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How Progressives Can Win Back America

by David Brin, Ph.D.

The ideas proposed here are all aimed at one end: creating win-win situations for the Democratic Party or its candidates.

How Progressives Can Win Back America

Thanks for this effort to get the American people involved in generating new ideas for a reborn, vibrant democracy.

Our biggest problem is that the American people — when polled in a neutral manner — tend to prefer Democratic policies, like transparency, low-secrecy, accountability, energy research, moderate environmentalism, tolerance of individual eccentricities, and responsible attention to international affairs.

But the Republican Party has proved incredibly adept at using politically innovative tactics to win despite these policy disadvantages. These new tactics range from legitimate (e.g., the "Contract With America") to the obscenely corrupt (e.g., the way in which moneyed interests have warped both mass media and the voting process in many states).

At one level, we should not be stupid about this. The GOP leadership cannot be faulted for lack of creativity! Certainly the GOP's best thinkers spent many years in the political wilderness, re-evaluating their methodologies and planning every device for a return to power. And although many of these techniques were despicable (e.g., fomenting "culture war"), it is wrong for Democrats not to respect the tenacity and determination that these new ideas represent.

Indeed, a few of the more honorable Republican tactics may merit the highest tribute — imitation. I intend to mention a couple of these, below.

The worst thing that liberals can do is to display obstinacy and unwillingness to re-evaluate failing tactics.

The ideas I plan to propose are all aimed at one end: creating win-win situations for the Democratic Party or its candidates. In other words, situations within which even failure will have positive effects. In several cases, I can offer more extended articles about the subject in question. I can especially offer a careful analysis of Republican innovations, and how the Democrats have fallen for them.

I know this extended essay is both late and not in the required format. That's fine. I was not aiming to win the prize money. As a public figure, I do not aim to profit from this "contest." In fact, if I do win any prizes, I intend to donate them to appropriate causes, such as the Democratic Party.

I am sending this list/essay, instead, in order to get these unusual ideas into the hands of people who have already proved that they are open to fresh approaches.

The ideas in this message are divided into three categories:

FIRST: General Ideas for the Democratic Party and the liberal community.
NEXT: Specific Ideas for Democratic Party initiatives.
FINALLY: Specific Tactics for aspiring Democratic candidates.

general ideas

Recognize that "culture war" is a trap foisted upon America by Karl Rove types.

True victory cannot come from even a landslide election success, if that victory continues to be viewed as a matter of "urban vs. rural" or "secular vs. religious" or "pro vs. anti military."

If we win under those conditions, we still lose. The nation will remain un-governable. During the Clinton Administration, we saw how viciousness and "Culture War" could divide the nation, even when the dividers did not have the White House. The next Democratic president could enter office effectively crippled from the start.

The worst thing we can do is to assume that winning the next election is about "refining the message" or being "clearer" with counter-propaganda, to combat right-wing propaganda. Americans deeply resent being told that they hold their opinions because they were propagandized into thinking what they do. Anyway, we must recognize that the GOP is far better at message manipulation than Democrats are. So shift the battle over to substance.

In particular, mere words about "uniting a divided nation" are easy to speak. But there are actions that could speak much louder.

Above all, the very idea of "culture war" should be exposed as a villainous one that betrays the moderate, practical, good-natured American genius at negotiation and problem-solving.

One way out of this trap would be to ridicule and disavow the so-called "left-right political axis."

This is surprisingly easy to do. Simply invite anyone to DEFINE what this axis means. Ask them to bet $100 that their definition will be the same as the definition written by anyone else in the room. People will laugh, knowing full well that nobody can define the silly thing.

The left-right axis:

Forces crude oversimplifications onto complex modern issues.

Posits that liberals must be left-wingers, instead of problem solvers.

Insists that all conservatives must unite, even though most of their groups deeply disagree.

Hobbles our capacity to come up with new ideas, especially those that might lead to constructive compromise between moderate democrats and decent conservatives.

Oh, and let's add one more reason to abandon the left-right axis... because it is 220 years obsolete... and French!

Whichever side points this out, and asks the American people to rise above this stupid metaphor, will be seen as heroes.

Concede that professional politicians benefitted from gerrymandering.

But the nation has suffered. Then resolve, clearly and publicly, that the Democratic Party is now willing to participate in eliminating this evil forever.

But only if it is done in an evenhanded way.

