Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Counterforce
Over the last few years, as liberal-leaning websites have grown in size and importance and evolved into something one can describe as a true political movement, I've watched and to some extent joined in with eighty percent gratitude and excitement, twenty percent anxiety and concern. In a real sense, the convergence on the left has served as a defender, one of the strongest defenders, of American democracy in its time of challenge from a dangerous and coherent movement on the right, led by the Bush administration. That convergence has pushed the Democratic Party to stand its ground, rewarding those who do so with financial and logistical support, and has called to account a media that had been steadily adopting right-leaning contexts and premises. Starting with the Howard Dean campaign of 2004, focusing through Daily Kos, and spreading out to dozens of mid-size blogs and thousands of small ones, the online progressives have hosted countless helpful discussions and arguments, given new candidates and embattled incumbents platforms with which to reach people open to help, and more broadly built a sense of community and hope among millions of us finding little grounds for either in conventional and mainstream political life.

That's the eighty percent. The twenty is that the online progressive movement, like all movements, has drawn to itself dogmatic thinkers, self-appointed loyalty enforcers, and would-be demagogues who often seem eager to seize upon the near-crisis context of the Bush years for their own ends.

Assuming our society persists long enough, no doubt there will be weighty books and seminars and college courses and all the other media of collective remembrance in years to come that will seek to explain, track, analyze and spin this movement. But it's The New Republic, ironically enough, that might be first out of the gate with an explanation of how the online progressives emerged, and why they matter, in a great piece by Jonathan Chait. Here's a taste:

The 2000 recount is an apt birthing ground for the netroots. It perfectly fits their view of U.S. politics as an atavistic clash of partisan willpower. And their analysis of that episode, while somewhat crude, has a certain truth. The liberal intelligentsia, and much of the Democratic establishment, tried to hold itself above the fray. During the recount, liberal pundits were concerned above all with maintaining civility and consensus, and they flayed Democrats for any hint of partisanship or anger. (In a New Yorker editorial, Joe Klein scolded that Al Gore "reinforced his partisan reputation by challenging the results in Florida" and cautioned that "vehemence of any sort--ideological, political, analytical--seems ill-advised.") Elite liberal opinion-makers insisted that their side play fair. Gore, they declared, must allow for the possibility that his opponent could win a fair recount, must renounce street demonstrations, must be intellectually consistent--permitting, say, military ballots that did not fulfill the letter of the law to be counted. Members of the Gore recount team like William Daley and Warren Christopher, seeking to uphold their reputations as statesmen, nervously complied.

The contrast with the Republican side could not have been more stark. The only complaint conservative pundits had with the George W. Bush operation was that it was too soft. (George Will wrote that there was a "ferocity gap"--but, in a classic case of projection, he insisted that Democrats were more ferocious.) Bush never conceded the possibility that he could lose. Nor did he feel any obligation to maintain intellectual consistency. His campaign demanded the letter of the law be carried out in those instances when it suited his side, and it flouted the letter of the law in those (military ballots, illegally submitted absentee ballots in Seminole County) when it did not. It whipped up a mob to halt a recount in Miami-Dade County that at the time appeared potentially decisive. Conservatives celebrated these developments without a hint of dissent. While Democrats in Washington constantly undermined the Gore campaign by telling reporters that Gore should concede, Washington Republicans maintained ranks. Through their greater resolve and partisan discipline, the Republicans triumphed.

All the lessons the netroots have gleaned about U.S. politics were on display in this noxious denouement, and those lessons have been reinforced time and again throughout the Bush presidency. The Democratic leadership and the liberal intelligentsia seemed pathetic and exhausted, wedded to musty ideals of bipartisanship and decorousness.

Chait spends considerable time discussing the element of the online progressive movement that I'm most ambivalent about: its willingness, or perhaps eagerness, to take on other actors within the center-left coalition in pursuit of larger (and longer-term) strategic objections. To my mind, there are moments when it's useful, or even necessary, to smack your sometime allies: the Democratic Leadership Council, to take perhaps the most frequent and notorious of online left frenemies, has undercut the progressive message, and triangulated for the sake of triangulation, so many times that it was vital to create consequences and pushback for their doing so. And the primary challenge to Joe Lieberman last summer was justified both by Lieberman's evidently pathological wish to be accepted and loved on the right, exemplified by his more-Bush-than-Bush stance on the war, and by the fact that the circumstances were in place--a solid blue state, a viable challenger, and sufficient money--to mount the campaign.

