a book tracing that argument, talking about how I thought of progressives and conservatives over time, viewing the world, and how those arguments have played out in American history.

BTC: Great.  And the political parties associated with that framework of progressive and conservative have not always been the same…

Mike Lux: No.  In fact, that has sort of shifted and morphed over the years.  I mean, we haven’t had the same set of political parties for one thing.  In our first century the parties were sort of changing more often.  But even after the Republicans and Democrats both got firmly established, there was a period where the Republicans were actually more the party of reform, in their early days.  They were the party that was pressing for a fuller equality for blacks; a fuller equality for immigrants; progressive income tax; the Homestead Act; the land-grant university system.  All of those things were pushed by the Republicans in the early years.  But sadly, they became very much captured by big business, as the 1800s progressed.  And eventually what happened is that that reform spirit got taken up by populists and progressives in the 1890s, 1900s, and they ended up kind of merging into the Democratic Party.  And the Democratic Party went from being a more conservative, southern-based party, in the middle of the 1800s, to being a much more progressive party – although obviously not entirely that way, as we know.

BTC: Yes, and we’ll discuss the Democratic Party a little more later.  Now, this is kind of a big question, but if you could kind of reduce to a couple of paragraphs, what is your “theory of change?”  How does social change happen?  How does political change happen?  How do we make it happen?

Mike Lux: My theory of change is that there has to be an outside progressive movement pushing on the inside, but there also… I don’t think change happens unless you have insiders who also want to make change.  And I think it has to be a combination.  It can’t… at least in American history-and I’ve not studied how change happens in other regions of the world-but if you look back on American history, and look at every major change that has happened-progressive change at least-it has always come when there were people in office, presidency and congress both, who were interested in change, open to it, not necessarily pushing it themselves, not necessarily bold, courageous in every instance, but at least open to the idea of change, at least interested in new ideas.  But that’s not enough by itself.  Cause there have been people like that and nothing’s gotten done.  The magic is when there’s an outside movement that is strong, innovative, pushing hard, that figures out how to work constructively with folks on the inside.  I think it takes that combination.  One by itself doesn’t do it.  No matter how strong the outside movement is, the change doesn’t happen until you’ve got both.

BTC: You’ve been described as a “progressive insider.”  Is that a label you identify with?

Mike Lux: Yeah, it is.  I have a foot both inside and outside the sort of traditional establishment.  I have spent most of my life, you know, in the labor movement, community organizations, the blogosphere, the outside groups sector.  So in many ways I’m an outsider.  On the other hand, I’ve lived in Washington for close to two decades.  I’ve worked in the White House.  I’ve worked in presidential campaigns in senior levels.  So I kind of know what the inside looks like, and still have a lot of friends on the inside.  I still talk to people and email with people at the White House and in Congress on a regular basis.  I guess I have both aspects to my biography.  And I also, I think it’s kind of reflected, I’ve always sort of seen myself-because I knew both sides and could talk to both sides, I’ve always kind of felt like I’m a bit of a bridge between the two.

BTC: And I’ll bet you get a lot of crap from both sides at times too!

Mike Lux: Oh, absolutely!  I get enormous crap from pretty much all my friends.  That sort of comes with this role.  The insiders are always like, “Your friends in the blogosphere are insane!”  And the outsiders are like, “Your friends on the inside are all sellouts!”  So, yeah, I get a lot of grief from both sides.  I had a colleague in the White House who once introduced me to somebody and said, “This is Mike Lux.  His job is to have his friends yell at him.”

BTC: I would imagine you can’t be too thin-skinned in your line of work.  At the same time-I read your posts at Open Left, and your book-and you seem to intentionally cultivate a very compassionate attitude toward all sides, including your political opponents…  The theme of is, well, going beyond the choir, and recognizing that to accomplish the kinds of change we imagine we need to go past the usual suspects and build a very big movement for change.  What do you see as key ways of doing that?  Or, alternatively, what are some things that prevent us from doing that well?

Mike Lux: I think part of it is… I think sometimes when people sort of land in a certain culture they have trouble seeing their way out of it.  They start to talk like, think like, react to everything from their own perspective.  And their friends become people who have the same perspective.  Their political allies are people who have the same perspective.  I think that is part of what limits us.

I also think, I mean, honestly, there are real differences in point of view about how you solve some of the big issues in this country – and I think very legitimate fights.  People sometimes complain about all the bickering in politics.  To me the bickering in politics is frequently quite healthy, because it means people are wrestling with, you know, do we save the economy by saving the banks, or do we save the economy by investing in regular people?  So I think that’s a second thing.

A third thing that I would say is I think that people have different sort of views about the nature of change and the nature of history.  And some people get very focused on a specific thing, like, within a bill for example.  And then if that’s not there then it’s not real change or it’s not progress.  So I think there get to be a lot of debates about how much you compromise, whether you should compromise.  And I think this is particularly the area I think where insiders and outsiders don’t understand each other.  I think insiders understand how hard it is to get change, because they sort of deal with it every day.  They fight these battles every day.  And so when they see an opening to get something done, they want to grab it.  Whereas folks on the outside are like, “Well, that’s not the right approach.  If it doesn’t have X, Y and Z in it, we’re going to fail.”  And they get very frustrated with some of the shorter term compromises.  So I think that difference in perspective and difference in how you view things is a lot of why people in politics fight with each other.

