Web Only / Features » October 17, 2005
Partisan War Syndrome
The left falls victim to a debilitating affliction
A disease is running rampant through the American left these days. Its symptoms are intense and increasingly pervasive in every corner of the self-proclaimed “progressive” coalition. A good name for the disease could be “Partisan War Syndrome” - and it is eating away at what remains of progressives’ ideological underpinnings and the Democratic Party’s ability to win elections over the long haul.
The disease is simple to understand: It leads the supposedly “ideological” grassroots left to increasingly subvert its overarching ideology on issues in favor of pure partisan concerns. That may sound great at first glance. Democratic Party officials always talk about a need for “big tent unity” and subsequently try to downplay ideology. But as a trait of the grassroots and not just the party, Partisan War Syndrome could be positively devastating not just for issue advocacy, but also for Democrats’ political aspirations as well.
The main symptoms of Partisan War Syndrome are hallucination, delirium and obsessive compulsive behavior, with those afflicted losing almost all perspective about what winning politics really is all about. Washington, D.C., of course, could be declared a Hot Zone outbreak area, with this disease afflicting virtually every self-described strategist, operative, and lawmaker that operates in the progressive name. But it is starting to seep out everywhere-even on the Internet blogs that the mainstream media reflexively defines as the “left,” “liberal” or “progressive” base.
Certainly, this disease can be difficult to detect. The mainstream media regularly portrays the so-called Democratic base as a highly ideological, “liberal” or “progressive” monolith, supposedly pressing an insulated, spineless D.C. Democratic establishment to move to the “left.” This portrayal creates the image that there really is a cohesive, powerful ideological force on the left, one that is committed to convictions and issues before party-much like there is on the right. This image is reinforced by the mainstream media’s constant characterization of Internet blogs and the “netroots” as an extension of this monolith-as if a medium automatically equals an ideology.
As proof that such a monolith exists, the media writes stories about this or that Democratic politician-no matter how conservative he or she is - pandering to or courting the “left” by once in a while taking a mundane Democratic Party position and then blogging about it. We also see an entire counter-industry to this mythical monolith in the form of organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council, which raise corporate money, put out reports attacking the supposedly all-powerful “left,” and commission polls to discredit what, in reality, is a straw man.
And it is a straw man. To be sure, there used to be a powerful ideological force on the left that constituted the Democratic Party base. And there are still remnants of that ideological movement left in various progressive labor, environmental and civil rights organizations, and disparate Internet blogs. But look no further than the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries to see that the ideological movement as a whole is in tatters. In that race, primary voters - supposedly a representation of this “ideological” base -supported John Kerry on the basis of his personal profile as a Vietnam War veteran and his supposed “electability.” It was the most non-ideological of choices in what we were supposed to believe was the most ideological of races.
This blunting of the left’s ideological edge is a result of three unfortunate circumstances. First, conservatives spent the better part of three decades vilifying the major tenets of the left’s core ideology, succeeding to the point where “liberal” is now considered a slur. Second, the media seized on these stereotypes and amplified them - both because there was little being done to refute them, and because they fit so cleanly into the increasingly primitive and binary political narrative being told on television.
And third is Partisan War Syndrome - the misconception even in supposedly “progressive” circles that substance is irrelevant when it comes to both electoral success and, far more damaging, to actually building a serious, long-lasting political movement. This is the syndrome resulting from the shellshock of the partisan wars that marked the Clinton presidency. It is an affliction that hollowed out much of the Democratic base’s economic and national security convictions in favor of an orthodoxy that says partisan concerns and cults of personality should be the only priorities because they are supposedly the only factors that win elections. It is a disease that subverts substance for “image” and has marked the last decade of Democrats’ repeated failures at the ballot box.
Again, just look at 2004 for proof of Partisan War Syndrome’s negative effects: Kerry’s “profile” and “electability” - venerated by the supposed “ideological” base as the most important asset - were made impotent by the vicious attacks on his military service, and more importantly, by the fact that his lack of an ideological rudder allowed him to be vilified as a “flip-flopper.”
Some may argue that putting partisanship ahead of everything else during the 2004 presidential election was only a fleeting trait of a progressive base desperate to defeat George W. Bush. But a look at the left’s current landscape shows that’s hardly the case. Partisan War Syndrome rages on today like a pandemic in parts of the left’s grassroots base.
