On The Netroots

Jon Chait attempts an explanation of the Netroots for perplexed The New Republic readers. It is a quite good piece and Chait has some interesting things to say, but he gets a lot wrong. To me, this is his biggest mistake:

All the lessons the netroots have gleaned about U.S. politics were on display in this noxious denouement [the 2000 Post-Eloection Fight], and those lessons have been reinforced time and again throughout the Bush presidency. The Democratic leadership and the liberal intelligentsia seemed pathetic and exhausted, wedded to musty ideals of bipartisanship and decorousness. Meanwhile, what the netroots saw in the Republican Party, they largely admired. They saw a genuine mass movement built up over several decades. They saw a powerful message machine. And they saw a political elite bound together with ironclad party discipline.

It is not admiration that the Netroots expresses here. It is dealing with the reality of the situation. Chait mistakes understanding your political adversary, what you are up against, with admiration.

No one wants the nation so divided politically. Everyone wishes we could all be reasonable. But only a fool acts as if the world is how he wishes it to be. I have written about this in the past:

How did FDR do it and can Democrats defend FDR liberalism today? Maybe not by calling it FDR liberalism but they surely can and do when they have the courage of their convictions. The most prominent of these instances was the fight to save Social Security Faced with Media hostility, Republican demagogy and flat out lies, Democrats rallied to the FDR liberalism banner and crushed the Republican attempts to roll back the clock. FDR would have been proud of Democrats in that fight. No triangulation. Good old fashioned political populism won the day.

And that is FDR's lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle.

And I believe Hofstadter recognized this as well. Hofstadter understood what was liberalism's triumphs and how they were achieved and how they could be defeated. Hofstadter would have understood so well that the Republican triumphs since Goldwater are not ideological "ideas" victories but rather victories of the psychological paranoid style - the "What Is The Matter With Kansas" question.

FDR governed as a liberal but politicked like a populist. When LBJ rightly and to his everlasting credit removed one of the Dem pillars of paranoia - racism, the GOP co-opted populist racism, added the Jeffersonian notion of government and institutional hatred, throw in a dash of paranoid Red scare, now terrorism scare, and you get political victories.

The lesson of Hofstadter is to embrace liberal governance and understand populist politics. It may sound cynical, but you must get through the door to govern. Lincoln knew this. FDR knew this. Hofstadter knew this. I hope Obama can learn this.

The Netroots believes, imo, that wishing everyone played nice don't make it so. And this partisan warfare is what we have. TNR, so "muscular" and ready to support wars, has been at the center of Democratic political unilateral disarmament. It has been at the center of the Democratic political weakness because it did not accept the political world as it was. Jon Chait was quite guilty of that as well.

The other part Chait gets wrong is this:

Indeed, if there is a single thing that the netroots most admires about the right, it is its philosophical and political unity.

The philosphical unity part is simply false. And is contradicted by Chait himself in his article. He describes the Netroots thusly:

The second bond is a shared political narrative. This is not exactly the same thing as a shared ideology. The ideology of the netroots is, indeed, somewhat amorphous, as liberal bloggers themselves often point out.

So much for philosophical unity. And this belief that philosophical unity is a requisite for political unity leads Chait to this mistake:

This [DLC] veneration of centrism created an atmosphere in which Democratic unity was impossible. Democrats who unequivocally opposed the Bush administration's agenda were not, by definition, "centrists." And so, during the early Bush years, Democrats eager to preserve their standing as moderates often found themselves acquiescing to a conservative agenda that, not long before, would have been considered far outside the mainstream.

DLC Centrism is what Chait describes, not true Centrism. As I wrote above politics is a fight to define the middle. The DLC never fought to define anything. Instead it kept running right to stay in the "Beltway Middle." I think in may respects the Netroots has been vindicated by Stu Rothenberg calling the Democrats the moderate party. To me, that was a Netroots accomplishment. And a meaningful one.

And Chait understands this, making his earlier statement perplexing:

The netroots understand that this is not a fair fight. As Black (aka Atrios) has argued, you cannot sustain "a Democratic party in which all the leading Democrats are forever running against their own party. Triangulation can work for one man, but when every leading Democrat is constantly falling all over himself (yes, this is exaggeration) to get away from Those Damn Dirty Democrats, you have a party which is without foundation and where capitulation is confused with bipartisanship."

Finally, Chait understands what the Netroots, in matters electoral, is about:

For the netroots, partisan fidelity is the sine qua non. As Moulitsas told Newsweek in 2005, "The issue is: Are you proud to be a Democrat? Are you partisan?" What they cannot forgive is Democrats or liberals who distance themselves from their party or who give ammunition to the enemy. The netroots will forgive Democrats in conservative districts for moving as far to the right as necessary to win elections. But they do everything within their power to eliminate from liberal states or districts moderates like Joe Lieberman or Jane Harman, whose stances are born of conviction rather than necessity. This is precisely the same principle espoused by Norquist and other GOP activists. They will defend Republicans who need to demonstrate their independence from the national party in order to maintain their electoral viability. (As Norquist once remarked about Lincoln Chafee, "A Republican from Rhode Island is a gift from the gods.") But deviation by a Republican from a conservative state--say, Arizonan John McCain--is unforgivable.

