Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Liberals And The Vison Thing

Sara Robinson

We all know the story now. In 1964, after Barry Goldwater's humiliating defeat, a group of Republicans doggedly set forth on the path that led them to the pinnacle of power in all three branches of government 40 years later. Starting with a kernel of corporatists, small businesspeople, and military leaders and contractors, the conservative army grew by assiduously courting powerful new allies -- the deep South in the sixties, the fundamentalist right in the seventies -- and integrating them into a tight, seamless vision of power and glory that ultimately brought us here -- to George Bush, to Iraq, and to this Election Day.

Today is a referendum -- not just on Bush and his regime, but on the whole four decades over which that post-Goldwater Republican juggernaut has been rolling. When we look behind us now, we can see, beyond any possibility of denial, where it has taken us -- and where they mean to take us. The landscape they've dragged us through is scarred by broken lives and ruined hopes: the gutting of the middle class; the growing divide between rich and poor; the raging ugliness of the Culture Wars; the collapse of the educational, scientific, and planning infrastructure that fed our industries and empowered us to meet the future on our own terms; the humiliating exposure of the limits of American power; the reckless fouling of our air, land, and water; and -- perhaps most iconically -- the battered and exhausted army now making its last stand in the sands of Iraq.

Americans are looking at trail behind them -- the blood and the mud, the stench of corruption and decay, the undrinkable water and unbreatheable air -- and realizing that nothing about this trip looks like the sunny golf courses and well-kept Main Streets pictured in the GOP's bright and happy Morning-In-America travel brochures.

Our Depression-era grandparents could have told us this was coming. After all, the GOP has driven us into precisely the same ditch it ran them into in 1929, fueled by the same ignorance and graft, flaunting the same blatant disregard for any sense of the common good, pillaging our vast accumulated social capital for its members' own private enrichment. Now that the devastating results are coming clear to all but that last deluded 30%, we need to make the words "conservative" and "Republican" forever synonymous with this mess.

We need to teach it in our history classes, and tell the tales to our own grandchildren. This, children, is what happens when you abandon liberalism. This is what's happened every damned time we've ever handed conservatives the keys and let them drive. Don't let them kid you. It's not about two different views of democracy; it's about whether your democracy lives or dies.

Today, as the final hours of that triumphant and disasterous ride tick away, I'd like to talk a little bit about vision and leadership. The GOP may have dumped us in this swamp. Some of them may have even known from the outset that this is where we were headed. Still, they got hundreds of millions of us to sign up for the trip, mostly because they understood things about vision and leadership and commitment that the Democrats once knew, and had forgotten. Before we leave the wreckage behind and try to slog our way out of this mess on foot, I'd like to stop and take a minute to see what lessons we can pull off their collapsing machinery that might aid our own coming ascent.

1. The core philosophy -- I've already given too much space here to John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience, but still unmentioned (here or anywhere) is one of the book's most interesting chapters, in which he freely admits that the conservative movement has almost no coherent intellectual basis. Unlike liberalism, which is rooted in the contributions of dozens of the Enlightenment's most insightful thinkers, Dean argues that conservatism started with Burke...and pretty much ended there, too. (Even Adam Smith doesn't offer conservatives much comfort if they read him in full, instead of selectively.)

This lack of depth on their intellectual bench, Dean continues, was a huge problem in the early days of the Goldwater Revolution. The founders of that movement understood they needed a set of core principles on which to build an enduring vision for where they wanted to take America -- principles that Americans would recognize as being part of their own native traditions of government. However, since great philosophers have seldom offered lofty justifications to robber barons and earth-rapers, they were coming up embarrassingly short. That, says Dean, is how Leo Strauss was recruited to fill the hole; and his neo-conservative disciples at the University of Chicago became the intellectual lights of the new era. Lacking a philosophical foundation, the modern conservatives had to jerry-rig one out of whatever they found, and hope it was good enough to build a movement on.

In the 70s, this core structure was plastered over with Christian fundamentalism, which had to perform impossible perversities upon its own philosophical corpus in order to turn Jesus into an anti-Communist, pro-military free-marketeer. If you looked at it closely, the whole edifice was nothing more than spit, duct tape, and paint; but given sufficient ignorance and the right lighting, it looked like a plausible spiritual and philosophical foundation on which to construct a conservative vision for America's future.

