From the Top Down: the Root of Failure for a Radical Moderate

In an opinion piece for the New York Times earlier this week, columnist David Brooks took issue with what he called "The Milquetoast Radicals" engaged in the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protest in downtown Manhattan, arguing that "the moderates in suits are much more radical than the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or the Tea Party-types."  The funny thing though is that the anarchists camping out on Wall Street have created a discursive space for the articulation of the policies espoused by the "radical suits" celebrated by Brooks.  I can only conclude that Brooks has not spent much if any time down at the demonstration's encampment, otherwise he might have learned that there is no lack of "radical suits" to be found there.  

Indeed, those who are most critical of the occupation protests often appear to be the most ignorant of them.  As I noted the other day, Herman Cain has asked why people are protesting on Wall Street but not at the White House.  Cain clearly has no idea what he is talking about, as Occupy DC has been camped out a block away from the White House for two weeks.  Alex Jones has argued that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are pawns of George Soros, since otherwise they would be protesting at the Federal Reserve.  Yet OWS protesters have staged numerous demonstrations outside the Federal Reserve building in New York, as have protesters in Boston, Chicago, Washington DC and elsewhere.  One of the most common criticisms that has been leveled against the protests is that the demonstrators are "disorganized and incoherent."  Yet they are organized and coherent enough to have created an infrastructure to maintain their presence for a full month while gaining the attention of the national and international press.

But back to Brooks.  There is a critical contradiction at the heart of Brooks' analysis.  He is among the handful of commentators in the corporate media who have come out in support of Americans Elect, along with other moderate and centrist advocates such as Matt Miller at the Washington Post, John Avlon at The Daily Beast and Tom Friedman at the New York Times.  As regular readers will surely understand, I am not unsympathetic to this position.  In his article, Brooks backs a recent piece by Miller.  He writes:
Look, for example, at a piece Matt Miller wrote for The Washington Post called “The Third Party Stump Speech We Need.” Miller is a former McKinsey consultant and Clinton staffer. But his ideas are much bigger than anything you hear from the protesters: slash corporate taxes and raise energy taxes, aggressively use market forces and public provisions to bring down health care costs; raise capital requirements for banks; require national service; balance the budget by 2018.
But what are the reforms that Brooks himself champions?  He writes in his intro:
Do tax reform, fiscal reform, education reform and political reform so that when the economy finally does recover the prosperity is deep, broad and strong.
Let's put aside the fact that there are already organized working groups at Occupy Wall Street that are specifically devoted to fiscal reform, education reform, political reform and so on.  Notice anything missing from the NYT columnist's list of necessary reforms?  That's right, electoral reform.  If we are going to break free from the Republican-Democrat political straitjacket that has paralyzed our politics and emaciated our political discourse, if we are going to implement the ideas that can be found in the ideal "third party stump speech," it will require serious electoral reform.  It will require experimentation with everything from alternative voting methods to ballot access reform to proportional representation to independent redistricting reform to open primaries and so on.  Yet such ideas are nowhere to be found among the proposals forwarded by Brooks, though they are common currency among the real radical moderates in the third party and independent blogosphere.  The operative flaw in Brooks's analysis becomes clear in the concluding lines of his article.  He writes:
Don’t be fooled by the clich├ęs of protest movements past. The most radical people today are the ones that look the most boring. It’s not about declaring war on some nefarious elite. It’s about changing behavior from top to bottom. [Emphasis added.]
False.  It's about changing behavior from the bottom up!  The notion that the types of reform advocated by Brooks himself can be accomplished "from top to bottom" reeks of authoritarianism and the delusional messianic faith in the imperial presidency common among Republicans and Democrats alike.  Real change will begin from the bottom up.  And it will begin with reforms that level the playing field for the 99% who are unrepresented by the two-party state and duopoly system of government.  Brooks may fancy himself a radical but he fails to get to the root of the problem.

4 comments: said...

You raise a lot of interesting points; some with which I agree, others with which I disagree. But I do want to focus on the electoral reform issue you mentioned.

My entire professional "career" - if you can call it that - has largely revolved around reform efforts. I basically gave up and decided to build a third party because I don't think you can get to reform without breaking into the system first.

Maybe I'm parsing words, but it seems like you have the causal order different, implying that we need reforms to have successful third parties. I think it's just the opposite: you need third parties to get reforms.

Of course, this is all part of my experiment, right? I just have this gut instinct (actually, there's tons of data to back it up) that if a third party were to put something out in a way that appeals to mainstream voters, they could win elections in the current system.

You can even break it down into supply and demand. We know the demand is out there, but unless and until we get the supply side right, i.e., put forth a third party that has broad appeal, we're not going to be successful. This is why I think it's a cop-out to imply that we can't be successful without reforms.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

Change comes from all up and down the spectrum of power. Not all the change that is good comes from the bottom, and certainly not everything that comes from the top is bad. Doesn't matter where it comes from, the content is what matters.

d.eris said...

Damn it. Blogger ate my comment (which was kind of long-ish, I've gotta start typing comments elsewhere and then cut/paste). But I'm running out of the house right now. Will get back to you later.

TiradeFaction said...

Someone like Brooks calling himself "radical" gives me quite a laugh for some reason.

But onto matters of substance. I agree with you, in this instance, the change that's needed will likely come from the bottom up (if it's to come at all), and in general am very sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street (and as I said earlier, will probably get involved). But that doesn't mean in every case, change from the top down is bad, even if it may at times, be "authoritarian". For example, the Ku Klux Klan, were, indeed a grassroots movement. I wouldn't exactly call their era of meaningful influence a good thing...

On the other hand, desegregating public schools in the south east, which was very top down, was a positive change in direction IMO. And it was most certainly fiercely opposed by the (white) locals. Hell, they had to bring in the troops just to protect the black students from harm from the locals. When George Wallace stood in front of the University of Alabama to obstruct desegregation, he wasn't some fringe extremist, he was acting out on the majority view of the issue (in Alabama at least).

So, it's best not to be an absolutist (no, I'm not saying you are at all, just speaking in a general sense), and evaluate each situation on it's own.