Thursday, November 07, 2013

A tidbit to chew on: where do the politically committed go?

As Mayor Bloomberg's tenure in New York City reaches an end, Chrystia Freeland makes an observation.

Part of the appeal of plutocratic politics is their power to liberate policy making from the messiness and the deal making of grass-roots and retail politics. In the postwar era, civic engagement was built through a network of community organizations with thousands of monthly-dues-paying members and through the often unseemly patronage networks of old-fashioned party machines, sometimes serving only particular ethnic communities or groups of workers.

The age of plutocracy made it possible to liberate public policy from all of that, and to professionalize it. Instead of going to work as community organizers, or simply taking part in the civic life of their own communities, smart, publicly minded technocrats go to work for plutocrats whose values they share. The technocrats get to focus full time on the policy issues they love, without the tedium of building, rallying — and serving — a permanent mass membership. They can be pretty well paid to boot.

The Democratic political advisers who went from working on behalf of the president or his party to advising the San Francisco billionaire Thomas F. Steyer on his campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline provide a telling example. Twenty years ago, they might have gone to work for the Sierra Club or the Nature Conservancy or run for public office themselves. Today, they are helping to build a pop-up political movement for a plutocrat.

I think she is on to something. In my youth, the politically concerned threw themselves in leftish proto-"revolutionary" struggles and disdained the prosaic practice of U.S. politics. I'm not going to say we were all wrong -- the complacent racist and sexist society of the Vietnam era needed a good shaking. But aside from a few stalwarts, mostly African American community leaders like John L. Lewis, those of us who insisted on maintaining critical distance, on staying "outside" the system, ceded a lot of everyday power to people who didn't share our values.

A subsequent generation of political types, the cohort of the Reagan/Clinton era "free market" era, threw themselves into the sort of non-profit policy advocacy organizations Freeland references. There didn't seem to be anywhere else to be. And her characterization of the allure of plutocrat-funded "pop-up political movements" to contemporary young techies seems apt, if maybe too glib.

Freeland is an accomplished journalist, the author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, a book that deserves a lot more attention among my progressive friends than I'm aware that it has received. Interestingly, having chronicled the damage the super rich are doing to democracy, Freeland now seems to have joined the political fray herself. A Canadian, she's a a Liberal Party candidate for Parliament. (That positions her as a left liberal, even a socialist, in U.S. terms, though probably merely a solid centrist citizen in her own.)

This post was queued up before I left for Bhutan.

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