Movements and Parties

In light of the recent passage of the torture bill and the absence of Congressional Democrats both from the debate on the subject, which they left to Republican party factions, and far too many of them from the actual vote, it’s time to revisit the basic rules for taking over a party.

There Must Be Consequences  Movement conservatives understand this. They are willing to primary their ideological foes within the party. They will not raise money for them. They will not direct their people to volunteer. There is no reason for anyone to ever do what you want them to do if you will support them anyway and you won’t ever attack them.

There Must Be Party Loyalty  Irrespective of the above, you must still direct your people to vote for party members who have crossed you on bottom line issues. Loyalty is the cardinal political sin. If you are a Democrat even a bad Democrat is better than a good Republican. If you are a Republican, even a bad Republican is better than a good Democrat. Party members need to know you’re with the party for the long haul, and that you are loyal to it. Now, of course, some ideologues simply won’t vote for people who, er, vote for torture. That’s fine. Your job is to say why they should, then turn to the violaters in private and shrug and say “I tried. But torture is important to my people, and some of them simply won’t cross that line.”

You must reward good behaviour  I’m pissed at Sherrod Brown right now for voting for torture and for gutting Habeas Corpus. And Howie Klein, who runs a succesful netroots donation program, has pulled that fundraising endorsement from Brown. (But he’s still urging people to vote for him.) But if at some future date a new Congressman Brown admits he was wrong and votes to stop torture and restore habeas corpus, I’ll treat him like the Prodigal Son. One of my friends used to say “I forgive, but I never forget”, and that’s the way you have to operate. People who want to come inside the tent must be rewarded for doing so. And those inside the tent already must be supported and praised and not taken for granted. Because while we might like to think our people are doing it based on 100% principle, everyone’s human. All that praise on TV for being a “moderate” and taking a stand against your own party can look seductive if you aren’t getting any kudos for being onside. The number one rule for getting behaviour from people is “reward the behaviour you want.” (The number two rule is to punish behaviour you don’t like. But it is the second rule, not the first, for a reason. Reward is actually more effective than punishment in most cases. In fact punishment works only about half the time. It’s as much for other people as it is for the victim.)

You must take care of your people  This is a big place where Democrats in general, and progressives in particular fall down. If you’re a Republican and something goes wrong, or the party loses power, as long as you’re loyal, you get taken care of. Some think tank, foundation or company will take care of you. In the old days the universities performed part of this function for Democrats, but mostly it wasn’t need – Democrats were in power, and the party in power always has plenty of jobs available for its people, and plenty of outsiders who realize that supporting a party member is a good idea. But when Democrats lost power, that went away. And these days, unless you’re part of the charmed circle of beltway strategists and “consultants” (which very few progressives are) working politics means living hand to mouth. Getting started is, likewise, awful, most internships and other entry level positions either pay nothing, or pay less than a living wage. Parents are expected to step up and fill the cash register – which is why so many Democratic staff come from affluent families. Others need not apply.

But this is more than about money. It’s about no leaving people out to hang, about pulling together and about rehabilitating your fallen soldiers. When Scooter Libby took a fall to protect his boss, Dick Cheney, he was found a job, a defense fund was put together and over time more and more stories are planted or sold to try and rehabilitate him and make him look like a victim of an overzealous prosecutor. When you do these sort of things, people are willing to take the falls – and unwilling to cooperate to save their own skin, since they know you’ll help them. Let them feel like you don’t have their back, and they’ll turn and plant a shiv in yours so fast you’ll be cold on the floor before you know it.

You must sell your own message and not count on the media   While the right wing now has very good media coverage they didn’t always. The media really was against them for a long time, and they really were ridiculed. They did two things – they developed channels around the traditional media (like mailers and talk radio) and they worked hard to influence the media. As an example, young conservatives get a huge amount of media training. I am aware of one 22 year old kid who got a whole week, in a studio, just learning how to give soundbites. No one all that important yet – but they want everyone to have that training. Almost none of the liberal talking heads you see on TV have had that sort of training. Most of them are lucky to have had a day before the first time they find themselves sweating bullets trying to answer a cheap shot from Chris Matthews. (And camera work is profoundly unnatural. You have to not move your head except in a couple ways, you have to sit a certain way, you have to keep your gaze fixed in a certain way, you have to move slowly and deliberately always or the camera will make you look weak, and so on. It isn’t natural.)

And selling your own message means moving the debate. People like Coulter and Malkin aren’t anomalies, they are stalking horses who express far right wing views to get them out there and to move the discourse. Sure, it doesn’t move all the way to them – but they become the far right of acceptable discourse, and those who determine the center by simply looking at far left and far right, adjust their sights. And so, somehow, we’ve reached the point where we’ve legalized torture, after debating its merits for 4 years. Thirty years ago, or probably even ten, that would have been unthinkable. Torture was simply evil, not something you had a rational debate about. And anyone who excused it was beyond the pale. Now they’re at best slightly right of center. Torture is something “reasonable” people debate. There is no left wing equivalent of this. Noam Chomsky (who is not half as far to the left as Coulter is to the right) can’t get on American TV to save his life. (He has no trouble getting on Canadian or European TV, by the way.)

Run Everywhere  This doesn’t so much mean geographically, this means at every level. Dogcatcher, school boards, city councils, sherrif – run for it all. Owning these positions makes a big deal to the ability to organize for State and National elections, not only because it develops candidates, but because it develops the base – a volunteer list, a donor list and a list of like minded people who can be counted on.

