The Arab Spring and the Changing Dynamics of Global Struggle

The Arab Spring, the Japanese nuclear accident, the progressive/labor motion in response to the rightwing attacks in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, and the demographic changes reflected in the 2010 U.S. census, are reshaping the U.S. and global political terrain.

These events are not immediately connected and each has its own particular dynamics. But together they advance and aggravate the two big world trends I outlined in my Notes on Election 2010: the global rise of the developing world and the relative decline of U.S. and Western power as well as the intense struggle within the U.S. as to how to navigate that global sea change together with the impending people of color majority. Indeed the IMF recently announced their estimate that according to one key indicator China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2016.

These notes address some of the new dynamics underscored and advanced by the Arab Spring, including its implications for U.S. politics.

Changing Dynamics of Struggle in Developing World

The Arab Spring was completely unpredictable in its timing, form, rapidity, politics and Arab-wide form, and it remains to be seen what its outcomes will be.

At another level, however, it was completely predictable. Much of the developing world, including the Arab world, has gone through dramatic economic development in the last thirty years. The corresponding socio-economic transformation has given rise to new social forces that the old repressive regimes, most of more than thirty years duration, proved unable to incorporate or suppress.

At different paces and in different forms, mass struggles by sparked by new social forces against reactionary regimes&#151whether Kings, military or military backed strongmen or former revolutionaries turned dictators&#151have swept Asia (1990s&#151e.g. Philippines, Indonesia, S. Korea), Latin America (2000s&#151mainly through leftwing electoral victories), parts of Africa (esp. southern and sub-Saharan Africa), and now the Arab world. One might even include the demise of the former socialist camp and the recent “color revolutions” in former Soviet republics in this context.

These uprisings are notably diverse according to national and regional particularities. But they are also remarkably different from earlier mass struggles in the developing world: they have focused on turning out local dictators as opposed to focusing primarily on anti-colonial or anti-U.S. aims. The Arab Spring has thus far not even targeted Israel.

These movements have been mass democratic struggles as opposed to mass anti-imperialist struggles. Of course, democracy and anti-imperialism are very often intertwined in the developing world. But the leading element seems to have switched to internal democratic struggles compared to the mass national liberation movements of the 1910s through the 1980s.  

Indeed a number of the revolutionary nationalist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s who ended up degenerating into undemocratic regimes are now the targets of democratic uprisings&#151Mugabe, Gaddafi and Assad. And it is also they who are among the most violent defenders of their regimes.

The democratic uprisings in the developing world of the last twenty years have also been notable for their largely peaceful strategies compared to the mostly armed national liberation movements of the 1920s to the 1980s. Indeed, that wave of revolutionary nationalism, like Marxist-Leninist socialism (and European social democracy), was eclipsed in that latter decade. Most movements since then have different dynamics and different leadership.

Indeed, the Middle East, led by Nasser in Egypt but also the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party (including Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq) and the Palestine Liberation Organization, was one of the world centers of the revolutionary nationalist, socialist motion of the 1950s to the 1980s. Although these regimes made powerful progress in their early years, they or their successors eventually degenerated into narrow dictatorships and even allied with the U.S. In the 1990s radical Islamism emerged as the main rallying center of anti-imperialist sentiment.

In this context, the emergence of the Arab Spring is a welcome mass democratic counterpoint to Islamic terrorism. There are, of course, radical differences between mass-based Islamic political groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas compared to narrowly terrorist groups like al-Qaeda whose targets are often civilians. Nonetheless the Arab Spring’s mainly peaceful, mass driven and secular democratic flavor is a powerful development that seems to be eclipsing the al-Qaeda-like approach and having much more positive impact. Perhaps this will be strengthened in the wake of the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Finally, as a result of the much higher level of economic development of the developing world compared to the past, these movements are largely urban-based rather than rural based, and extremely diverse and complicated in their social composition and political orientations. They cannot be fit into simplistic or outdated categories or theories. Instead they must be studied and interacted with based on a concrete analysis of each movement in its own terms.