The first major symptom of Partisan War Syndrome is wild hallucinations that make progressives believe we can win elections by doing nothing, as long as the Republican Party keeps tripping over itself. You can best see this symptom each time another GOP scandal comes down the pike. The scandal hits, Republicans respond with a pathetic “I am not a crook” defense, and both Democratic politicians and grassroots activists/bloggers berate a “culture of corruption.” Yet, then these same critics largely refuse to demand concrete solutions such as public funding of elections that would actually clean up the system, and would draw a contrast between the left and the right. We see hallucinations of a victory in the next election as long as we just say nothing of substance, as we have for the last decade. But like a mirage in the desert, it never seems to materialize.
These hallucinations are the only logical explanation as to why the Democratic Party remains without an official position on almost every major issue in Congress. Just look at the last year: Democrats have no clear party position on Iraq, energy, bankruptcy, trade, tax cuts, Supreme Court nominees or corruption, other than to criticize Republicans.
In fairness, Iraq may be an exception when it comes to the grassroots. There is undoubtedly a palpable - and growing - core of progressives outside the Beltway who put their desire to see American troops withdraw above their partisan loyalties. Much of this base flocked to Howard Dean’s campaign for the presidency, and still fuels the blogs’ teeming traffic. It is why in recent weeks we have seen 2008 presidential hopeful Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) make statements in support of withdrawing troops - because he feels the power of an ideological force within his midst, and he sees that in order for Democrats to capitalize on the Bush administration’s mismanagement of Iraq, Democrats have to actually take a position of contrast.
But then, even an issue as critical as Iraq can be subverted by the hallucinations that come from Partisan War Syndrome. As just one example, take progressives’ constant genuflecting anytime Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) name is mentioned. She is forever portrayed as a champion of the left, with everyone who’s anyone in politics assuming that she will have rock-solid support from the Democratic base despite her loud and continuing support for the Iraq War, and rather quiet Senate record on other progressive issues. The assumption speaks volumes about a “base” with an ideology so afflicted by a haze of hallucination that it believes the best politics even in such a polarized environment are those that avoid contrast.
On almost every other issue it is the same. The hallucinations subvert overarching ideology or concrete actions on issue after issue, save a few disparate pieces of token legislation that the party refuses to seriously push, and which the supposedly all-powerful “liberal” base does not demand through the blogs, liberal pundits, or any of its other powerful channels of influence. Unions, environmental organizations and others fight the good substantive fight. But with the base in a state of hallucination, there is no cohesive ideological grassroots movement to push along those substantive efforts.
As New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently wrote, the tragedy in allowing the hallucinations to continue indefinitely goes beyond just election losses. “The Democrats are hoping that if they do nothing, they might inherit the earth as the Bush administration goes down the tubes,” he wrote. “Whatever the dubious merits of this Kerryesque course as a political strategy, as a moral strategy it’s unpatriotic. The earth may not be worth inheriting if Iraq continues to sabotage America’s ability to take on Iran and North Korea, let alone Al Qaeda.” The same could be said for every other issue that progressives are trying to avoid in the face of the 2006 elections.
The next most obvious symptom of Partisan War Syndrome is delirium. Out of power for so long, the left is desperate for anyone that has the appearance of an electoral winner, no matter what the actual positions of that winner are. Other than maybe the war in Iraq or abortion, it increasingly does not seem to matter to the Democratic base where a candidate stands on much of anything, as long as that candidate has the so-called right “profile.” Intangibles like a candidate’s personal background and charisma - while certainly important - are now seen by parts of the grassroots as the penultimate asset for a candidate. In vogue today are macho males - tomorrow, who knows? As long as you are the “in” thing and put a “D” behind your name, much of the supposedly “ideological” base doesn’t really care what positions or record you have. It is as if progressives believe Democrats have been losing elections only because their candidates aren’t out of Central Casting.
What’s troubling is that this kind of delirium is most commonly found on the Internet blogs, supposedly the progressive ideological bastion, but increasingly a place only of traditional partisan prioritization. Case in point was the recent brouhaha over Ohio’s upcoming 2006 U.S. Senate race. Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett, who had recently lost a high-profile House race, decided to run for the Senate after Rep. Sherrod Brown earlier said he would not. Brown, however, reversed himself just as Hackett was preparing to announce his intention to run.