Create Community  The main consideration for building up an ideological base is community. Surrounded by peole who also believe, supported in their beliefs, people become energeized and willing to do things. They become evangelists for ideas and for action. They don’t drift away. If a blog, or a ward organization, or a Democratic club is an important part of your social life, odds are you’ll stay a progressive or a Democrat. If isn’t anything but a (D) next to your name, and you just receive the occasional letter and pull a lever every couple years then you won’t. Politics, or at least ideology, needs to become part of people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be the main thing, but it has to be a thread that doesn’t end, and continues, month in, month out and year to year throughout their lives.

Concluding Remarks  There’s more to it than this, of course, and endless work is involved. But these are the basics – reward people who help, punish those who betray you, stay loyal to the party but more loyal to the movement, develope a community, run everywhere, make your own media and shift the boundaries of the debate. This is, largely, how the right did it. While the left will do some things differently, learning from the successes of others is the first place to start.

And maybe next time it’ll be Conservatives wondering why their Senators let them down and let universal health care happen.

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Ian Welsh

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  • -5.75,-4.05 “I am in earnest; I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.”
    William Lloyd Garrison
    US abolitionist & editor (1805 – 1879)

  • Look at this little “day after” story.

    – – – –

    We Challenge a Republican on Torture, he FREAKS OUT
    by BriVT

    Fri Sep 29, 2006 at 08:25:58 AM PDT

    For one Congressman, at least, torture doesn’t seem like an issue he really wants to engage in. In fact, when the candidate I work for (Bob Johnson … DrBob around here) forcefully challenged John McHugh on torture using the language of morality, well, there’s no other way to put it: John McHugh freaked out.


    John McHugh is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and he supported the original Bush Administration bill. And Bob called him on it, first detailing Bob’s strong opposition to torture and then saying:

    My opponent this fall, incumbent Republican John McHugh, firmly supports the Bush Administration’s right to torture. Perhaps because he never served in the military, he doesn’t understand how opposing torture protects our own troops. Perhaps because he hasn’t put in the work to study the issue, he doesn’t know that torture doesn’t work and produces unreliable information. And perhaps because he has been in Washington so long, he has lost touch with the basic morality of what it means to be an American.
    I can’t say why he takes the position he does. But I do know this: he is profoundly, seriously, and morally wrong.

    When I read that, I suspected that would get a response, but I expected the BS “Dr. Bob Johnson wants to take away the tools blah, blah” … but we got something else. John McHugh wanted no part of being labeled that way, and he just freaked.

    The appalling statement by Dr. Robert Johnson that I support torture and have ‘lost touch with the basic morality of what it means to be an American,’ is an outright lie. […]
    What Dr. Johnson asserts is from another page out of the Democrat playbook – throwing lies out there and seeing if they’ll stick. I have never voted to authorize the use of torture or any enhanced interrogation techniques. […]

    I have been with our troops on the ground in every theater of conflict in which our military forces have been engaged since 1995 – from Haiti and Kosovo and Bosnia to Afghanistan and Iraq – and understand both the great dangers they face, and the sacrifices they make on behalf of all Americans.–LINK

    “Been with our troops on the ground”? Please. On fact-finding trips? Is there a special category of veteran for that? But I’ll let that go. For now.

    What amazes me is both the incredibly angry tone of the release and the almost amazing assertion “I have never voted to authorize the use of torture or any enhanced interrogation techniques.” WTF?!?!? He’s running away from that as fast as he can.

    But how could anyone with even a passing knowledge of what he voted for say such a thing? I was flabbergasted … this is supposed to be the big cudgel to hammer Democrats. And he’s running like a little girl. And just because Bob hammered him, rightly, on the fact that this is outside of American values.

    So, of course, we send out a response, showing how crazy that assertion is (kinda ironic he accuses Bob of “lying” when you consider what he followed that with), with a beginning and ending like this:

    I’m surprised and disappointed in both the tone and the content of incumbent Congressman John McHugh’s vitriolic attack on me. His vituperative tone and misleading rhetoric do him no honor. He descends to the basest personal attacks, while ignoring the central issues at hand by pretending the bills he voted for do not condone any “enhanced interrogation” techniques or redefine the Geneva Conventions in dangerous ways. […]
    But instead of taking responsibility for this vote, instead of standing up and having an honest debate, he chose to hurl invective and veiled innuendo against me. I regret that he has chosen that path. John McHugh voted to give away some of our most cherished rights as citizens and human beings, and, rather than defend that, he misdirects, misleads, and misinforms.

    We deserve more.

    So there ya go. Bob took it to him, called him on the basic immorality of what’s going on, and he freaked out … all we had to do at that point was pick up the pieces.


    – – – –

    That’s some reaction, hm? He isn’t attempting to plead the need for torture – he’s trying to deny it happens under this bill.

    Yep. He wants as far away from the moral implications of torture as he can possibly get. Because Americans would freak out at some of the techniques.

    They were torturing before. They will torture again. And if a bill that outlaws torture came through, Bush would castrate it with a signing statement.

    But politically – Republicans, in all their fun and excitement about making liberal heads explode, got a little carried away. They just married the issue shortly before election day without knowing precisely and specifically which techniques they authorized.

    Now it’s time to start telling the American people what techniques Republicans potentially just authorized in loving and specific detail (ouch for the Dems that crossed the aisle, but it’s called “collateral damage” and it serves them right).

    Handled right it’s a baby seal hunt. Wear clothes that don’t stain.

  • U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 109th Congress – 2nd Session

    as compiled through Senate LIS by the Senate Bill Clerk under the direction of the Secretary of the Senate

    YEAs 65
    NAYs 34
    Not Voting 1

    Vote Summary by Senator name at:

    Senate Roll Call

    Final results for House Bill 481

    Yeas 250
    Nays 170

    Congress Roll Call

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