Election 2004  
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Is Liberalism Dead?

Adam Werbach argues that the moral and intellectual framework underpinning Democratic politics has become irrelevant. It's time to craft a new progressive vision of fulfillment.
 
 
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Adam Werbach is used to making a splash. He was a mere 23-year-old when he became the president of the Sierra Club, one of the biggest environmental groups in the country. He went on to co-found the Apollo Alliance, an organization that offers a bold, innovative plan to energy independence: strategic investments in fuel-efficient technologies that will create jobs, reduce consumption, decrease oil imports, and therefore reorient U.S. foreign policy. Yes, Werbach is a man of Big Ideas.

So it's hardly surprising that within days of the 2004 elections, Werbach was calling for a dramatic transformation of progressive politics. He circulated a short but powerful pamphlet titled, " November 3rd Theses," calling for "a new progressive politics for the new century." It soon became a clarion call to arms for the many progressives angry and disillusioned with the Democratic Party.

But Werbach is not done. Tonight, he will deliver a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco titled, "The Death of Environmentalism." But it's not just the environmental movement in Werbach's crosshairs. According to him, the entire liberal project has simply run out of gas. To succeed, progressives must first, to use his words, kick the dead body out of the car, before they can begin to create something new.

He spoke to AlterNet from his home in San Francisco.

Why do you think the Democrats lost to Bush?

The first point is that they lost, and lost big. I don’t want to minimize that point because many of our compatriots are still in denial.

You mean the stolen election stuff.

Do the Republicans cheat? Yes. If we focus solely on that do we miss the point? Yes. What we’re seeing right now is denial from the leaders who are saying some combination of the following three things. First, they’re saying we won (laughs). Even though the election results turned out poorly, everything we did was right. That’s delusional. So there’s a lack of accountability there. Second, they’re saying it was a mechanics problem, so we almost won. If we just tried a little hard or had been a little more organized. So it’s a matter of just a little bit of tweaking, around the edges. And then third, they’re saying it's money. This is the first election in my lifetime where we had a comparable amount of money to the Republicans, so I think it’s specious to say that.

So the first thing is to understand that the Democrats are now a minority party. To understand that we’ve been losing for a long time. We haven’t won the majority popular vote since Carter. Most importantly, we need to accept that the underlying moral intellectual framework of the Democratic Party – liberalism – is dead.

I’m talking here of the Depression-era, New Deal project, which Democrats championed, and that was liberalism. And it has been incredible. The liberal project created minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, Social Security. It was muscular militarily and ended fascism. It led toward civil rights. That’s our heritage. But in my mind, it was betrayed in the late '70’s and early '80’s, and at this point is a ghost. It’s exhausted. So that is the point of the election. And that is, in fact, more frightening.

The theory was that if we took all the Democratic interest groups and turned them out, if we took all the people who agreed with us on the issues, we would win. We turned out all those people and the interest groups – we still lost.

One of your November 3 Theses says that "the failure of the Democratic Party to connect with America’s desire for fulfillment is political death.” Is that why liberalism is dead?

Well, the liberal project was largely an economic project. It said people are rational economic actors and if you give them survival-based services, they will vote for you. Most Americans today are not survival-oriented; they’re fulfillment-oriented.

In a sense, you’re saying we’re a victim of our own success?

Yes, yes, that’s well said. We have changed the circumstances for most Americans and now we find ourselves unable to speak to them.

So what is this desire for fulfillment now?

It’s exactly what’s going on what I imagine in your life and my life, but we sort of patronizingly believe that the people we advocate for don’t have those same concerns. People are looking for something to believe in. They’re looking for meaning in life. They’re looking to be part of a broader project.

Democrats sort of imagine the poor as an "other" and objectify their needs, and wants, and desires.

As in we imagine them as these poor struggling souls who are basically trying to make ends meet and put food on the dinner table …

Right before they go clean chimneys. It’s patronizing. First of all, very few people define themselves as poor. Most people define themselves as middle-class. And people who define themselves as poor, for example, suffer more from obesity than starvation.

The way you hear this the most is that people voted against their self-interests. You hear that all the time. It exposes a defect in our thinking, which sees your self-interest as based on your economic status. It gives no credence to your fulfillment interest – this desire to believe in something.

Your point is that we need to move toward a new vision that addresses what people need now rather than what people needed in the past – i.e. a basic level of economic support?

No doubt, some people still do need that kind of help, and I don’t want to minimize their situation. But, yes, I think the majority of Americans are not looking for it the way they were looking for it during the Depression.

One of the standard progressive narratives is to speak for the little guy who is getting screwed. You're saying that kind of economic populism doesn't work any more?

I don’t think big corporations are holding me down. I may believe that in terms of our dependence on oil and things like that, but generally I don’t think that my daughter going to a good school has anything to do with big corporations, big outside forces. It’s basically how smart I am, how effective I am in my work. I think a lot of people share that.

But don't you think that we’ve seen the gap between rich and poor become incredibly huge? Things can only get worse with the Bush administration claiming a mandate.