Frankly, Chait tries to make this sound extreme when it fact it is merely political common sense. That he does not realize that and that TNR and others like TNR do not see that is mind boggling. And the funny thing is folks like Chait fail to grasp that politics is inseparable from policy. I had a similar experience with Peter Beinart:

Peter writes:
Where we part company is in our analysis of where liberals are more generally in the struggle against jihadism. After quoting me as writing that John Kerry lacked "a vision of national greatness in a threatening world, something liberals have not had for a very long time," Armando retorts "Sez who Mr. Beinart? Karl Rove?" I don't know if Karl Rove is saying that, and I don't particularly care. One of the most self-defeating tendencies among liberals today, in my view, is this idea that if conservatives are attacking liberals for something, we have to deny we have any problem, so as not to play into our opponents hands. That's a great recipe for intellectual paralysis. In the late 1980s, conservatives said the country didn't trust liberals to fight crime. Bill Clinton didn't deny the problem. He acknowledged and solved it--not only defusing an issue that helped sink Michael Dukakis, but creating a "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" synthesis that helped create safer cities.
Beinart makes a fundamental mistake in not caring about the politics (my Rove metaphor is about the politics) of national security. For it is the politics of national security which has hamstringed reasoned debate on national security not only among Democrats, but in the country as a whole. Why were the voices of principled Truman-like reason crowded off the stage in 2002, including by a large number of Democrats? Why was General Wesley Clark not heard? It is because of the politics of national security.

In any event, there is more to say about Chait's piece. In particular, I think Chait misses the failure of the Netroots to continue to see itself as pushing the Democratic Party, to places it needs to be, on policy and politically. The Iraq Supplemental is a prime example. But I don't have the time now to keep going with it. But one thing I do want to make clear - it is a very good, very interesting and, I think, a very important piece Chait has written. Read it for yourself.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Of course, by jumping into (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by andgarden on Tue May 01, 2007 at 11:46:29 AM EST
    the 2008 Presidential primary so quickly, we really have become that big, orange, ATM in the sky, as more than one troll has accused us of being in the past.

    You were right of course, Iraq trumps the primary because if the Democrats give in, it might not matter who the nominee is.

    I guess we all a bunch of Candides (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by Dadler on Tue May 01, 2007 at 12:52:14 PM EST
    Who'da thunkit?

    On the philosophical and political unity (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by Alien Abductee on Tue May 01, 2007 at 01:42:20 PM EST
    and "shared political narrative" points -

    Republicans have co-opted the language of the American myth in a way that makes it very difficult to talk about anything socially significant without falling into a a rigged game. Freedom, liberty, individual, wealth, success - who's co-opted those kinds of words politically?

    Progressives have a much harder case to make - philosophically they have to advance those same concepts but on a societal basis. It's easy to convince people big tax cuts are good because they can see more money left in their pocket at tax time. It's a lot harder to show the more intangible good in things like pooling risk through national health insurance, using economies of scale to keep drug costs down, and the connection between e.g. public school funding and everyone feeling like they need to carry around a loaded gun. And trying to do this in a rabidly anti-intellectual society is like rolling a huge boulder uphill day after day.

    As a mass movement, what I see as the actual function and power of the netroots is, short-term, its activism and partisanship, of course, and as you say, the approach is taken from political necessity in the current climate. But long-term its function and power is that it's leading a conversation that's drawing in more and more of the population over time and having the chance to make that broader societal case in a peer-to-peer way, through sharing of personal stories. It's education in a personal non-intellectual form - very powerful in a society that generally sees formal education as boring and useful only for career advancement.

    BTD (none / 0) (#1)
    by HeadScratcher on Tue May 01, 2007 at 11:24:56 AM EST
    BTD writes: "It is not admiration that the Netroots expresses here. It is dealing with the reality of the situation." And the author calls this admiration and BTD says he's wrong. How finely can you split a hair, BTD?

    Use a sports analogy: I can admire the way my opponent is organized, disciplined and executes it plays. BTD would say this is wrong because I shouldn't use the word admire, I should just accept it as reality.

    Unless I'm missing something (which is possible) I don't see the point in this post.

    What most people want from their leaders is leadership. To stand for something. I remember the 1996 election was about school uniforms, tobacco legislation, and cell phones for community policing. Not exactly earth-shattering policies. Whether it's FDR's New Deal or Newt's Contract For America, the lessons learned is that you have to have convictions for what you stand for -

    I do not admire how the GOP operates (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue May 01, 2007 at 11:33:32 AM EST
    I understand it and fight against it.

    The point seems obvious to me.


    Who's playing games? (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by nolo on Tue May 01, 2007 at 12:01:33 PM EST
    Use a sports analogy: I can admire the way my opponent is organized, disciplined and executes it plays. BTD would say this is wrong because I shouldn't use the word admire, I should just accept it as reality.

    Politics is not a sport.  That said, it's quite possible to find the conservative right's ability to achieve lockstep unity deeply creepy and undesirable while at the same time appreciating the way it can translate into electoral success.  


    Semantics (none / 0) (#4)
    by HeadScratcher on Tue May 01, 2007 at 11:52:13 AM EST
    I don't think that's what the author intended to say, but we'll leave it at that.

    Then he should have used a different word (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue May 01, 2007 at 11:56:35 AM EST
    But I think he did intend it. He believes that the Netroots believe the right thing to do is mimic Norquist. This is incorrect. The NEtroots believes that understanding the Norquist GOP is essential to fighting it. 2 different things.

    Gah! Mimic Norquist? (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by vcmvo2 on Tue May 01, 2007 at 08:20:18 PM EST
    Now there's a creepy thought! But I agree completely that that was what he thought. Excellent analysis of the problem the "old-guard" has in understanding the netroots.

    Funny (none / 0) (#5)
    by Che's Lounge on Tue May 01, 2007 at 11:56:23 AM EST
    They saw a powerful message machine. And they saw a political elite bound together with ironclad party discipline.

    That's really BS. However, it WOULD be true if your replace the term "message machine" with "media machine". And the elite use party dicipline to set the agneda from on high. The minion bushies have no real power.