Either gerrymandering should be eliminated universally, nationwide, or as evenhanded tradeoffs between Democratic and GOP-controlled states. (Say California trading with both Florida and Texas.)

Yes, Democratic Congressional representatives and state legislators will howl over this. Their personal re-elections will be made more difficult in districts that are no longer "safe." But the GOP's sinecured representatives will be even worse off! There should be a net increase in overall Democratic representation, plus a reduction in national radicalism. (I have an extended article about this.)

Again, whichever side offers this profound reform to the American people will be seen as heroes.

Bring agility and variation into anti-war arguments.

Right now, the principal liberal messages are moral arguments against torture, or against the lies that got us into this mess. Or attacks on the administration's lack of a clear "exit strategy."

These are vivid and important positions, but they are not entirely effective all by themselves. Simply opposing this war for idealistic and moral reasons — reflexively falling back into Vietnam mode — allows GOP-controlled media to portray the battle over this war as "wimpy idealist losers" vs "practical and assertive defenders and enforcers of international law."

This is not a winning dichotomy. Nor is it necessary to let this be about American power vs wimpiness. The Balkans intervention of the Clinton Era was an assertion of Pax Americana power that used diplomacy, fostered alliances (instead of wrecking them); that applied carefully effective military doctrines (reversed in Iraq); that trusted the professionalism of the US Officer Corps (versus Rumsfeldian meddling); and that had clearcut goals (bringing peace at last to the continent of Europe, after 4,000 years).

The most stark comparison, between the Balkans and Iraq, would be in brevity and casualties. The Balkans campaign lasted six months, and not a single American soldier was lost to enemy action. Not one! That is a stark fact that contrasts stunningly against the bloody attrition in Iraq! So why does it go unmentioned?

Indeed, it can be justifiably claimed that the Afghanistan intervention (far less of a quagmire than Iraq) was also mostly planned according to Clinton-Clarke doctrines, NOT Cheney-Rumsfeld doctrines. (In 2001, Bush only had time to say "go!" to an already existing plan to go after the Taliban.) Everything that worked there, was reversed in Iraq.

Above all, some Democrats should raise the unspoken issue of the 1991 Iraq war, when the very same list of characters — the same names! — left Saddam in power, to torment his people for a dozen more years! And we should listen to moral lectures from such dopes?

By attacking the war on the basis of competence, Democrats can avoid the wimpy label, and instead draw upon deep wells of resentment now churning within the US military. No speakers would be more effective than some of the heroes who won peace in Europe and who toppled the Taliban.

I could go on in detail. But these are winning gambits. Whereas reflex Vietnam style marching only reinforces the rigid positions of the awful, red-blue "culture war."

Do not allow the traditional early battles to wage between leftist activists and Democratic Party moderates.

This is an insane thing to allow to happen, over and over again. The chief result is to hem Democratic candidates in between statements made early in a campaign, to mollify the left, and later "explanations" that try to soothe moderate Americans. One result is for the candidate to spend an entire campaign explaining explanations! And the neocon-controlled press will predictably label the result "wishy washy"... the worst sin of all.

While the Democratic Party's left wing tends to call the party's moderates "Republicans light," and moderates will be tempted to fight back, the real struggle should be elsewhere... aimed at winning defections from Republican ranks.

If just 200 prominent, Old-Style Conservatives could be persuaded to defect and denounce neocon madness, there would not just be an electoral victory, but a victory against the very concept of "culture war."

The Conservative Coalition is actually very fragile, consisting of dozens of interest groups that believe in contradictory things! Breaking that Coalition should be the top priority. And it could be done, if Democrats were seriously interested in victory.

Find three of the best "conservative" ideas and treat those three with respect. Be seen reaching out.

One key method to break up the opposing coalition would be to choose a few traditional "conservative" issues that happen to be fairly responsible, and using them as wedges to pry away moderate Republicans, while demonstrating that Democrats are not lefty dogmatists.

This could be done as part of a proposed bargain. (People understand the notion of bargains and respect pragmatism.) For example:

"We will consider a guest worker program, if you meet us halfway on immigrant rights."

"We'll consider asking for changes in the Kyoto Protocols, if you agree to double research in alternative energy/conservation. (And admit that global warming is real.)"

"We will agree to a Congressional office that removes earmarking and pork from all legislation, if you agree to more transparency in the Executive Branch."

(Several of these are actually win-win. Which is exactly the point. See below about a Democratic version of the "Contract With America.")

Target opposition to the PATRIOT Act in much better ways.