BTC: You discuss in your book how, coming out of the dramatic upheavals in the 1960s and early 1970s, the right-conservatives-dug in to build long-term infrastructure, and succeeded in constructing remarkable echo chambers that saturate the country with their messages and narrative.  And then you contrast that with progressives, saying that, “The movement quite literally allowed itself to fall to pieces by focusing on identity politics and single-issue causes.”  Will you say a little more about that?

Mike Lux: Yeah, I think that the theory that I kind of lay out in my book is that back in the 1960s-and I think this lasted a while-Democrats and progressives had been doing pretty well for about 30 to 40 years, in politics.  And they kind of felt like they were the natural majority.  And so I think their… ideologically they kind of grew flabby.  And they started focusing on, okay, “We’ve got all these good progressive things that we’ve passed.  Maybe now we should just focus on this little area or that little area.” We got too sort of narrow-focused on specific bills, specific policies, specific programs.

Whereas the right knew that it was a minority.  They knew that they’d lost-been losing-elections for a while.  They were on the verge of being marginalized.  And so they used their corporate connections. There were some business people who had a lot of money, and they were able to say, “Look, let’s make long-term investments.  Let’s think about what kind of power centers we need to build up over time that are not just about this issue, that issue-we’ll fight them too-but how do we create a narrative?  How do we create a frame?  And how do we create a movement that’s much broader than this issue or that issue?”  And so I think that’s how things developed.  I think that reached its peak actually in the 90s, where on our side single issue groups were so bad at working with each other that they couldn’t figure out how to help Clinton pass anything big – the health care issue being the flaming example.  And on the Republican side, all their work on infrastructure over the years kind of came to fruition with the Gingerich Speakership and all the things that happened there.  And when Bush was able to become president, they were able to keep building that.

I think now progressives and Democrats have seen that they need to be more, think more long-term.  And I think the country reaped the negatives of having the Republicans in power.  So I think we’re still, over the long haul-even though we’re having a rough year this year-we can still project a more progressive movement and ideas over time.  But we’ve had a rough time since the 60s and 70s.

BTC: So much so.  It was interesting for me reading the book, being somewhat next generation in this, and [you] talking about how progressives assumed they were the majority.  When I came of age, there was kind of an assumption that there was hardly anyone progressive…

Mike Lux: Right.

BTC: That we were up against the culture.  You talk in your book… you quote Newt Gingerich’s categorization of progressives as “the enemy of normal Americans.”

Mike Lux: One of my all-time favorite quotes.

BTC: Does it ever feel to you that some on the left actually internalized this, as if we’re inherently up against the culture?

Mike Lux: Oh I don’t think there’s any doubt that folks on the left internalize it.  I think that, if I were going to have one message for a lot of my progressive and liberal friends, I would say, “Stop watching Fox News so much.”  I think that people get all worked up and they start seeing Republicans and conservatives as the majority.  And they get frustrated about that.

I think that it’s really important for folks on our side to take the long view; to, number one, understand the incredible financial odds that we’re up against.  I mean the other side just has so much more money than we do – it’s crazy how much more money than we do.  So I think we need to understand that from a resource point of view.  But we also need to understand… it’s not like we have lost election after election.  It’s not like we fail at everything.  You look back over the last 20 years.  You just go through the list.  We gained seats in the 1990 congressional election.  We won the presidency and both houses of Congress in 1992.  We had a very bad year in ’94.  ’96 we came back; we gained seats in Congress, we won the presidency.  In ’98 we gained seats in Congress.  In 2000 we gained seats in Congress and won the majority vote in the election.  Then we had a couple of bad years.  Then in 2006 and 2008 we swept everything in front of us.  So it’s not like Democrats… I think there’s this myth that Democrats are always losers, and the Republicans have the edge.  But I don’t think that’s really true.

BTC: It’s interesting.  You say “we” and you’re saying Democrats.  In your book you seem pretty careful to not equate progressives and Democrats.  You’re intentional about your terms.  And I’m sure some of the people listening to this identify as progressive, but not as Democrats.  It seems particularly pronounced in the past year and a half… where progressives are fed up with and feel no particular loyalty to the Democratic Party.  Would you make the case for why and how such folks should engage the Democratic Party – maybe specifically addressing the upcoming mid-term elections?  Why is it important, in your opinion, to engage the Democratic Party, as progressives?  And within that, how do you go about doing that?

Mike Lux: I don’t think we have any choice, first of all.  I think that people talk about, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a third party?” or, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had parliamentary elections?” or wouldn’t it be great if we had X, Y, Z?  Yeah.  It would.  But the fact is, we don’t.  And I’m not one-having been in politics a long time, and having studied the history of it-I’m not one who thinks any of that stuff is going to happen anytime soon.  You don’t tend to win process arguments in this country.  They’re very hard to do.  And people have tried, and they’re just very hard to do.  You might be able to get something – some nice process change in San Francisco or Cambridge, Massachusetts.  But getting it nationwide is a different story.

