Left Critiques of the Tea Party

Ari Melber has a great piece in The Nation about the Tea Party. He identifies what at first looks like an interesting puzzle about the critiques by the left of the Tea Party, namely that “liberal attacks on the tea party echo attacks on liberals.”

What’s unrealistic to one voter is inspiring to another. Tea Party leaders, just like purist libertarians or radical progressives, like to begin with first principles and aim for fundamental reform. It is curious, really, how progressive critiques of the tea party so often sound like laundered attacks on progressives – you’re not being realistic, that’s not how government really works, the numbers won’t add up, and, of course, your entire movement should be dismissed based on your most fringe members.

First, these types of critiques by the right on the left have been effective attacks at moving center-left positions outside of the Overton Window and marginalizing them, especially with the national media. What’s good for the goose, etc…

Second, and I think this is more relevant, the critiques of the left on the Tea Party are in fact true. Melber notes Congressman Anthony Weiner rebutting some basic Tea Party budgetary assumptions, showing their numbers do not in fact add up:

Beyond experts and participants, the panel also included one member of the loyal opposition to the loyal opposition: Anthony Weiner. The New York congressman has staked out a role several steps to the left – and decibels above – President Obama. True to form, Weiner dispatched tea party tenets with substance and relish. Since the vast majority of the federal budget goes to defense and permanent entitlement programs, he argued, the tea party simply cannot legislate its anti-spending rage unless it slashes the Pentagon or guts Social Security. (Weiner, in full wonk mode, made this point by saying that 91 percent of the federal budget is comprised of defense and non-discretionary spending. You get the idea.) Of course, Social Security reform couldn’t even get a scheduled vote from congressional Republicans in 2005, when (then-popular) President Bush spearheaded the effort. And electing Republicans to cut defense spending? You’d have better luck buying tempeh from a butcher in Weiner’s Brooklyn district.

To pick one example when it comes to the realism critique, the left called for health care reform, elected a president largely around promises of reforming health care in America, and watched as this promise was delivered, albeit imperfectly. Contrast that with Alaska Tea Party candidate, Kansan Joe Miller, who thinks wrongly that unemployment insurance is unconstitutional and Social Security should be left to the states. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that unemployment insurance is constitutional, while leaving Social Security to the states would require “America forbids its citizens from retiring in a different state than the one that they paid taxes in while working.” I’d say the odds of that happening are zero. That is, Miller and other Tea Party candidates are pushing an agenda that is demonstrably unachievable,  because it is based on flawed constitutional arguments and transparently broken ideas.

The last argument Melber identifies as being turned back from the left on the Tea Party – ” your entire movement should be dismissed based on your most fringe members” – is an interesting one. The notion of hypocrisy on this one would have to assume that there are, in fact, an equal proportion of fringe members with comparable extremism on both sides. Of course Melber knows there’s no comparison between the two and he isn’t suggesting that there is parity here. But when core parts of the Tea Party don’t believe that the President is an American or a Christian, when they want to abolish Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment insurance, when there are repeated calls for “Second Amendment remedies” to losing elections, the fringe nature of not just some members of the Tea Party but significant portions of this movement’s chosen candidates for federal office, it’s clear that there is pervasive extremism befitting of marginalization.

It’s true that the critiques the left make of the Tea Party sound like the attacks that have been leveled against the online progressive movement. But truth matters. While the left has been able to elected mainstream politicians who pursue policies actively supported by the left and most of the country passively, these ideas have been legislated and made into reality. By contrast, what the Tea Party puts forth is radical, unpalatable and impossible. So while attacks on the left on these lines should be promptly dismissed as inaccurate, the similar attacks on the Tea Party must be recognized for their veracity. Making a distinction like this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s what common sense and political awareness demand.

Daou & Attributing Blame to Liberal Bloggers

Peter Daou has a follow-up to his piece on Obama and the blogs yesterday. He makes a couple points that I really don’t think stand up on their own any more.