The Developing World and the Intensification of the Fight for Energy

While primarily local democratic uprisings, the Arab Spring events, like the fights in Asia and Latin America, are reconfiguring global economic and political power. Many countries are rapidly gaining new economic power and are strengthening the economic ties among themselves, independent of the West.

The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are most notable in this respect. The IMF recently announced that it expects the Chinese economy to replace the U.S. as the world’s largest by 2016. And China has replaced the U.S. as burgeoning Brazil’s main trading partner: economic interaction among developing countries among themselves has exploded.

Fast on the heels of the BRIC are the Next 11 (the “N11”: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Korea, Turkey and Vietnam). South Korea is the first former colony to become an advanced capitalist country. No less an imperial leader than Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2050 only the U.S. of the current G8 will rank among the top eight economies of the world.

The rapid economic development of the Global South is creating massive new demand for energy, just as peak oil is reached. And, whatever the exact outcomes of the Arab Spring, oil political expert Michael Klare believes that with it the “old oil order is dying, and with its demise we will see the end of cheap and readily accessible petroleum&#151forever.”

Meanwhile the Fukushima disaster shows the pitfalls of turning to nuclear energy to fill the gap. Along with climate change, these developments underscore the importance of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable and safe energy sources.

Changing Politics of the Middle East

The Arab Spring is a turning point of global importance because oil has been central to world economic development and politics since WWII.  Over that time, the U.S. has spared little expense or scruple to cobble together a reactionary alliance of Arab police states with Israel to safeguard its interests. The formation of OPEC in the 1960s and 1970s was a critical turning point in world economic history, but the West managed to reconstruct a web of power. Now the Arab people are disrupting that arrangement.

Although the struggles are still intense and the outcomes not at all clear, the genie is out of the bottle for the old regimes. Some new level of democracy is likely in many of the countries, and that by itself is enough to disrupt the old straight up imperialist/authoritarian alliance. This has been duly noted by the Obama administration and outraged U.S. rightwing.

Unlike previous U.S. regimes that routinely, and often brutally, backed their allied dictators throughout the world, the Obama administration has addressed the Arab Spring with halting but nuanced steps in a new direction. Its aim remains the same: to advance U.S. imperial interests. However, Obama’s actions also represent an understanding of new limits on U.S. power.

Washington surprised many by early on calling for Egypt’s Mubarak to step down, despite the fact that Mubarak was a lynchpin of U.S. power. Indeed it was the second largest recipient of U.S. aid (after Israel) for three decades, to the tune of $30 billion. Washington then backed an orderly electoral transition only to see Mubarak unceremoniously thrown out by the people.

In Libya Obama eschewed traditional U.S. unilateral military action in favor of multilateral action, indeed multilateral action spearheaded by France and the U.K., not the U.S. He clearly hopes to circumscribe the U.S. effort rather than to be drawn into another long and likely failed war. I do not back his policy, but still take note of its new characteristics. Indeed, it is optimistic to think that the Libyan attack will lead to any stability in the short run, and Obama runs the risk of having his administration defined by Afghan and Libyan quagmires.

Meanwhile Israel, the Saudi Kings, and the U.S. Republicans hew to the hard line and hope to salvage the old alliances against the Arab masses and Iran (whose influence has risen with the U.S. stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan and alongside the Arab Spring) by using whatever force is necessary. The Republicans rail against Obama taking a back seat to France and want all out war in Libya, and cannot imagine peace with the Palestinians. The U.S. rightwing and the Israeli rightwing are lockstep.

Indeed Israel is a dangerous wild card. Fearing the loss of its main allies in the region&#151Turkey and Egypt&#151it is faced with the potential of having to choose between making substantial peace with the Arab world, starting with the Palestinians, or an even more dangerous war stance including a possible attack on Iran. Such an attack would loose entirely unpredictable forces into a Middle East already wrought by U.S. invasions and mass uprisings.

