On Sending Messages
If my comment section, email and other blogs are to be believed, there is a lot of netroots angst about the Democratic party these days. It's certainly understandable. With the free floating anxiety that's pervasive out in the country as a whole, the horrific spectacle of health care reform sausage making and the toppling of President Obama from his heavenly pedestal, we have the making of a full blown insurrection on our hands. The question is what to do about it.
Many people believe that the only thing Democrats understand is pain and so the thing that will change this dynamic will be to deliver them a loss of their majority and perhaps the presidency to show the consequences of failure to fulfill the progressive agenda. That certainly sounds right, except you can't ever know exactly what lesson will be taken from this sort of pain and if history is any guide, the likeliest one is the simplest and most obvious: they lost because people preferred what the other side had to offer. Obviously, that's not necessarily the case, but it isn't illogical for them to believe that. And the exit polls or whatever other data may be available rarely clearly show that it was base demobilization that caused a turnover. Often people don't even know why they failed to vote and you can't exit poll those who didn't bother.
More importantly, you have the ongoing, pernicious problem of the conservative Democrats who will always pimp the anti-liberal line and their friends in the media who pull the old "this is a conservative country" narrative off the shelf by reflex. Indeed, we can see it in its full glory already manifesting itself with this classic Adam Nagourney piece in today's NY Times:
As Mr. Obama prepares to come here on Sunday to campaign for the party’s beleaguered Senate candidate, Martha Coakley, Democrats across the country are starting to wonder aloud if they misjudged the electorate over the last year, with profound ramifications for the midterm elections this year and, potentially, for Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Win or lose in Massachusetts, that a contest between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat could appear so close is evidence of what even Democrats say is animosity directed at the administration and Congress. It has been fanned by Republicans who have portrayed Democrats as overreaching and out of touch with ordinary Americans.
“It comes from the fact that Obama as president has had to deal with all these major crises he inherited: the banks, fiscal stimulus,” said Senator Paul G. Kirk Jr., the Democrat who holds the Massachusetts seat on an interim basis pending the special election. “But for many people it was like, ‘Jeez, how much government are we getting here?’ That might have given them pause.”
Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, said the atmosphere was a serious threat to Democrats. “I do think there’s a chance that Congressional elites mistook their mandate,” Mr. Bayh said. “I don’t think the American people last year voted for higher taxes, higher deficits and a more intrusive government. But there’s a perception that that is what they are getting.”
The Massachusetts campaign has neatly encapsulated the major themes that have come to deplete Mr. Obama’s popularity, themes that have fueled the rise of the Tea Party movement on the right and created an atmosphere where growing numbers of Democrats in conservative-leaning districts and states have decided not to run again.
Mr. Brown has portrayed Ms. Coakley as an advocate of big government, big spending and big deficits; Obama advisers and other Democrats have worried that the expanding deficit, now at a level not seen since World War II, was hurting Mr. Obama with independents who lifted him to victory in 2008. Polls suggest that those voters have flocked to Mr. Brown, as they did to Republican candidates for governor in Virginia and New Jersey last year.
I don't think you have to be a political scientist or a psychic to see where that little narrative is heading. You have to get all the way to the fourth paragraph from the end to see even a hint of the dynamic as we liberals see it:
But most ominously for Democrats contemplating the midterm elections, the battle here suggests an emerging dangerous dynamic: that Mr. Obama has energized Republican activists who think he has overstepped with health care and the economic stimulus, while demoralizing Democrats who think he has not lived up to his promise.
Three paragraphs later it concludes with this:
Still, some Democrats are wondering if Mr. Obama would be in a better position now if he had embraced a less ambitious health care proposal, as some aides urged, permitting him to pivot more quickly on the economy. Depending on what happens Tuesday, that is a debate that might be reverberating in the White House for a long time to come.
"Some" Democrats wonder if he should have been less ambitious with health care and even Obama advisors are terribly, terribly worried about deficits. The idea that they haven't been liberal enough doesn't seem to be resonating does it? And I have very serious doubts that it will resonate if the party of Teabaggers starts winning.
So, how do liberals exert what power they have and have the results be interpreted the way we want it to be? The first would be through protest votes for a third party that resulted in Republican victory. (There is virtually no chance that any third party will ever gain real power short of a fundamental change in the way we elect our representatives, so protest is all it will be.) It's been done before. And if you can live with the idea of voting in a Republican party in the thrall of extremists that make Bush and Cheney look like Rockefeller Republicans, I suppose that might be the way to go. I won't judge you, but I am personally unwilling to put the world through any more of this failed right wing experiment at the moment.
There is a fairly compelling theory in political science that says that after political parties come into power, fulfill some pieces of their agenda, get fat and bloated and are finally removed from office, they then tend to deny the reality of their loss and blame it on everything but themselves until they lose enough elections that they finally realize that their ideology has failed. The current GOP is not there yet by a long shot. They are still in the process of doubling down on their radical agenda at a time when the economy is still in ruins, the effects of globalization are being fully felt, the planet is in peril and about to reach a tipping point, and a radical fundamentalist movement is trying to blow people up. I don't think the world can take any more of the right's prescriptions for these problems right now: Lindsay Graham is considered too liberal and neo-Hooverism is their economic program. Yes, the Democrats are corrupt and inept. But the other side is batshit insane.
However, that doesn't mean that there's nothing we can do but wring our hands about how the system is broken and fret ourselves into intertia. The other way to send messages to the Democratic party is through the unsatisfying and often thankless process of primary challenges. Nobody can have any problem understanding that message, not even Adam Nagourney.
It's hard to find challengers and it's no wonder. It's expensive, time consuming and after all your hard work you will probably lose. It takes real commitment and a desire to not only win a seat in congress but do it by way of unseating an incumbent of your own party with whom you disagree, an act which is guaranted to make you an odd man out among the party hierarchy. But if you win, it can send shockwaves through the system.
And guess what? We are in the most favorable year for primary challenges in recent memory. The insane teabaggers aren't going to allow any rational Republicans to run and the anti-uncumbent fever is going to be as high as it's been since 1994. The Democratic base has an energetic activist faction, the netroots can raise money and there is a burning desire to show the party establishment that they cannot take liberals for granted. It's a perfect environment for successful primary challenges.
And lucky for us, there are some brave progressives already out there taking on incumbents and there very well may be more. This time a few of them may win, and believe me if that happens, the Democratic party will not be able to spin those victories as being a sign that the party needs to move to the right.
Blue America has helpfully set up an Act Blue page with all the progressive challengers who have announced and we'll add to it as more come forward. We're calling it "Send The Democrats A Message They Can Understand."
If you want a Democratic scalp, these candidates are out there offering to do the work to get it done. And you won't be giving Adam Nagourney or Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck what they want in the process. It's a win that even the villagers and the party establishment can't spin as good news for Republicans.