By David Sirota
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.
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.
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.
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