The recent unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah is a major development that accelerates and deepens the Arab Spring and the various conflicts it involves. It was brokered by the caretaker Egyptian government ushered in by the overthrow of Mubarak, demonstrating the regional, indeed global, significance of the political shift underway in Egypt.

The new unity has been denounced by Israel&#151and the U.S. rightwing&#151who may now face a united Palestinian front for the first time in decades, one that includes Hamas which the entire Western establishment has labeled “terrorist.” Palestine is once again at the center of Middle Eastern and world politics.

The Pivot of Politics

The Arab Spring is the latest demonstration of the drive of the people of the developing world to democratize their governments and empower themselves. It also highlights the complicated, multi-layered process of struggle in the developing world.

The tremendous variance in politics of the developing world gives the U.S. and the West significant room to maneuver and divide. Yet there is little doubt that, overall, this motion is increasingly limiting the power of the U.S. and is ushering out the brutal phase of history characterized by Western colonialism and imperialist domination.

The fight over the shape and pace of this inexorable process is the main battleground of history in our time, shaping both world and U.S. politics.

The varying responses of different political forces in the U.S., both within the ruling circles and within the population as a whole, lie at the root of the sharp polarization of politics in this country.

International competition is one of the root causes of the rightward motion of the economic elite over the past forty years and its attacks on the living standards of working and poor people, especially people of color, in this country. Fear of the loss of U.S. supremacy is also fundamental to the powerful rise of far right populism in that same period, especially its latest incarnation, the Tea Party. The attempt to reassert U.S. supremacy has also given rise to the gigantic increase in U.S. military spending&#151which has more than doubled since 2000&#151and murderous military adventures.

The polarization between those who are determined to reassert U.S. dominance by any means necessary&#151an inherently racialized notion&#151and those that understand that such a policy is dangerous, destructive and unrealistic is the pivotal dividing line in U.S. politics today. The racialization of politics is particularly pronounced due to the tremendous growth of people of color in the U.S. and their clear leftward politics. The right cannot win without isolating people of color and the left cannot win without mobilizing them.

To be sure there are important divisions on the center/right, between reactionary Tea Partyists and old line Republican conservatives, and on the center/left between realistic elitists and genuine progressives. I would argue that the building of a powerful progressive trend inside and outside the Democratic Party is key to exposing, splitting, and defeating the right.

However, as we undertake to build that powerful force, we must try to avoid letting the right split us from moderate allies and thereby prevail. This will be complex given the right’s momentum and the elite realists (and affluent centrists) tendency to collaborate with the right in attacking progressive-leaning social sectors even as they do battle with the right electorally and otherwise.

Only a progressive bloc that is far stronger, more combative, flexible and strategic than what we have now will have a chance to navigate this terrain. Still, the old adage, “unite the left, win over the middle, and isolate the right” was never more relevant.

The stakes are enormous for the people of the world as we enter into the 2012 political season.

Bob Wing is a longtime activist and the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times/Tiempo de Guerras newspaper. He now lives in Durham, NC. Thanks to Max Elbaum for his usual insightful suggestions.

Why you should vote today (an appeal to radicals)

originally published on November 2, 2010

Paul Rosenberg offered this the other day at Open Left:

A Republican victory this Tuesday will tilt the odds heavily in the direction of retrospectively casting 2008 as another 1968, despite all the numbers of election night pointing to the contrary.  If Democrats hold on to control of Congress, however slightly, that means that we’re in a new era, no matter how discouraging the current lack of vision by Democratic leadership may now seem.