At present, most of the complaints about the PATRIOT Act, offered by the ACLU and other civil liberties activists, have been badly targeted. By focusing on those parts of the act that allow the FBI to wiretap a little better, or get slightly more efficient search warrants, these activists seem to accept the notion of a "tradeoff between security and freedom." People who are afraid of terrorism will see these positions as naïve. This approach falls into the trap of "culture war."

Other parts of PATRIOT are far more worrisome... and vulnerable to well-targeted attack. These are the parts that increased secrecy in government and that have reduced accountability on the part of our paid protectors, like the FBI. This reduction in citizen supervision is also the part that can be fought without political drawbacks.

"Let the FBI see better. Okay. But let's also make sure that they can do nothing in the dark! We insist that secrecy be reduced, supervision be restored, and accountability remain a hallmark of our democracy."

Target the Neocons' achilles heel... vulnerability to whistle blowers.

The grand neoconservative coalition is impressive, combining dozens of interest groups that are inherently contradictory, but united in the goal of seizing power. The biggest vulnerability of this ruling alliance, however, is that it has been erected on a premise of secrecy and illusion. It is brittle and vulnerable to sudden revelations of truth.

Already, indictments are starting to roll in, as tales of rampant thievery and corruption bubble to the surface. Progressives can help to hasten this process by creating conditions that help protect and encourage whistle blowers.

If henchmen and co-conspirators can be "turned" into public heroes, the whole house of corrupt cards could be sent crashing down. The neoconservative coalition will collapse if millions of honest American moderates and conservatives see the big picture, of how deeply their hopes have been betrayed.

There are several ways to help accomplish this:

Rich Democratic supporters could set up whistleblower protection funds — or prizes — encouraging henchmen to spill evidence of wrongdoing by their bosses. If done evenly — applying both right & left — this could be seen as non-political. A search for accountability when we desperately need it. (Among advantages, no applicability of campaign finance laws.)

A parallel campaign, urging true citizens to report betrayals of public trust.

Propose legislation to increase whistleblower protection — especially from liability — would make good press. It would declare our implicit confidence that there is vastly more dirt out there, than the timid or biased press has been willing to reveal. Getting GOP leaders to openly oppose such a measure would be a good blow, in itself.

Someone has to point out that — five years ago — we were all promised "hundred of indictments of Clinton Era officials, just as soon as honest Republicans get access to the Executive Department filing cabinets." This blithe promise has been betrayed! The total number of Clintonians indicted for malfeasance in the execution of their jobs has been... zero! The first time after any administration in US history.

Is there anybody else out there who has noticed a relentless drive by the far-right to suborn and purge the United States Officer Corps?

I hear many things in the rumor mill, from my contacts in military and intelligence circles. They say: "There has never been such an effort to politicize the Officer Corps. Why aren't the Democrats speaking up about this?"

I answer, sadly, that Democrats have let themselves lose interest in military matters, assuming that crewcut types are automatically Republicans — a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But if rumors of a political purge of the officer corps were tabulated and proved, by a progressive policy institute, this revelation could cause millions of Americans to bolt from the GOP in disgust.

Whether they are left-right or center, Americans understand the concept of accountability — and evasion.

Coalescing several of these points, there are very specific ways that it can be made clear how far the Republican leadership has gone to avoid accountability. The opposition should emphasize just how profound and sustained these efforts have been.

A clear listing would be useful. For example:

Gelded Congressional committees that exercise no oversight and issue no subpoenas...
Political interference in the FBI...
Skyrocketing use of secrecy, beyond what it was even in the Cold War...
The fewest Presidential news conferences in a hundred years...
Appointing cronies into all high intelligence slots... and so on...

These indicting facts need to be gathered and presented together, painting a unified picture, instead of frittered individually. Collectively, they point to relentless and deliberate corruption. If it's done right, even those who are hostile to "liberals" will have to admit that where there is smoke...

How Progressives Can Win Back America

specific ideas

As mentioned above, the most powerful yet underplayed issue is accountability. Here are specific proposals to show that Democrats are sincere about restoring it.

Free the Inspectors General!

Nearly all gov't agencies and departments have their own Inspector General, who is supposed to verify honesty and efficiency in all agency operations. At present, each IG is appointed haphazardly. They have widely varying powers, and are answerable to the directors and secretaries who they are supposed to inspect. Even when the IG is a qualified pro, and independent-minded, he/she inevitably becomes imbued with the prevailing culture of the agency. Moreover, an IG often faces conflicts of interest, since he or she is job-beholden to the very same person who she or he is supposed to hold accountable! Among the many disasters attributable to this were the savings & loan catastrophe, Enron, and current problems at NASA.

