The world of political blogs is a world where people often zing each other and make small rhetorical points for the simple reason that this is how the game is played. If you read Barataria often, you’ll know that I have little time for this. I was called to task by a friend in e-mail recently, who stated the case for standard blog MO blankly:
We have to answer the right. This is what they’ve been doing to us for a long time, and we’re just giving it back. You can’t be asking us to leave their hate machine unanswered, are you?
The short answer is “No, I’m not”. But I still think that using the tactics of the right is ultimately very counter-productive for the left. This is why.
Think of politics, the operating system of government, as something like a war. If you’re in it deeply, you have to be in it for the long haul because we’ve seen that one election can undo a tremendous amount of work, one way or the other. For this reason, the standard rules of war apply. To win a war, you need to have clear Objectives, Strategy, and Tactics. I’ll explain each of these individually.
Objectives: In order to “win”, you have to know what a “win” looks like. You also have to keep your eyes on the prize, understanding just why it is that you are fighting. This not only gives you direction, but it keeps you going when the fight starts to become a long slog.
What’s a clear objective? How about this: “I have a dream that all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
If that’s not your speed, try this one from Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
These are visionary statements that tell people exactly what they are fighting for. They don’t come from a committee, they come from a leader who sets the agenda. Obama doesn’t have such clear and compelling visions right now, but he does have clear objectives: health coverage for all Americans, a stable economy, restoration of our moral leadership in the world, and energy independence. If you’re not willing to fight for these, you’re not really on his team.
Strategy: A strategy is how you will achieve the Objectives over a sustained fight. There are many ways to achieve health insurance for all everyone, so it pains some people to see that Single Payer plans are just one strategy for doing so. But that’s all they are. In campaign terms, strategy often includes electoral goals such as winning so many seats or diverting attention to areas the other side thought were safe.
The Strategies employed to achieve the goals are important because they are the roadmap that the footsoldiers need to follow in order to advance to the Objectives. The right has always been good at defining clear strategies that someone like Rush can communicate quickly.
Tactics: This is the level of day by day activity that anyone can relate to, the part that includes the snipes and bombs in blogs. While an Objective might reasonably have several Strategies, each Strategy can have many tactics that advance it day by day, little bits at a time. The march to universal coverage could include a stunt with someone denied coverage looking terribly sick at a news conference while someone else uses a graph showing the increasing number of people without coverage. Both are single events, both can be effective, but they are very different. What they share is a Strategy that advances to an Objective.
Why are these distinctions important? First of all, the left generally wants to have a larger role for government in the economy and people’s lives out of a sense of fairness. That means that they have something to defend and territory to gain. The right, on the other hand, can fight a guerilla war because disruption turns people off the whole idea of “politics” – if nothing else, low turnout on election day is generally more conservative.
Tactics that work well for the right are not going to work well for the left because the Objectives are different and the overall Strategies that get us to them are usually like oil and water. Simply “doing what the right does” often goes a long way towards advancing the right’s strategy of turning people completely off to any sense of common solutions found through government.
You can never have tactics in a vacuum. If you do gain a temporary advantage with a killer tactic, you have to press the advantage when your opponent is in retreat – without a Strategy, you can’t do that. It appears that the Tactic of yelling at town halls has backfired on the right, making them look like wackos. In order to press that advantage, the left has to appeal to people who are on the verge of being completely turned off by offering compelling arguments with solid common sense. That’s what Obama was offering on Letterman because he knows what the Strategies are.
Why is the noise of the blog world sniping and throwing bombs such a bad thing? It isn’t, if the tactics make sense to advance the Strategy towards the Objective. Doing it because “the other guys do it” is stupid and often plays into their Strategies. Let’s not.
Clear and eloquent. I hope this is widely read. A bit long, but you gave good examples. Thanks!
There’s no doubt that turning people off of politics doesn’t help the left one bit. It’s the elitism of people telling me what to think that I can’t stand and I don’t care which side they say their on. There has to be another way. Maybe if we turn down the noise we’ll hear it.
Thanks. I didn’t want to do this post, and I’ve been working around it for years. It’s … well, “pedantic” is the nice word. But the message has to come through in plain English – we can’t use the same tactics to advance different strategies. I think the President has made this clear, and I think it’s time we follow his lead.
Very, very good article and I am glad you posted it. Most of all what I liked was the originality of it, the commonsense, the decency, etc. etc. Anyways (as he goes kinda off topic) I went through a bit of a change a number of years ago (kids will do that) and while my wife, brother and a few others would go “off” on the repubs I couldn’t or wouldn’t much because I saw some of our own hypocrisy (enjoying travel, air-c, etc. etc.) my son had a republican friend, sometimes I’m a little scared of the future, all these things.
And sometimes I get a little in trouble for seeking a middling ground and enjoying history. Anyways I am not writing very well but I did have a strange experience in the last few days. On Minnpost a fellow commentator agreed with my comment on a retreat to civility using humor. 2 other commentators and I agreed on aesthetics but 2 disagreed (once again using humor) Yesterday I saw a overpass sign saying R U Tired of Obama and it reminded me of Dallas early 60’s. I almost started weeping as I had just read of the kentucky census murder, the hanging of a teacher, a cancer survivor, a eagle scout, a part time worker with FED. written across his chest. I apologise for my messy writing.
