Monday, February 09, 2009

Book Review: Taking On the System

Taking On the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga contains a very big contradiction. He set out to write a “Rules for Radicals” for the Internet Age -- a practical guidebook on how ordinary people who are not political or media insiders can use the power of social media and the Internet, combined with their own passion, ingenuity, creativity and beliefs, to influence the political process and win battles to promote the Progressive cause. His book, therefore, first and foremost, was a paean to small “d” democracy -- the power and potential for ordinary, average people to participate in a meaningful way in American politics.

Yet, Zuniga frames democratic participation in the book exclusively along the lines of how to influence the political process as Democrats. His case studies of political success stories primarily illustrate insurgent political activity within the Democratic Party (Jim Webb’s Senate candidacy and victory in Virginia, Ned Lamont’s challenge to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, the electoral defeat in Virginia and political downfall of George “Macaca” Allen, Carol Shea-Porter’s inspiring victory against all odds for a House seat in New Hampshire). I thought to myself this seems to be a very narrow view of democratic participation. The book, when it mentions it at all, does not have a high regard and is dismissive about activism among people who do not consider themselves Democrats.

Zuniga’s perspective comes from his admiration for the practical, common-sense principles of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.
“We will start with the system because there is no other place to start from except political lunacy… It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. To assume that political revolution can survive without the supporting base of popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics.”

Zuniga’s focus on the Democratic Party, therefore, seems to be an acknowledgement of the reality of the dominance of the two-party system in American politics. Zuniga’s focus is to work within that framework to be able to advance Progressive principles and goals. To do otherwise -- try to change the System as an outsider (via a third party or as an independent) -- will only relegate one to the political wilderness where one’s efforts, no matter how well-meaning, will be marginalized and largely ineffective. Progressives in America -- if they want to be effective --, therefore, should join the ongoing battle within the Democratic Party (and there is a battle going on) between the corporate-friendly DLC wing of the party and the insurgent, Progressive Netroots.

The contradiction becomes obvious at this point. Originally written as a guidebook for political outsiders to take on and influence the System, the book urges one to become a political insider and be part of the System. Register as a Democrat, support Democratic candidates, elect Democratic politicians to office, for Zuniga, is the primary and most effective way to “take on the System.” To be fair, he urges Progressives to support Progressive and populist Democrats. But still, this contradiction is jarring to me.

I can’t refute the reality of the entrenched two-party system and the practicality of working within its parameters. I also can’t refute the very real fact that third parties and independents function largely in the margins of American politics and have not gained traction in recent years to become viable as the political opposition. Even outsider electoral reform efforts such as the programs by FairVote (Instant Runoff Voting, the National Popular Vote) require the cooperation and support of elected politicians and hence, cannot afford to be marginal and to function outside of the mainstream.

At this point, it would be very easy for me to dismiss Zuniga’s book as not being very radical after all and not really a guidebook for political outsiders. I can rail at his theses as being misleading and perhaps even imply that the book is nothing more than a clever marketing ploy designed to negate the burgeoning dissatisfaction most Americans have with BOTH major parties (by asserting that the answer to that dissatisfaction is more support for the Democratic Party). But that would do a great disservice to his reality-based argument.

Zuniga says:
“We live in a world where there is no reason anyone should whine or complain that they are being shut out of the system. The tools are available to mount credible challenges to even the most entrenched of powers. Such efforts will always lack resources, and will mostly face well-funded, deeply entrenched foes, but innovative tactics and smart use of money can carry the day. (p. 240)”

My questions for Zuniga -- and I am still speaking as a Progressive here -- what if I am not a Democrat and don’t want to be one? Nothing against Democrats but what if I disagree with the strategy of electing Democrats into office as the primary way to define victory in the fight for Progressive politics? What if I adhere to beliefs and political positions that just don’t jibe with mainstream Democratic policies? Is there room for someone like me to make an impact in small “d” democracy in America or should I just resign myself to being in the fringes, marginal and irrelevant?

After all, being a Progressive within the Democratic Party seems to be no great shakes either. We’ve all seen how politicians like Dennis Kucinich and Progressive perspectives on foreign policy, trade, domestic policy, healthcare, etc. pretty much are marginalized in the Democratic Party. Even in newly-elected President’s Barack Obama’s administration, Progressives are outnumbered and outgunned in his cabinet appointments which are populated primarily by the DLC, corporate-friendly Democrats.

To be clear, I will support Progressive Democrats and I am 100% supportive of their efforts to transform the Democratic Party into a more inclusive, populist and Progressive political party. The bottom line for me, however, is although I found a lot to agree with in Zuniga’s book, I didn’t find that it spoke to me as a political outsider -- an independent Progressive. It didn’t answer my burning questions on how people like me can play a role in American politics other than as marginalized spectators.

All in all the Liberal Arts Dude gives Taking On the System four out of five stars. It would have gotten the full five stars if it provided better answers to my burning questions. But I found the book thought–provoking and that it generated a lot of introspection in me which led me to examine my own motivations for political participation.

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