So I think the situation we have now, as progressives now-when I was speaking earlier I was talking about Democrats because we were talking about elections and who was winning elections-but as progressives, we have to understand that, number one, the Republicans have been taken over by complete extremists.  Republicans can no longer run in elections as moderates and win in primaries.  And all of the people who ever had a moderate thought in their life are scared of looking like they’re ever going to cooperate or compromise with Democrats on anything.  So the notion of working with the Republicans is just out the door.

On the Democratic side, we need to do everything in our power to run primaries against conservative Democrats.  I think we need to do everything in our power to do issue campaigns and broader sort of narrative campaigns that move the country’s dialogue to the left.  I think it’s incredibly important that we build our own media centers, through the blogosphere and through other new media ways of doing things.  We need to do all of those things to build infrastructure, and understand that progressives and Democrats are not the same thing, but that progressives have a big stake, a big toehold, in the Democratic Party.  We don’t own it.  We’re not identical.  You know, the progressives and Democrats are not identical.  But the fact is, that’s the party that we have; we have to fight our battles in, and try to make them as progressive as possible.

And so I am all for engagement on every level with the Democratics. We need to beat conservative Democrats in primaries, but we also need to figure out how do we work with conservative Democrats to free up the politics for them to be able to vote for us in some things.  Cause some of these folks are genuinely personally conservative.  Some of them are just scared of the districts they’re in.  So I think figuring that dynamic out is another thing we have to think about as well.

BTC: This kind of builds on the last question.  In your book you say that conservatives, “have always viewed government as best used as an instrument to benefit business and wealthy elites.”  I know a lot of progressives who would agree that this is the primary historical purpose of government.  But you treat government as a contested space.  You contrast the conservative vision with FDR’s description of “modern society acting through its government,” and Truman’s contention that, “It is the business of government to see that the little fellow gets a square deal.”  Why is it important to view government as contested space?

Mike Lux: Well, again, I go back to my answer on your earlier question.  I don’t think we have a choice.  In democratic society, government is a reflection of the society’s values.  And government is how many of the things in society get done.  So I don’t think we have any choice at all but to view it as contested space.

I think we need to understand very clearly though that it’s not all good.  One of the things that actually I don’t like about some progressive messaging is the defensiveness about government.  I get into arguments with people because I sometimes talk about all the waste in government – cause there is waste in government.  Government contractors are ripping off government agencies for hundreds of billions of dollars a year.  Defense contractors are wasting money like it was going out of business.  There’s waste all over in government; corporate subsidies for agribusiness – government subsidies for agribusiness, I mean.  I don’t think we should, as progressives, be defensive about government.  I don’t think we should be reflexively for government in all situations.

I think government is an important tool and we have to try to make it be so that it’s on the side of working people and poor people.  That’s our job.  In government you have to pick beneficiaries and you have to pick people who get nicked a little bit.  That’s the nature of government.  We should be fighting to make sure it’s on the side of the right people.  But that doesn’t mean that we’re for government in every situation, or that it never wastes money, or that there’s never been a program that shouldn’t be eliminated.  We should be for government that fights for regular people, and that should be the definition of progressivism.

BTC: And one of those specific fights in the past year and a half, that’s been the most prominent fight, is the health care fight.  I know you’ve done a lot of work before this round-I think it’s probably been one of the biggest issues of your lifetime-on health care.  As a strategist, as an organizer, as a Clinton White House staffer… what was your role there?

Mike Lux: I was in the Clinton war room on health care.  I was one of the earliest staffers assigned to work with Hillary on the task force.  So I was in that fight from the very beginning.

BTC: And how are you feeling about the outcome?

Mike Lux: Well, you know, mixed, of course.  I think that the health care bill could have been a lot better, with a little bit different focus and strategy from the White House.  I wish very much that they had pushed harder and fought harder for certain things.

BTC: Such as?

Mike Lux: Such as the public option, to be obvious.  That’s something we all-the entire progressive movement-fought hard for and we didn’t get.  I didn’t like the deal with the drug industry that was cut early on.  There’s a whole bunch of things in the health care bill that I didn’t like.  But what the health care bill did do was establish the idea, for the first time ever in America, that everyone ought to be covered; that health care was a right, not a privilege; that the system should be a federal system; and that people had rights against insurance companies; that insurance companies should be regulated in a new, more comprehensive way.

So I think the health care bill was an important step forward.  I wish it would have been a stronger bill.  But I also know, again… you know, change is a motherfucker!  I mean, change is really hard.  And I think sometimes people get frustrated, but they kind of forget, I mean, we’ve been trying to do this for a hundred years.  And some very talented politicians have tried to make it happen.  FDR, for all of his successes, didn’t get it done.  LBJ, for all of his successes, didn’t get it done.  And we managed to get it done.