That’s why I find the following video (h/t Dave Johnson) so compelling.  Because as I see it, it’s not a dishonest representation of where the current DLC-dominated Democratic leadership is today.  It’s an honest representation of where we, the conscience of the party, have a damn good shot at taking it back to where it belongs once again.  From the International Brotherhoood of Boilermakers Union:

I have a lot of radical friends who don’t think voting makes a difference, that it only legitimizes a corrupt system, and that on principle they shouldn’t do it.  (Perhaps you’re one of them.)  I used to agree with this, and, unlike many of my not-so-radical friends, I respect the arguments people are making.  I have no trouble seeing why people would write off the whole enterprise as pointless.

I take a more complicated view though.  I’ve been meaning to write a comprehensive piece before the elections about how and why real progressives and leftist radicals – these labels really do trip us up – should engage our flawed electoral system and the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to write that piece… yet.

But here are a few main points for anyone on the fence today.  I want you to be on the voting side of the fence.

Here’s a main argument against voting:

“If voting made any difference, they’d make it illegal.”

The fact is, “they” have made it illegal all throughout history and continue to try to today.  Black people and women couldn’t vote for more than half our country’s history, and they had to fight incredibly hard to win that right – and there are still major skirmishes about systematic voter disenfranchisement in elections today.

But the “they” in “they’d make it illegal” betrays some assumptions that I think are embedded in most anti-voting arguments.  “They” is “the system” – and it is monolithic.  Democrats and Republicans, the argument goes, are just an elaborate good cop / bad cop routine designed to fool the sheeple.

This kind of thinking betrays an overly simplistic view of the world.  We are always remaking the world, and our reality is made up of the results of many struggles.  In those struggles, the details matter.  Having more health care coverage is better than having less.  Having less war is better than having more war.  Having regulatory agencies that are doing their job in protecting people from pollution and abuse at the hands of unbridled corporate power is better than having agencies that are gutted and not regulating.

And having more progressives in office is what makes many of these outcomes tilt one way or the other.

I agree that we need to be engaged in our civic duty way beyond voting.  But voting affects the terrain for all of our battles.  And if you’re serious about social change, you should be serious about learning the details of the terrain.  Is your battle in a forest or a desert?  Those kinds of details matter to your chances of success.

Finally to my friends in the antiwar movement or who work primarily on international issues, if you think voting doesn’t matter, try traveling to most any other country, talk to regular people on the streets, tell them you’re an American and that you’re not voting, and see what they have to say.

For more thinking on the complexities of progressives engaging the Democratic Party, see my interview with Mike Lux.

“World update: Strikes force Lady Gaga to postpone shows” (Wow, France… pt. 2: parroting)

originally published on November 1, 2010

In my post last week (Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!??), I asked, as the title suggests, what prevents the kind of broad, committed, collective action that we’re seeing in France from happening here in the United States.  This is especially perplexing, given that their strike is about opposing the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 – whereas here our retirement age is already later than that, our college tuition rates promise a lifetime of debt, our health care system is all sorts of effed up, our hours are longer, our vacations shorter, our social safety net far less comprehensive.  I could go on.

I started to answer my own question, discussing the mechanics of how collective action and protest have been negatively branded here, so as to effectively inoculate many people against participation.  In response (over at Daily Kos), Pesto asked:

The $64,000 question WRT inoculation is why it hasn’t worked as well elsewhere.  It’s not as if multinational corporations in France never considered trying to break French workers’ solidarity or willingness to shut the economy down to win what they want.  They certainly understand the basic concepts of propaganda that have worked so well in the US.  But whatever they’ve been trying in France hasn’t been working very well.

Big question.  Where to begin?  Well, why not start with Lady Gaga?  More specifically, let’s start with CNN’s utilization of Lady Gaga as a cultural intermediary in their “coverage” of the strikes:

World update: Strikes force Lady Gaga to postpone shows

France strike – Some 200 demonstrators blocked France’s Marseille-Provence airport for more than three hours Thursday as strikes and protests continued across the country.  The action comes ahead of a final vote on the country’s Pension Reform Bill.  Pop star Lady Gaga postponed two Paris shows this weekend because of “the logistical difficulties due to the strikes,” her website said.

