Thursday, February 28, 2008

Transactional and Transformational Politics

In the March 10 issue of The Nation New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman has written a very interesting article that's well worth the reading. While you should read it, let me give you the bare bones version here.

The gist of the article is that there are two levels of politics. There's the day to day transactions or the sausage making part of the process. There's also the transformative level that seeks to change the whole nature of the debate. Schneiderman's point is that an effective progressive movement would need to have both. You need the transaction side to get things done and move the agenda. This, in turn, boosts the transformation side by shifting the whole landscape. Think FDR for this. Transactionally, he got all sorts of programs passed through the New Deal using all of the political maneuvering we know and love. Transformationally, he radically altered what we expect our government to do. Had he spent all his time "making sausage" or all his time giving speeches about not fearing fear we wouldn't be hearing much about him today. (William F. Buckley Jr. is another example of a transformational leader whose influence encouraged others to alter their transactional dealings.)

Though Schneiderman doesn't say so, his distinction is exactly the distinction that has framed the Democratic primary race this cycle. On the transactional side we have Hillary Clinton saying that she knows how to work the system and get things done. On the other side, we have Barack Obama saying that he will fundamentally change how things are done in Washington. The problem is that neither alone will work. Whoever the president may be, he or she will have to find a way to tap into both streams in order to be effective.

Ultimately, that's why I support Barack Obama. I think he is the only candidate of the two who has the potential to be a transformative president. Clinton, despite her boasts of transactional know-how, doesn't have that potential. And I think that Obama can learn how to transact business as president. He may not be totally ready on day one, but he'll get there quickly. I think it will be much easier to learn how to make deals than to learn how to inspire people and lead.

The choice for me, then, is between two well-qualified candidates: one who will do well, one who will do well and fundamentally alter how we think of progressive politics and politics in general. That doesn't seem like much of a choice at all.

No comments: