We are hearing a lot these days about political "transformation" in politics. Aside from a desire for a change in policy, the public also indicates that they desire a change in the way our politics are conducted. But as much as everyone likes the idea of an end to partisan squabbling, it's not entirely clear yet how this transformation will take place, or what the character of the transformation will actually be. So naturally, the political establishment, anxious to have it on terms they can control, will increasingly be taking the lead in defining it for us.
The Washington Post recently ran an editorial  ostensibly about Senator Barack Obama, but which actually seemed less about him than about what they believe parameters of "transformation" should be:
When the Illinois Democrat talks about bringing together red and blue America, does he mean that he will persuade the red (Republican) part to come around to blue (Democratic) policies -- or does he mean that he will forge a new, centrist answer that will bridge the red-blue divide? Is he a liberal at heart who tacks occasionally to the center or more of a centrist capable of suppressing leftist instincts when political circumstances demand?
As New York Times columnist David Brooks has pointed out, Mr. Obama was not part of the bipartisan Gang of 14 that tried to avert a showdown on judicial filibusters; he was not among the 68 senators voting for a bipartisan agreement on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; he dissented from the part of the bipartisan immigration deal that displeased unions. His campaign platform is orthodox liberal Democratic fare. So is Mr. Obama a standard liberal clad in the soothing language of inclusiveness?
Apparently, being a "standard liberal" is automatically exclusionary, so any question as to whether the Democratic agenda might be transformative by persuasion is not on The Washington Post editorial board's menu. They obviously believe that bipartisanship is the only way to bridge the red-blue divide, and judging from the examples they cited, when they say bipartisanship, they mean capitulation to the conservatives.
As I have written before, it's telling that establishment calls for bipartisanship during the reign of George W. Bush and the Republican majority were nil. It is only now, with the possibility of a liberal majority and Democratic president, that cooperation and inclusiveness are held forth as the only way to "get things done." I will have to be pardoned for being a little bit skeptical of the sincerity of that position. It's quite obvious that they are most concerned with keeping the status quo, which for many years now has been a conservative status quo. Recent history shows that when Republicans are in power, regardless of how close — or even legitimate — their victory, they are there because they have received "political capital" from the people to "spend" on the conservative agenda for which they received a "mandate." When Democrats are in power, it's important that they reach across the aisle and be "centrist" and "inclusive" or risk being seen as "orthodox" and "leftist."
But regardless of the establishment's predictable resistance to change, the progressive movement does need to define what "transformative" means beyond ending partisan squabbling. Clearly, if that is a goal unto itself the bipartisan concern trolls will hijack the agenda.
I was, therefore, delighted to read this piece  in The Nation, by Democratic New York state senator Eric Schneiderman, discussing this very topic in terms I think we should all consider:
Check off the boxes, copy the paragraph from two years ago, mail it in. As an election year approaches, I again face the piles of questionnaires that progressive organizations use to evaluate public officials. Environmentalists, feminists, campaign finance reformers, housing advocates and labor unions have all come to rely on these lists of our positions--often on issues that never even come up for a vote. It should come as no surprise that, for the most part, all we get out of this cumbersome process is a long line of "checklist liberals" who answer correctly but do little to advance the progressive causes that underlie the questionnaires.
I respectfully suggest that if we want to move beyond short- term efforts to slow down the bone-crushing machinery of the contemporary conservative movement and begin to build a meaningful movement of our own, we need to expand the job descriptions of our elected officials. To do this, we must consider the two distinct aspects of our work: transactional politics and transformational politics.
Transactional politics is pretty straightforward. What's the best deal I can get on a gun-control or immigration-reform bill during this year's legislative session? What do I have to do to elect a good progressive ally in November? Transactional politics requires us to be pragmatic about current realities and the state of public opinion. It's all about getting the best result possible given the circumstances here and now.
