Something worth fighting for

Matt Bai canvasses the Democratic reformers in search of a coherent vision in The Argument
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tredmond@sfbg.com

REVIEW If you want a guide to the players who are trying to refashion the Democratic Party in America, Matt Bai's The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics is a nice handbook. It's easy to read, brings the characters to life, and reveals how big chunks of money from a few very rich liberals are going to a handful of organizations and think tanks most people have never heard of. Not everything Bai says is true, but even where he's wrong, it's an interesting read.

Bai, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, offers a lot of interesting and useful history about the Howard Dean phenomenon and the rise of bloggers and online politics in the Democratic Party. His portrayals of some key bloggers, like Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, as people who lack ideology but demand respect is a bit off base, though. I think Moulitsas, for one, could easily outline an ideology, and if you read his stuff regularly, you get a pretty good sense of it.

Bai gives some credit to Dean and his supporters for creating a successful "50 state" strategy — investing party resources throughout the country, not just in targeted swing districts — and then claims (not entirely inaccurately) that the battle within the organization has been more about empowering the grassroots than about any specific policy prescription. But he doesn't seem to recognize the inherent politics in community organizing: Saul Alinsky argued half a century before Dean that teaching marginalized groups how to exercise power was in itself a radical act, whether or not it was driven by a specific political analysis or ideology. (The Marxists have typically disagreed, and that battle has raged on the left for a long, long time, but Bai, who rarely writes about anything outside the mainstream of political thought, pays that history no heed.)

Still, Bai's overall point — that the reformers in the party, particularly the ones with the big money, lack a coherent ideological vision for the country's future — is both accurate and alarming. Nobody, Bai says, is making "the Argument" — the case for electing Democrats. In the 2006 congressional elections, "what voters had not done was endorse any Democratic argument — because, of course, there wasn't one." All the party under the likes of Rep. Nancy Pelosi has been able to do is point out that Democrats aren't Republicans (and aren't quite as bad on the Iraq war) — and that, he notes, will never be a recipe for long-term success.

Anyone interested in the future of the Democratic Party and progressive politics ought to read this book, if only to get the discussion started. Bai makes a powerful statement: that transformational political change has typically come when there is a set of issues and governing philosophies that can be presented to the voting public. But he leaves the reader deeply dissatisfied — because he doesn't offer any answers. It's all fine and good to bash the reformers in the party, and I agree with a lot of his criticisms. But if you want to whine about the lack of an argument, you ought to spend some time thinking about what that argument might look like and putting it on paper.

A couple of years ago I was on a right-wing talk show arguing that Pelosi wasn't exactly a "San Francisco liberal," and one of the hosts asked what that term mean. I gave it a try, on the fly, in the few seconds they allowed me. A San Francisco liberal, I said, believes that we should tax the rich to feed the poor, that we should protect the environment, including the urban environment, from the attack of greedy developers.