The situation was inarguably awkward. But what followed was illustrative of the delirium plaguing the progressive base.
Within hours of Brown’s announcement, “progressive” Internet blogs lit up with intense criticism of Brown. And let’s be clear - Brown’s move was tactically clumsy. But the attacks went well beyond criticism of his decision to be a candidate to the core of who he is, showing that the supposedly “ideological” base is, in part, anything but. In many parts of the base, there is no ideology at all.
How does the Brown-Hackett controversy show us this? Because nobody - not even the critics - disputes that Brown has been one of the most effective, successful, team playing, outspoken and articulate heroes for the progressive ideological movement in Congress for more than a decade, while Hackett has no voting record on any issue at all. Even on his signature issue, Iraq, Hackett never supported withdrawing troops. An activist base motivated by ideology would have rejoiced that one of their ideological brethren, Brown, was running for higher office, especially against someone with so little record. Remember the 2002 Pennsylvania Republican primary? The right-wing’s ideological base cheered when archconservative Pat Toomey decided to challenge moderate Sen. Arlen Specter.
Instead, parts of the progressive base did the opposite, attacking the ideological champion; calling him “untrustworthy” for his tactical decision despite his years of steadfast trustworthiness casting the tough progressive votes; and venerating the other candidate with no ideology or voting record to speak of but whose “profile” they liked. Even Mother Jones magazine published an article on its Web site lamenting the fact that Brown’s candidacy meant Democrats were supposedly “shooting down” Hackett. The magazine, one of the supposed progressive ideological lions, then pumped up Hackett attacking Brown as a “very liberal Democrat” - as if its base readership should think that was a strike against him.
This delirium in parts of the grassroots left is not limited to Senate races - it is afflicting the early 2008 presidential jostling. In straw poll after straw poll on Internet blogs, former Gen. Wesley Clark leads other potential Democratic contenders. This is the same Wesley Clark who, according to a recent edition of Roll Call, was on Capitol Hill trying to convince progressive Democratic lawmakers to back off their support for legislation that would withdraw troops from Iraq.
None of this, of course, is meant to imply that “profile” isn’t important - of course it is. But there is little - if any - rock-solid evidence that it is far and away the most important factor. And yet even without such evidence, “profile” has superceded actual issues as THE most important quality to not only the Democratic Party apparatus but also to parts of the “ideological” base - a distressing signal that the delirium is intense.
Similarly, none of this is meant to slight either Clark or Hackett, both of whom certainly have assets beyond just their profiles, and who could end up turning out to be progressive champions. The examples provide far more of a telling commentary about the grassroots base than about these particular candidates. And that commentary is clear: parts of the grassroots have taken on the establishment’s condescending, self-fulfilling prophecy that personality, charisma, image and “profile” matter more to voters than anything of substance. It’s hard to say which is more troubling - that this profile-always-trumps-substance delirium both insults voters’ intelligence and has no actual basis in reality, or the fact that many who claim to speak for an ideologically motivated base actually don’t care about issues at all. Either way, it is troubling - and dangerous - for the left.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
The third symptom of Partisan War Syndrome is a version of obsessive compulsive disorder that focuses on incessantly on “framing,” “narrative” and building “infrastructure.” No matter what you read about Democratic politics these days, everything seems to come back to these concepts - as if the left’s problems are rooted exclusively in how politicians, activists and leaders talk about issues, and how these folks can get out that rhetoric, rather than the actual positions - or lack thereof - they are taking.
No one doubts that “framing,” “narratives” and “infrastructure” are important. Republican pollster Frank Luntz, long considered the master of the trade, has certainly helped Republicans frame their odious agenda in the most effective ways. And the slew of right-wing think tanks and talk radio venues has certainly helped get Luntz’s propaganda out. Similarly, University of California, Berkeley, Professor George Lakoff, who has also done some groundbreaking work on the subject, has been an invaluable asset to Democrats, as has the new group of left-leaning talk radio, blogs and think tanks.
But the idea that the left’s big problems are all about rhetoric and delivery systems and nothing about substance is a defense mechanism designed to deny the deeper questions of conviction and guts. Obsessive focus on “framing” economic policy negates a bigger question about why large swaths of the Democratic Party and the “progressive” base aren’t bothered by corporate-written trade deals that sell out American jobs, and are too afraid to support new regulations on Corporate America for fear of being labeled “anti-business.” Similarly, obsessive focus on “framing” Democrats’ current national security policy avoids more serious inquiries into why many Democrats still stand in lock-step with neoconservatives and President Bush on the War in Iraq.
