Sunday, August 24, 2008

Exit threats don't work anymore

Crossposted to Daily Kos

Alec Baldwin made one in 2000. House Democrats walked out on the certification of election results in 2001. Joe Lieberman abandoned the party in 2006. PUMAs with "you better be nice to me and send me fruit smoothies every day for the rest of my life or I'll support the Iraq war for four more years" in 2008.

All of them have threatened a walkout/exit/take-my-ball-and-go-home threat, and some of them have followed through, while others haven't.

You know what else they have in common? They haven't accomplished much. And they either come off as bitter and cynical (for following through) or weak and incompetent (for capitulating).

This is not productive for a democratic society, and if the liberal philosophy is "we're all in this together," then we better find some way to air out our differences that don't include hissy fit ultimatums that amount to absolutely nothing.

Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty is one of the first, if not THE first, concepts every political science student learns about. Basically, if someone in an organization feels they're getting the short end of the stick, they can either leave outright (exit) or protest (voice). If voice proves ineffective, they can either exit or show loyalty to the organization, continuing the relationship.

Voice is a curious thing in a society with a blogosphere and 24-hour news. With so many avenues to express one's grievances, ironically some people just have no idea as to how to exercise their voice. Depending on who you believe, Baldwin's threat to leave the US if Bush won the election is either an on-the-record statement or an urban legend (the first mention came second-hand from then-wife Kim Basinger in a German magazine none of us have ever heard of). As you can tell, Bush won, Baldwin never left, and a not-so-insignificant portion of Americans thinks he's a bit eccentric at times (that's putting it mildly) along the lines of Tom Cruise being absolutely fruit loops. People don't like threats, but they really don't like threats that never get carried out.

There are other forms of voice. Political activism is the main weapon of Democratic base voters. Get on the ground, talk to people on various avenues about what the government and politicians are doing wrong, and create an awareness that should lead to a remedy of the problem. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are arguably two of the more influential forces in Democratic politics, with their message of social justice and equality. George Soros has more money than most of us will ever see, and has used it to advance liberal causes in America. Arianna Huffington is behind one of the most important news sources for American liberals on the Internet today.

All of these people have had serious disagreements with the way American politics is conducted during the Bush administration. Some of them have even had problems with certain Democrats, as we ordinary people do from time to time. They never exit, nor do they threaten to exit. They choose to remain loyal to the organization (American society, in this case). Their influence remains constant.

Then there are those who have little or no influence, or shouldn't have the influence they think they have.

Time and again, we've seen the occasional "boycott this media outlet" or "boycott that organization" for a slight, perceived or real, against Democrats. This is never more clearer than when MSNBC, with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and other liberal voices not having a place at CNN or Fox News, does the occasional piece that says good things about McCain (hey, even a straight-talking broken clock is right twice a day) or talks ill of some Democrats for things that we wouldn't be proud of if we were in their shoes. Or puts Joe Scarborough on the air. We all throw up our hands, pledge to stay away from television forever...then rejoice when Air America's leading lady gets her own show in prime time.

How's that boycott coming along?

On the other side, do you think Lou Dobbs, despite his television ratings and popularity, has been the least bit influential in getting viewers to boycott corporations who outsource jobs or hire illegal immigrants? For the last few years, it's been all theater for the supposed populist, but nothing really tangible beyond that.

And, oh, the PUMAs. The slighted, abused, wronged PUMAs. Just their very mention reeks of incredulity.

Say what you will, and probably the chances of putting Hillary on the Obama ticket were pretty low to begin with, but does anyone want to say how effective the most militant Hillary supporters have been in advancing what they perceive to be Hillary's causes in Obama's campaign? I'd say not very effective.

And do you think their threat to vote for McCain in droves makes them any more believable? Probably not.

Hillary's supporters probably had a chance to become an influential force in Democratic and American politics this cycle by redoubling their efforts for the Democratic cause (not necessarily Obama's cause, but the liberal, Democratic cause they have claimed to support) and working to defeat conservatism that seeks to magnify inequalities between race and gender, redistribute wealth towards the rich and the rich alone, and continue a war that even neoconservatives admit was not a good idea (on their way, paradoxically, to explaining that continued warfare is our only hope). Instead, they have become marginalized, in the media and in the blogosphere, dismissed and rightfully so as voters who could have been an important voice in political circles but will instead have to settle for voting for what they should perceive as the lesser evil.

That the last boycott to produce any real, tangible influence in American society was the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s and 1960s should tell you something: exit threats since then haven't been very productive. The Sharptons and Huffingtons and Gores of the world, on the other hand, have been nothing but steadfast in their support of America and its political processes, and one need only observe their effectiveness to realize how best to exercise one's voice.

That is not to say that people who exercise exit threats have fake, imagined grievances. Losing hurts, especially in a winner-take-all society (no two people can occupy the top of the ticket at the same time). But in a 162-game baseball season, everyone loses sometime, but eventually they, like real adults and professionals, hit the showers and gear up for the next game. The true losers stomp their feet, take their ball, and go home.


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