Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Argument

While in the States, I picked up a number of good books but the most intriguing was 'The Argument' by Matt Bai. Subtitled 'Billionaires, bloggers and the battle to remake Democratic politics', Bai's analysis of how the Democrats tried to create their own liberal conspiracy to fight back against the conservative movement is powerful and entertaining.

Barry Goldwater germinated the American conservative movement as we know it by fusing economic, social, neo and christian conservatives in a ramshackle but effective coalition. George W Bush's presidency was the greatest threat to the continuation of that coalition, focusing on its neo-conservative strain to the detriment of the other coalition branches.

However, it was not enough for the character set who star in 'The Argument', to wait for power to fall into the lap of the Democratic party. So a loose but networked group of Wall Street financiers, think tankers, political action committees such as moveon.org, a new breed of union boss such as Andy Stern at the SEIU, bloggers such as Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas, the Democratic National Committee, set about trying to engineer a broad but focused Democratic consensus. At times the coast to coast political static has the feel of a Martin Amis novel (the old Martin Amis rather than the religious aggressor Martin Amis....) but there is a serious message within also. That is change has to be fundamental, broad and persistent.

These new democrats juxtapose their movement not only with the Bush Administration but with the Clinton years of triangulation also. Bai describes the Clinton years thus:

"Clinton transformed the party of Jefferson and Jackson into the party of Wall Street and Silicon Valley."

Of course, Clinton is not the type of politician to take this assault on his legacy lying down. In an act, that was a omen of what was to come on the 2008 primary trail, he turns up at a meeting of the Democracy Alliance (a kind of Freemasons for the well-heeled left) and berates the room full of a cumulative few billion dollars or so of potential donors about their criticism of Hillary's support for the Iraq war. On John Edwards' expression of regret for his own vote in favour he says:

"Let's get real here [remember his 'give me a break speech before New Hampshire?- AP]. Go ahead and give Edwards a gold star because his mea culpa is better than Hillary's. Do it....and lose."

But this new network ultimately fails. The Democrats win Congress in 2006 but without a clear and distinctive programme. There are some fleeting successes such as the primary defeat of Joe Lieberman, the ultimate cross dressing former Democrat, by Ned Lamont. Lieberman then goes on to win the election.

Bai leaves us with a sense of a fascinating movement that is far less cohesive or understanding of its goals than the Goldwater conservative movement was (or, let's be frank, is). He leaves us just as this primary campaign is beginning and tantalises us with the notion that, "the candidate who could articulate a relevant and convincing argument for change would be the one to rise above the field, just as Bill Clinton had in 1992." Matt Bai is not a bad pundit then it would seem.

'The Argument' will intrigue all those who are considering where, in our own context, Labour should go next and how it should or shouldn't get there. The re-energisation of Democratic party politics is an interesting case and its success will ultimately be judged on the ability of the party to win the White House and hold on to Congress this year. For us on the left in the UK, it poses interesting questions about not just renewal of a party but renewal of an entire political view point. There must be the courage to respond to these very fundamental questions.

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