Thursday, January 08, 2009

Welcome to the world of the "rootsgap" -- the gap between political leaders and their base


Conservative icon Ronald Reagan -- now there's a political
leader who was in tune with his base. (Um, wasn't he?)

"There is a serious leadership gap in this country. And by leadership gap, I mean something very specific, so specific that I'm going to give it a name. I call it a 'rootsgap'. A rootsgap occurs when a leadership is dramatically out of step with its base or the public at large."
-- Matt Stoller, announcing his (temporary?) leave-taking from OpenLeft

by Ken

I could have sworn I wrote about it here, but I can't find any trace of such a post. It was, I'm guessing, a year or two ago that I attended a panel discussion on the uses of new media in political life, and Matt Stoller, as a member of the panel, had to sit there and listen as the moderator read something that he had written. I wish I could remember what it was, which is how I came to search for that phantom earlier piece. I'm going to guess that it had something to do with the political establishment pays lip service to the new media, and in an awkward and tentative way tries to exploit them, but has no real regard for them and considers the practitioners barely worthy of contempt. That's a point I've seen Matt make a number of times.

Whatever this excerpt was that the moderator read, it was, in a word, brilliant -- taking a fresh angle on a familiar subject and coming up with an insight I'd never encountered expressed so clearly. I remember being green with envy; how often does that happen in a writer's life? Being surprised to have something you've written read back at you in a public setting, and it's something any writer in the room with any sense -- and the auditorium contained a lot of writers -- would have given anything to have written. As I recall, Matt handled the situation with perfect aplomb, seeming not to recognize himself as the author, but expressing strong agreement with the sentiments expressed.

As a writer, Matt has this ability I envy to say things I wish I'd said, only better than I could have said them. He also has the ability to look at a familiar set of circumstances and suggest a way of arranging them that makes sense of them, or at least makes them matter, in a way that never occurred to them, something I envy even more -- and something we're going to come back to in a moment.

Most likely you're familiar with Matt as one of the founders and principal voices -- along with Mike Lux and Chris Bowers -- of the OpenLeft blog. He's the bloggers' blogger, the most immersed in the broadest range of the nitty-gritty of U.S. political life, and also the most attentive to the development of the progressive blogosphere. He's really, really smart, yet at the same time, for all the strength of his convictions, he also has the ability, not at all automatic with really smart people, to backtrack on a stand he's taken and acknowledge that he missed the point on this one. I could express wonder that all this wisdom has been accumulated at such a relatively tender age, but that might appear petty.

It may sound as if I'm writing an obituary. Quite the contrary. Matt has made an utterly logical and yet fascinating career jump, as he announced to OpenLeft readers Tuesday:
I won't be blogging at OpenLeft for some time. I've taken a job inside the House of Representatives (more on that when I've cleared what I can say) to see how the place works and to help create the space for more progressive policies.

The piece was titled "Solving the Rootsgap," and it's a thoughtful, even challenging piece, which I encourage everyone to read. I can't say I'm crazy about the word "rootsgap," but then, to my ear "roots" doesn't compound well -- I kind of hate "netroots" too. But I guess you learn to live with the words if they stand for useful concepts.

Here's how Matt defines "rootsgap":
Ultimately what I've learned, from many of you as much as from the task of writing for the public for the last five years, is that there is a serious leadership gap in this country. And by leadership gap, I mean something very specific, so specific that I'm going to give it a name. I call it a 'rootsgap'. A rootsgap occurs when a leadership is dramatically out of step with its base or the public at large.

And he goes on to give what we might call his Example A:
In the 1970s, the conservative base felt consistently sold out by its politicians, like Gerald Ford, who pushed centrist unpopular pieces of legislation, like the Panama Canal Treaty, through the levers of government. Birth control, abortion, public sector unions, civil rights, consumer rights, the Equal Rights Amendment - all of these provoked a fierce reaction from the conservative base who felt betrayed by the Republican politicians who did not oppose liberalization fast enough.

However, beginning with the 1978 midterm election, the New Right found its voice, which was then steadily consolidated:
After literally forty years of organizing, we are now in a situation where the town of DC is entirely populated by the ghosts of the New Right, in both parties. Tax cuts are deified, the national security state is beyond reproach, and the economy of conservative political influence can prevent nationalized elections from having impacts on policy, as the election of 2006 showed. The conservatives fully closed their rootsgap -- their political leadership and their activist base are in many ways indistinguishable. This is both useful for conservative ideologues, and a problem for the political system at large. Politicians shouldn't be conservative movement activists, they should be politicians representing all the people.