Well, let me answer that in two ways. First, conservative economic policy hurts the people lowest down in the line, which creates more economic insecurity. When you’re feeling economically insecure, you’re going to look for something more to believe in. You’re going to search more for faith. And who are you going to look toward? This faith-driven conservative movement.

Likewise, when you’re scared because of terrorism and war, who are you going to look to? Conservatives. So the more scared you get, you look to conservatives. This is a positive feedback mechanism that they have set up.

It works the same way with the other liberal myth, which is that they’re going to overreach. In this case, the more they overreach, the more they affirm that position. So they have a feedback mechanism for overreaching—that’s what’ they’re supposed to do right now. It’s going to serve them better than not overreaching.

But progressives ultimately need to come up with a narrative, a vision, that addresses that insecurity and fear. So are you saying this is a battle we’re not going to win?

If things get worse people are not going to become economically more rational – that’s the point. The fact that despair is increasing – which it will – is not going to lead to the rebirth in liberalism. That’s not why they think that they’ve gotten this way, and it’s not how they think they’re going to get themselves out.

So you can’t really address it directly. It’s almost hackneyed to say it, but the antidote to fear is hope and opportunity. So we’ll need to talk about hope and opportunity because those are the other important things that people believe in.

OK, so what is a core element of this new narrative?

Simply stated, a soul. When I talk about fulfillment, I'm really talking about something I want to believe in and fight for. It should be a powerful antidote to fundamentalism, be as powerful as fundamentalism is to people. It should be unchallengeable in the way liberalism was in the post-Depression era.

I’m trying very hard not to go all the way into this. I see this as the winter of liberalism. We need to first accept that the liberal project is dead. We need to achieve that so we leave space for something else to grow. Progressivism is almost just a placeholder for what hasn’t been created yet.

Death is a very powerful experience, and out of it can come rebirth – all these wonderful opportunities. It’s sort of like we’ve been driving around with a dead body in the car for a while now. So the first thing really is to stop and kick it out. So I want not to jump past that. It’s also sort of arrogant to assume that I can just roll off what those values are really quickly.

So where does the Democratic Party fit into this? Does this model of focusing our energy and resources on a big national party organization have to be rethought?

Well, it does need to be rethought, although right now we don’t really have that. The Sierra Club’s annual budget is comparable to what the Democratic Party’s annual budget is in non-election years.

What you really have is power in the Democratic Party decentralized into these interest group institutions—Sierra Club, NAACP, NARAL, ACLU—which organize people in what we might call stove pipes rather than towards a single end, which is to build political power.

It is similar to the intelligence failure [over the 9/11 attacks]. The FBI and the CIA each had their particular institutional goals that they were trying to reach, but they didn't reach their common goal, which was protecting America. They failed at their primary mission even while they were succeeding at their institutional missions. I think that’s the same critique you can apply to interest groups—Democratic interest groups.

In your Theses you call for the "critical self-examination of the interest groups whose turf, and very identities, are treated as inviolable by Party chieftains." The weakness of progressive politics is that they tend to be organized as single-issue politics, right?

And identity politics.

So are you saying that we have to walk away from all that if we want to come up with a bold new vision?

Yeah, I think that’s right. That is central to the envisioning process. On a more fundamental level, that’s how we’re going to build political power.

For example, I’ve been trying to tell my friends at the Sierra Club that the most important battle for the Sierra Club in the next two years might be over public education. That is the battle line over collective activity, interdependence, the values we care about – much more so than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That's a skirmish along the way that’s not strategic. It's way off to the side.

James Dobson and Focus on the Family and all the evangelical groups believe they’ve won Social Security and a flat tax code at this point. Now they’re going after public education. They don’t believe that the government should be socializing Americans in non-religious education.

So they’re trying to dismantle public education.

Which would have deep ramifications.

Especially since we live in a market-based economy, where education is the only real guarantee of opportunity.

Taking away the inheritance tax was really frightening. When you have billionaires coming together and saying: 'No, this a bad idea' – that is stunning. And then if you take away public education, you basically have a frozen class system, a caste system, all of a sudden. If you don't have public education, that is really the end of the social compact.

Public education is important, [but] let’s talk about the role of the government in other areas. Do you think that the traditional liberal idea of an interventionist government is one of the things we have to rethink?

Absolutely. And that’s very difficult for me as having been a traditional environmentalist. One, it’s just not working – the government doesn’t have the capacity to do all the things that we want it to do. The government is not a good enough monitor of markets. It enables markets but it can’t constrain them in the way that it needs to.

To my mind bringing a more in-depth understanding of the Commons is part of the answer. Common ownership is communal and has really very little to do with government. It may be needed to produce rules for commons management, but ultimately most commons will be managed by neighborhoods – a community of citizens and states rather than necessarily being government-mandated.

You're talking about local self-government?

Local self-efficiency is part of it. Honest environmentalists have always understood that federal protection placed on local communities who don’t like them is not a sustainable model. It may work if you're on a triage table, but ultimately you need to have a consensus that works for everyone.

As the co-founder of the Apollo Alliance, do you believe that traditionally populist solutions – as in expanded government spending, punishing corporations, protectionism – are effective in dealing with something like outsourcing?