Obsessive-compulsive focus on “framing” and “infrastructure,” in short, is only as effective as the principles being framed, and the ideology being supported. George Lakoff is clearly a very talented strategist, but his effectiveness is limited - not by his own talents or work, but by his side’s unwillingness to give him the materials to frame in the first place. Think of it this way: If you frame the original Mona Lisa, you’ve got a priceless portrait. If you frame a poster you bought at the mall of the Mona Lisa, you’ve got something that may look nice, but is in reality worthless. Believing that the public will only look at the frame and not the actual picture may soothe party operatives who purport to have silver-bullet prescriptions, but it is, to put it mildly, wishful thinking.
The importance of being ideological
To be sure, it is impossible to paint a picture of the entire “progressive” base in one stroke. After all, the base is not just a monolith (regardless of what the media would like you to believe). There still remain some institutions, pundits, blogs and grassroots power organized specifically around ideology and issue positions. But a quick glance at some of the most prominent “liberals” on newspaper op-ed pages or at a small but growing segment of “progressive” blogs makes clear that, unlike on the right, efforts to strengthen an ideology on the left face a clear roadblock with the advent of Partisan War Syndrome.
“Liberal” columnists write with little sense of an overarching ideological umbrella. A cadre of bloggers and blog commenters increasingly give and take away their support for candidates based on questions of political tactics and “profile,” not issues. The left’s emerging new ideological infrastructure still at times seems afraid to openly push the Democratic Party to embrace more progressive themes.
Make no mistake about it - we cannot expect political parties to resist Partisan War Syndrome. In fact, we can expect parties to actively spread it. Just like corporations exist only to make money, political parties exist solely to win elections, no matter how opportunistic and partisan they have to be.
But while it may be acceptable for politicians and parties to exhibit cynical, conniving, convictionless behavior, it is quite alarming for the supposed idealistic “ideological” foot soldiers supporting them to operate in the same way. The former has elections to think about. But the latter is supposed to be about broader movements that are larger than just the next November. And without the latter, the best-run, best-funded party in the world will always emanate a self-defeating image of standing for nothing.
This, in part, explains why the Democratic Party emanates such an image today: It is not only the spineless politicians in Washington who have no compass, but also a large and vocal swath of the base that lacks ideological cohesion as well. The politicians are, in a sense, just a public representation of that deeply-rooted lack of conviction. Put another way, looking at the typical evasive, jellyfish-like Democratic politician on the nightly news is like putting a mirror up to a growing swath of the grassroots left itself.
Why should this be troubling to the average progressive? First, it is both soulless and aimless. Partisanship is not ideology, and movements are not political parties - they are bigger than political parties, and shape those parties accordingly through pressure. As much as paid party hacks would argue otherwise, the most significant movements in American history did not emanate from the innards of the Democratic or Republican Party headquarters, and they did not come from groups of activists who put labels before substance: They spawned from millions of people committed to grassroots movements organized around ideas - movements which pushed both parties’ establishments to deal with given issues. Without those movements transcending exclusively partisan concerns, American history would be a one-page tale of status quo.
Second, even for those concerned more about electoral victories than ideology, this Partisan War Syndrome that subverts ideological movements ultimately hurts electoral prospects. Today’s Republican Party, for instance, could not win without the corresponding conservative ideological movement that gets that party its committed donors, fervent foot soldiers and loyal activists. That base certainly operates as an arm of the GOP’s party infrastructure - but few doubt it is fueled less by hollow partisanship, and more by their grassroots’ commitment to social, economic and religious conservatism.
This is why resisting Partisan War Syndrome and doing the hard work of rebuilding an ideological movement is both a moral imperative and a political necessity for the left. A grassroots base that is organized around hollow partisan labels rather than an overarching belief system - no matter how seemingly energized - will never defeat an opponent that puts ideological warriors ready to walk through fire on the political battlefield. If we do not rekindle that same fervor about actual issues on the left, we will continue living in a one-party country, losing elections into the distant future, and most disturbing of all, watching as our government serves only to protect those in power.
David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.