Modern US reporting on international news at its finest.  At least they bothered to include the bit about the Pension Reform Bill, which just might lead readers to wonder whether those mischievous demonstrators may have some kind of an opinion about pension reform or something.  But this anecdote illustrates more than the sorry state of what passes as mainstream journalism.  CNN no doubt is genuinely at a loss for how to cover what’s happening in France, either because they think most Americans won’t understand the issues or because they themselves don’t understand the issues, or likely a combination of the two.  Lucky for CNN though, Lady Gaga – a common cultural reference – happens to be touring in Europe; and CNN’s market audience will definitely be able to relate to the “inconvenienced traveler” story too.

So besides showing the sorry state of today’s mainstream media, this anecdote also illustrates the lack of a popular framework through which Americans can understand what’s happening in France.

Why isn’t there a popular framework to understand what’s happening in France?  Largely because the Democratic Party repeatedly fails (with many important individual exceptions) to tell a coherent and overarching economic justice narrative.  In the words of political psychologist and neuroscientist Drew Westen (in his book The Political Brain), “…Republicans assert an extreme principle, the public never hears a compelling counternarrative, and gradually public opinion shifts to the right.”  In other words, if Republicans say “greed is good” over and over for three decades, and Democrats are too timid to say, “No, actually greed is bad!” then much of the public – who is predisposed from childhood to think that greed is indeed bad – is left to doubt their own commonsense and instead internalize the malignant idea that the economy is way too complicated for them to understand and that greed must inadvertently play a beneficial role through that invisible hand thing or whatever.

More from The Political Brain:

…political scientist John Zaller has shown how the discourse of “political elites” enters into public discourse and shapes public opinion.  …when political elites offer a single message-as is often the case in matters of war, at least early on, when politicians of both parties put aside their differences to support the war effort and the commander-in-chief-the vast majority of the public tends to adopt this shared understanding.  Political scientist (and sometimes-consultant) Samuel Popkin has argued that this tendency to play “follow the leader” is a sensible strategy for most voters, who have their own lives to lead and don’t have the time or interest to study all the affairs of state.  Accepting uncontested elite opinions represents a form of what Popkin calls “low-information rationality.”  If no one on either side of the aisle is contesting an issue at the top of the information chain, why would most voters, who have far less direct knowledge, contest it at the bottom?

Last week The Other School of Economics offered some great analysis about what’s happening in France, describing this same parroting phenomenon as “me-tooism”:

…”me-tooism” is the new modus operandi: the practise of adopting or imitating a policy successfully or popularly proposed by the rival party to ride a popular trend. Resulting in a failure to articulate radical differentiation.

So in our case, Democrats see the Republicans having some success in demonizing people who benefit from social welfare programs and, instead of providing a potent counter-narrative, they say, “Hey, me too!”  And as a result:

…neo-liberal orthodoxies have now penetrated the collective psyche (you’d be excused to say ‘brainwashed’)…

Could it be that decades of conservative and neo-liberal brainwashing now trigger Pavlovian unconsidered mainstream chain reactions?: “Government -> control -> banks -> red flag -> smells like socialism -> bery bery bad -> it must me shite”. End of the story.

I love the use of arrows here.  Because “arrows”-not arguments-is what this game is all about.  These aren’t rational arguments, but cognitive associations.  Government is associated with control; control/regulation of banks is associated with socialism (as pejorative), which is a huge red flag for most people because it’s somehow simultaneously associated with Nazism and Stalinism, and both are “enemies of the nation”; and that’s all “bery bery bad.”  The wild thing is that these associations are are physically structured in our brains, taking up physical space, physically linked in our neural networks.  Republicans have had so much success in burning these associative networks into our brains that nowadays the mere mention of the word “government” activates the whole string.  When Democrats fail to boldly say, “No, actually greed is bad!” they’re allowing Republicans to take something as popular as fairness and associate it with fear and resignation; and they’re failing to activate the powerfully motivativing neural networks in our brains that are concerned with fairness and compassion.

