A Good Coalition

Christopher Phillips

Abstract


In 1996, the iconoclastic economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a manifesto, The Good Society, that elaborated his vision for what societal excellence and goodness should amount to. Though nearly 96, Galbraith was still a rabble-rouser, and he castigated the powers that be in the United States for propping up a “democracy of the fortunate” (8). To Galbraith, those who engaged in electoral politics, win or lose on any specific issue, tended to have all the social and economic advantages, while the less well off were deliberately marginalised by ‘the system.’  He lamented that “money, voice and political activism are now extensively controlled by the affluent, very affluent, and business interests" (140), making of the political sphere an "unequal contest" (8).

To make democracy American style more inclusive, Galbraith called for “a coalition of the concerned and the compassionate and those now outside the political system” (143), so that all citizens had optimal prospects for enjoying “personal liberty, basic well-being, social and ethnic equality, the opportunity for a rewarding life" (4). 

Have inroads been made, in the nearly 15 years since first publication of The Good Society, in making come true Galbraith’s version of a good society? If not, how might such a coalition be achieved? What would it look like? Who among Americans would constitute the concerned, compassionate outsiders that would make such a coalition authentically ‘Galbraithian’?  

A Coalition on the Move

What about MoveOn.org? A progressive public advocacy group founded in 1998, MoveOn.org, according to Lelia Green in The Internet, is “an important indicator of the potential for bringing together communities of like-minded individuals” (139). Green singles out MoveOn.org as particularly pivotal in galvanising support for Barack Obama’s presidency (139). The New York Times describes MoveOn.org as “a bottom-up organization that has inserted itself into the political process in ways large and small” (Janofsky and Lee). Indeed, it represents “the next evolutionary change in American politics, a move away from one-way tools of influence like television commercials and talk radio to interactive dialogue, offering everyday people a voice in a process that once seemed beyond their reach.” MoveOn.org has expertly utilised the Internet to mobilise its members “to sign online petitions, organize street demonstrations and donate money to run political advertisements”.   

Green considers MoveOn.org one of today’s standout “coalitions of interests and political agendas”, “extraordinary” in its ability to “use websites and email lists to build communities around a shared passion” (139). In 2008, its 4.2 million members were at the vortex of a “dynamic that tipped the balance in favour of a more radical agenda with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008” (139). 

Galbraith, for one, would certainly agree with MoveOn.org’s politics, and likely would claim that their radical agenda is a compassionate and encompassing one that effectively addresses the concerns of everyday citizens. Yet the fact is that millions of disaffected Americans are not liberals, and so are not in sync with MoveOn.org’s interests and agendas, such as its firm insistence that a ‘public option’ is the best way to bring about meaningful health care reform, and its demand that all U.S. troops be immediately withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Tea Anyone?

Another sort of coalition filled the void created by MoveOn.org. Enter the Tea Party. 

A movement that has been every bit as effective in its way in inspiring once-jaded ordinary citizens to coalesce around a set of interests and agendas – albeit, at least in principal if not necessarily in actual practice, of a professed libertarian strain – the Tea Party got underway in the waning days of the second presidential term of George W. Bush. It started out as a one-issue protest group voicing umbrage over the proposed economic stimulus plan, which it considered an unconstitutional subsidy. After Barack Obama became president, the Tea Party burgeoned into a much more influential movement that now professes to be a grassroots citizens’ watchdog for all unconstitutional activities (or what it deems to be such) on the part of the federal government.  

A New York Times article notes that many of its members are victims of the economic downturn; they “had lost their jobs, or perhaps watched their homes plummet in value, and they found common cause in the Tea Party’s fight for lower taxes and smaller government” (Zernike). Its members are akin to the millions of middle class Americans who lost their livelihoods during the Great Depression of the 1930s, an unparalleled economic downturn that eventually “mobilized many middle-class people who had fallen on hard times” to join forces in order to have an effective political voice. But those during the Great Depression who were aroused to political consciousness “tended to push for more government involvement”; in contrast, the Tea Party is a coalition that “vehemently wants less”.  While Galbraith depicted the Republican Party of his time as “avowedly on the side of the fortunate” (141), the majority of today’s Tea Party members align themselves with the Republican Party, yet they are by no means principally made up of "the fortunate."  