Transformational politics is the work we do today to ensure that the deal we can get on gun control or immigration reform in a year—or five years, or 20 years—will be better than the deal we can get today. Transformational politics requires us to challenge the way people think about issues, opening their minds to better possibilities. It requires us to root out the assumptions about politics or economics or human nature that prevent us from embracing policies that will make our lives better. Transformational politics has been a critical element of American political life since Lincoln was advocating his "oft expressed belief that a leader should endeavor to transform, yet heed, public opinion."
Schneiderman goes on to detail how the conservative movement successfully transformed the political playing field over a very long period, overturning assumptions and working the long view through a concerted, systematic effort to educate and persuade the public that the Republican Party stood for their values and their interests. They worked relentlessly not just to elect Republicans or enact certain policies, but to change the terms on which our national political debate was held.
He suggests that the progressive reliance on these transactional "checklists" of right votes or correct policy stands doesn't properly measure a politicians' commitment to the larger progressive project. I would add that these checklists may actually obscure the real effects of their rhetoric and voting record: You can't help but be reminded of Senator Joe Lieberman's stellar liberal scorecard on the issue of choice, which failed to take into account his eager willingness to confirm conservative judges who would overturn Roe vs. Wade and his blithe rhetorical dismissal of women's right to avoid pregnancy after being raped. There's no way to measure that sort of damage on a NARAL scorecard.
Schneiderman acknowledges that politicians have always been rewarded for this transactional style of politics, and so, as humans (and politicians) are wont to do, they pursued that style of politics. It's up to the public, and specifically activists, to demand transformational rhetoric and a commitment to long term progressive policy goals of our representatives:
[H]ere's a proposal to inspire a transformational focus by our candidates. On every issue, with every group of activists, politicians who claim to be doing transformational work should be required to prove it. All politicians who seek your support should produce articles, videos, transcripts--anything that demonstrates that they are challenging the conservative assumptions that frame virtually all discussions of public policy among America's elected officials. How do we talk about abortion? As a duel between "prochoice" and "prolife" extremists--or as an issue of basic human freedom for women denied the power to control their own bodies? What do we say about health insurance? That it requires a delicate balance between the free market and socialism--or that it is an essential investment in our most important national resource and a basic right, without which our commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is meaningless.
The point of the transformational/transactional paradigm is not for everyone to be singing the same ode to change all the time, but for every would-be progressive official to pursue transformational themes as a central part of our conversation with our constituents and colleagues. We will never overcome decades of brilliant conservative propaganda on the economy until our representatives begin to reflect the basic ideas of Bernstein, Baker, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich in our stump speeches to political clubs and our talks at senior centers.
Finally, this is not a proposal to abandon the day-to-day struggles of transactional politics, which are still a central part of our work. Nor is it a proposal for self-immolation. Progressive candidates in tough races or in swing districts may not always be able to lead in transformational politics (although many conservative warriors displayed such self-sacrifice in the course of their movement's march to conquest). But most Democratic officials are in very safe districts, and they should be pressured to pursue transformational as well as transactional work.
We are in the midst of an exciting presidential campaign. After experiencing a devastating eight years of disillusionment with Republican rule, the public is tuned in and listening with fresh ears to what progressive politicians have to say. But a successful election will just be the beginning. The 40-year campaign to persuade Americans that their best interests are served by serving the wealthy has been thoroughly internalized and will take a lot of work to unravel. Progressives still have a lot of work to do to insure that the terms of the debate will be firmly on the side of average Americans instead of the moneyed interests, that civil liberties are fundamental American values and that we take our moral and ethical responsibilities as a wealthy, first world nation seriously. The only way to do that is to truly transform the way people think about their government and their elected leadership.
Cramped transactional politics should not be used as a definition of progressivism. While they are a necessary part of the system, they cannot fuel a transformation of our politics. Our job as activists is to pressure and prod our elected representatives to advance the progressive project and reward them when they do it. Winning office should be the beginning, not the end. Transformation is not just a goal, it's a process.