And now we’re going to have to do the hard work of trying to get it improved.  There is no battle in politics that is ever over.  I think that’s one of the things people need to understand.  You fight these battles over and over again.  And if you get a toehold, you build on the toehold.  You try to get higher and better the next year, the next fight.  And that’s the nature of politics.  Even if you get something done, that doesn’t mean it can’t be taken away.  And we see that every day too.  So I think rather than be discouraged, I think we see health care as a step forward.  And now we try to make it better.

BTC: Do you have any reflections on the process and the struggle – particularly the past year and a half?  Any big insights that came out that you would like to share?

Mike Lux: I have a lot of impressions.  And I may write about that someday more at length.  I think… I’m trying to think if there’s anything in particular from that struggle…

BTC: Do you have a favorite moment from the struggle?

Mike Lux: My favorite moment was passing the damn thing!  I was very happy when that finally happened!  Getting the votes – when we knew, finally, that we had the votes, that was my favorite moment.  You can’t beat that.

BTC: A lot of folks treat the parties as monolithic.  There’s the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.  From what I hear you saying in your book, that’s a bit more true of the Republican Party these days than it is of the Democratic Party.  In the health care fight in particular, it seemed that there were a handful of people that you could count on one or two hands-in the Democratic Party-who were the primary problem.  What do we do about that?

Mike Lux: I think it is increasingly true.  In my political lifetime, we have gone from a Republican Party that really was quite a bit more diverse… you know, when I first started getting interested in politics, when I was in junior high, high school, you had these people like Ed Brooke and Matt Mathias, Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, who were pro-business conservatives on some things, but mostly they were very, very progressive guys. That has evaporated over the years to where, now, the only moderates left are just scared of the right-wing shadow; scared of right-wing primaries; don’t want to take too many chances.  And so the party has become much more lockstep.

I think for us, with the conservative Democrats, we absolutely need to make sure that those big problems get primaries.  So that’s one thing.

I think the second thing is, there are some places-my home state of Nebraska is an example of this-where you could primary Ben Nelson.  You could probably beat him if you primaried him.  I don’t know – it’d be a close call, but you’d certainly have the potential to beat him.  But then you’d have almost no chance in a general election.

One of the things I think progressives have failed at over the years is putting more progressive infrastructure in some of these small, more conservative states.  And I am a complete believer that if we did do that, we could be successful.  You look at a state like South Dakota, that elected people like George McGovern and Jim Abourezk, who was a great progressive senator, and Tom Daschle – all these folks who came up in South Dakota, because they built that kind of political organization.  You look at a state today like Montana, you know, a Republican state in many ways, but you got this crazy populist governor, Brian Schweitzer, two Democratic senators-one of whom is not very good, the other of whom is decent-you’ve got real sort of play in that state.  I think we need to do a much better job in the small, especially the western states…

BTC: That’s a lot of what the 50-State Strategy was about – Howard Dean’s strategy…

Mike Lux: Absolutely.  Yeah, absolutely.  Getting into some of those states, creating more infrastructure – I guarantee you, if there were more progressive infrastructure, stronger progressive infrastructure in the state of Nebraska, Ben Nelson wouldn’t have been so hard to get his vote on health care or on any range of other issues.  You would force him to move, whether he wanted to or not.  In Ben’s case, he actually wanted to on some things, but he was just scared of Nebraska voters.

BTC: The “Make me do it” dynamic?

Mike Lux: Yeah.  Yeah.  Now, Ben’s a pretty conservative guy.  And I’m not saying that he would suddenly become Ted Kennedy or anything.  But I just think that it makes a huge difference when you have more progressive infrastructure in those states.  And that’s something, frankly, that we’ve failed at on our side.  I think we should have invested far more in those states than we have.

BTC: Your book was written before the emergence of the Tea Party.  You do, however, discuss in your book the John Birch Society.  You say, “The Birch approach was McCarthyism on steroids.  But despite, or maybe because of, the craziness, the movement spread quickly and gained power.  And some politicians began to align themselves with the Birchers.”  And then, speaking of Barry Goldwater, who embraced the Birchers, you say that, “Although he was slaughtered by LBJ in 1964, in winning the nomination fight Goldwater fundamentally reshaped the Republican Party.”  How does that political moment, and the John Birch Society, compare to our present political moment, with the Tea Party?

Mike Lux: Well, I want to kid you about the way you started that question, where you said I wrote the book before the emergence of the Tea Party.  In fact, the Tea Party emerged long before I wrote the book.  The Tea Party is 200-some years old.  And I don’t mean in the sense of the Revolutionary Founders who were actually pretty radical folks.  I mean, there has been this extremely conservative, violent many times, angry always, racist most of the time, nativist most of the time, movement in American politics that just keeps reoccurring.  And every time there is hope for progressive change, every time there is a moderately progressive, even slightly left-of-center president, you’re going to have that kind of thing emerge.

