How to be a more effective irrational pressure group

This is, obviously, prompted by my discussions with Armando on the role of the netroots.  I’m happy to see this debated on Big Orange.  I would not pursue this effort because I think it’s doomed to fail, but for those of you who think that defunding is attainable — rather than just something to support for (ugh) Overton Window-sliding reasons — I’d love to see this happen, because I think it’s the way you could truly be most effective.  YMMV.  And yes, the title is provocative, but meant affectionately.

This diary is not affiliated with any candidate or campaign.
And take a look at how to celebrate Constitution Day, Sept. 17, here.

People have got to learn the word “exogenous“: “an action or object coming from outside a system.”  If you don’t understand the concept, you will not be much of an activist.

Politics — from within the system and outside of it — is largely about finding the levers of power.  Think about that analogy of a lever for a moment.  A lever is something you can grasp, exert force on, and change something.  If you exert something on something that you can’t grasp or exert force on, you’re not going to change anything.

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are not exogenous in the Iraq debate.  The fire we aim at them is misplaced.  More below.

(1) “Who are you calling ‘irrational,’ punk?”

I’ve used the provocative phrase “irrational pressure group” in the title because it describes one view of what the netroots should be right now: not a debating society, not a place to think through various policies and come up with the best approach, but a vicious, relentless lobby that will not be soothed, calmed, or satisfied with anything else other than our representatives doing what we want.  In other words, a feared lobby like the NRA or the Moral Majority at its height.  People you just don’t cross, regardless of whether they are making any sense or asking you to do something that can’t be done.

In other words, I’m not using “irrational” as an insult.  I’m using it to describe what many people here would like the netroots to be right now: so furious that we don’t want to listen to rational considerations like polls, plans, prospects, etc.  People who call their party leaders “pathetic hapless cowards” who must be “getting paid off,” “beyond spineless” “handwringers” who need to “grow a sac” rather than “folding with a royal flush,” political hacks/whores who “make us puke” because they couldn’t organize a third-grader’s birthday party at chucky-cheese without help.  (No one can say our writing here lacks panache.)

One problem I have with the approach in the above style of commentary is that I think it weakens the party; I’m one of those who thinks that the country can survive another 18 months in Iraq, but cannot survive another Republican Administration until we’ve defumigated after this one.  (That’s not hyperbole.  I think our Constitution is gone if we lose in 2008.)  The other problem I have is that it’s way too easy.  Slinging insults, telling Reid and Pelosi that they work for us and it’s /their job/ to get the caucus in line — assuming, irrationally, that it would be easy for someone else to step in and do the job that they can’t, that it’s just a matter of will — puts the author in a comfy position of power relative to the target.  It doesn’t require anything of the writer other than outrage and snark.

If the solution is that easy, it’s usually because you’ve misdiagnosed the problem.

I prefer what I’ll call a “reasoned” approach (and if you want to be insulting, you can call it detached, limp, ineffectual) — although in most political environments other than the netroots I would be considered to be as wild-eyed a radical as most other people here.  That means an approach that /doesn’t assume bribery and weakness and idiocy as motivations when a simpler explanation — such as that our leaders can count votes — will do/.  But it’s pretty clear that demanding and insulting and slamming are going to win the day here for the next few months, so if people are going to do it they should at least do it right.

(2) Why people here think that their approach is right

Like a few people here, my understanding of effective activism starts with the book “Rules for Radicals” and its sequel “Reveille for Radicals” by Saul Alinsky.  (Click that link if you don’t know what I’m talking about, and check out his quote citing Dostoyevsky.)  One of his guiding principles is that when you want to win a political fight, you personalize it.  You don’t fight against GM, you fight against the CEO of GM.  (Think of Michael Moore going after Roger Smith.)  You turn your target into a villain.  You demean them, you invite a bacchanal of invective, you tear them down.

That — wheteher people have read Alinsky or not — is the insight that leads people to go after Reid and Pelosi here.  “They’re not performing!  It must be because something’s wrong with them!”  It’s a really effective way of whipping up contempt against one’s targets and getting them to move.

If they /can/ move, that is.  If they can’t, all you end up doing is creating villains for voters.  /Our/ party leaders, rendered as villains.  Wow.

You can make a case for this, I guess, just as you can make a case for not giving the Democrats any more money if they allow the Iraq occupation to be funded again, or for not voting for them — one needs to wield a carrot as well as a stick, after all — or even for voting for and working to elect Republicans in a Leninist belief that the whole rotten system must collapse of its own weight for real change to occur.  But even if you make this case, you have to ask a question: are you exerting your force in the right place?

(3) Exogeneity

The prototypical exogenous variables are demographic ones: race, gender, age, and malleable demographic ones like religion, income, education, where they live, and union membership.  Someone being Jewish or Black increases the likelihood that they’ll vote Democratic.  But the reverse isn’t true in a /causal/ sense; voting Democratic doesn’t cause you to become Jewish or Black.

Some exogenous variables aren’t at a fixed value like age or gender, they’re just the ones that — within a given system — are ones that cause changes in other variables but not vice versa.  If exogenous variable A completely determines the value of variable B, then focusing your efforts on variable B is /not going to make any difference/ unless you’re doing so by trying to change variable A.  Think of a lever attached to a gear that moves a piston.  If you try to move the piston directly while leaving the lever in place, all you’re going to do is break something, if you’re able to have any effect at all.  If you direct your energy towards moving the lever — the thing you can directly impact — then you can move the piston.

If you want to know how to change things, you have to know what’s exogenous to the system.

(4) Why slamming Pelosi and Reid is wasted energy

Pelosi and Reid are not the lever here.  They’re the piston.  What they can accomplish in their positions is determined by their caucus.  They don’t have the “advantage” of a scared and obedient caucus the way that Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay did; for various reasons, Democrats are different.  The constraint on them is whether they have enough votes to put whatever plan they’d like into action.

