Progressives are schizophrenic - we rightly decry politicians that on issue after issue seem to slither around in the Washington, D.C. mud like invertebrates, desperate to evade any sort of concrete position. Then, we turn around and venerate politicians/candidates based on little more than rhetoric and so-called "profile" - qualities that have nothing to do with actually demanding or rewarding politicians/candidates that have specific convictions. This schizophrenic affliction, which I call Partisan War Syndrome in a new magazine article, cuts to the heart of what has made our side so ineffective over the years.
The politicians we decry for their flaccid, pathetic behavior are, in a sense, just a public representation of a potentially more deeply-rooted lack of conviction within the grassroots "base" they represent. 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 - a grassroots that purports to be "ideologically" driven but is increasingly anything but.
Some may say that it is great that the left's grassroots base is less ideological, because that means we will win more elections. But then these folks seem to forget all lessons of history. You need only look at the rise of the present conservative machine to understand what I mean. Decimated after the 1964 election, conservatives began funding hard-edged ideological institutions outside of the Republican Party itself. From these institutions came all of the modern-day ideological tenets of today's conservative movement. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was riding this hard-edged ideological movement to the presidency, relying not on a grassroots' base that was loyal just to the Republican Party (remember the Reagan Democrats?), but a grassroots base motivated by conservative ideology.
The progressive side in many cases doesn't seem to yet fathom this. Many of us would like to believe that we must subvert our ideological convictions in favor of party loyalty in order to win elections. Much of this manifests itself in calls for (inaccurately named) "moderation" by the tired cadre of Democratic establishment insiders that have made their careers pushing the politics of capitulation, even as they drive the Democratic Party into the ground. And it is multiplying in the blogosphere as well - that supposedly "ideological" bastion. As I note in the article, parts of the blogosphere focus far less on actually helping and pressuring Democrats to embrace strong ideological positions on issues, and more on bloviating/self-promoting political candidates based on everything EXECPT their ideological/issue positions. In other words, parts of our grassroots has been infected with a cynicism and political calculation that we deride the politicians for.
The problem with this is two-fold. First, for those concerned about actually improving America, we are left with little political debate in this country at all. There are the ideological voices on the right, and capitulating politicians - but no similarly loud ideological voices - on the left. What that leaves us with is an unbalanced debate - and no progressive pressure system.
The value of such an ideological pressure system is obvious. Imagine, for instance, if the right had spent the last two decades only advocating for a partian reduction in the estate tax. They would never have had politicians today advocating for full repeal had they done that. What the right understands - and the left used to understand - is that a grassroots staking out strong ideological positions blazes a path for elected politicians to follow. It provides these politicians cover. That cover is created by rewarding those few politicians who have the guts to fight the ideological fight, and by seriously pressuring the rest to follow suit. But sadly, that cover increasingly only comes from the right. There are many examples of the conservative grassroots base demanding things from their politicians and rewarding their ideological champions - with serious consequences (see Pennsylvania's 2002 GOP Senate primary, or even look at the Harriet Miers nomination). There are very few similar examples on the left.
Second, for those concerned only about winning elections, progressives are left with a grassroots not motivated by conviction. And as I noted, 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.
The truth is, it may very well take a single political figure to become the vessel for a true progressive ideological movement to blast off. Reagan in the 1976 primaries, for instance, was a figure that did that for conservatives. Then again, there is a chicken vs. egg question there. Do we need a political figure to coalesce a progressive ideological movement around, or will a progressive ideological movement create the environment for truly progressive leaders to emerge? I'm not sure of that answer - but it doesn't really matter. Whether we need that political leader first, or whether that political leader is a product of a movement simply does not negate the need for our side to sharpen, strengthen and prioritize our progressive ideological convictions in the meantime.
And that requires us to reflect on a fundamental question - a question that might make the soulless hacks among us uncomfortable: are we really serious about building a long-lasting movement up and down the political system? Or, are we only serious about putting any politician with a D behind their name in the Oval Office, no matter what they stand for? I am for the former, but I fear much of our side is for the latter - and if that's true, we've got a long way to go in movement building, and in taking back far more than just the White House.