I can tell you from the Clinton years.  The only thing that kept it at a lower pitch in the Clinton years was the Oklahoma City bombing, which I think freaked people out so much that they kind of backed down from some of the worst of the rhetoric.  But, you know, you look at those years.  You had Rush Limbaugh spewing racist stuff every other day.  You had people like Jerry Falwell peddling tapes about how Clinton had murdered people in Arkansas.  These folks were not moderates.  There was no moderation to their rhetoric.

I think the only difference that I see between the Tea Party, what was going on in the ’90s, the Birchers in the ’60s, is that because we now have a black president with a foreign-sounding name, I think that has leant a certain edge and spike to the right-wing.  It has ginned them up in a new and different kind of way, and made them more radical in their own approach.

I have a friend who’s actually tracked quite a bit the different segments of the Tea Party – cause it’s not, you know, monolithic itself.  And he’s basically identified several different elements.  One is this kind of Dick Armey economic libertarian element.  There’s the Koch brothers and everything they’re doing, and they’re kind of aligned with Armey.  But, in his view, three of the five major elements feeding into the Tea Party demonstrations and the Tea Party movement come out of militias and right-wing movements – like far right-wing movements of various kinds; scary, racist right-wing movements.  So I think that element has become energized in American politics in a way we haven’t seen.  I think if Bill Clinton or LBJ had been a different color, we would have seen more of this.  I think that’s a lot of what’s going on.

BTC: You do talk a lot in your book about fear.  You also talk a lot about race.  How is fear being used as a political tool?  You identify it as a primary message and tool of conservatives.  And you talk about hope as the essential strength of progressives.  What does fear do to people?  How does it work as a political tool?  And what can we do about it?

Mike Lux: Progressives want change.  Change can be painted as very scary.  And conservatives’ fundamental argument has always been to fear change because we don’t know the unintended consequences; we don’t want the rabble to get too much power; we don’t people who don’t know what they’re doing to have control of government.  Their basic argument is tradition trumps justice; that the people who’ve been in control for a long time ought to stay in control because they know what they’re doing.  Those are their basic arguments.

So you’ve got this sort of-as Sarah Palin calls it-the changy, hopey thing.  And it’s very easy to paint a fearful picture of that because, when you’re changing something, you don’t exactly know what it’s going to mean.  The fear rhetoric has been used on every major issue, every major reform in American life.  It was used on the abolition of slavery.  It was used on women getting the vote; the rhetoric around the destruction of families and the end of the world as we know it.  Social Security was described as the first step in the door for the totalitarian state.

So you’ve got this very, very strong rhetoric.  I mean, in 1993 the Clinton economic package was described as utterly catastrophic, like it will destroy the American economy.  The kind of crazy rhetoric that these guys use – that’s a very traditional tactic of the right, and it fits their over all messages.  Because their over all message is, you know, the people with power and money who have control… we ought to let those guys keep control, cause otherwise we don’t know what’s going to happen.

BTC: And when that’s internalized it becomes what you call the “culture of caution?”

Mike Lux: Well, the culture of caution is a… I don’t think that’s so much a progressive/conservative thing.  I think it’s the biggest single detriment to the Democrats and the Democratic Party.  I think what happens is that fear drives the conservative message.  And Democrats’ reaction to that, rather than to push back, rather than to get bolder about change and response, the reaction has been, oh, well let’s be careful, let’s go slow, let’s be cautious.  And the problem with that is that’s not very inspiring.  It doesn’t build movement.  It doesn’t create real change.  It keeps the system as it is in place.

I think I said in my book, I talked about how the Republicans’ big problem in building a majority is that their policies don’t work, and they overreach.  They do crazy, extreme stuff.  The Democrats’ big problem in building a majority is that they get into power and then they get cautious.  They get scared about doing too much.  And as a result nobody ever sees change happen.  It’s a reflection of what’s going on in this country right now in this election.  Barack Obama promised change.  And people haven’t seen that much change.  And they’re wondering, like, “What the fuck?  Where’s the change?  I thought our lives were going to get better.  I thought the economy was going to get better.  I thought things were going to be more about helping the middle class.”  And they don’t see it yet.  And I think it’s because we’ve moved too slow and been too cautious.

BTC: Thanks.  We’re at time.  I want to respect your time, but last question, do you want to say anything about what’s at stake with this election – that’s coming up in a matter of days?

Mike Lux: Well, every election everything is at stake.  Every single election everybody talks about, “Oh, this is the most important election of our lifetime.”  I think every election is the most important election, because every single election you’re fighting out who is going to run things.  Are we going to do things for regular folks, or are we going to do things for the elites?  Are we going in a worse or a better direction?  In a democracy, you can’t get any more important that that.

So the stakes in this election: incredibly high.  We just passed health care reform, financial reform, and already the banks and insurance companies are trying to retrench and take stuff away.  And if the Republicans get in, they will.  They’ll have a lot more power to do that, even with Obama still in office.  So it’s incredibly important.  Just like it’s going to be in 2012, just like it was last time.  So people need to take their politics seriously and not take vacations in October during an election year.

BTC: Maybe that’s aimed at me!  Thanks, Mike, for talking.  Where can folks find your book and more of your writing?

