New Politics Gets Newer

Who would have predicted that the defining difference in the Democratic presidential campaign 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 ques-tion 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 Brit-ons 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 grass-roots push for publicly funded cam-paigns 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 politics 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.

Both Edwards and Obama can claim roots in the new politics tradition of the 1990s. Edwards' Senate victory in 1998 was seen as proof that cam-paign reform mattered. The incumbent, Republican Lauch Faircloth, had been labeled "Senator For Sale" by Forbes magazine, and Edwards highlighted this by proposing that the two agree on a spending limit and campaign by de-bate instead of TV ads. Obama was part of the reform faction in the notoriously corrupt Illinois legislature, served on the board of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation -- a key supporter of reform in the Midwest, and participated in Putnam's innovative Saguaro Seminar on civil society.

The Bush era, however, put some of the reform impulse on ice. Who has the luxury of worrying about delib-erative democracy, campaign finance, or the politics of meaning when the Constitution itself is at stake? In these times, winning really is everything, and worrying about the rules of the game has to wait.

As the possibility of a new political era glimmers on the horizon, the new politics tradition is reawakening, but in a different form. The polarizing forces of the last six years have brought forth a fresh activism that creates new opportunities. In the 1990s, we dreamed that young people could see electoral politics as relevant; now they do. We wanted to make it possible to run for office with-out depending on a few large donors; small donors made dozens of candidacies possible last year. We envisioned strong and meaningful political parties, and we now have two of them. We hoped for a politics that encouraged ambitious and new ideas; the platforms of the 2008 Democratic candidates live up to that hope.

The new new politics needs more to it than "shalt nots," as in, "thou shalt not take money from lobbyists." It can build on its new strengths to encour-age an even higher level of engagement, through reforms that actively promote organizing and participation, such as matching funds for small donors or open-ballot laws like those that allowed the creation of New York's vigorous Working Families Party. Indeed, the renewal of new politics requires a little more imag-ination than any of the candidates has yet shown.

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