Suggestion: Create the post of Inspector General of the United States, or IGUS, who would head a uniformed service, such as NOAA and the Public Health Service (now headed by the Surgeon General). Inspectors General of all US agencies will report directly to IGUS, who can assign more personnel at any time. Their independence from influence by cabinet secretaries will be assured.

IGUS will gradually create a corps of truly professional inspectors and auditors, developing training programs leading perhaps to an academy, instilling traditions as dedicated as those of West Point. Incorruptible dedication to honesty and efficiency. Eventually, the IG may acquire authority to issue search warrants, etc.

This reform could be written on a single sheet of paper. It is simple enough that it could not be mocked or ridiculed. If enacted, it would automatically improve accountability. If opposed, those in opposition would have to explain why.

Refer to the 1992 "Contract With America." Use it to turn the tables!

Yes, many Democrats reflexively despise that era and all it stood for. But this reflex is shortsighted. The "Contract" was a political gesture of profound power, resonance and effectiveness. This effectiveness must be studied, with an eye to taking advantage of both its faults and... yes... its positive attributes.

For one thing, the Contract was at least open and above-board. How refreshing if the opposition were like that, today!

Also, about half of the planks in the Contract were about restoring accountability in a US Congress that was perceived as corrupt, aloof, and contemptuous of citizen concerns. Yes, those planks were at-best implemented only briefly, before the new, GOP-led Congress got drunk on power and went on a pork/corruption spree that makes the earlier Democrat leadership look like a church choir.

So? That very hypocrisy can now be used against them.

If Democrats came forward and offered a similar ten point plan... avowing admiration for the general idea of a contract, but contempt for the betrayal of the first one, it could have powerful appeal. Even among conservatives who feel betrayed by the failed hopes of the Gingrich era.

Suppose Democratic leaders said: "Half the planks in the Contract With America were basically good ideas, we admit it! We not only say this in reaching our hand out to honest conservatives, but we promise the following measures to guarantee that this time accountability will stick!

"For example, A commission to over-rule all member 'earmarking.' And a guarantee that the minority party will always have at least a minimum number of subpoenas per year, whether Democrats are in power or out of power, so that never again will a President go without any oversight!

"As for the other half of the planks in the Contract With America... those promoting the interests of the rich and the mighty and the well-connected.... Those planks are unfortunately the ones that the GOP fully implemented. And then some! Those are the ones we plan on repealing. We will replace them with promises to —

"Pump up scientific research, especially on energy.... (and so on)..."

Look, I am not suggesting that the Contract With America be admired in all its traits and clauses. Let it be damned where it deserves to be.

Still, to spurn the resonant power that this political move had — and to contemptuously refuse to eye the parts that appealed to American voters — would be a big mistake.

The kind of mistake that conservatives have NOT made in accepting past liberal ideas and adopting them as their own! (Take the number of GOP leaders who keep prominent pictures of Martin Luther King on their walls!) If they learned how to co-opt ideas from the left, shouldn't turnaround be fair play? Couldn't we at least formulate a new Democratic contract and try it on a few test audiences?

Besides, nothing would be sweeter than using the better half of that Contract to foil the parts that are truly vile.

Skewer standard beliefs!

Many conservative — and moderate — constituencies are aware of neocon failings and faults, sickened by incompetence and corruption. Yet, these Americans continue supporting the right, because they believe that neocons are better at:

Combatting terrorism...
Ensuring the borders are properly patrolled...
Reducing the number of federal employees...
Reducing federal regulation...
De-regulating major industries...
Fighting crime...
Reducing teen pregnancy or drug use...
Preserving military readiness...
Protecting the neutrality and political independence of the US Officer Corps...
Promoting small business...
Appointing judges according to neutral professional recommendations...

...and so on. The number of anti-democratic clichés is staggering. And it would take some real dedication to fact-revelation, in order to change them. Take the clear fact the Bill Clinton had surpluses and GW Bush runs record deficits. Conservatives squirm to wave these facts away.

Still, it seems worthwhile to show the blatant fact that Democrats are the party with a far better record on ALL of the issues listed above! Every single one of them.