Mike Lux: We do have a website.  Go to  It is the website for the book.  All of my writing is on Open Left.  So if you want to go back and read blog posts, my various rantings and ravings over the years, people are welcome to do that.

BTC: Great.  Thanks a lot, Mike.

Is politics your home, or your car?

When I’m in my home, I want to be comfortable. I don’t want to live with people who make me feel ill at ease, or whose values I don’t share.  I don’t want conflict.  I take great care in making my “house into a home.”  I hang things on the walls that reflect my personality, my values, and who I am.  This is my sanctuary.

When I’m driving in my car, I want to get somewhere. I have a destination in mind.  Gas is expensive, and Rhode Island drivers are effing crazy – so I’m not interested in much other than Point A to Point B.

Sure, when I’m in my home, I may have some projects and have goals around those projects.  And, sure, when I’m in my car, I may want to listen to music that I especially like, or have great conversations with my friends.

But entertain the (admittedly over-simplistic and falsely dichotomous) metaphor for a minute and ask yourself, are your politics your home or your car? In politics and the political organizations you’re part of, are you looking primarily for sanctuary, or are you looking to get somewhere?  Do you get involved to express your values (like hanging paintings and posters on your walls), or are you stepping into a vehicle with a destination in mind? And do you have a map?

Or are you in a gas-guzzling mobile home that’s broken-down on the side of the road – really hoping the engine will magically restart some day, but it’s been like 40 years, and you’ve kind of gotten comfortable here, and you’ve forgotten what it’s like to arrive somewhere new? And besides, cars are bad.


Book Review: The Big Sort (part 2)

This is Part Two (of two).  Read Part One here.

While I’m a big fan of The Big Sort for all the reasons discussed in Part One of this review (among other reasons), I was disappointed by the author’s symmetrical depiction of the ways the left and right demonstrate his Big Sort theory, and by the book’s uncritical reinforcement of the story of the moderate center.  Sure, I see convincing reasons why author Bill Bishop wrote the book exactly the way he did – and not exactly the way I may have wanted him to. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that for The Big Sort to be seen as an objective commentary on political self-segregation and partisanship in the United States, the author surely saw the sense in giving equal attention and critique to how his theory plays out on the left and the right. He is, after all, a journalist.

Where this becomes a problem is when he gives the false impression that the right and the left, or Republicans and Democrats (and, no, I don’t think those labels are interchangeable) exhibit his theory in mirrored fashion.  He neglects to give adequate attention to significant qualitative differences.  These differences are, IMHO, indispensably instructive for how we approach the democratic crisis that Bishop is pointing us to.

Let’s start with the idea of compromise.  And let’s start with Democrats and Republicans inside the halls of Congress.  The lack of willingness to compromise in Congress, along with the resulting political gridlock, is one of the main problems that Bishop identifies with the Big Sort.  Now, he doesn’t come out and say explicitly that Republicans and Democrats are exactly equal in their unwillingness to compromise in exactly the same ways.  But he gives the impression of symmetry; that both sides are equally stubborn.  Democratic and Republican politicians are both pushing the “entire country into a choice between the far left and the far right.”

That narrative is crap.  Democratic politicians tend to compromise a great deal (and compromise and compromise and compromise until the cows come home) and Democratic voters actually favor politicians who compromise.  Republican politicians, on the other hand, tend to steamroll when they hold majorities and obstruct (and impeach) when they don’t, and Republican voters overwhelmingly favor politicians who “stick to positions” over ones who compromise.   To get specific, Pew found in early 2007 that 58% of Democratic voters “most admire politicians who make compromises” over 34% who “most admire politicians who stick to positions” – compared with just 36% of Republican voters admiring politicians who compromise, and 57% preferring those who don’t.  (See the Pew poll here (PDF), and I recommend Chris Bowers’ analysis here.)

That’s an asymmetrical equation.

And just look at the present Congress.  In one piece of legislation after another, Democrats have started out with moderate proposals aimed at preemptively appeasing Republicans.  The Democrats modeled much of their health care reform legislation on Republican former Governor Mitt Romney’s legislation for Massachusetts.  Progressives started by fighting for a compromise position – a public health insurance option, rather than a single-payer system that many of us strongly prefer.  But progressives ultimately got thrown under the bus, and Democrats barely passed health care legislation at all.  The path of compromise has been a one-way street that leads only further to the right (and to more concessions to big business).

I had to laugh out loud when I saw this in Bishop’s afterword, which he wrote last January:

Maybe the struggle to provide everyone with medical care will become one of those cross-cutting issues, urgent enough to put Republicans and Democrats in mixed company again.

Picture a bully and a nerd in a school playground.  The bully punches and kicks and trips and pinches and bites the nerd whenever possible.  The bully has no qualms about fighting dirty.  When the bully lacks the quickness to get his physical hands on the nerd, he then spews insults ceaselessly, doing everything he can to make the nerd look uncool.  The nerd believes in compromise and negotiation, and tries awfully hard to please the bully.  But guess what?  He just keeps getting his ass kicked. Enter a neutral observer who admonishes both bully and nerd to “stop fighting,” as if both share equal culpability.