First, he continues to cite the critical writings of liberal bloggers like Glenn Greenwald, Marcy Wheeler and Jane Hamsher as contributing to a drop in the President’s approval rating:

The title of my post (“How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency“) was largely interpreted as a slam on the bloggers themselves. It certainly wasn’t meant as one, which I hope was clear from the body of the post. Rather, it was intended as a literal observation that a small group with disproportionate influence was contributing to President Obama’s depressed approval ratings by holding him accountable whenever he appeared to undermine core Democratic and progressive principles. [Emphasis added]

It may be true that some people disapprove of the President because of what they’ve read about him on prominent liberal blogs. But I don’t know of a single national poll which has asked this question and certainly not with the degree of specificity Daou is attributing to people like Greenwald, Hamsher and Wheeler. I just don’t buy the notion that a handful of liberal bloggers are significantly or even measurably contributing to a drop in Obama’s approval rating.

Second, he cites blogs and social networks as the source of negative headlines that damage the administration in the public’s eyes:

I’ve argued that the cauldron of opinion that churns incessantly on blogs, Twitter, social networks, and in the elite media generates the storylines that filter across the national and local press, providing the fodder for public opinion and ultimately determining conventional wisdom.

Blogs and social networks are responsive. They notice what the administration or Congress or right wing activists are doing and highlight these activities. They do not create the stories of, say, the President ordering to have a US-born American citizen to be killed without trial. The responsibility for generating news lies with the agents, not the people watching what is happening.

Daou worries that problems for the administration really happen when “left and right come to agree that a political leader is on the wrong track.” But I don’t know of a single notable instance (excepting the audit the Fed efforts) where prominent voices on the left and right have a negative opinion of what the President is doing for the same reasons. For example, the right wing pretty universally opposes health care reform, but a plurality of Americans (and a lot of prominent liberal bloggers) are disappointed with health care reform because it did not go far enough. These are not the same thing! More to the point, the President still has a 78% approval rating among Democrats (PDF) as of last week. The extent that liberal blog readers are being influenced towards not approving of the President seems too small to note.

I think things would be pretty great if the words of Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher and Marcy Wheeler had the power to move public opinion on a national scale. But I think attributing falling approval ratings to the writings of a handful of bloggers not clapping louder is wrong. Sure there are problems beyond the economy, but elevating blog critiques this high is excessive.

Daou on Bloggers & The Presidency

Peter Daou makes some pretty interesting points his long and somewhat shrill look into “how a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency.” This is happening, Daou says, because key liberal bloggers are refusing to bend their principles to support the political agenda of the administration. Daou writes:

The constant refrain that liberals don’t appreciate the administration’s accomplishments betrays deep frustration. It was a given the right would try to destroy Obama’s presidency. It was a given Republicans would be obstructionists. It was a given the media would run with sensationalist stories. It was a given there would be a natural dip from the euphoric highs of the inauguration. Obama’s team was prepared to ride out the trough(s). But they were not prepared for a determined segment of the left to ignore party and focus on principle, to ignore happy talk and demand accountability.

As president, Obama has done much good and has achieved a number of impressive legislative victories. He is a smart, thoughtful and disciplined man. He has a wonderful family. His staff (many of whom I’ve worked with in past campaigns) are good and decent people trying to improve their country and working tirelessly under extreme stress. But that doesn’t mean progressives should set aside the things they’ve fought for their entire adult life. It doesn’t mean they should stay silent if they think the White House is undermining the progressive cause.

Daou goes on to look at the specifics of the Anwar al-Aulaqi case, where the President has ordered that this American citizen be killed overseas. Not surprisingly, there is intense rage online that the administration would go beyond what even Bush and Cheney had sought to authorize under the auspices of fighting terrorism.

There’s obviously tension between the administration and the online progressive movement. I don’t think this tension’s existence is surprising to many people, though the degree to which it is manifesting itself is surprising to me. Read the whole of Daou’s piece –  he is really identifying important threads that will either continue to be problematic for both the progressive movement and the administration, or be resolve and allow both sides to contribute to effective governance.