Yes, some leftist constituencies would prickle over the Democratic Party raising these "bragging points." So this bragging should be accompanied by VERY aggressive touting of balancing issues. Energy research and a return to government transparency, for example.

Still, every one of the listed topics... and dozens of others... offer possible ways to pry moderates and even some conservatives away from a coalition that has successfully seized power in every major American institution.

How Progressives Can Win Back America

specific tactics

Here are some ideas that could enable a particular candidate to attract favorable publicity while putting the opposition in a lose-lose situation:

Issue challenges that emphasize an administration failing, while boxing the opposition in a corner.

One example of such a challenge might be to demand that President Bush issue the following vow: "I promise not to issue more presidential pardons than my two predecessors combined."

This creates a lose-lose situation for the President. By making the limit generous — the sum of his predecessors' pardons — the demand seems one that any reasonable person should agree to. His refusal will be tantamount to admitting that he might actually need that many pardons!

And if he accepts this challenge? Then the nation wins too.

Declare in advance how you will try to reduce the "culture war" by ensuring that the presidency will never again be isolated.

One example of how to do this would be dramatic. Our candidate could say:

"If I win the Presidency, I shall not snub the millions of people who voted for my opponent. Instead, I will honor them and listen to them. I will appoint my opponent — and other conservatives — to a committee that will control my appointments book, one day a month. On that day, I will see only people who they want me to see.

"In this way, you will be guaranteed that I will hear points of view different than those spoon fed me by my close circle of advisors.

"The age of cronyism will be over."

Ponder how this one promise... to honor a defeated opponent plus his millions of supporters, could set a tone, a precedent. It would say, "even if you vote against me, I don't plan to ignore you. We aren't going to work that way, anymore."

If this happened once, it would set a precedent. The next president would have to do it too. Even if he or she came from the other party.

There are lots of other ideas. A zillion. But that is not the point.

What matters is that the Democratic Party learn from the accomplishments — and the failures — of the current GOP leadership. Whatever their many faults, you have to admit that they studied hard, when they were out of power. They gathered every idea they could get ahold of and arranged them into a suite of strategies and tactics that were highly innovative... even if many of them were unscrupulous.

If Democrats do not take advantage of their own time in exile, to innovate (hopefully more honorably), choosing instead to repeat the same politics of indignation that has left millions of American voters cold, then Liberals will have proved Limbaugh and others right. As fogeys without any new ideas. Worse, the opposition party will have simply abandoned its post, when the country needed it most.

Democrats would then only get what they deserve. Let's keep that from happening.


How Progressives Can Win Back America

about this article

"How Progressives Can Win Back America" (published in full here) was formerly titled "Open Letter to the SEIU" when it was submitted to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Although written in 2005, most are still relevant to 2018 (albeit with a few name changes!). The opposition, it seems, is intractable.

Copyright © 2005 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

about this series

This article is part of a series of economic and political essays that offer cantankerously tilted perspectives on the United States. The fight to restore and re-invigorate a confident nation requires that we speak up against every sort of dogmatism — even those toward which we feel kinship.

I do not intend to compare the relative merits of liberal or conservative worldviews. Rather, the matter that now concerns me is the profound differences in political methodologies that have been employed by left and right, during the last two decades of political struggle. While I make no effort to conceal my preference for one side over another, any one person's political preferences should not be the issue.

For too long dogmatists have oversimplified and poisoned our political and social discourse. Discourse should be about solving complex problems, not preening and shouting that "My ideology is better than your ideology!"

Elsewhere, I go into detail about the problems facing the Libertarians (and other third parties) and Republicans, but this series is one where I unabashedly take sides. There is no doubt that the fate of American democracy demands a major change in our political and economic strategies and tactics. Our ancestors fought down attempted tyrannies in order to keep their miracle alive. They demand no less from us, when faced by a pack of proto-tyrants and monsters. Allowing this to happen has been a terrible mistake.

join David Brin's discussions

David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and posts social media comments on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and MeWe specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come and argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

cited in this article

David Brin, "Free the Inspectors General"

David Brin, "Gerrymandering American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think"

David Brin, "The Real Culture War"

David Brin, "The Republican Party's Neocon Re-Invention"

David Brin, "Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?"

David Brin, "Why Candidates Should Stipulate"

a mind for politics?

letting others have their say

Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

Paul Bloom, Just Babies

Jamil Zaki, The War for Kindness

Darryl Cunningham, How to Fake a Moon Landing

Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger


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