To be fair, The Big Sort was written before the present Congress.  And Bishop certainly isn’t the only person playing the role of the “neutral observer” in the story of the bully and the nerd.  And he’s not as flagrant about it as many journalists.  I got the impression that he knows darn well about the lopsidedness of the problems he discusses.  In a footnote he points to Jacob S. Hacker’s and Paul Pierson’s contention in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy that “the primary cause of polarization in the United States was a move to the right by Republican officeholders.”  And then there’s this:

The second explanation [for the origin of polarization] – one favored by Democrats – holds that conservative activists built an interlocking structure of propaganda and money that moved the Republican Party, and the nation, to the right.  The aim of the New Right after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 was to exacerbate divisions in the country and then exploit them.

But he labels this the “conspiracy” explanation, and mostly brushes it off by arguing that Bill Bradley and other Democrats exaggerated the importance of the Powell Memorandum.  How does the influence or lack thereof of a single memo change the fact that conservative activists have indeed “built an interlocking structure of propaganda and money that moved the Republican Party, and the nation, to the right?”

He does concede that there’s “some truth to the conspiracy stories.”  And I have no argument with the point he’s leading up to:

…conservatives better understood the changes taking place in the country, and that is why, for a time, Republicans were more successful politically.  Republicans didn’t create a movement.  They recognized the cultural shifts taking place across the country – the Big Sort – and then channeled what was happening into politics, to their advantage.

But Bishop doesn’t go on to discuss the tangibles that Republicans gained – beyond political power – by successfully harnessing cultural shifts.  The Republican Party, to those steering it (and IMHO) is little more than a vehicle for a pro-big-business, unfettered capitalism, regressive taxation agenda – a vehicle that’s been successfully branded as something else entirely in order for the party to have a base.  Stoking cultural issues (particularly fears) is a matter of making a sideshow into the main event.  The Big Sort treats today’s culture and politics as “post-materialist” – that’s really the point of the book, and there’s immense value in looking through that lens – but the problem is that we live in a political system and media environment that prominently features cultural battles on the main stage while sneaking in an elephant through the back door.

And that’s exactly why I recommend reading this book.  I could whine all day about how unfair the story of the moderate center is – how it brands progressive change advocates as extreme, radical, far left, etc. to effectively inoculate the public, the media, and decision-makers against us and our positions.  And I think I would be right.  But right does not equal might.  The conservative activists who dramatically changed our country these past four decades know that well.  To succeed, progressives need an astute understanding of the cultural changes unfolding around us – and not just immediately around us.  We need an active analysis of the patterns of self-selection and self-segregation that have taken hold.  We can’t just wait for the self-selectors to be attracted to our progressive brand (or micro-brand: “Fuck off. We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”).

We live in a dauntingly enormous country of three hundred million people.  It’s no easy task to try to understand it – let alone to be ready to see and seize the openings.  Bill Bishop does a great job in The Big Sort of illuminating some of our blind spots.  I hope you’ll read it!

Book Review: The Big Sort (part 1)

“How could Bush have possibly won?! I don’t know anyone who voted for him!”

“How could Obama have possibly won?!  I don’t know anyone who voted for him!”

Depending on where you live and who you associate with, you’re likely to have heard some version of one or the other of the above two quotes (in 2004 or 2008, respectively).

That’s because over the past few decades we’ve migrated and rearranged our lives to surround ourselves with people who think pretty much just like us – and we’ve effectively phased out the folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes.  We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations (or lack thereof), civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance.

In The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, author Bill Bishop (with Robert G. Cushing) eloquently presents a thorough study of political self-segregation in the United States.  Since around, say, 1968, geographic and cultural spaces in the United States have become measurably more politically homogeneous.  Bishop provides data to support this claim, broken down by zip codes, neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic organizations, and more.  He offers helpful explanations from several angles for why this has happened – including some fascinating insights from social psychology.  And he makes strong arguments that this “Big Sort” is having profound impacts – mostly negative – on our culture and politics.

The book focuses heavily on Democrats vs. Republicans.  This is understandable as the only data available that snapshots political opinion across the entire country at once is voting records from Presidential elections.  It’s the one time when we all have the same political choice in front of us – and you can see how different districts, zip codes, and demographics cast their votes (and having only two major political parties – lucky us – surely makes the analysis simpler).  As such, I can appreciate why the author draws primarily on this data.  I do take issue though with the way he discusses the two parties as if they genuinely represent the left and the right.  I take more issue with how he treats left and right as if they are symmetrical in their self-segregating behavior, and equally culpable for the crisis in our democracy.  I discuss this further in Part 2 of this book review.

But critiques aside for the moment, here’s why I love this book – and why I think it’s essential reading for anyone working for progressive change in the United States.  Bishop provides a framework that inadvertently illuminates a major constraint on the emergence of stronger, broader-based progressive movements today: namely the tendency of progressives to talk only to ourselves.  I’ll get to that shortly.

