Thursday, August 30, 2007

How can you be "ready to rumble" if you don't like the people that fight?

In his article, "Ready to Rumble", Ronald Brownstein reviews Matt Bai's The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics. Unfortunately, they both get some serious things seriously wrong.

Mr. Brownstein notes and quotes:
And [Bai is] equally correct to argue that although this movement leans left, its motivation is more partisan than ideological. "To the extent that a single philosophy united all of [these] people," he writes, "it wasn't any kind of governing agenda for the country. Rather, the netroots stood chiefly for the principle of unyielding partisanship ... According to the blogger ethos, Republicans, whether staunchly conservative or not, were to be stomped, beaten, and generally humiliated. And any Democrat who didn't pursue that goal ... needed to be taught a lesson."
No, he isn't right. There are a startling number of flaws in that short statement.

The characterization as of the netroots movement as "more partisan than ideological" is just plain wrong. The movement is too diffuse and too diverse for such a glib characterization. Such a "partisan first" view may apply to MyDD or such other "bigtime" sites, but the movement as a whole; there are countless sites out there focused like a laser beam on matters of ideology and policy first, foremost and right down the line; Pandagon and Firedoglake spring immediately to mind as just two example. It has been the netroots, for example, which has absolutely refused to let go of the voter suppression and outright election theft undertaken by the Bush GOP; the mainstream of the Democratic Party has looked the other way, like "a little old lady trying not to notice a drunk peeing on her garden fence" (to use Donald Jack's vivid phrase). Wanting all eligible people to be able to vote, period, is about as nonpartisan as it gets.

The "unyielding partisanship" tag is wielded as a pejorative. It misses a number of key points.

(1) Aggressive Dem partisanship was and is reactive, not proactive. The Democrats or the progressive wing didn't suddenly become frothingly partisan out of nowhere: it came in response to the take-no prisoners partisanship of the Republicans which really took flight with Gingrich in the early 1990s. For an early and excellent example you may want to go back to Bob Dole's NYT op-ed piece from the first Clinton term where he addressed GOP obstructionism, basically defining bipartisanship as the GOP never yielding an inch to Democrat policy wishes, and the Democrats wisely joining hands with the GOP's policies (the latter defined as policies that are good for America and the former, by definition, not being good for America). GOP language, strategies and tactics became more and more vicious as we moved into the Bush administration, to the point where significant elected and unelected members of the GOP (Cheney and Rove spring most immediately to mind) have equated opposition to Bush as treason.

(2) In most ordinary people's gut feelings, and especially in politics, there is considerable moral heft to the "you started it" argument about misconduct discussions. Put metaphorically, if you start punching me in the face, please don't preach the virtues of nonviolence at me when I punch you back to make you stop or even if I just want to exact a bit of justified retribution. Anything else is unilateral political disarmament, Neville Chamberlain brolly-waving in the face of bullying. Given that the GOP started it they -- or people on the so-called more moderate left -- are ill-suited to complain about it; nonetheless, they do. FDR was wise when he said "No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb."

(3) The "unyielding partisanship" on the left must be maintained within as well as without. There is a very large part of the Democratic party and the left who don't want to fight back and who are more comfortable with chiding their friends for being too aggressive (partisan / harsh / unyielding / whatever) than they are in responding to the GOP and their ilk doing the same, and worse to them. The left has a disproportionate number of believers in the turn-the-other-cheek ethos.

(4) Much of the "unyielding partisanship" on the left draws its fuel from opposition to the "unyielding partisanship" on the right; the right does not have this limitation. American radical fundamentalist Christianity, for example, is self-fuelling: it draws its fire from the very existence of the culture around it and their own inner demons. Corporate partisanship, by way of further example, draws its fire from the nature of our capitalist society which demands constant and increasing profits and growth, and is disinterested in wider societal implications. Progressive partisanship will visibly diminish as it becomes more integrated into power and less marginalized and attacked. Not because they are "better", mind, but simply because it is a different kind of engine running on a different kind of fuel.