Right. These are the hard questions that we need to answer before we can decide what the new values and policies look like. For example, if a job gets moved to India and someone in India now has an opportunity they never had before, is that necessarily a bad thing? Now, we might say: We need to deal with transitional industries in the United States and other such things. But to reflectively say outsourcing is bad is just simplistic, and, truthfully, sort of jingoistic.

The Apollo Alliance's solution would instead be to think more creatively about job creation here, right?

Yeah, that’s where I think local self-sufficiency and things like that come in. At Apollo, we talked to a number of start-up solar companies, energy companies. And all of them are basically trying to create patents [for the technology] and so the manufacturing would happen elsewhere.

I thought we couldn’t work with them for a long time. We have two issues. One of them is that we need to lower the cost of technology – not just in the United States but everywhere – so that China can introduce these things, not just western European countries and the United States.

Secondly, we need to find technology that needs to be built locally. For example, wind turbines can’t be shipped across oceans. The turbines have to be made close to where they are actually going to be installed. It actually decentralizes production, which is good.

Right, and they create jobs in the local economy. What is the role of government in this process?

The government could help make the market. In this case, it guarantees investment. We’ve been looking deeply at Fannie Mae and what it does for home ownership. America is one of the only countries that have a 30-year mortgage—most countries have 15 or ten. That increases home ownership in America tremendously, and it increases individual personal wealth. It was a government policy that created Fannie Mae. So we’re looking at what we’d call Effie Mae, as in an energy efficiency trust.

What you've been describing is a radical transformation in how liberals think about and do politics. How do we bring that about?

The Sierra Club needs to see its goal as building political power that will eventually achieve its environmental objectives. Not its first goal as being to achieve its environmental objectives. Take the NRA. They go to pro-gun control districts and run ads on tax reform in, say, Colorado because they know it will get their people the votes—and that’s fine with them.

The environmental movement, on the other hand, said nothing about the war. How can any movement that claims to be a political movement say nothing about the war? Even though we know that the [diplomatic] relationships that Bush was shredding are exactly what we require for international cooperation on global environmental problems.

How do you think we ended up here: becoming just a bunch of single-issue interest groups held together loosely by a larger party?

This is a left-wing conspiracy. Foundations push toward this. The Democratic Party has always pushed this model. Each president has a labor liaison, an environment liaison, and so on. You then negotiate with this people to bring their little piece to the president and the president says what to do. It’s institutionalized in this way.

I’m most critical of environmentalism because it’s where I come from but we have a lot of money here, probably two or three billion dollars a year. It’s outrageous. And it doesn’t really produce very much for that. Every global ecological indicator is tanking right now.

Is there anything that you think is worth keeping? We talk about things that we need to junk in terms of the way we …

I do think that the Sierra Club, for example, is one of the groups that has the capacity to make that change. They have a grassroots base. They get people in real communities working on real issues. But I think that groups like NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council] are going to find it more challenging because they rely on the idea that if you have smart scientists and lobbyists, you can actually win the day. I think that is discredited at this point.

So what should our strategy be for the next four years? Do we just watch Bush dismantle everything from the sidelines? Go local?

We should fight everything. An opposition party fights. An opposition party does not negotiate. Anyone who tries to negotiate right now should not be welcomed. I have made it very clear to any environmental leader who tries to negotiate a global warming deal in the next four years should bear the wrath of all of us. And there are people looking to do that. There are deals to be made, but they’re all bad deals. You don’t negotiate from a position of weakness, and we’re in a position of weakness. So, the first thing is to fight. There’s no reason to aid them in their quest.

Or give them any excuse to look more moderate when they’re not.

Right. So first thing is to fight, and the second is to provide bold solutions that may lose – that may lose badly. Let’s say that the first $80,000 of everyone’s income should be tax-free. Let’s offer to pay a mother and father to stay at home and raise their child. Let them fight against motherhood. They’re cloaking themselves in motherhood, but they don’t really care about mothers.

So the point is not to be pragmatic anymore?

Yeah, at this moment we’re freed from the reliance on the incrementalists.

What about someone who gave all their money to organizations, called voters every night, flew down to Florida to help on Election Day? What are these people supposed to do now?

Well, forgive themselves. My wife went to Florida. It’s not her fault. It’s not mechanics—that's not why we lost. So first, forgive ourselves. Second, hold the leaders accountable.

And by that you mean?

Pretty much throw out the leaders who came in during the Watergate era and have now outlived their usefulness. They’re all looking for power now. That’s the thing that frightens me most: the deals. They want to say they did something. All of sudden there’s all this respect for red states. They’re searching to make a compromise to show that they can work together.

And what else can the average progressive do? Some people are saying it's time focus on the local level, be it districts or getting on the states' rights bandwagon.

I think they’re all good things. But the liberal creed is don’t mourn, organize. For a moment, at least, we have to not organize, but mourn. That is what is going to give us the power to build something really good.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of AlterNet. This is the third in a series of interviews that AlterNet plans to publish as part of its "Take America Back" coverage, which tries to make sense of the 2004 elections and put forward the best ideas on how to move ahead. Read the other interviews with Tom Frank and Adrian Wooldridge .