The Liberal Blogosphere Lays an Egg
This week has seen a sad display of partisanship over principle by the major liberal blogs over the Torture At Will/Habeas-Corpus-B-Gon Act of 2006 (or as tristero calls it, the USA Mengele Act). To review, as I wrote in a comment elsewhere:
[T]he reason so many are pissed off at Democrats ... [is] that they stupidly, idiotically, stood back and let “moderate” Republicans fight for them, bragged about not getting involved, and taunted Republicans for not being able to come to resolution. Then, when “moderate” Republicans reached “compromise,” they stood around trying to pry their jaws from the floor and their thumbs from their asses before they figured out what to do next. As it turned out on the last day of debate, when a lot of people made pretty, meaningless speeches, most of the Democratic caucus was opposed to this bill. So why the fuck didn’t they say so three weeks ago when it was introduced? Why didn’t they explain from Day One why they opposed it in the terms they used yesterday? If they’d lost under those circumstances it still would have hurt, but to lose after they spent two and a half weeks announcing that they weren’t even going to try, that’s infuriating.
Get it? This isn’t about counting the votes that were or weren’t there. The votes themselves are meaningless (especially if the boast is going to be that most of the Democratic caucus voted the right way). It’s about the fact that Democrats proudly did nothing for the entire time leading up to the vote. I don’t care that they didn’t mount a doomed filibuster: they didn’t mount a goddamned campaign.
So what was the reaction from the liberal blogs? First outrage, as I described earlier. And then, after the bill passed with only token opposition, suddenly there emerged a consensus that really, since the right people to blame for introducing the bill in the first place are the Republicans, this can all be solved if we just work harder than ever to elect Democrats!
Yay! Elect Democrats! Give! Volunteer!
Apart from the fact that "Yeah, this was a tough loss, better fight harder next time" is a totally inadequate response to your government legalizing torture, fuck you and your ActBlue page.
I was going to surf around and find some of the more annoying of these reactions, but Neil the Ethical Werewolf has saved me the trouble. Of course he saved me the trouble by linking to them all approvingly, but thanks to him anyway.
Let's start with The Editors (go to their place if you want all the links):It’s true, “the Democrats” didn’t send this awful, anti-Democratic bill to defeat. But, then, they didn’t have the votes for it. Nor, indeed, did they fillibuster the bill. But, as Sen. Reid confessed, and as the final vote proved out, they didn’t have the votes for that, either. But they should have made a futile gesture! you complain. Well, many Democrats did make futile gestures, futile speeches even, even crappy Hillary Clinton. But they should have made the futile gesture I wanted them to make! Well, perhaps they should have, but I fear we this discussion may now drifting from political commentary into interpretive dance criticism. The bottom line is the votes weren’t there. The day was lost.
Scott is right as usual:this is a Republican bill, and it would not have passed if Democrats controlled Congress.
The most basic error that people who want to put most of the blame on the Democrats make is the assumption that you can infer voting behavior when you control the agenda from voting behavior that occurs after the agenda has been set by someone else. But this is foolish. The fact that John Kerry voted for the Iraq War does not mean that he would have sought to invade Iraq if he had been President
Chris Bowers lists a bunch of issues on which most Senate Democrats voted right. It's a long list with plenty of important stuff. He continues:I am not sure if there has been a single issue in the Senate over the past four years where the majority of Senate Democrats did not side with the progressive position and oppose the Republican majority. Would it have been better if all Senate Democrats had stood united on all of these issues and stopped any one them from passing? Obviously. But to characterize an entire party because of the actions taken by a minority in that party is simply unfair.
Amanda forcefully explains why not voting for Democrats is really dumb:if you start howling at them for not controlling what they have no power to control, you’re making a joke of yourself. Telling people to pull our support from them when they’re all we’ve got is, like torture, self-defeating. If you’re so gung-ho about people not being complicit with the Republicans, the first step is to quit being complicit with Republican attempts to hold onto power by telling people to abstain from voting the Republicans out.
There are many more examples out there if you want them—just read the icky Kos diaries from around mid-Friday.
Then, after two days of that, Mark Foley shows up and every major liberal blog shits itself trying to do an impression of CNN scandal journalism: WHAT DID HASTERT KNOW AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT?
Okay, the Foley thing is creepy, illegal, and wrong. He abused his position and sexually harassed an underling. But really, in the great scheme of things, BFD. It certainly doesn't rise to the level of importance of legalizing torture. It doesn’t even rise to the level of me giving a half a shit, and I suspect most of those writing about it most obsessively (for example, John Aravosis) aren’t really offended either—there’s an air of glee in their posts.
I suppose they can be gleeful. Foley’s idiocy could deliver the House to Democrats. But what will that bring us liberals, as distinct from Democrats? At best the current Democratic Party can act as a weak, sporadic brake on the runaway Bush train; they certainly aren’t going to turn it around. How hard have they been trying to turn around the destruction of civil liberties attended on us through the War on Drugs?
Now, I would rather have a weak, sporadic brake than no brake at all, so I hope the Democrats do win. But acting as a scandal sheet to win electoral victories, focusing entirely on party infrastructure and machinery, that will never accomplish the long-term goal of getting the Democrats to stand for liberal values—or even Constitutional ones (except for the nonprivatizing of Social Security, which doesn’t exactly require great political courage).
Digby linked to this interesting analysis of liberal blogs in the Boston Review of Books.
