Robert Cruickshank on progressive coalitions, Democratic coalitions, and Obama

This is a fascinating discussion by Robert Cruickshank of Calitics about how coalitions work, and how a progressive coalition can be built and strengthened in the age of Obama.

The kick-off for the interview is this article in Daily Kos, also by Cruickshank, and the recent dust-up over the Cornel West comments on Obama. About coalitions, Cruickshank writes, correctly I think (my emphasis):

Conservatives simply understand how coalitions work, and progressives don’t. Conservative communication discipline is enabled only by the fact that everyone in the coalition knows they will get something for their participation. A right-winger will repeat the same talking points even on an issue he or she doesn’t care about or even agree with because he or she knows that their turn will come soon, when the rest of the movement will do the same thing for them.

Progressives do not operate this way. We spend way too much time selling each other out, and way too little time having each other’s back. … But within our own movement, there is nothing stopping us from exhibiting the same kind of effective messaging – if we understood the value of coalitions.

About Democrats and the so-called “Democratic coalition” Cruickshank writes:

The bigger problem is that it is very difficult to successfully maintain a coalition in today’s Democratic Party. Michael Gerson has identified something I have been arguing for some time – that the Democratic Party is actually two parties artificially melded together. I wrote about this in the California context last fall – today’s Democratic Party has two wings to it. One wing is progressive, anti-corporate, and distrusts the free market. The other wing is neoliberal, pro-corporate, and trusts the free market. … The only reason these two antithetical groups share a political party is because the Republicans won’t have either one.

It’s clear that the “Democratic coalition” can never function as Cruickshank prescribes above, since many of goals of the two groups are actually opposite. The Cruickshank rule, if you want to define it, is that in every compromise with the other side, every member of the coalition either advances his goals, or at least, never suffers a loss. With Democrats, every advance of the DLC-corporate agenda is automatically a loss for progressives; and every progressive victory on taxes, for example, is always a loss for neoliberals. That baby can’t be split.

Cruickshank says that Obama has his own coalition, which isn’t quite identical with the Democratic “coalition.” In the Obama coalition, progressives are considered always expendable by Team Where Else You Gonna Go? (They’re also hated and sneered at, I’d add, but why pile on?)

Into that context comes this interview. It starts with “What’s a coalition?” and considers what progressives can do to strengthen theirs — and also strengthen their hand vs. Obama’s eight-dimensional machinations.

A very good conversation. The interviewer is Sam Seder, who is doing excellent work at (If you want to help him out, click here; they’re member-funded over there and just getting on their feet.)

Note that there’s both negative and positive in the conversation. Negative: Failing to protect ACORN. Positive: Wisconsin and Planned Parenthood. We can learn.

It’s a three-sided game — Obama, Dems, and us. The stronger we are — not Dems, but progressives — and the more united as a coalition, the more we have to be taken into account. I’m in a different place with Obama than Cruickshank is, but I agree 100% with his tactical recommendations.


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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2 Responses to “Robert Cruickshank on progressive coalitions, Democratic coalitions, and Obama”

  1. NoDifference says:

    I summarily disagree. The reason that Left coalitions tend to fail is because, like their right-wing counterparts, they include too many points in the focus. The trick to successful coalitions is to keep the focus as NARROW as possible. You risk losing too many people if you force them into a groupthink. (This does not bother righties, as we already know. The Left is more diverse and full of dissent. Thank goodness.)

    The Right does have equally broad “coalitions” and perhaps you are right that their members politely wait their turn, swallowing whichever bitter pills they must, until their chance comes up. But that is not to say it is a prescription for the Left.

    If you feel compelled to build multi-issue coalitions, you will reap what you sow. The only goal of a coalition is to achieve one single end. That is all it needs to do, and then it can disperse.

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