The Loss of Consensus

In his series building up to the announcement of his Wanker of the Decade, Atrios has declared Joe Klein the third runner-up. That post includes a link to a Greg Sargent piece wherein Sargent eviscerates Klein’s casual accusation of Atrios as an “ideological extremist,” with no explanation of what ideas make Atrios extreme. To highlight Klein’s absurdity, Sargent linked to a post by Atrios wherein he described what he believed to a set of consensus positions on various issues within the liberal netroots. The post was written in 2006 and reading in 2012, I remember it well. It had a lot of good stuff, both in terms of long-standing liberal goals (universal healthcare, more progressive tax code) and ones very much emergent in the second Bush term (repealing the bankruptcy bill, repeal the estate tax repeal). After publishing the list, Atrios then updated it with the following additions:

…adding a few more things which would be obvious if we weren’t living in the Grand and Glorious Age of Bush:

  • Torture is bad
  • Imprisoning citizens without charges is bad
  • Playing Calvinball with the Geneva Conventions and treaties generally is bad
  • Imprisoning anyone indefinitely without charges is bad
  • Stating that the president can break any law he wants any time “just because” is bad

…oh, and I meant to include:

  • Marriage rights for all, which includes “gay marriage” and quicker transition to citizenship for the foreign spouses of citizens.

What’s remarkable is that at this date only six years later, I don’t think you can say with a straight face that these are still consensus positions within the online progressive community. With the exception of torture, every policy listed above that was bad under President Bush has been continued by President Obama, or worse, expanded. And President Obama himself opposes marriage equality for all Americans.

By and large, Obama’s agreement with Bush on these issues of civil liberties has been either ignored or glossed over.

Earlier this week, subbing for Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Charles Davis had an essay, The Liberal Betrayal of Bradley Manning, which does a good job documenting the damning pivot by so many in the online progressive community away from caring about civil liberties and the rule of law. Greenwald himself has been the single most prolific documentarian of the ways in which liberal activist groups and bloggers have pivoted from treating warrantless wiretapping of Americans to be a potential high crime by President Bush to being completely accepting of President Obama’s decision to assassinate American citizens who have never been charged, let alone convicted, of a crime.

I can’t speak with certainty about why this has occurred, though a theory comes to mind.

There are far more people who are tribally partisan than who are ideologically liberal. Liberal positions on human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law are politically expedient when a Republican is in the White House, so they are widely deployed. But when a conservative Democrat is in the White House, tribal partisans have no use for liberal positions and they fall to the wayside, presumably until there is next a Republican in office. Loyalty to party over ideology isn’t in itself a bad thing – but there does need to be an honest discussion of this phenomenon.

An additional wrinkle here is that it splits allies apart. Pundits like Greenwald or Davis are regularly attacked by tribal Democrats for being extreme or helping Republicans or being passionate about marginal issues that no one really cares about. These attacks – as well as the partisan abandonment of previously held positions – create an environment where trust is not really possible.

How do we move past this? Well, presumably, the next time we have a Republican president, Democrats will become passionate about these issues again and there will be space for Democrats to work alongside ideological liberals. Liberals will have to accept that their issues are political pawns in the never-ending struggle between Republicans and Democrats if they want to actually make any progress on the issues. But given that parties out of power can’t actually enact their policies, there isn’t much of an upside for liberals on this one. In fact, this speaks to the need for people who care about civil liberties, the rule of law and equality to look past the Democratic Party and identify trans-partisan or non-partisan allies to push on these issues outside the confines of the two parties. Examples of how this can work emerge around internet freedom issues like SOPA, PIPA and net neutrality. This doesn’t necessarily provide a blueprint for changing policies and practices which already exist, but I’m not sure what else to go on.

One thought on “The Loss of Consensus

  1. This phenomenon — tribalism over principle — is pretty much why I’ve walked away from involvement in Dem party politics. You can only get called a naive, stupid purity troll who WANTS the wingtards to win so many times (implicitly and explicitly) before you walk away. I’ll vote Dem in elections where it matters, something else where it doesn’t, because the Republicans are crazy.

    But “Hey those guys are crazy dominionist lunatics! We’re the SANE conservatives!” isn’t much of a motivator to do more than vote for morphine over punji sticks in the kind of death I’m choosing.


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