First, to explain our national “migration of self-selection,” Bishop spotlights the work of Ronald Inglehart, who “proposed a theory for why all industrial countries appeared to be undergoing similar changes in their cultures and politics” – changes that seemed to explode dramatically all over the world at once in 1968.  Inglehart’s explanation is based on Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which essentially states that once people have air, they then concern themselves with finding water; and after their thirst is quenched, they can think about food; and then clothes and shelter.  And once basic survival and material needs are so abundantly available that they can be taken for granted, we humans then concern ourselves with social networks, and then ultimately with individual freedom and expression.

Inglehart applied Maslow’s theory to what was happening in every industrialized society around the world simultaneously in the late 1960s.  Bishop discusses how a generation that “grew up in relative abundance” started to display “a politics of self-expression.”

The new society was more about personal taste and worldview than public policy.  It was as much or more concerned with self-expression and belief as with social class and economics.

Self-expressive people apparently like to express themselves in like-minded company.  And there you have it… The Big Sort.  Bishop provides a much fuller picture, and then goes on to discuss how insularity, self-righteousness, and groupthink inevitably rear their ugly heads in homogeneous social circles.  That’s where I jump off to return to the question of what progressive change organizations have to learn from The Big Sort’s framework…

If a progressive change organization’s goals are instrumental (i.e. the aim is to measurably change policies, structures, etc.), then it’s necessary for effective group members to be outwardly oriented – regularly talking to people outside of our social circles in order to build broad-based grassroots power, to gain the capacity to affect the big changes we imagine.  But if our psychological motivation for involvement is self-expressive (i.e. our aim is to express our values and who we are as people, and to feel a sense of belonging in a value-based community), then it doesn’t really matter if we talk to anyone but ourselves.  In fact, our identity with the group is reinforced when we differentiate ourselves from people outside of the group.  There can actually be a disincentive to reach outside of the group or social circle – and a social incentive to put up barriers.  This is especially true if a group defines itself in direct opposition to the dominant culture.  If your group’s narrative rejects the dominant culture, it’s pretty easy to take the next step and reject “society” wholesale – and then your place in the group is affirmed when you encounter (or project) hostility from “society.”  Taken to the extreme, some political groups even become suspicious of success itself.  Because if society embraces you, then you must have sold out!

So, at least part of our psychological motivation for political involvement can be fulfilled completely without us ever winning anything.  Thus, some of the most committed, fire-in-the-belly fighters for social justice and equality today are wearing their politics on their sleeve in a way that signals only to each other – at the cost of turning off a lot of potential allies.  We’re building a community together.  We are oriented to impress each other.  Our tactics, our speech, our fashion, all our expression is aimed at the center of our small, ineffectual, insular groups – instead of aiming to infect the broader society.  We are always looking to differentiate ourselves from the dominant culture, instead of looking for common ground.  We become attached to an identity of the righteous few, the keepers of a little flame.  We pride ourselves that we won’t let it be extinguished, but our monopoly on that little flame, our attachment to our own marginalization, our activist brand – inoculates the proverbial prairie against catching fire.

I’m generalizing.  Different political organizations land at different points across the instrumental vs. expressive spectrum.  And very few groups actually enjoy swimming in their own marginalization.  But probably all of us could stand to reflect on the prayer of Reverend Johnson (Blazing Saddles, anyone?): “O Lord, do we have the strength to carry off this mighty task … Or are we just jerking off?”

To be clear, the biggest reasons I recommend The Big Sort (particularly to progressive change advocates) are likely pretty different from the reasons why Bill Bishop wrote the book.  He seems mostly interested in getting everyone to better understand each other and to talk to each other more – worthy goals.  I’m extrapolating from his framework, applying it to my “neck of the woods” (waaaaaaay over here in “Far-Left-ville” *I discuss problems with this framing in Part 2 of this review).  In my 16-and-counting years working for progressive social change, I’ve found myself frustrated many times with the insular, “preaching to the choir” tendencies of many efforts I’ve been part of.  The Big Sort has helped me to see those tendencies in a broader societal context.  Like-minded clustering and self-segregation is not a uniquely progressive problem.  Just the opposite; it’s a nationwide, across-the-spectrum phenomenon.  You can see it in golfers or Cure fans or church-goers.  Like golfers and Cure fans and church-goers, members of social change organizations gain a sense of identity and belonging by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people.  But unlike golfers or Cure fans or church-goers, the raison d’etre of social change organizations is to affect real change that everyday people can feel in their everyday lives.  To do that, we can’t afford to go it alone.  We won’t see the big changes we imagine if we fail to activate more than the self-selecting usual suspects.  We’ve got to orient ourselves to connect outside the group to a broader base.

There’s some irony here.  For a crew that so often fashions itself as different from the dominant culture, in one important way we’re just doing what everyone else is doing: we’re surrounding ourselves with the wonderful people that we feel most comfortable with, and we’re closing off to others.  That seems perfectly understandable.  It even seems somewhat inevitable – but I hope not.  I hope we’re capable of devising better strategies for how we engage the Big Sort.

Read Part Two here.