Erick Erickson, a prominent Tea Party spokesman and a television commentator for the CNN news channel, blogs on Redstate.com that the Tea Party “has gotten a lot of people off the sidelines and into the political arena...” Erickson further contends that the Tea Party has “brought together a lot of likeminded citizens who thought they were alone in the world. They realized that not only were they not alone, but there were millions of others just as concerned.”   

Galbraithian Coalitions?

Do MoveOn.org and Tea Party constitute Galbraithian-type coalitions, each in its own right? Both have inspired millions of once-disenchanted common citizens to come together around common political concerns and become a force to be reckoned with in electoral politics.  As such, each has served as an effective counterweight against the money, voice and political activism of the very affluent. 

While Galbraith would probably have as much disdain for the Tea Party as he would have praise for MoveOn.org, the fact is that both groups have seen to it that an increasing number of regular Americans whose concerns had been ignored in the political arena now have to be reckoned with. But this is by no means where their commonality ends. Above and beyond the fact that both are comprised of millions who had been political outsiders, each has a decided anti-establishmentarian strain, along with a professed sense of alienation from and disdain for "politics as usual" and an impassioned belief in the right to self-government (though they differ on what this right amounts to). Moreover, both consider themselves grassroots-driven, and harbor anathema for professional lobbying organisations, which both regularly criticize for their undue political influence.

Even though the two groups usually differ to the nth degree when it comes to those solutions they believe would effectively remedy the most pressing public problems in the U.S., they nonetheless share the conviction that one must initially focus one’s efforts at the local level if one is eventually to have the greatest impact on political decision-making on a national scale. The two groups came of age during the Internet revolution – indeed, it would have been impossible for their like-minded members to have found one another and coalesced so quickly and in such great numbers without the Internet – and they utilise the Internet as the principal tool for spurring concerted activism at the local level among their members. One can consider their shared approach Deweyan, in that Dewey maintained that genuinely democratic community, “in its deepest and richest sense, must always remain a matter of face-to-face intercourse” (367). Yet the two groups’ legion differences prevent them from engaging in meaningful face-to-face exchanges with one another.    

While the prospect of cultivating linkages between Tea Party and MoveOn.org are remote for the foreseeable future, it might nonetheless be seen as a promising development that some rank and file Tea Party acolytes do at least recognise that they must not identify solely with the Republican Party, lest they discourage potential recruits from rallying around their cause. For instance, one warns fellow members on the Redstate.com blog to be wary of casting their lot with Republicans, “because it would drive away the Democrats and Independents”. He actually uses Galbraith’s coinage in describing the Tea Party: “This movement is a coalition of the concerned, not a Republican outreach program.” Indeed, contrary to popular belief, the Tea Party is not, as a whole, on the conservative fringe (though it does often seem that those members who are given the most attention by the mainstream media are the fringe element, particularly the breakaway Tea Party Express). A Gallup Poll reveals that fully 17 percent of all Americans of voting age identify themselves as affiliated with the Tea Party; and while a majority have Republican leanings, fully 45 percent of all Tea Party members claimed they were either Democrats (17 percent) or independents (28 percent).  

To Tea Party leader Erick Erickson, the paramount challenge today for the Tea Party is for it to transform itself into a greater umbrella coalition, since the “issues and advocacy within the tea party movement are issues that resonate with the majority of Americans.” After all, he asserts, the Tea Party’s is “a very American cause — the first amendment right to protest, petition, and speak up.”  

While an expansion of its coalition does not in any way make it incumbent for the Tea Party to find common cause with MoveOn.org, can the claim nonetheless be legitimately made – utilising Erickson’s own criteria – that MoveOn.org’s is equally a very American cause?  

