David Coates

Winning reform one hard-fought trench at a time

The great Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci once explained the success of the Russian Bolsheviks and the failure of their Western European comrades by using a military image from the First World War. When Lenin took the first trench in his fight with Czardom, the old regime had no supporting defensive trenches to fall back on. One campaign, one trench taken and the job was done. Not so in Western Europe. There, it was one damn trench after another. In Western Europe, the Left had to fight, win, and fight again.

But if Gramsci had wanted to see real political trench warfare – if he had wanted to be where the Left really has to fight, win and fight again – then he should have come to America!

That thought came to mind last week, when we were briefly in Scotland for a wedding. In the UK, as here, an election looms that the center-left might yet lose. The economic issues are the same – bank bailouts, job loss, home foreclosures, massive inequality and stubborn poverty. The economic issues are the same but the politics they generate are entirely different.

In the UK, as in so many parliamentary systems in Western Europe, one election campaign is normally enough for complete political defeat or victory. Parties cohere around programs that are distinct and different. Electorates vote for the program by voting for the party. What they vote for is what they get. Or if, once elected that is not the case – if the party fails to deliver – then the political price is straightforward. The electorate kicks the party out of office.

Particularly in the UK, where the checks and balances on executive power are so weak, one campaign wins all the trenches. There is a lot at stake in a general election, UK-style.

But not here; here, party discipline is weak. Here, politicians inside the same party hold divergent political views. Here, each representative is in independent player. Here, we talk bipartisanship, not programs. Here, the political army has to be created issue by issue, and here, horse-trading is endemic to the creation of that army.

The core truth of the presidential victory in 2008 was that the Obama coat-tails did not bring a majority of liberals into Washington: not even in the House on the Stupak agenda, and certainly not into the Senate on virtually any issue at all. The Democrats won Congress and the White House, but the Democrats who won were members of a very broad church. So it is no good judging the Obama administration as though it was a government in a Western European sense, or decrying the concessions squeezed from it by its more conservative allies. Progressive or not, the administration cannot, because of the very nature of the system, deliver a coherent program. It can only win issues one at a time, trench by trench, and only then if those voting with it are well aware that what they are engaged in is grubby trench warfare, not a quick-flowing battle between tanks.

Our opponents know the true nature of the terrain on which we clash. They know that the health care reform now being debated is, at best, a threadbare thing. But they also know that it is a key trench: one which, if conceded by them, might yet be deepened by political battles to come. Conservatives in American politics are experts at defensive delay. They play trench warfare all the time.

Liberals need to become equally expert – not at defensive trench warfare but at its offensive equivalent. Liberals need to recognize how best to go forward across a political field full of trenches. The trick in 2010 will be to win whatever we can, however modest, and to defend that trench against the conservative backlash to come. The trick for 2011 will be then to push on to the trench beyond.

This is going to be a long and hard-fought war. It will not be won in a moment. If it can be won at all, it will be won in stages. The Great War was, after all, not simply bloody. It was also long.

This is no time to measure health care reform against what ideally it would be. This is no time for liberals to jump ship because we cannot get everything (or even most) of what ideally we would have. This is no time to let the perfect drive out the good. Oh that it was, but it is not. This is the time to win what we can, to regroup, and to fight on. This is the time to remember the imagery of Antonio Gramsci.

David Coates is the author of

Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments,

New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

Details are at http://answeringbackdavidcoates.blogspot.com

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

He can be contacted through Carol Cirulli Lanham at

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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