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Taking Strategic Differences Seriously

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on December 17, 2009.

In a post yesterday, I argued that some intra-progressive fights reflect ideological differences, particularly over the role of private-sector entities in pursuing progressive policy goals, that need to be taken more seriously, in part because failing to acknowledge them often makes such fights nasty exercises in name-calling and character attacks.

There's another broad area where differences of opinion often originate, and that must be understood as well: differing political strategies.

Two Examples of Strategic Disconnect

Consider two examples: Democratic political operatives and progressive "issue" advocates.

Many full-time political operatives undoubtedly have a personal ideology, or more generally, a reason for being a Democrat. Some have the opportunity to reflect those views in primary campaigns, or in where and on whose behalf they practice their craft. But by and large, when a general election comes along, it's all about Ds and Rs and Us and Them, and this orientation tends to color how they feel between elections. Anything that promotes the election of a maximum number of Democrats--any kind of Democrat--to public office is more or less the Prime Objective. There are obviously major differences of opinion about how to achieve this result, short-term or long-term, and ideology play a role there as well. But the bottom line is probably best expressed by an old ditty from the presidential campaign of 1892, when Grover Cleveland's comeback election marked the end of a period of fierce partisan competition and very little ideological differentiation between the parties:

Grover! Grover!
Four more years of Grover!
Out they go, in we go,
Then we'll be in clover!

Not much deep thinking there, eh?

At the other end of the spectrum, there are "issue" advocates who are involved in politics not out of some broad commitment to a progressive coalition but out of concern for a particular cause, often arising from or rising to the level of personal identity. The relationship of issue advocates to a political party is by definition conditional and instrumental: I support you if you advance my cause, or at least smite the enemies of my cause. Such relationships were much, much weaker in the many decades prior to the Great Ideological Sorting-Out of the two major parties that culminated in the 1990s. As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, supporters and opponents of civil rights for African-Americans, women's rights, antiwar movements, environmentalism, and to some extent even labor rights, were found abundantly in both parties. So progressive issue advocates might be Democrats, Republicans, or independents, but were often functionally independent in their basic relationship to political parties.

Nowadays, when a politician's position on, say, Union Card Check is a generally reliable predictor of his or her position on abortion or climate change, progressive issue advocates are obviously constrained, and must focus on maximizing influence within the Democratic Party alone. That can be done in noncontroversial ways, such as grassroots organizing, petitions, the cultivation of favored candidates and elected officials, and of course efforts to promote or modify legislation or executive actions. But in the end, issue advocates are largely prisoners of a polarized political system, and must rely in the extreme on threats to sit out elections or even defect from the coalition. That's where some LGBT activists, some civil libertarians, and some antiwar activists, seem to be right now.

To those whose commitment to the Democratic Party is less conditional, such threats often look selfish, destructive, or even childish. But they are perfectly rational, if sometimes short-sighted: if you are engaged in politics for a cause, that cause's prospects have to be paramount, and absent the occasional threat to defect, your cause and its advocates can be taken for granted, which is the death-knell of political influence.

But what if a variety of "cause" advocates reach this point of frustration simultanously? Then you can have a genuine "revolt," which some Democrats fear or hope is in the process of happening out of progressive unhappiness with Barack Obama and the congressional Democratic Party on issues ranging from civil liberties and health care to LGBT rights, Afghanistan, and the financial system.

Now reverse the optic and consider the strategic assumptions made by those with a less conditional commitment to the Democratic Party, particularly those involved in elected office (as politicians, staff or advisers) in Washington or at the state and local levels. They are concerned with maintaining office, of course, and with dealing day-in-and-day-out with "the system," including such inherently reactionary features as the composition and rules of the U.S. Senate, a campaign finance system that courts the appearance and sometimes represents the reality of influence-peddling, a vicious opposition looking hungrily at polls for signs of weakness, a gaffe-mad and often superficial mainstream media, and so on and so forth. Some of these "insiders" share many if not most of the "cause" commitments of their "outsider" critics, but by choice or necessity subordinate them to the care and feeding of political power, to "getting things done," however meager the "things" turn out to be on some occasions. Like many people in highly specialized lines of work, they have their own obscure vocabulary and frame of reference which they share with the opposition party but not with "outsiders," which reinforces the suspicion among their intraparty critics that they are an alien species completely estranged from American life and in cahoots with the ideological enemy.

Add it all up in an atmosphere of political and ideological crisis, and it's no wonder many Democratic "insiders" sneer at "the crazy bloggers" or the "nutroots," while many progressive "outsiders" contemptuously refer to the Washington establishment of their own party collectively as "the Village," part of a bipartisan island of self-perpetuating corruption. As with supressed or poorly articulated ideological differences, differences in strategic outlook, when not acknowledged, turn into character flaws.

Strategic Differences Within Elements of the Coalition

Differences in strategic outlook also exist within particular elements of the Democratic Party and the progressive coalition. On the "Village" side of the tracks, there are many individual politicians in difficult electoral territory who welcome opportunities to "push off the Left" or distance themselves from the Party; to the extent they even consider the overall impact of such divisive tactics, they probably rationalize them as necessary to maximize the number of Democrats who vote the right way on organization of the House or Senate or a statehouse. And they are often tolerated or even encouraged in that direction by impeccably progressive party leaders who share the same strategic preoccupation with the maintenance of institutional power. I'm sure Nancy Pelosi doesn't enjoy "giving a pass" to endangered moderate House members to go home and conspicuously thumb their noses at Nancy Pelosi, but that's what she's doing.

But what is the political strategy of these "insiders," particularly those who are self-consciously progressive? It's pretty conventional: get something done on health care and climate change, show greater interest and competence on jobs and the economy (and pray the economy begins to turn around), get young and minority voters engaged again by pointing to growing Republican extremism, survive a difficult 2010 election night with congressional majorities intact, and then put back together the 2006 and 2008 coalitions in a more favorable environment in 2012.