What Digby Said

Digby, writing on the penchant for some on the left to take a BURN IT TO THE GROUND attitude about politics and the policy course in Washington, has this to say about “those of you who are inclined to spend hours in my comment section throwing around snotty remarks drenched in puerile cynicism about how it is sillyto even bother, when everything and everyone is hopelessly corrupt.”

It’s indisputably true that the political system is run by wealthy plutocrats and much of what passes for democracy is kabuki. Same as it ever was, I’m afraid. But that’s not exactly the point. It’s still worth participating, doing what you can, containing the damage, stopping the bleeding, fighting the fight — for its own sake. After all, history shows that humans have managed, somehow, to actually make progress over time. You just can’t know what will make the difference.

If you don’t think that’s worth anything, however, you do have a choice. The obvious alternative, as PinNC wrote in TBOGG’s comments, is this:

If you really think that the political system is broken beyond repair, you have a blueprint from the 1770s to help you out.

Pick up your muskets, kids, or STFU.

Anyone who spends time hanging out with me in person knows that I can be as bitter, cynical and despondent as they come about the state of American politics and the fecklessness of Democrats, especially when it comes to helping enact progressive legislation. But I agree with Digby, this is too important to turn away from participation. If the current methods of influencing elected officials aren’t proving effective, then we have to try new models of organizing. Just like we did when we started organizing online and grew the netroots.

All is not lost, we may just have a different set of targets of our ire than during the Bush years. But don’t waste time mourning, organize!

Rebutting the Ideological Purity Argument

I strongly agree with both Bob Herbert and Glenn Greenwald, who successfully endeavor to rebut the sophistical argument against progressives who aren’t supportive of the current health care bill as arriving at that position solely or primarily out of a quest for ideological purity.

Herbert and Greenwald both focus their argument on the fact that the Senate’s excise tax, which is marketed as a tax on “Cadillac” plans, is in fact a tax which predominantly will hit lower-middle and middle class workers. Herbert cites the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation as predicting this will affect 20% of households with incomes of $50,000-75,000. As Marcy Wheeler frequently notes, it’s not a Cadillac tax — it’s a Chevy tax and it’s aimed at the backbone of the American middle class, particularly union members.

I believe there are many good arguments to be made in favor of passing a health care reform bill like the one that will likely come out of whatever process is used to merge the Senate and House bills. But pretending that there are no good faith, logical, substantive, or non-ideological reasons to oppose the bill is incredibly dishonest. Hopefully those who are publicly supporting whatever legislation comes forward will take Herbert and Greenwald’s pieces to heart and stop pushing the canard that parts of the Left, particularly the online progressive movement, is only opposing the Senate bill because they are pursuing ideological purity within the Democratic Party.

Cruickshank on the White House & Movement Building

Robert Cruickshank, who does incredible work as the Courage Campaign’s policy director, has a must-read post at The Seminal on FireDogLake. Here is a large excerpt:

The collapse of support for the bill reveals a deeper and growing divide, an unwillingness of most Americans to embrace a flawed process. In particular, progressives – activists and voters – need a clear, signal victory in order to avoid complete 1994-style demoralization. Something big and bold, something clearly progressive that forced moderates and conservatives to concede something important, something that will give more people a reason to rally to Obama’s defense when he is in a difficult place.

Comprehensive immigration reform along the lines of the Grijalva proposal would achieve this. Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would achieve this (and repeal of DOMA would be a grand slam). Firing Geithner and Summers would achieve this. Breaking up some of the big banks would achieve this. And yes, a public option of some kind would have achieved this.

Instead we have a White House and a Senate Democratic leadership that still believes we live in the 1990s, where the “left” is weak and has little popular support. They’ve not understood the transformative effect of the 2000s and Bush in particular, who helped create a genuine American left with real and widespread popular support for the first time in 40 years.