But there's sometimes among the lefty blogs a certain joy in attacking organizations and leaders who might agree with you on 75 percent (or 95 percent) of the issues. David Sirota, whom I've come to call "Der Kommissar," might be the worst offender here, but there are dozens if not hundreds of high-profile posters across the liberal blogs who sometimes do the same. Again, sometimes I think this is justifiable--see Clinton, Hillary--but when you're attacking Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Barack Obama for this or that sin of political noncomformity, it's very questionable whether you're doing more good than harm. The same question can be asked of whether it makes sense to lump in groups and publications generally in agreement with the Forces of Evil:

Just as the Goldwaterites reserved their strongest contempt for the moderates who controlled the GOP, the netroots are at their most single-minded in their opposition to the moderates who they believe control the Democratic Party. The netroots often identify this enemy in amorphous, populist terms--"the Beltway," "the D.C. establishment," etc. When it comes to identifying its adversaries more specifically, the two institutions named most often are the DLC and tnr. Netroots activists speak of these two institutions in stark terms. "This is the modern DLC--an aider and abettor of Right-wing smear attacks against Democrats," wrote Moulitsas, who proceeded to threaten to "make the DLC radioactive." In a posting about tnr, titled "tnr's defection to the Right is now complete," Moulitsas wrote that this magazine "betrayed, once again, that it seeks to destroy the new people-powered movement for the sake of its Lieberman-worshipping neocon owners." Both the DLC and tnr are perpetually described as "dying" or "irrelevant," yet simultaneously possessed of sinister and ubiquitous control over the national discourse.

In reality, of course, the DLC is a political enterprise and tnr a journalistic one; each has on its staff individuals who do not always agree with each other; and neither institution exerts total control over every individual on its payroll. While both the DLC and tnr supported the Iraq war, both stridently opposed almost every other element of the Bush agenda. The overwhelming majority of DLC missives and tnr articles are perfectly congenial to mainstream liberalism and perfectly hostile to the Republican Party of George W. Bush. But these sorts of subtleties generally escape the Manichean analysis that pervades the netroots.

What makes such internal enemies so dangerous is that they engage in self-criticism. It is not that the netroots forbid internal debate. Far from it: They indulge in all sorts of disagreements, tactical and substantive, just as conservatives do. What they consider treasonous is any criticism of any part of the Democratic Party or its activist base from the right. You can attack the Democratic leadership in Congress for failing to force a troop withdrawal from Iraq, but you cannot attack it for opposing a troop surge. ... It is permissible to divide the party from the left, by opposing a moderate Democratic position. But if you divide the party from the right, you are an enemy of the movement.

I'm not sure we'll really understand the true nature of the online progressive movement until the crisis moment passes and a new president, likely a Democratic president, takes office. I can see the push for "unity" in the context of an opposing movement that, even now when its popularity is in the toilet and some of its adherents fervently wish the standard-bearer would go home to Rancho Plastico, still pushes inexorably for an unbound unitary executive, war without end, and de-distributive taxing and spending policies. As Paul Krugman pointed out, the "loyal Bushies" (including the Dobsonites and Norquisters) are a "revolutionary power"; pushing back the rabidly partisan challenge they've posed to the established American system merits a higher degree of partisan discipline on the other side.

My question is how the liberal bloggers and netroots will respond if and when we have a Democratic president--especially if it's a relative progressive like Obama and Edwards--and Democratic majorities in Congress. Mark Schmitt recently published a thoughtful article (also in TNR) about how the experience of 1993--the last time Democrats held unified control of government--is informing, or haunting, party leaders today. Back then, the Democratic coalition was different, and more obviously divisible against itself; if history repeats in 2009, the question might be whether the netroots activists can reconcile their enthusiasm and impatience with a system of checks and balances that, even after Bush (and happily so), isn't really conducive to rapid major changes.

A second concern will emerge if and when Democratic leaders start to show the same propensity for corruption and self-dealing that helped undo the Republicans in the middle years of this decade (and hopefully is continuing to do so). Already, there's a sense that the 110th Congress is less prone to self-dealing and special-interest pandering than its predecessor--but that's a low bar. There's William Jefferson, the corrupt Democratic congressional backbencher from Louisiana who unfortunately won re-election last year while waiting for federal charges; he hasn't been embraced, but he hasn't been kicked out of the caucus either. What happens when a more prominent Dem comes under serious allegations of self-dealing? Will the online progressives stick to their principles, or try to explain away the misdeeds as so many Republican apologists have done in the DeLay/Bush era?

As always, we'll see. I don't think anyone of progressive outlook can disagree that the rise of the online left has helped bring American politics back into something resembling balance and served to counter the rabid right that organized itself through talk radio and church-related institutions. But all movements carry the seeds of their own undoing: self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and overadherence to dogmatic thinking. That this is an essentially conservative fear may or may not be ironic.

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