Now we move to Example B of a rootsgap:
The Democrats have the opposite problem. Our politicians, who believe that the press is basically an honest mediator, and that expertise is honestly held within elite universities, do not consider the base particularly important. And on the more difficult issues, the public is rarely considered a possible source of political support.

He makes some observations about the history of the Democratic rootsgap, then observes:
The rootsgap has been the single most salient feature of modern American politics, at least since I've been paying attention. It cuts across economic issues, media policy, foreign policy, national security, civil liberties, you name it. Conservative (and often bipartisan) political elites ignore, usually the left but often the public itself, with almost no political consequences.

He cites Joe Lieberman as someone who "built an entire career, and even elevated himself to be the Vice Presidential candidate, on this feature." (For the specifics of the Lieberman example, I refer you to the full text.)

While being careful to establish that the Republican rootsgap of 40 years ago and the Democratic one of today are not equivalent, he fleshes out the familiar accusation that liberals are hopelessly out of touch with their base, and always have been in this country, bringing it to the present day.
The right presents us with a model, though an imperfect model, of organizing, of closing this rootsgap. That is why Reagan is such a hero (or anti-hero) to people like Obama, because Reagan was the messenger for a wave of grassroots organizing that changed the country profoundly in a conservative direction.

But Reagan, he insists, didn't simply ride the wave of the base he identified with; he led them.
Movements must have leaders, and these leaders must both listen to, lead, and be led by the activists and the public that supports them. There must be bonds of trust, even with inevitable disagreement. The right built up those bonds over forty years.

And leadership, as part of "a vibrant progressive world," is going to be needed all the more necessary in the challenging times we face now. There is a strong suggestion that leadership is not what we're getting from our new president-elect.
Liberals have been correct about the war in Iraq, the financial meltdown, the Bankruptcy Bill, the deficit, the Patriot Act, and, well, pretty much everything. What they haven't been is powerful enough to prevent the mistakes the country has made. And this is a leadership problem that we can and will fix.

As a movement, we need to be promoting and helping our leaders make the right decisions, pick the right policies, and surround themselves with individuals who will frame policy choices in real human terms, without the weak bromides that mask the cruel impact of bad policy decisions. That's the problem I want to start solving. And so I'll be moving away from public blogging, though I'm pretty sure I will return eventually, perhaps soon. Politics is always volatile.

Now there are some things that give me pause here, and not just in my much-compressed rendering. I think Matt is unquestionably right about the Republicans having had a very different kind of connection with the conservative base from the one Democrats have with the progressive one. But the nature of that connection seems to me more complex. Most of the Republican leadership had even less use for the conservative base than Democratic leaders have for the progressive one. They learned the language, and they learned how to manipulate the concerns. Maybe it doesn't matter, because in the end, the result is exactly what Matt describes. I just wonder if at some point that needs to figure into the equation, just as the stereotype of the elitist liberal out of touch with the common man sidesteps the reality of a frequently greater concern for, and even identification with, those surly rootsfolk, who nevertheless perceive something quite different.

As it happens, I have just resumed my reading of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, after a months-long hiatus at about the 150-page mark. I always knew I would come back to it; I just needed to wait for a time when I could give it the attention and concentration it demands. And I've been plunged into the year 1966, as Nixon calculates his totally improbable and unexpected resurgence, basically by coopting the new conservative movement that had organized around the Goldwater presidential candidacy of 1964. Goldwater had of course been trounced by Lyndon Johnson, in one of the great landslides in U.S. political history. Only two years later, Nixon understood the soundness of the basic strategy, but for him it was only strategy.

Nixon understood how dramatically the country had changed in those two years since the LBJ landslide. And Perlstein lays out in detail the obtuseness of old-style liberals like then-California Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown (the father of the state's former governor and current attorney general, Edmund "Jerry" Brown), not seeing the gulf that had opened up between them and their constituencies. And yet it still seems to me that, easy as those liberals were to parody, they still had a better understanding of those constituents' needs than, say, Ronald Reagan, who in 1966 -- four years after Pat Brown had won his second term as California governor, thereby ending the political career of Richard Nixon (or so it was thought) -- demolished Brown's bid for a third term, winning 58 percent of the vote.