Bai posits "blogger ethos", a phrase which gives us two errors for the price of one. First, it a phrase of stunning stupidity, so over generalized is it. Is there an "African ethos"? No, the people and subject at hand is too complex and diverse; so it is with the blogsphere. Second, what is the alleged nature of this so-called "blogger ethos". "According to the blogger ethos, Republicans, whether staunchly conservative or not, were to be stomped, beaten, and generally humiliated. And any Democrat who didn't pursue that goal ... needed to be taught a lesson", says Bai. Let us assume that he is correct. (He isn't, but let's concede the point for the purposes of discussion.) He does not address the fact that this so-called blogger ethos (SCBE!) was in response for the Washington-centred, / DLC wing of the party to engage in their endless compromises (read surrenders) to the Bush administration and to the increasingly brutal dirty-knuckle politics of the right. The Dem establishment did, in fact need to be taught a lesson.. Three, in fact. Be principled. Fight. Win. They seemed to have forgotten all three, and many in the progressive blogsphere served the same function as cornermen and fans at a fight: they screamed at the fighter until he had the energy and the desire to lift his arms and start striking back.

This attention was not welcomed by many inside the beltway; they resented both the accuracy of the message and the persistency of the messengers, and responded with disdain. Glenn Smith accurately referred to them as "the more paternalistic and condescending quarters of the Democratic Party so keen on discrediting the rising progressive movement ". A superb example of this mentality was seen by mainstream Dem support (some tepid, some vigorous) given to Joe Lieberman after he had lost the nomination, and was running hand-in-glove with the state Republicans. On a wider scale, many mainstream Dems didn't even seem that focused on winning, and when they did get focused they weren't very good at it. That is why so many people dug in their heels and hated Harold Dean when he moved in: he was focused on winning, on winning everywhere, and on the tactics to achieve it. There were quite a large number of chair-warmers who hated the party having a Purpose again. Further, they cannot let go of their certainty that they Know Better, no matter what data flows in to the contrary. A superb example is the fact that the current Dem congress is dropping like a stone in the opinion polls as it follows a policy of continuing to enable Bush's policies. The netroots thus does not reflect the anger of fringe elements; it reflects the anger of an angry electorate that isn't getting what it wants or voted for.

Bai in making such a statement also missed the point that the progressive blogsphere was struggling not only against the right's message, but the right's monopoly of the messengers, the so-called mainstream media. The so-called "mainstream media" or MSM ["corporate media" or "CM" is a better term] represents only a small, approved slice of opinion and dissent in the United States, sometimes deliberately, sometimes through sheer obtuseness, disconnectedness, or downright laziness. The best examples of this are the bogus "centrist" and "moderate" tags used so freely. It is inarguable that the GOP has swung startlingly to the Right. In response, the CM has merely shifted the "middle" over to follow them, rather than examining what proportion they are within the population. The "centre" does not necessarily move, and the term itself is misleading. When examined on their policy preferences, (health care, Iraq, and the like*) a solid majority of Americans favour progressive or Dem policies, yet this is not reflected in how the media frames its coverage and language. There is an uncomfortable tendency to view (and repeat) what Republicans say as Received Wisdom and what Democrats say as fringe or "what Democrats say", no matter how representative it is of the population as a whole. It rather reminds of of a judge I was appeared before. Opposing counsel would make some statement, pulling it out of thin air, and the judge would look to me and say something like "well, counsel, we know that...". "Um, no, Your Honour, we don't know that. My Friend has said that but hasn't put in any evidence to that effect, at all, and hasn't rebutted or challenged by actual evidence which says the direct opposite." This went on over and over throughout a long motion. It is, needless to say, exactly the way the CM operate.

* - If Americans voted on a straight up and down majority basis about Iraq, America would leave tomorrow. If Americans voted on a straight up and down majority basis about health, America would have a Canadian-style single payer system. But they are never even permitted to vote on these things, are they? It is one of the reasons that the progressive blogsphere is so "partisan": they have the majority of Americans on their side and everybody in the CM and the establishment pretends not to notice. When people are not listening to you, you SOMETIMES HAVE TO YELL.

One final thought. If "visionary ideas detached from a strategy to move them into law are like balloons without strings" then it is surely true that strategies detached from visionary ideas are equally like strings without balloons. It is equally true that the good-sense democratic vitality provided by the blogsphere deserves better than the glibness of Bai's view, or the disconnect of Mr. Brownstein's. Why? Because the blogsphere is the most vigorous voice for having not only a balloon and a string, but making sure that the Democrats actually tie them together.

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