What if Progressive Activists Acted more like Corporate Lobbyists?
In an alternate, bizzarro universe, things have worked out very differently in the health care reform debate: President Obama is preparing to sign legislation that includes making Medicare available to all, stringent insurance industry regulations and the ability for Americans to import cheaper medications from abroad.
In this same alternate reality, lobbyists for insurance and pharmaceutical corporations are busy persuading their clients that this compromise represents a "win", even though it will cost them billions of dollars in lost revenue. In the editorial pages of the Washington Post, Aetna’s CEO defends the President and Democratic party leaders for failing to deliver for his industry, citing the intractability of rogue Senators and arcane rules surrounding the filibuster. “In his heart of hearts,” the CEO writes, “President Obama really understands the concerns of our fellow insurance corporations and has done his best within the realm of the possible”.
Back in the real world, that would never happen, of course.
In the real world, corporate lobbying interests consistently achieve their policy goals by ruthlessly fighting for legislative outcomes with little concern for the fate of the politicians involved. Progressive activists and issue organizations, on the other hand, seem to accept legislative compromises in order to defend the responsible elected officials.
Why do corporations have so much more success in influencing US legislation than progressive interest groups? A simple answer is that they have boatloads more money to work with. But by learning a thing or two from corporations in the areas of strategy and messaging, progressives might be able to replicate their level of success.
Separating Policy and Electoral Politics
Many of us believe that simply electing the right politicians will achieve our policy goals. Progressive activists and organizations contribute massive amounts of time, energy and money to elect candidates who campaign on policy positions we favor. And yet our hopes, fueled by campaign promises about policy specifics, are too often dashed once the candidates assume office.
Corporations, on the other hand, are able to advance their agenda regardless of who wins elections. This is because they understand politicians will say whatever is necessary to get elected. What they do once in office is determined by what group has the most power to make them vote their way.
Separating the Personal and the Political
One mistake I think progressives make is assuming a politician's primary objective is to enact policies they believe in. It's a tried and true campaign tactic: to persuade voters that the candidate shares their concerns, values and priorities.
Yet in reality, every politician's primary objective is to get elected and re-elected. If their core beliefs conflict with this primary objective, their beliefs will take second priority or they will be out of a job.
Corporate lobbyists use this as leverage. They make damn sure politicians understand there are strings attached to their campaign contributions and will not hesitate to withdraw their support in cases of non-compliance.
In contrast, many progressives cling to their belief in a politician's campaign narrative and maintain their support even when they are let down when it comes to policy results. Rationalizing the situation, progressives will argue that the politician they helped elect really wants to do the right thing, but has been prevented by outside forces beyond their control such as congressional procedure or the opposition of diabolical Republicans. With this rationalization, activists in effect block themselves from applying pressure upon the politician to fulfill the progressives' legislative agenda.
Emotional Attachment to Charismatic Authority Figures
Corporations don’t fall in and out of love with politicians. On the other hand, many progressives behave as if they had a personal relationship with President Obama. The conversation among progressives about recent policy disappointments has ranged from highly emotional defenses of the President’s good character to just as emotional accusations of a betrayal of personal trust.
Corporations realize that character is virtually irrelevant. There are no personality traits that make a politician immune to influence. The only variable is how to most effectively influence the key legislators: through campaign contributions, social networks of former staffers and personal contacts, negative advertising and opinion pieces, promises of cushy jobs in the private sector, or a combination of all the above.
Fear of Partisan Boogeymen
In most elections, corporations contribute nearly equal amounts to both parties, tilting towards one or the other depending on who is most likely to win. But progressives don't feel they have this kind of flexibility. The presidency of George W. Bush proved that Republican governance has disastrous effects.
This puts progressive activists in a tricky position. When we start making noise about Democratic legislative disappointments, there is a lot of fear that this criticism will favor Republicans' electoral chances. This fear results in another self-imposed conceptual obstacle to putting pressure on Democrats to do the right thing.
But maybe more pressure is what is needed: polls prove that progressive policy is popular. If Democrats can be made to get things on the progressive agenda done, this can only help when election time comes around. Progressive activists will be enthusiastic about campaigning and voters will see their lives improve.
I agree that we need to keep Republicans far away from the levers of power. But at the same time we also must have a strong "outside game", much like the conservative movement's, that can operate independently of electoral politics.
Lip Service and Political Theater
Corporate lobbyists seem to operate with the assumption that final legislation is all that matters. Anything that happens along the way is just theater.
During the health care debate, progressive activists and pundits rejoiced in statements by Democrats that indicated support for policies like the public option and drug reimportation. In the meantime, insurance and pharmaceutical industry lobbyists negotiated specifics of the legislation behind closed doors at the White House and on Capitol Hill. When the time came for actual votes, the public option was killed in the Senate bill as was drug reimportation. Despite the complexities of the "sausage making" process, the most powerful interests are able to determine the outcome.
Changing the Calculus
The current political calculus in DC says that if politicians want to get elected they must do what the corporations want them to. The consequences and rewards are made very obvious. Governing seems to mostly involve selling corporate-friendly legislation to constituents by persuading them it's in the people's interest or at least the best possible outcome.
But if progressives can make a realistic case that politicians face a greater danger to their careers if they fail to deliver on a progressive legislative agenda, that is when I think we will start to see real change.
This will require a shift in focus from seeing elections as ends in themselves (getting Democrats elected) to seeing elections as a means to an end (progressive legislation). It will require uniting the various issue groups around legislation as effectively as we have done around elections. This, in turn, requires a powerful infrastructure that can be independent of party machinery because the interests of politicians and those of activists are often at odds.
At the end of the day, while we can learn from their political tactics, progressive activists are very different from corporations. For one, corporations are not people. As non-humans, corporations don’t have emotional attachments to public figures or an affinity for narratives. I'm not advocating we become robots, but maybe a colder, more logical view of political reality will help us do a better job of winning legislative outcomes that benefit our fellow humans.