Christopher Hayes points out in an essay in The Nation that most of MoveOn.org’s members, as with the Tea Party’s, are “not inclined to protest,” but their “rising unease with the direction of the country has led to a new political consciousness.” Hayes could just as well be speaking of the Tea Party when he describes MoveOn.org’s members as made up mostly of “citizens angered, upset and disappointed with their government but [who were] unsure how to channel those sentiments.” For such citizens, MoveOn.org “provides simple, discrete actions: sign this petition, donate money to run this ad, show up at this vigil.” This is convincing evidence that MoveOn.org’s is also “a very American cause”, by the very benchmarks set forth by Erickson.  

A ‘Higher Coalition’?

But is this in any way akin to a demonstrable sign that these unlikeliest of political bedfellows might be inspired at some future point to see themselves as part of a ‘higher coalition’ — one of the unlikeminded, that celebrates difference? Might a critical mass in both movements ever deem it a boon to coalesce around the cause of democratic pluralism? As things stand, neither side embraces such pluralism.

Rather, one other attribute they share pervasively is dogmatism: both are convinced that their respective political sensibilities are beyond reproach. As a consequence, over the shorter term, neither group is likely to shed its brand of dogmatism and supplant it with an openness or receptivity to new, much less opposing, points of view. So, for instance, even as the Tea Party seeks to expand its fold, it is no more inclined to change its ideology-based stances on the issues than is MoveOn.org. For the time being, each group not only is entrenched in its own collective political mindset, but each coalesces around a demonstrated antipathy towards alternative approaches to public problem-solving.  

Is there any remotely plausible scenario by which the members of MoveOn.org and Tea Party might eventually come not just to tolerate their differences but to extol them?  

One other key Galbraithian element that those comprising an ideal coalition in a democracy must possess is compassion. For members of any coalition to cultivate compassion, they must first, or concomitantly, inculcate empathy, which is typically considered either a precursor to compassion or, along with understanding, a vital component of it. 

Henning Melber, Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, and Reinhard Kössler maintain that “(w)hile empathy does not automatically translate into solidarity (nor into ethical behaviour), it can serve as a compass” for doing so, and can lead to a Galbraithian “coalition of the concerned and aware”(37). 

Such empathy is “a prerequisite for the ability to listen to one another and for permissiveness and openness towards ‘otherness’, and further, can only be born out of a sense of shared suffering” (37). To the authors, it isn’t just that “(s)uffering in its variety of forms requires empathy and solidarity by all,” but that it necessarily “transcends a politically correct ideology” (37).  

Millions in both the Tea Party and MoveOn.org long suffered from being a mere afterthought to the political establishment, both of them impacted by policies that they are convinced exacerbated rather than ameliorated their woes. But they have shown few if any indications of a willingness to transcend a politically correct ideology. For this to come about, it would, as Melber and Kössler maintain, require “hard, sustained, and imaginative work” (33). 

How might this come to pass? Greg Anderson, in The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 B.C., points to ancient Athens as a paradigmatic example of a society that undertook the hard imaginative work needed to develop the types of mediated connections that over time created a sense of shared belonging to a democratic community. “The process of transformation” in Attica, he argues, is “best understood as a bold exercise in social engineering, an experiment designed to bring together the diverse and far-flung inhabitants of an entire region and forge them into a single, self-governing political community of like-minded individuals” (5). While those males of sufficient socioeconomic distinction who were privileged enough to be citizens in the West’s first experiment in democracy were indeed like-minded, prising a self-governing political community, they were not single-minded; rather, those in the twelve dispersed tribes throughout Attica who coalesced to form a self-governing community apparently thrived on the free exchange and consideration of a wide range of ideas. They held that greater insights emerged only when a variety of views were subjected to scrutiny in the public sphere. Paul Woodruff notes in First Democracy that each Athenian was “given a share of the ability to be citizens, and that ability is understood both as a pair of virtues and as a kind of citizen wisdom.” Governing in this way was based on the shared view that “it is a natural part of being human to know enough to help govern your community” (149). 