This agenda for reform has many points in common with the left of the Democratic Party. Many in the center-left would like to see a strong Democratic Party that was more willing to stand up to Republicans and better able to deter its members from defecting on core issues such as Social Security and labor rights. However, there are some important differences. If many leftists are interested in structural reforms of American politics, the shared goal of the netroots is more straightforward, less policy-oriented, and less ambitious—a strong party that can win elections.
However, the netroots’ challenge to bipartisanship and the currently prevailing political wisdom doesn’t go nearly far enough. They have a very good idea of what is wrong with the Democratic Party, but they’re only starting to analyze the underlying political forces that have created these problems. As long as their ambitions are turned to reforming the electoral apparatus of the party and preventing individual politicians from defecting and supporting the Republicans on core issues, their impact will be real but limited. In order to really change the role of the Democratic Party in American politics, they need to focus not only on winning elections, but on reshaping the ideological battleground that they play out on.
Netroots activists often compare themselves to the Goldwater supporters who took over the Republican Party in the 1960s and 1970s. But a close reading of Rick Perlstein’s book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (which enjoys near-canonical status among netroots bloggers), suggests that the differences between Goldwaterites and the netroots are as important as the similarities. Goldwater’s followers succeeded not only because of their organizational skills but because of their commitment to a set of long-term ideological goals. Over two decades, they relentlessly sought to undermine the ideological foundations of the existing American political consensus, rebuilding it over time so that it came to favor conservative and Republican political positions rather than liberal or Democratic ones. The result is a skewed political system in which Republicans enjoy a persistent political advantage. The issue space that American politics plays out on has been reconstructed so that its center of gravity quietly but insistently pulls politicians to the right. So it isn’t any accident that bipartisanship in the modern era mostly consists of hewing to the Republican agenda.
As Perlstein argued in these pages two years ago, it isn’t impossible to remould this conventional wisdom, although it is difficult and risky. And the netroots can surely play an important role. Their comparative advantage is exactly in framing political issues and controversies so that they resonate widely. Prominent netroots bloggers recognize in principle the importance of the battle over ideas. Kos and Armstrong devote a substantial portion of Crashing the Gate, to discussing the need for a Democratic apparatus of think tanks and foundations that parallels the conservative intellectual machine. Kos writes regularly about how the Democrats need “big ideas” if they are to win. However, because the netroots conceive of themselves as a non-ideological movement, they aren’t delivering on their potential to help provide and refine these big ideas themselves and thus reshape the ideological underpinnings of the political consensus. If the netroots truly want to tilt the playing ground of American politics back again so that it favors the Democrats, they will need to embrace a more vigorous and coherent ideological program.
Ultimately, the most modest of all liberal goals must be to move the country back to where we were six years ago, when we did not use torture and extrajudicial imprisonment openly, as a matter of official policy (not to say that we didn't torture, thank you very much School of the Americas). Such an effort, not merely to retard the descent into hell but actually to begin to climb out of it, will certainly require major changes in the power dynamics of the Democratic Party. But how will that be possible if those who are supposedly the Party's loyal critics refuse to criticize it when it fails so utterly, and on the most important questions? Is Ned Lamont’s losing candidacy really supposed to save the Democratic Party all by itself? Did having narrow control of one House of Congress keep us out of the last insane war?
More practically, what can we little people actually do? Apart from joining the ACLU, I have no idea how to begin.
(For an even more depressed take, check out the always-brilliant Arthur Silber, first in his post "Suffering and Death in a World of Empty Gesture, Form and Symbol (I): Among the Living Dead", and then, for a description of how legislators can take meaningful stands even when they are in the minority (really?), a post employing the example of Bob La Follette.)
UPDATE: Arthur Silber again, of course.
But now we are told that, if and when Democrats take back Congress, they will erase this abominable blot from our nation's record. On what basis are people so certain of that? You hope they would do so, as do I, but you do not know that. On this point, I would be prepared to feel some confidence that Democratic majorities would do the right thing -- if only they were speaking out in opposition to the coming attack on Iran now. In the same way that the Democrats could have educated Americans about the profound dangers in this latest bill well before the battle was finally joined, they should have been educating Americans about the grave immorality and destructive insanity of an attack on Iran for months now, as I suggested at the conclusion of my essay, "Morality, Humanity and Civilization" (which is, I confess, one of my personal favorites; because of the issues it discusses, I implore you to read it). But they have not been speaking out in this manner at all. They merely echo the administration line that a nuclear Iran is "unthinkable" and cannot be "allowed," because we say so. In this manner, they only increase the likelihood of such an attack, rather than decrease it. After the catastrophe of Iraq, after the catastrophe of the Military Commissions Act, the Democrats still do not know how to fight these battles. It is not even clear they wish to. So on what basis are you so confident they will undo the monstrousness of this bill?
Such confidence that the Democrats will do the right thing also rests on what I consider to be a deeply dangerous naivete about the political dynamics in play. In the runup to the 2008 election, we will still be in Iraq. The "war on terror" will be a continuing enterprise. Given the Democrats' overpowering fear of being portrayed as "soft" on terrorism, would they dare undo this legislation in such a climate? I strongly doubt it; I am 99% certain they would not. And if the undoubtedly disastrous after-effects of an attack on Iran are playing out (see this post and the other entries linked there, including this one, for much more on this), the ongoing national hysteria would probably lead to further and still worse legislation and police state tactics, to which the Democrats will probably also accede.