The Donkey in the Room
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")
Since Digby so graciously granted me the opportunity to leave my graffiti on these hallowed halls, some concerns have arisen within the Hullabaloo community both about the culture of DailyKos, and my involvement as an official in the Democratic Party. The Obama Wars, as they are called on the blogs, are the elephant in the room in the progressive community, the subject on the minds of many not only within the online activist community, but the local offline community as well, and even (as I found out in D.C. just recently) within the highest reaches of power in the Democratic Party.
Dealing with the Obama Wars is something that people looking to engage productively on behalf of the movement generally look to avoid, because it never ends well. That said, on my first day here, I think it's probably best to deal briefly with the 800-pound gorilla and share my thoughts on it.
For those who may not know, I'm 1st Vice Chair of the Ventura County Democratic Party in California, and a recently elected member of the California Democratic Party Executive Board. To many, that would be considered an asset. To others, it might be a curse, a straitjacket preventing free expression of ideas and forcing a toeing of the "party line." It shouldn't bear reminding that it was none other than Howard Dean, no slouch in the progressive movement, who first asked of all of us who were upset with cowardice and corporatism in the Democratic Party not to shun the Party, but to actively get involved with it. The reason for Howard Dean's call to arms was not so that progressives might be co-opted and sell out, but rather that they might storm the gates and force real changes in the Party. I am not alone in having done this in California: my brother Dante is a vice-chair in the L.A. County Dem Party and a CDP E-Board member; Robert Cruickshank, a superb netroots activist and constant and forceful Obama Administration critic, was a vice-chair in the Monterey Dem Party for a long while before moving to Seattle to work on progressive mayor McGinn's communications team; Brian Leubitz, owner of progressive California blog Calitics is a CDP Regional Director in the Bay Area. Getting involved in this way has been for all of us not a professional consideration, but an ideological one. The entire purpose of being involved is to force changes in the way the Party thinks and the way it behaves in every aspect: from the values of candidates endorsed, to the nature of field operations, to the aggressiveness of communications, and everything in between. These changes do not happen overnight. Often they take years to gestate. Almost invariably they are met with fierce opposition from the comfortable, institutional powers that be, as well as their ideological allies who prize being "nice" and "reasonable" as a greater good than actually solving the problems that face the country.
If even 1/10 of the progressives writing online would become similarly involved and demand that the institutions of the Democratic Party be accountable to the progressive base and the well-polled progressive preferences of the majority of Americans, it would be a boon to our political system. This is why Howard Dean asked us to do it. Nor for the most part would it hamper our ability to speak openly and honestly about our beliefs. What I say here or elsewhere is not the official position of the Democratic Party at any level, nor should be it construed as such. The only constraint on a Party official's personal positions is that one grant that, at a fundamental level, voting for Democrats is advantageous over voting for members of other parties. That's a big one, of course, and a non-starter for many in the progressive movement. Which is fine. Reasonable people who want the same things (single-payer healthcare, an end to pointless foreign wars, a decent safety net, a reduction in income inequality, equal rights for all Americans regardless of race, age, gender, orientation, etc.) will certainly differ on the best tactics we might use to get there.
But this last point brings us straight to the famed Obama Wars. I myself have been frequently accused by both sides of being in the other camp, depending on the time, context, issue and audience. The "hater" camp sees me as a party-line hack, while the "bot" camp sees me as an unreasonable, spiteful idealist. These perceptions matter less, however, than does the reality of what confronts America at present: on one side, we have a Republican Party that has descended into sheer, outright nihilist lunacy. It would be difficult for a person looking at the evidence to declare with a straight face that Al Gore would not have been a vastly superior president to George W. Bush, or that putting a Democrat--even a blue dog--in place of Scott Walker or Chris Christie would not improve the lives of residents of Wisconsin and New Jersey.
And on the other side, of course, we have a very flawed Democratic Party, far too beholden to the interests of Wall St. and wealthy donors, far too fractured in its coalition, far too fearful of offending hopeless voters who will never see reason, and far too willing to seek "compromise" with the nihilists on the other side of the political chasm.
Barack Obama is merely a reflection of 30 years of an evolving culture in the Democratic Party, where bland messaging on education and social services meets Wall St. money and neoliberal economics, meets coalitional turnout operations among social issue groups. Where do we place our efforts, then? Do we work on a third party? Do we reject the Democratic Party? Do we attempt to primary Barack Obama? What do we do?
For various reasons locked into the nature of our winner-take-all Constitution, we have a two-party system, not a parliamentary one. That is very unlikely to change. Further, putting efforts into third parties to the left of the Democrats has not been shown to pull the party to the left, but rather to the right (outside of small, liberal states like Vermont.) Democrats did not look at the votes for Nader in 2000 and move to Party to the left to win those voters; instead, the Bush Presidency shifted the Democrats farther to the right. Theoretically, one could try to bury the Democratic Party in the same grave as the Whigs and start over anew--but what happens in the meantime during Nihilist Republican rule? Will the country survive? Frankly, there are too many deeply vulnerable people in this country and around the world to take that chance.
Which means that for better or for worse, the Democratic Party is what we have to work with. In the short term, that means that Barack Obama, for better or for worse, is what we have to work with at this time (primarying him being pretty much a fantasy, particularly given his still soaring approval rating among the vast majority of self-described liberals.) It's not pretty, but it's reality.
It's therefore our job as progressives to work both from within the Democratic Party and from outside the Democratic Party to make the changes to it we would like to see, to refashion the Party to fit the ideals that the American people deserve. That requires an aggressive, uncompromising stance.
But it's also our job to make sure that nihilist nutcases like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry don't get anywhere near supreme power. If they do, we may never well get the chance to get it back.
Ideally, that balanced approach means being neither a "hater" nor a "bot." As with so many other things in life, it just means doing the best with what you have to work with, making the best possible choices from a poor lot, and setting oneself up to have better choices in the future.