In his post Taxes & Terrorism (Open Left), Paul Rosenberg argues that:

…the basis of conservative politics is fear… The conservative try to flood the zone with fear, so that people can’t think straight . . . If the GOP can turn anything into a flashpoint of fear, then they can keep on repeating it, and all thought shuts down–perhaps not for everyone, but for enough. But for them to be really secure, they need the Democrats to buy into their logic as well.  Once the Democrats are gripped with fear, and unwilling to talk about a given issue, then that issue belongs to the GOP.  Their position on it doesn’t have to make any sense.  Making sense is beside the point.  The point is scaring people.  The point is, in a word, terrorism.

So Republicans have a culture of fear-mongering, that is met by Democrats’ culture of caution.  For whatever complicated reasons, this hasn’t taken nearly as much in France.  The Other School of Economics argues that that’s really what’s at stake in France:

…more than such and such policies (a tax cut here, a pension age there), it is the blanket acceptance of the liberal [meaning neo-liberal economic] dogma as the only reasonable alternative that is the ultimate prize…

The trouble is that the French seem to be quite recalcitrant, and are telling us that Society is not dead yet…

We should ponder what makes this country still have the ability to reactivate its immune defenses like that. Not being naïve about the many not-so-glamorous aspects of French society (the same as everywhere else really: temptation to materialism, inequalities, latent racism, yadi yada…) there is still a “cultural exception” that is driving the neo-cons nuts. The French should keep it that way.

Progressives in France are still willing to frame a progressive narrative, rather than parrot the reactionaries.  When a political party (or whatever organized force with power) actually tells a progressive story, they provide and reinforce cognitive associations that can actually change the way a society thinks.  A potent progressive narrative inoculates against fear (so that when, for example, reactionaries try to scare people about potential terrorist threats, society is undeterred) and activates our feelings of compassion, justice and fairness as motivators.  As a result, young people are more willing to get out into the streets and to sacrifice convenience today for the long-term health of the whole society – their resignation navigated and their better angels activated.  Protests are then bigger, and because they’re bigger they then get even BIGGER because people want to go to big protests, not small ones.  So then they’re also more powerful, and they’re more powerfully leveraged politically because there’s not such a chasm between the political parties and young idealists out in the streets.  And because protest is seen as powerful by more people, more people are down to participate.

How to get from here to there?  We’ve got our work cut out for us.

(P.S. Lady Gaga rocks.)

Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!?? (pt. 1: inoculation)

originally published on October 21, 2010

Do you ever look at newspaper articles about worker and student strikes in countries like France or Greece or Argentina-you know, the kind of activity that shuts down the whole country-and think to yourself, “Holy shit, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!  Those people know how to protest!?”

Well, I sure do.

Not to glorify any particular tactic for it’s own sake, but geez, the spirit of collective action and common purpose that’s displayed in those moments-let alone the negotiating power it awards to grassroots movements, unions, and progressive political parties-is something that sometimes, um, feels a little lacking here in the good old U.S. of A.

So what are you waiting for.  Go ahead.  Try that here.  See how many people you can turn out.  See where it gets you.

Likely.  not.  very.  far.

We have a situation here.  We’re stuck in a Catch 22.  As a society, we presently seem to be inoculated against the means necessary for our own collective advancement. (If you’re at the top of the plutocratic order, now’s the time to congratulate yourself on a brilliant system.)  And I’m not talking about any one particular style of collective action or protest – we’re not France or Greece or Argentina, and I don’t particularly want us to be.  I’m fully ready to embrace an all-American style, and I would settle for whatever kind of collective action (within ethical and strategic limits) powerful enough to challenge entrenched power and privilege.  Is that such a tall order?

What do I mean, we’re “inoculated?”

I’m glad you asked.  Have you ever heard someone say something like, “I’m not an activist or anything,” or they look at you like you’re from Crazy-ville (or they simply don’t engage) when you start talking about the protest you went to?

