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December 08, 2004

The Death of Liberalism?

Adam Werbach, former boy-wonder president of the Sierra Club, gave a pretty bold speech today in which he argues that progressive politics-as-usual need to die in order to be reborn.  The full text isn't online yet, but here's an interview he gave to Lakshmi Choudury of Alternet in which he previews the rhetorical ground he covered.

Here are some of the choice tidbits:

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.

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.

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.

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.

Posted by Jon Stahl on December 8, 2004 at 11:45 PM in Strategery | Permalink


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