The White House does not view progressives as equal partners, as people who have legitimate concerns and priorities that need to be included in any deal. They still take the Clintonian view that the “left” can be appeased either through a few nice words in a speech, and if that fails, can be crammed down by being told they’re wreckers, being told this is the best progressives can get, being told that progressives are irrelevant (even while the WH’s defensive actions show they’re anything but irrelevant).

The White House hasn’t yet grasped that some basic and timeless rules of politics still apply: that you have to deliver something to your supporters to keep them on board. Something that excites them, something that gets them motivated. Ever since 1993 Democratic presidential Administrations have assumed those rules are in abeyance, where supporters will stay on board out of fear of Republicans, unwilling to act on their beliefs or frustrations out of an internalized belief that America is a conservative place hostile to progressive values.

The Bush years destroyed those internalized frustrations. Congressional Democratic support for the Iraq War destroyed what existed of progressive acceptance of that Clintonite strategy, and freed the left to actually feel confident in asserting its own values regardless of what the Democratic leadership says, because any trust in that leadership was destroyed in 2002. Obama understood this out of necessity during the primary, when he had to embrace this to defeat Hillary Clinton. But once that was achieved, he went right back to the old Bill Clinton strategy of appeasing the center-right and assuming progressives would simply go along with it – and once elected, Obama surrounded himself with old Clinton hands who espoused the same basic view of politics.

Powerful stuff. But I think the most important piece of writing by Cruickshank comes at the end, where he echoes a sentiment that I have been writing about here for the last few weeks:

Until he sees progressives as genuine partners, Obama will face declining political fortunes. That’s his problem, something he and his team should and eventually will address. For our part, progressives should concern ourselves with how to further build up our own institutions and power, instead of wasting time trying to prop up a weak president who views us and our views and our work with contempt.

The added bonus to focusing on building progressive infrastructure and power is that doing so makes it harder for the progressive base to be rolled by the  party establishment in the future. We will be better suited to affect our goals and make sure that elected officials do not turn their backs on the base after our donations, volunteerism, and writing help carry them into office. And, eventually, this infrastructure building, along with internal leadership cultivation, will bring us to a point where the progressive online movement can regularly and successfully field our own candidates for often and stop projecting our values onto people who do not share them.

Interesting Trend

Jake McIntyre has a post on Daily Kos in which he points out that parallels between supporting the Iraq war and supporting health care reform as it stands now:

Has anyone else noticed that the split in the progressive blogosphere between those who are saying “it’s a good bill in spite of everything” (Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Josh Marshall, to name a few) and those who just can’t bring themselves to support Liebercare (Markos and Digby come to mind, among bloggers who have been at it since 2003*) is eerily similar to the split between those who grudgingly backed the invasion of Iraq and those who fought against the war seven years ago?

I’m not sure that Jake is being totally fair, but the point is certainly persuasive and he makes it well.

The challenge, to me, is where the third category of people fit in. I would include myself and Chris Bowers in this group and think of it as a sober activist set (which isn’t to say that other activist bloggers are not sober, but that we see less room for any positive political outcome for progressives). Bowers writes:

If you oppose the bill at least partially because you believe it will result in negative political consequences for Democrats, well, you are probably correct in that assessment.  However, don’t delude yourself into thinking that defeating it somehow makes for a better political outcome.  It won’t, because there is no good political outcome at this point.

My main difference with Chris is that while the political outcomes may not look great, there is certainly still room for movement building through organizing around health care. This can take the form of trying to stop bad parts of the legislation, or simultaneously include efforts to strengthen the bill through improvements. The act of organizing around this high profile issue, building coalitions between advocacy groups, online progressives, and progressives in elected office is valuable and potentially something that can lead to sustainable  movement growth. This sort of movement building is what can be the breakwall that stops political damage from this fight reaching too far into the future.

It’s a complex case and the lack of clear paths to a positive outcome certainly speaks to how poorly the last year has been handled by leadership. I can’t imagine the next number of days and weeks is going to be a fun time to be a progressive activist. But maybe what comes out of this will be salvageable, either as a particular piece of policy or as the movement on whole.