You are right on! It’s not just war, it’s getting anything done that you have to think strategically. We need health care reform, so we have to make it happen. This is how we help. You’re too subtle most of the time, I appreciate things like this with specifics.
Interesting that you use warfare as a metaphor. That conjures up related terms such as “enemy” “attack” “destroy” “scortched-earth” and so on. I thought politics was the art of the possible, the art of compromise? And compromise can only happen when you acknowledge that the other side has a valid point. It can only happen when you refuse to demonize your opponent.
But if the guy on the other side is an ENEMY, then you need to dehumanize him. You need to make him into a monster.
That is exactly what the Left is doing, and why they will ultimately fail. Because you’re not fighting for territory, you’re fighting for VOTES. That means hearts and minds.
And regardless of what foolishness showmen like Beck and Rush and Olbermann may spout, most ordinary folks understand that there’s something unfair about your hand reaching into their pocket to solve someone else’s problem.
Sure, it’s a crying shame that folks don’t have health-care coverage. So let’s negotiate, compromise, work out what’s possible to solve that problem.
skydaddy, you’re right – it’s not like war. It’s what Bob said – it’s the way anything complicated gets done. War is just the easiest metaphor, and I now wish I hadn’t used it.
It is about winning “Hearts and Minds” – that’s what I meant by claiming territory. The right can, theoretically, fight as a constant “minority” and conduct nothing but a guerilla war, but the left has to take a stand. Their different objectives require different strategies and, especially, tactics. The left HAS to engage, whereas the right can fight as a tiny minority if they have to (though they are doing a good job of engaging at least some people).
But I agree that the left fighting as it is now will fail. I see Obama leading his own people by example as he engages the population, which is what caused me to say this as openly as I did. I want us to follow our leader because, damnitall, he’s right. We have to win people over, and that’s very different from what Janine called an “eilte” throwing bombs at the other side.
This is what I like about writing a blog – people catch me being ineloquent or innacurate. It’s all good. 🙂
This is gonna read like a tangent. But it’s not.
I almost started weeping as I had just read of the kentucky census murder, the hanging of a teacher, a cancer survivor, a eagle scout, a part time worker with FED. written across his chest.
Didja catch the bit about how the media jumped the gun on calling this a “murder”, to say nothing of divining the motive of a suspect who’s not been arrested yet?
I contrast this with the example that Erik starts the post with: the fictional-yet-all-too-common lefty, whinging: “This is what they’ve been doing to us for a long time, and we’re just giving it back”.
Well, no. The right has not systematically tried to demonize and label as depraved all left-of-center thought; we’ve tried (correctly, in my gleefully partisan opinion) to get across the impression that it’s wrong (which is quite properly the subject of a perfectly valid, civil debate), but not, as a general rule, “evil” or “depraved”.
But from outrages small (systematically calling dissenters “teabaggers” in a most coordinated way) to huge (from Hillary blaming Limbaugh for the Murrah bombing to our friend above who tied the Sparkman death to right-wing thought), the left is systematically (where “system” = “Alinski’s playbook”) slandering all dissent. That’s not playing “the right’s game” (itself an Alinskiite idea), it’s group defamation.
And Erik’s right – the left should want to do better. Because now that you’re in power, you’re losing your focus. Gratifyingly, as Erik and my old pal David Weigel notes, the right is finding its focus – and it’s not on defaming the left.
As to Obama’s focus – call me cynical (everyone else does), but of course he can be statesmanlike. The left has spent the past five years, and millions of dollars, building a machine to handle the smearing, the defamation and the dirty work for him. Between Media Matters, the “Center for Independent Media”, the scads of paralawyers who descended on Anchorage to find dirt on Sarah Palin, ACORN, MoveOn and on and on, of course the Prez needn’t get his hands dirty.
So yes, Erik – as I suspect you’re aware, I’d love to see the left and the right drop the ugliness and get serious. If only more people on the left saw, as you seem to, that their current approach lies on the way to madness.
This is a must-read for all bloggers and politicos!
Awesome, my friend. And not just relevant to politics. . . I have this strategic plan I’m working on and NO one seems able to differentiate between objectives, strategies, and tactics. Your descriptions are beautiful – I may borrow them!
Thank you, and borrow all you want. I’ve done Strategic Planning for a number of small organizations, and what I learned was that the key is to have people understand the importance of these distinctions, not just throw words at then. Ming ke ming, feichang ming. 🙂
I’d love to make a living off of this, but sadly the field has too many charlatans who are far more aggressive than I am. As long as people want BS, it’s hard to make a living telling the truth!
Getting back to the war analogy, the next level of this discussion is the old saying about war that “Amateurs talk tactics while experts talk logistics.” 🙂
Your site was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last Thursday.
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” The right has not systematically tried to demonize and label as depraved all left-of-center thought; ”
Yes, actually, it has. Have you actually paid attention to *anything* the extreme right-wingers have done since the *McCarthy era*? Apparently not. Try actually reading what they write!
Particularly the “religious right”. Listen to Jerry Falwell, for instance. It’s all about calling left-wingers “depraved”, and quite literally claiming that left-wingers are obeying demons.