Monday, March 29, 2010

The Lobby, the Left, and Political Power

One often sees comments about how the 'Israel lobby' runs US foreign policy... at least with regards to Israel. I think its useful to dig a little deeper than that. Not because I doubt the statement, but because thinking and observing the details of 'how' they do this is a useful guide to the left as to how it can gain influence.

The 'lobby' (that's the shorthand I'll use) has political power from two different actions it can take. The first is that it is a reliable supplier of money and some volunteers to its 'friends' in Congress. But, to me its real power stems from its second action, which is the way it comes in hard against anyone it deems an opponent in congress. Get on the lobby's bad side, and a congressperson will find themselves with either a tough primary or general election challenge with the 'lobby' aggressvely financing that campaign and whipping up lots of voluteers and people for that campaign. The latter is used both to remove people who aren't friends, but also to serve as an object lesson for any others who dare to cross them.

So, for a member of Congress, the choice is either to side with the 'lobby' and recieve some support, or to oppose the lobby and face an opponent who is getting massive support.

Meanwhile, there is no active strong political force on the other side. Even though congress votes nearly unamiously for every resolution the lobby puts forward, I can't think of a single case where anyone has paid a political price for voting in favor of Israel. This makes the political calculation pretty much of a no-brainer for any professional politician in congress. Vote with the lobby and get some support and little or no opposition. Vote against the lobby, and you might get a little activist support, but then also face very well financed opposition. Given that political equation, its little wonder that most professional politicians support the lobby.

There are lessons here that go far beyond Israel and the US policy towards that little nation. This is an example of how to both build and weild political power in America today.

In contrast, its obvious that the left has zero political power in America. On Israel, its views aren't even considered in Congress. And on issues like the health care debate, the left didn't even have the political power to get a symbolic hearing on 'single-payer'. No politician in Washington feels the slightest trepidation about stiffing the left on any issue. All of this are signs that the left has zero political power today.

To me, this is quite understandable since in my lifetime the left has practiced two political strategies that have led them to this point. One was a tendenancy to withdraw completely from 'electoral politics'. This of course leaves the left with no friends in politics and no opponents who are wary of the left's political power. Withdrawing from electoral politics clearly and obviously leads to having zero political power.

The other political strategy is one of backing the Democrats at all times. The last election is a classic case of this. Lets look just at the issue of 'health care' as a curent example which is on people's minds. The two leading Democrats both said they favored health care reform that looked a lot like the bill that passed. Hillary had a plan that openly supported 'mandates' forcing people to become customers of the health insurance companies. Since 'mandates' didn't poll well, Obama expressed opposition to this detail, but still supported the same sort of 'reform' that left the health insurance companies in charge of health care. Neither candidate expressed any support for a 'single-payer' sort of solution.

Yet, the voting block of 'leftist' voters in this country strongly supported both Obama for President and the Democrats in Congress. The two presidential candidates from the left who supported other solutions than this pro-health insurance company plan got negligible numbers of votes. 0.68% (according to this wikipedia post ..,_2008)

Today, you can hear many voices from the left complaining about this health care plan, but where were they on election day? Lining up to vote Democrat apparently.

Given those results, its no wonder that the Democrats didn't pay any attention to the left on health care. Those professional politicians were given a choice between supporting lobbyists who promised them lots of financing in future elections versus some leftists who couldn't even muster 1% of the vote.

However, in terms of the views of American citizens, Progressive Review gives these poll results (originally from Yes Magazine)

* 64% believe the government should provide national health insurance coverage for all Americans, even if it would raise taxes.
* 55% favor one health insurance program covering all Americans, administered by the government, and paid for by taxpayers.

Yet, on election day these majority blocks of American voters directly supported candidates who opposed these views. The eventual political result from that was inevitable. All that's left now is the whining of the people who say this is what they want but who instead voted Democrat.

So, now compare the tactics of the 'lobby' and its resulting political power in Washington with the tactics of the left and its resulting lack of political power. What you see in Washington is no accident. Its just the direct reflection of the amounts of political power that each group has in America today.

The left needs to learn a lesson here. The left needs to adopt political tactics and strategy that lead it towards greater political power. Having the politically suicidal tactics of either withdrawing from politics or of actively supporting those who oppose the left is clearly not working.

So, instead of just complaining about the power of the lobby, watch closely how they have achieved their political power. Most writing doesn't seem to do this, and instead just complains about the lobby as if it was some natural force that's beyond any human intervention. This isn't true. The left can clearly build its political power in the same way.

The one difference is that any leftist effort will need to concentrate more on mobilizing grassroots power and less on money. That's a natural given where the left's strengths lie. Any leftist political effort is going to have to concnetrrate on grassroots power and using that power to defeat well-funded opponents. But that's a detail in tactics, and not a real strategic concern. In terms of strategy, the question is just one of how to use the resources available.

In terms of strategy, the left needs to concentrate on helping its freinds and in opposing its enemies. And especially the left needs to stop supporting its enemies just because there's a (D) after their name.

In terms of Israel, the left needs to start making congress people pay a price for their support of atrocious Israeli actions. The interesting thing is that they don't have to win elections themselves in order to do this. The left simply needs to run independent campaigns that take votes away from the Democrats. Since the left is in a very weak state politically, it probably needs to find just a few campaigns to focus its resources on and build from there. Find Democrats who represent progressive districts but who stiff those voters on Israel, support for the wars, defense budgets, wall street bailouts, health care and other issues. Then run independent (or third party) campaigns that deliberately try to cause the defeat of those Democrats.

Then, once the left has suceeded in retiring some its targets from Congress, go back and make this point to other congresspeople that there is indeed a price to pay for actions like their unquestioning political support for Israel.

If the left can make politicians more afraid of the wrath of the left than of the wrath of the lobby, then this policy (and many others) will start to change.

So, don't just talk about 'the lobby' and how powerful it is. Understand how it became powerful and what to do to try to counter-balance that power.

Or, just remember the old Kennedy family motto .... Don't get mad. Get even.

Its time for the left to start getting even with some Democrats by deliberately causing their defeats.

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