Partisan War Syndrome

The left falls victim to a debilitating affliction

David Sirota

Is the left really as ideological and principle-driven as it seems?

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 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.
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