Sacred America series #23
by Stephen Dinan
Today, my pendulum of analysis swings back to the left to look at what needs to happen for the liberal wing to evolve to the next level. I will focus on a single aspect of that evolution: competition.
Competition is often perceived as an unseemly thing on the left, rather beneath the lofty ideals and generous rhetoric. Competition is seen as overly masculine, polarizing, and ego-inflating. It's far more enticing to deal in pleasing platitudes and discuss alliances and win-win solutions.
The truth is, though, that political power is gained and lost through as fiercely competitive a game as exists, one in which all of the forces in a society, from big money to labor unions, from backroom insiders to media pundits, are all competing to influence minds and garner votes.
The right-wing is fiercely competitive and ruthless about winning. Over the last decades, we've seen a surge in a win-at-all-costs-and-throw-morals-out-the-door attitude. Karl Rove is not only the top Republican strategist, he's also the dirtiest. He will lie, cheat, manipulate, and break just about any rule he can to gain competitive advantage for his candidates. This is well-documented and not particularly hidden, as movies such as Bush's Brain have shown.
The left-wing needs to get over its allergy to competition or it will conspire in the continued dismantlement of our country by some of the least conscious (but most competitive) elements of the right-wing. It's a moral obligation for those who care about sustainability, for instance, to understand how to politically outcompete the forces that want to pillage resources for short-term profit.
Democrats are failing miserably at this first rule of competition. The overwhelming evidence of massive voter fraud in the last election, chronicled ably by Robert Kennedy Jr. in his recent Rolling Stone article and in books such as Mark Crispin Miller's Fooled Again, should have Democratic leadership apoplectic. The Democratic leadership should be taking out full-page advertisements in the New York Times to alert the public to the gross breach of the public trust. It should be in courts and in the headlines. It should be the focal point of massive campaigns. Instead, even polite discussion of the extent of the fraud are considered in poor taste.
This is, quite simply, the mentality of people who don't know how to compete. If you let opponents break the rules without penalty, you've granted yourself permanent underdog status and encouraged even more egregious violations. Until Democratic leadership takes the dishonorable breaches of our electoral process on with passionate intensity, it frankly hasn't earned its right to rule again. If elections are not clean, all the money we are asked to invest in them is essentially wasted.
The second rule of competition after the first has been addressed is studying your opponent's tactics and beating them at their own game by sculpting your game to optimally compete with theirs. If the left-wing is truly more advanced (as we tend to believe), then it should prove quite easy to study the tactics of the right-wing, duplicate what works well and then innovate beyond them. If the conservative mind is less able to innovate by virtue of being more wedded to old patterns of thinking, then it should be easy for us to outcompete.
It's like a chess match in which we study the opponent's strengths and weaknesses, then devise ways to counter their moves. In business, the golden rule is to imitate, then innovate, moving as quickly as possible to gain market share. Good business people study what is working well for competitors, replicate the best they have to offer and then add improvements that competitors have not yet thought of.
Politically, if the right-wing has sophisticated training programs for their eventual candidates, then the left-wing should create even better ones. If Fox is effectively marketing conservative perspectives, then we need to create a progressive media empire that is twice the size, with higher integrity, better entertainment value, and twice the influence. If the left is simply unable to organize itself well enough to create such a progressive media force, then it is not competing effectively.
Democrats are failing at this second rule of competition. The systems of training and advancing candidates are simply better on the right-wing. The network of think tanks and media outlets is more cohesive. Democrats are not replicating the best of right-wing tactics, much less adding greater innovation and insight. Instead, they indulge in throwing stones at the right and mocking it, which is a poor substitute for outcompeting it.
The third rule of competition is to understand what is actually required to win. In the case of political elections, characteristics like charisma, affability, financial success, and attractiveness are important since the ultimate judges of the winners of the game are the voting public. Americans like attractive, successful, powerful people who are also down-to-earth. Republicans recognize this and will actively recruit people like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarznegger, who are not remotely qualified politically, but they are perfectly suited to win elections by virtue of their personality. Once in office, they are then surrounded by people who have political and operational expertise. The candidate's primary and most important job is to be the public face for the philosophy, and thus to win elections.
The left instead offers up candidates who are very smart and accomplished but not particularly charming or often even likable. In California's recent primary, polled Democrats felt Steve Westly, the State controller, had a better chance at beating Arnold Schwarznegger than Phil Angelides. And yet Democrats voted for Angelides, who seemed to have more solid experience and expressed their progressive values. That may or may not turn out to be a wise choice but what was interesting to me is that it revealed how Democrats were more concerned with voting their conscience than with voting to win. This exemplifies how the left tends to put ideals ahead of competitive instincts. The result is that less conscious and capable Republicans gain office because they are more appealing as candidates.
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