That's not easy to put into a sound-bite, but that's where they are.

Among currently alienated progressives around the country, there are also major differences in strategic assumptions and goals. Some don't even think in these terms. Others simply want to make noise and get the attention of party leaders, so as not to be taken for granted in future elections. And some favor selective or systematic primary challenges to especially offensive Democrats.

But how many progressives are willing to consciously pursue a serious revolt, and with what strategic purpose? How many would favorably contemplate "taking a dive" in 2010 or 2012, in order to convince a chastened or defeated Democratic establishment to reconstitute itself along more progressive lines? This is an easy choice for those who truly believe there's not a "dime's worth of difference" between the two parties at present, a conviction that's daily undermined by the increasingly extremist orientation of the GOP, and that most naturally leads in the exceptionally unpromising direction of a third party (a subject for another day, but trust me, thanks to institutional barriers the prospects aren't good unless you want to join Tea Party types in supporting a Lou Dobbs run).

"Hidden" Or "Manifest" Majorities, and Taibbi and Bowers

Other progressives strongly believe there is a "hidden" majority in the electorate that favors a more progressive direction. Now "hidden majority" theories, usually based on the assumption that most nonvoters would turn out if given starker choices of candidates and platforms, have always been popular among ideologues of both the Left and Right; in fact, it's rapidly becoming a dominant view among conservatives. As it happens, most of the limited empirical research on the subject suggests that nonvoters think pretty much like voters in most elections. But it's hard to prove a negative, so "hidden majority" theories will always persist.

Among progressives, at least, more interesting is the belief that a progressive majority has already manifested itself in the election of Barack Obama, who, unfortunately, betrayed his mandate and governed in a way that is in sharp contrast to how he campaigned. This parallels the very different argument by conservatives that Obama won over a "center-right electorate" by promising to be bipartisan and all that, but it has the same political motive: stipulating a demonstrated majority for a policy course sharply distinguished from Obama's.

A good example of this mindset among progressives is a much-discussed recent article by that eloquent enfant terrible of Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, about the financial policies of the Obama administration. The author being Matt Taibbi, it's not surprising that his tale is one of pure venality and corruption and conspiracy; that's how this rolling stone rolls. But it's significant that he begins his article by insisting that "Obama's big sellout" occurred "just moments after the election," with the appointment of an economic transition team bent on Wall Street bailouts.

If you're interested, Tim Fernholz of TAPPED wrote a detailed refutation of Taibbi's account, and Taibbi responded here. But my interest in this piece revolves around Taibbi's "betrayal" theme, which suggests that the 2008 electorate had no idea what it had wrought, and presumably would support something else if given the chance.

Indeed, you could argue that the willingness of unhappy progressives to contemplate a largescale "revolt" against Obama is directly proportional to their acceptance of the "betrayal" hypothesis. And even on issues like Afghanistan, where Obama is pretty clearly implementing a very specific campaign promise, there are those who are willing to argue that his supporters didn't believe it and didn't vote for it.

Contrast with the "betrayal" camp the views of Chris Bowers. Now Chris is by any standard a progressive, cause-oriented ideologue. He helped found his site, OpenLeft, as an explicit pushback to those in the progressive blogosphere who had elevated loyalty to the Democratic Party above loyalty to progressive policies. He is constantly preoccupied with ways to increase progressive leverage within the party, including efforts to separate the progressive sheep from the "conservative" goats and get rid of the latter, where feasible, through primary challenges.

But Chris Bowers is a strong dissenter from the "betrayal" narrative about Obama; going back to the 2008 primaries, he acknowledged Obama's "centrist" and "Village" tendencies, and generally feels that what we heard during the campaign is what we've gotten in the Oval Office. He's not happy about it, but also doesn't seem to think the Obama electorate is ripe for something very different. Unsurprisingly, he favors more incremental, piece-by-piece efforts to move the Democratic Party to the left, not some wholescale revolt.

That's not a matter of ideology, or character, but one of strategy.

What Is To Be Done?

It's worth asking, though, whether those who do think there's an existing progressive majority ripe for the plucking believe it's possible to depose Obama and his "crowd" via a primary challenge in 2012.

It's not a subject that comes up publicly at this point, but you have to figure it ultimately will if progressive disenchantment continues or perhaps intensifies.

And it's almost certainly a really bad idea from any sort of strategic point of view. I say this not because I personally support Obama (though I do), but because 1968-style "revolts" against a sitting president have become vastly and progressively more difficult since then, and because it's hard to imagine any way to mobilize the "Democratic base" against the first African-American president. (I won't go into the details of these two arguments here, but will if serious talk of a primary challenge ultimately emerges). And lest someone make the argument that an unsuccessful primary challenge to Obama will "force him to the left," I would observe that it's just as likely to give him the opportunity to "push off the Left" and move towards the "center," if that's where he wants to go.

Summary: Getting to 2013

There are all sorts of strategic assumptions that underlie differences of opinions among Democrats and among progressives at present, and frankly, a lot of muddle and confusion. The only really confident strategists around are "demography as destiny" advocates who look at the trends exhibited in 2008 and see an inevitable Democratic and progressive majority in 2012 and beyond, almost no matter what happens in 2010. But even if they are right, getting to 2012 with a united Democratic Party will be a challenge, and those who care about unity in civility within our coalition owe it to themselves to speak honestly and coherently about their strategic thinking, and keep the character attacks and name-calling to a minimum. Believe it or not, few if any of us look forward with equanimity to the swearing-in ceremony of a Speaker Boehner in 2011, or--God forbid--the 2013 inauguration of President Romney or Pawlenty or Palin.