Neither Tea Party nor MoveOn.org followers at present have this shared view on any semblance of a broad scale; rather, each betrays the sensibility that each ‘knows better’. As a consequence, any efforts at expanding their respective folds clearly do not include making overtures (or even extending olive branches)to one another. Even so, as impossibly optimistic as it might seem under current circumstances, I believe eventually they might come to see themselves as part of a greater or higher coalition – one serving the overriding cause of democracy itself – over the much longer term. But for this to become a reality, each group will first have to suffer some more.  

One other commonality they demonstrate is the power of grassroots activism – and the decided limitations. My hunch is that just as MoveOn.org’s progressives came to feel betrayed when Obama abandoned the liberal agenda of his presidential campaign to engage in political compromise and accommodation, Tea Party activists will come to find that their own expectations for political change will be equally stymied. In the 2010 elections, the Tea Party was a kingmaker in electoral politics, giving Republicans a decisive majority in Congress in the 2010 elections. But I suspect that those candidates the Tea Party supported will eventually resort to the practice of “politics as usual,” largely departing from the Tea Party agenda, in order to accomplish anything in Washington or become irrelevant in the existing system – a system long dominated by two political parties interested above and beyond all else in perpetuating their shared stranglehold on political power, and each equally beholden to corporate America for the contributions to their coffers that enable them to sustain this.  

If this scenario plays out, then at least some Tea Party activists might plausibly arrive at the unsettling conclusion that their suffering in the political arena is remarkably similar to that experienced by MoveOn.org’s cadre of concerned citizens who catapulted Obama into the office in the land, only to have most of their principal concerns neglected or dismissed, lost in the seamy world of back-room political deal-making.   

There is another possible scenario: What if either MoveOn.org or Tea Party becomes such an overwhelming force in politics that the other is attenuated, its members relegated once again to the fringe? If this occurred, the public sphere in the United States would be missing a vital dimension that has been part of its makeup since its founding days. For as Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, points out:  

the achievement of the revolutionary generation was a collective enterprise that succeeded because of the diversity of personalities and ideologies present in the mix. Their interactions and juxtapositions generated a dynamic form of balance and equilibrium, not because any of them was perfect or infallible, but because their mutual imperfections and fallibilities, as well as their eccentricities and excesses, checked each other… . (17)            

At the United States’s beginnings, the ties that bound those who revolted against Britain were forged despite their unbridgeable chasms of ideology; their “differing postures toward the twin goals of freedom and equality” were “not resolved so much as built into the fabric of our national identity” (16). Even or especially as irreconcilable differences prompted early Americans to continue waging a battle of ideas in the political trenches, Thomas Jefferson, for one, believed they were all (or nearly all) “constitutionally and conscientiously democrats” (185).  

Extrapolating from this, one can posit that MoveOn.org and Tea Party, regardless of whether they choose to acknowledge it, are in tandem a modern-day manifestation of the original American coalition. If they could be inspired to see that each is an important player in furthering the democratic experiment as singularly practiced in the U.S., they just might come to care more for one another. Out of such caring, they might realise that neither has a monopoly on political wisdom, and as a result coalesce around the cause of promoting a less hostile body politic.

Acknowledgements

The author is grateful to the two blind peer reviewers for their most helpful suggestions.  

References

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Kossler, Reinhart, and Hening Melber. “International Civil Society and the Challenge for Global Solidarity.” Development Dialogue 49 (Oct. 2007): 29-39.  

Malcolm, Andrew.  “Myth-Busting Polls: Tea Party Members Are Average Americans, 41% Are Democrats, Independents.” Los Angeles Times, 5 April 2010 ‹http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2010/04/tea-party-obama.html>.

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Zernike, Kate. “With No Jobs, Plenty of Time for Tea Party.” New York Times, 27 Mar. 2010. 29 Sep. 2010 ‹http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/us/politics/28teaparty.html?scp=1&sq=%22watched%20their%20homes%20plummet%20in%20value%22&st=cse>.


Keywords


coalition; democracy; Galbraith; empathy



Copyright (c) 2010 Christopher Phillips

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