Magazine article The American Prospect

New Politics Gets Newer

Magazine article The American Prospect

New Politics Gets Newer

Article excerpt

WHO WOULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT THE DEFINING difference in the Democratic presidential cam paign would involve not Iraq but reform of the political process, particularly the role of lobbyists? At the candidates' joint appearance at the YearlyKos convention of netroots activists in August, the question of taking money from lobbyists earned Barack Obama and John Edwards--who don't--their biggest cheers, and Hillary Clinton--who does--her biggest boos. Since then, the fight has only escalated.

Most Democratic strategists tell their clients that reform of the political process is a marginal issue, of interest to a few NPR listeners but hardly the meat and potatoes of politics.

The strategists were surprised in 2006, when polls showed process reform (though few Democrats actually talked about it) to have been a key factor in the Democratic congressional victories, perhaps boosted by the sexual twist provided by ex-Rep. Mark Foley. Still, the strategists insist that such moments--when bad money and sex pile up so high on the other side that they influence an election--are few and fleeting.

But if you think of political reform as addressing more than lobbying, campaign finance, and furtive sex, it has a deep history within the progressive tradition, and the last election and recent debates suggest that reform in the larger sense may have its moment. For the tone of an alternative approach, American liberals should look at British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Sept. 3 speech on "a new politics." Brown called for "a better party politics," in which more Britons would be members of a party; for "opening up our political system to new ideas"; and for strengthening participatory democracy at the local level.

These are the kinds of ideas that were broadly debated among American progressives during the 1990s, when just below the surface of old politics there emerged a sometimes vague quest for "new politics." Some of it involved timeworn and concrete reform issues such as campaign finance, and a grassroots push for publicly funded campaigns started to take off in 1996. But there was also interest in voluntarism, in civil society and its role in strengthening democratic habits (Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone was influential), and in deliberative democracy and local participation. The new polities movement didn't arise in opposition to the Clinton presidency, but it was on a separate track, and over time it diverged from mainstream winning-is-everything Democratic politics. …

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