Web Only / Features » October 17, 2005
Partisan War Syndrome (cont’d)
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 is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.