As I say, these quibbles may not matter to the thrust of Matt's argument, but if we're talking about the relationship of political leadership to bases, I think they're at least worth throwing in. Conservatives may have worshiped Reagan, but I'm not sure they really had much in common. I think Ronald and Nancy Reagan had a contempt bordering on active loathing for the "common" man, and outside elections spent approximately zero time in the company of anyone remotely common by their standards, according to which common would have meant "nonrich."

I don't think Reagan really had a philosophy. He didn't hate unions because he had a philosophy; he hated unions because he had outgrown them by casting his lot with the rich. And of course while he may have paid lip service to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps in this land of opportunity, no life could be a worse illustration of this than his. Granted, he was able to do every job he was handed, but the fact is that he was handed every job he got, and that his life really changed when he was adopted by his soon-to-be peers in plutopia. And of course considering the direction "movement" conservatism has taken since Reagan's time, the idea of him as spiritual father is grotesque -- he wasn't the least bit religious, and hardly made more than a perfunctory attempt to conceal it.

Then too, when I go back to Matt's definition of "rootsgap" and find, "A rootsgap occurs when a leadership is dramatically out of step with its base or the public at large," it occurs to me belatedly to wonder whether these aren't two way too different things, "its base" and "the public at large," to be shoehorned into the same kind of leadership gap. Can "rootsgap" really cover both? Are they really the same thing?

Again, I don't know whether, or how much, any of this matters. I consider it, in fact, a tribute to the substance of the argument Matt has laid out that these considerations even arise. I would love to hear some reactions from our readers to his piece.

I'm sure both Matt and we are going to be surprised by the discoveries he'll have to report, when he checks back in with us, based on his experience inside the belly of the beast.


I'm sure we'll all miss Matt's regular presence on OpenLeft, but talk about picking up the slack! Already on the job as an official regular OpenLeft blogger is none other than our good friend David Sirota. When it comes to real-deal progressive-activist credentials, and also the ability to write lucidly and engagingly about those issues, David is pretty much in a class by himself.

Good luck all around!

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At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Liberals have been correct about the war in Iraq, the financial meltdown, the Bankruptcy Bill, the deficit, the Patriot Act, and, well, pretty much everything. What they haven't been is powerful enough to prevent the mistakes the country has made."

Disagree entirely.

The important thing to remember from the last 8 (or 16) years is that liberal democrats were in large part complicit backers of those policies.

At 3:18 PM, Anonymous Dreamer said...

"The important thing to remember from the last 8 (or 16) years is that liberal democrats were in large part complicit backers of those policies."

I tend to read Ken's statement as more referring to liberals outside of the political/media mainstream(the bloggers, academics, etc), there's little denying that Democrats both liberal, centrist and Rethug-wing have been by and large complicit.

Getting back to the concept of a rootsgap, it reads more like a term referring to a base than the public at large. The figurative roots of a movement, the base. At first look the rootsgap of the Republicans is quite prosaic, really boils down to a failure to follow through on the lip service to the base... either through corruption or just plain hypocrisy. Whether it is on sex, pork or religion. From Craig and Vitter through to Rove.

The true rootsgap comes from the fact that the Republican establishment has managed to instil a set of values and drives into the base that are at odds with the base's needs. So even if they addressed every issue of the Republican platform, and so satisfied every 'whim' of the base, I doubt a single Republican voter would be better off for it. And I very much doubt that the Republican establishment would even care.

Maybe rootsgap doesn't apply to my rant... I spose what I am saying up there is that there is a difference between the gap between the political leaders and the base on the issues that define them... and the gap between the polictal leaders and the base on the needs that sustain them.

At 11:23 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I'm not sure we really disagree, Anon.

DEMOCRATS were absolutely "complicit backers of those policies." But would you really call them "liberals"? Very few of them would call themselves that, and most would have a hissy fit if you called them that. But you're certainly right that a number of senators and reps from whom we might have expected more spine indeed became "complicit backers" on some or even all of those policies.

As Dreamer suggests, though, the liberals Matt is talking about aren't the Beltway pols, but AUTHENTIC liberals, largely on the sidelines of gov't -- who indeed HAVE been "correct about the war in Iraq, the financial meltdown, the Bankruptcy Bill, the deficit, the Patriot Act, and, well, pretty much everything. What they haven't been is powerful enough to prevent the mistakes the country has made."

It's an important distinction, and you're right to insist that we be clear about it.

Really interesting comments -- thanks to both of you.



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