Moving foward, liberals are facing no such poverty. If they could build all this on such a rickety intellectual foundation, we're starting with more granite than El Capitan. The Constitution and the Declaration are, at heart, liberal documents. We could ask for no clearer or more unassailable statements of our core philosophy of government. The language is lucid, strong, and beautiful; the ideals stand in such stark contrast to Republican rule that no one will fail to see the implicit choice inherent in them.

For those who like their morality in absolutes, we can offer a beauty. You stand with us for democracy -- or you stand against everything this county was built on.

2. A detailed dream -- The dreams of 1964 succeeded because huge numbers of Republicans saw, in intricate detail, what they wanted to achieve. They wanted a return to the 50s. A well-ordered world for the white, male, and wealthy. The "freedom" for business to profit however and wherever it could, with generous government help. Docile, properly-girdled wives. Obedient, shaven, and respectful children. People of color who "knew their place." An American empire that controlled the world's goods and people. Some added: A country run according to the Bible instead of the Constitution.

One of the core tenets shared by futurists is that the future belongs to groups of people who share clear, detailed dreams of what they want to create, and are able to continue to hold fast to those visions through all manner of change and adversity. The odds of any given future ever happening go up with the number of people who share it, the clarity and detail with which they can envision it, and the tenacity with which they pursue it over time.

Without a doubt, this clarity and tenacity were the GOP's single biggest advantage over the past 40 years. They had the courage of their convictions, boundless enthusiasm in selling their vision, the willingness to endure ridicule, and a constancy that allowed the vision to endure almost unchanged for nearly half a century. They showed people a strong picture of where they were leading them; and they confidently proceeded to take them there (…or, at least, so they said...)

So far, Democrats have been very slow on the uptake when it comes to presenting a detailed vision of what our 21st century America will look like. Part of this is that we're still in opposition mode, and still factionalized enough that it's hard to reach consensus. But we had better get on with this, and soon. We might win this election on voter disgust with the Republican vision; but we will lose the next one if we can't replace it with a strong, vibrant, enduring narrative of our own. They need to know, immediately, what the progressive movement stands for and where we intend to take America -- not just programs and processes, but the entire philosophical value system that will guide our moral and political decision-making. This must be our very first task, starting tomorrow morning. It will not wait.

3. Vision over leadership -- Everybody knows that the job of a leader to articulate visions. However, there are two serious and common misunderstandings that follow from this. Both lead straight into a pair traps that we will need to avoid -- and, which, remarkably, the rising GOP kept itself almost entirely out of.

First, we misunderstand exactly what visions are, and what role they play in the life of an enterprise. At their best, they are overarching statements of meaning. Who are we? What is our enterprise about? What value do we bring to the world? What future are we in business to create? These aren't slogans or mottos or mission statements or policies (though all those should proceed from the core vision); they are long-term answers to long-term questions. The most successful enterprises are the ones that are able to develop a rock-solid vision of what purpose they serve -- and then sustain that same vision for decades at a time, regardless of who's leading them or how conditions change. Strategy and methods come and go. Leaders are hired, fired, or retired. All of these changes are endurable, as long as they're made in the service of the larger vision.

The GOP set its vision in the late 1960s; and it formed the unchanging map for everything they've done since. While they've had some serious setbacks, and their leadership has varied from charismatic to criminal, their vision has survived, undimmed and largely unchanged.

Second, we misunderstand the role leaders play in articulating visions. Modern CEOs market themselves as visionaries, their services bought by companies who want to sign on to their vision. The dismal upshot of this is that company visions change every time upper management changes. The new Big Dog comes on board, pisses on the goals laid down by his predecessor, and proceeds to rip up the doghouse to re-arrange it according to his own plan.