Think about the word protest for a minute.  Seriously.  Stop.  And think about it.  Notice.  What comes to mind with the word?  Now try it with the word activist.

Okay, how long did it take for “the 60s” to come to mind?  And from there, how long did it take before you started seeing images of Woodstock, tie-dye, hippies, marijuana, free love, or Days of Rage?  Or let’s go more contemporary – did you picture black-clad, masked anarchists smashing a Starbucks window, or, alternatively, a small group of older, white Quakers standing vigil to oppose (yet another) war?

If you’re like most Americans, you have many of these associations burned deep into your neural pathways.  If you’re reading this, you’re likely among an audience that also holds a lot of positive associations with protest and activism – thankfully, many Americans do.  But still, you know the story.  You know… the story of the dirty stinking hippie going through a communist phase until you graduate from college (and if it lasts much longer everyone wonders when you’re going to grow up and get a real job) – ring a bell?  You know how protest and activism have been negatively branded in our culture.

Americans today tend to be uniquely skeptical of collective action that challenges power-for multiple fascinating historically rooted reasons that are beyond the scope of this post-compared to our counterparts in most advanced “democratic societies.”  And the past four decades have been especially rough on grassroots progressive movements; following the social upheavals that culminated in “the 60s,” conservative activists retrenched to build and very effectively amplify a coherent, overarching values-based narrative, while the most activisty of progressives have largely self-segregated into single-issue advocacy efforts (or cross-issue, but micro-identity-based and/or counter-cultural activist scenes) that lack a coherent, overarching values-based narrative that resonates beyond the borders of our self-selecting bubbles.

French firefighters: with the protest

Conservatives claimed a monopoly on the flag, the Constitution, the Bible, and the whole story of America – language and symbols that hold a whole lot of meaning for a large majority in our country.  And at least some on our side conceded these symbols, essentially saying, fine, you can have ’em!  In the flag we saw genocide, slavery, conquest, and war.  In the church we saw historic justifications for sexism, racism, poverty, and all sorts of bigotry; an “opiate of the people.”  (Nevermind the central role that churches played in the Civil Rights Movement, the Abolitionist Movement, and countless other social justice struggles.)

In reality, most progressive-minded Americans haven’t forsaken their identity with these common and still powerful symbols.  But reality isn’t the only thing we’re dealing with here.  We have also to deal with perceptions of reality – specifically, a hegemonic conservative narrative that says that progressives have abandoned (and are attacking!) sacred American values.  (So what if there aren’t any actual real-life protesters spitting on soldiers when they come home – doesn’t it just sound true?)

So back to inoculation.  Here’s how it works.  To inoculate someone against a virus, you introduce a very weak strand of the virus that triggers the body’s immune system to kick in.  Based on this exposure, the body builds up antibodies against the weak strand.  Then anything and everything that comes along remotely resembling that weak strand, well-BOOM!!-IMMUNITY!!!  Now the host has a built-in resistance to the real virus.

And here’s how it works in politics and culture.  The hegemonic conservative narrative-with all its supporting resources, infrastructure, and echo chambers-introduces into popular consciousness an exaggerated picture of progressive collective action (aka activism).  Picture the most over-the-top crazy stupid dirty stinking hippie latte-drinking un-American communist window-smashing flag-burning Kumbaya-singing event you can imagine.  This caricature of a stereotype is the metaphorical weak strand that is exaggerated in order to inoculate against the real thing.  Then when an opening for powerful collective action comes along, well-BOOM!!-IMMUNITY!!!  All those negative associations come to mind and most people recoil out of revulsion or fear of the associations.  They now have a built-in resistance to your commie virus.

This conservative hegemonic strategy of inoculation preys upon the way the human brain has evolved to function.  More on that, and some ideas about what we can do about it-I promise, this isn’t just a cynical rant!-to follow.  Stay tuned…

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.