So: if Reid does not have 41 iron-firm votes — not just 41 initial votes for a good proposal or to sustain an initial filibuster, but 41 Senators willing to sustain a filibuster repeatedly when the House Dems and the media and everyone is screaming at them to give in — then he does not have a winning hand, let alone a “royal flush” as some say.  Reid’s ability to implement plans as a Majority Leader is not exogenous — it’s not something that he just decides by himself, the way individual members casting their own votes so — it’s /endogenous/.  It’s controlled by what the caucus wants overall.  It is hostage, in other words, to a certain number of Blue Dogs.

So: if Pelosi does not have 218 iron-firm votes — not just 218 initial votes for a good proposal — to permanently lock down /any/ attempt to fund the war in spite of all hell breaking loose as people blame the party (wrongly) for troops running out of bullets and all such other nonsense, then she cannot just say “I’m going to defund.”

They are the pistons.  We can exert force on them, but if we don’t do it by exerting force on the lever, we’re just going to break something.  And whoever takes their place — even if it’s /not/ someone like Hoyer or Emanuel who will be worse — is going to be subject to the same constraint.  We want to believe — it would be lovely to believe — that the only problem here is that the piston doesn’t want to move and that if we smack it enough times with a wrench we solve the problem.  (For one thing, it’s fun to smack things.  Look at those comments quoted above!)  But generally, it is /just not true/.

If they don’t have the votes, one can fairly argue what Pelosi and Reid should do.  First, they can bluff, and they can pass symbolic legislation that lets people go on record with their opposition to the war.  It’s not a bad tactic; it’s what they tried with the supplemental bill.  But of course Bush called their bluff and they got slammed.  (Despite the fact that the symbolic vote at least /did/ allow Democrats to go on record, which one might argue is better than nothing.  Second, they can go into hiding.  Not very helpful.  Third, they can start to excoriate their own caucus members.  That’s what a lot of us would like to see, but while reasonable people can disagree on this I think most people involved in politics would agree that it’s really, really unlikely to work.  It’s more likely to truly piss people off, break apart what has been a historically united caucus for the most part, and lead to a Speaker Hoyer or Speaker Emanuel.  (Yes, it /can/ lead to a Majority Leader Schumer, who, if he did the same thing, would be deposed as well.)

(5) So where’s the lever?

The netroots can do a couple of things in this situation.  First, we can publicize and tear apart various proposals that are just wrong.  What Markos did yesterday with the Abercrombie bill is a great example.  We have expertise and information and can bring it to bear.

Second (and related), we can go after wavering and backsliding Democrats on a visceral and deliciously vicious level, without any policy analysis.  Kagro X’s story on Brian Baird today is a good example.

Why do I like these?  Because *Abercrombie’s and Baird’s opinions are exogenous in our system*.  They are not constrained by what other people are doing.  They are /constraining/ what their leaders can do.

*There’s* your lever.

Whatever it is we want, we need to focus our lobbying — and it is lobbying, it is not pie throwing — on the people who are currently constraining Reid and Pelosi from doing what we want.  Changing Reid and Pelosi’s behavior comes from manipulating that lever or it doesn’t come at all.

(6) Moving the lever

How do we do this?  Remember my mentioning Alinsky before?  You deal with something concrete.  Not, in this case, a concrete person like Roger Smith, but a concrete action, a concrete plan.

We know how to do this; it’s one of our favorite tactics.  In effect, we circulate a petition.

That’s right: we ask representatives to state publicly and on the record that they will under no circumstances — no matter what happens in Iraq, in Iran, on Fox News, in the Washington Post, in the public opinion polls — do anything other than what we think is right (such as, for the people I call the “defundamentalists,” means refusing to pass a bill with funding for anything other than withdrawal by a date certain.)

This has a couple of advantages, one if it works, one if it doesn’t.

First, if it works, then they’re stuck.  They’ve pre-committed.  It means that we’re playing a game of chicken with President Bush.  The way to not to lose a game of chicken is to ensure ahead of time that you can’t back out of your chicken.  Of course, it also means that you have to accept the consequences if things don’t turn out as you want.  Public opinion /could/ go against us.  Once it does, if we give in, we look even weaker than before.  It’s a dangerous game; that’s why so many Dems don’t want to play it.

Second, if it doesn’t work — if we don’t get enough names — then at least we have our list of who’s Naughty and Nice and we know exactly who to lobby.  Or, if you prefer, to primary.

(7) Snark is not a platform

If you want to win this battle, this is the way to do it.  I may not agree with the goal, but I’d rather see people who want the goal do it effectively rather than not.  Get members of Congress to commit in blood, and go after those who don’t commit.  If we still can’t get the policy in place when we have a majority signed up, /then/ you go after the leadership, but unless their caucus is whispering to them “don’t go through with this no matter what we signed!”, it should.

So by all means, people should take this ball and run with it.  Get people on record so we know what levers to lean on.  But if all you do is piss over Reid and Pelosi, you’re not doing anything to solve the problem; you’re just gratifying yourself and looking superior.  And as much as you may think you may have earned the right to say you were right and did what you could, you haven’t.  Snark and insults are fun, but they aren’t a platform.

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    • Armando on September 9, 2007 at 2:15 am
    • Armando on September 9, 2007 at 4:54 am

    I appreciate Danby keeping absent from this thread.

    Good on you Danby.

    Bad on your diary, but good on your refraining from muddying this discussion.

  1. And as such is just another post in the back and forth of “You’re doing it wrong” “No you’re doing it wrong!” between “reealists” and “idealists”.

    Also, it is not the case that a person needs to know what “exogenous” means to be a good activist.

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