This constant psychic remodeling is hell on any enterprise, and a set-up for ultimate failure of the entire structure. If you've been in corporate life for a while, you've probably succumbed to "vision fatigue" as you watched these guys come and go. From below, all the lofty posturing and preening about "vision" just looks like a bad sales job. You know instinctively that it's nothing more than a colossal time and energy sink, that it promotes nothing but cynicism and draws people's energy from the real work of the business. If this goes on long enough, the institution finally loses its ability to engage any vision at all. Adrift without purpose or coherent meaning, its collapse is not far behind.

On the other hand, we can all name companies that have walked the same talk for 20 or 30 years. Their employees are engaged with the firm's vision; and feel supported by it in return. Creating and maintaining this kind of vision is what real leadership is all about. Worthwhile visions take years, even decades to emerge; and when you've got one that's working for you, everything -- including your CEO's ego -- needs to be subordinated to it. That's why successful companies hire low-key leaders who are willing to serve and nurture the existing vision, rather than egomaniacs who will attempt to impose nightmares of their own.

Again, the GOP did this well. Their vision, however horrifying we find it, proved durable enough to transcend the leaders who promoted it. It survived Nixon, found its avatar in Reagan, and was barely dented by Bush I. Still, all things must end -- and, finally, this vision may also be running out of relevance, the shine obscured by the grease of corruption, the sand of Baghdad, and the mud of New Orleans. Even so, it's served them so well for 40 years that we'll probably be finding pockets of die-hards tenaciously keeping a grip on it for the rest of their lives.

4. Faith in their own inevitability -- If it ever occurred to the GOP for a moment that long-term failure was even possible, they kept it to themselves. Even defeats were spun as victories. Whatever happened, it was good news for Our Side. With God and Wall Street at their backs, their glorious vision was such a fait accompli -- and their confidence in it so assured -- that small setbacks (or even large ones, like Watergate) just rolled off them. And they kept on rolling.

These days, we're hearing a lot about how "Conservatism didn't fail -- specific people failed conservatism." This is also a necessary stance if you're holding a vision that's bigger than any specific leader, and are convinced of that vision's ultimate rightness. Liberals would do well express an equally confident belief in liberal Constitutional democracy -- an idea that is bigger than any person or party, and cannot be defeated by any human failure.

5. A commitment to the long haul -- The post-Goldwater conservatives believed from the start that they were in this battle not just for life, but for generations. To that end, they started early on to find and cultivate young conservatives, and founded institutions -- colleges, churches, media outlets -- that would serve as perpetual repositories and promoters of their vision. They were, and will continue to be, determined to bring down liberal democracy in America, and replace it with a hereditary aristocracy governed (at least nominally) by the Word of God. As long as that institutional infrastructure stands, they'll be producing soldiers to keep up the fight.

Right now, the Republicans are facing some bad moments. The recent sexual scandals may peel off some of their Evangelical base. The horror of Iraq, and the mounting financial scandals yet to come from it, are scaring off the investors whose funding they depend on. Americans are looking at the mess, and losing confidence in both the GOP vision and its leadership.

But Watergate did not stop these people. Iran-Contra barely slowed their pace. The embarrassment of the Clinton impeachment debacle hardly registered at all. If we think they're going to slink away quietly after today's defeat, we will only choose greater defeat for ourselves.

We may vote them out of Congress today. We might even, with luck, take back the Senate. We can make George Bush's next two years a living hell (and I hope we do). But let's not forget that these are True Believers with 40 years already invested in a vision -- and no matter how badly we thrash them at the ballot box or on the floor of Congress, they will not be going away.

The only way we can defeat them is:

1) Reaffirm our deep philosophical commitment to Constitutional principles as the guiding force for a truly American morality and politics

2) Draw our own vibrant narrative about the kind of America we want to create -- one that will not require much change or amendment, and which we can rely on to guide our choices for the next 50 years

3) Elevate and support that vision over the priorities any faction, any strategy, or any single leader. The ultimate criterion for all our choices should be: "How does this help manifest our vision?"

4) Have complete and unshakeable confidence in the inevitability of our own victory. We will win because we are keeping faith with the best ideals of America.

5) Realize that we and our children and grandchildren will be in this battle, probably fighting these same people, for as long as it takes to win. In the long term, defeating them will not mean defeating individuals or candidates, but rather the issues and institutions that feed their cause.

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