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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: April 2009

What is “right-wing extremism?”

The recent much-discussed report on “Rightwing Extremism” by the Department of Homeland Security has raised a very important issue of definition: What precisely is right-wing “political extremism” and how does it differ from other concepts like “the radical right” or “hard-right conservatism”?
For most Americans, the most critical — and in fact the defining — characteristic of “political extremism” – whether left or right – is the approval of violence as a means to achieve political goals. Opinions on issues, no matter how “extreme” or irrational they may be do not by themselves necessarily make a person a dangerous “extremist.” Whether opinions are crackpot (e.g. abolish all paper money) or repulsive (e.g. non-whites should be treated as sub-humans), extreme political opinions are not in and of themselves incitements to or justifications for violence.
But there is actually one very clear and unambiguous way to define a genuinely “extremist” political ideology — it is any ideology that justifies or incites violence.
Underlying all extremist political ideologies is one central idea – the vision of “politics as warfare”. While this phrase is widely used as a metaphor, political extremists mean it in an entirely concrete and operational way. It is a view that is codified in the belief that political opponents are literally “enemies” who must be crushed rather than fellow Americans with different opinions with whom negotiated political compromises must be sought.
In recent decades we have unfortunately become accustomed to political opponents being defined as “enemies” rather than fellow Americans, but the notion was profoundly shocking when Richard Nixon first used the term in his famous “enemies list.” It marked a tremendous change from generally collegial attitudes of Senators and members of Congress, where a certain basic level of civility was almost always maintained, even among the most bitter political opponents. Unlike many other countries, until the Nixon era American politicians generally saw “politics” as the job of achieving rational compromises among democratically elected representatives and not as the task of crushing, purging or liquidating political enemies, as was often the case in totalitarian countries.
Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter temporarily derailed the trend toward defining politics as warfare, but the notion got a powerful “second wind” in the 1980’s – which came from two main sources.
The first was the culture and doctrines of counter-insurgency and covert operations that blossomed in the Reagan era. In combating insurgent movements, U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine carefully studied Leninist organizations and frequently imitated their strategy and tactics in order to dismantle them. The basic philosophy was frequently to “fight fire with fire” using any available tactics, including even blatantly undemocratic and morally indefensible ones.
During the Reagan years, there was a massive expansion of extremely secret counter-insurgency programs – primarily in Central America and Afghanistan – that were conducted outside the formal structure of traditional civilian-military control. Among the people involved in these programs, an ethos of loyalty developed to the secret military/intelligence hierarchy that was conducting these operations rather than to the formal elected government.
The hero and symbol of this trend was Oliver North. By showing up in his military uniform at congressional hearings called to investigate his role in the illegal funding of counterinsurgencies in Central America and Afghanistan (although he was actually a political appointee of the Reagan white house at the time and not on active military duty) North dramatically embodied the view that his primary loyalty was to the covert military/intelligence command running the secret operations around the world and not to the majority of Congress that had specifically prohibited the actions he had coordinated. He became a symbol of a perspective that viewed the majority of Congress (that had voted against funding the Nicaraguan “contras”) as an internal “enemy” just as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas were an external enemy.
By the early 1990’s this general point of view had become deeply entrenched among many right-wing conservatives. As conservative talk radio shows grew in popularity, many hosts like Rush Limbaugh repeated and refined this militarized and combative version of conservative ideology.
These views became even more extreme after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the conservative view, Liberals quickly replaced communism as the principal “enemies” of America. Conservative leader Grover Norquist expressed the view quite clearly when talking to a former college classmate. He said: “For 40 years we fought a two-front war against the Soviet Union and statism in the U.S. Now we can turn all our time and energy into crushing you. With the Soviet Union it was just business. With you, it’s personal.”

Section 5 On the Ropes?

Reports from oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court indicate that the Supremes may be on the brink of striking down Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, the congressional authorization for requiring Justice Department “preclearance” of districting schemes in most southern states and a few other scattered jurisdictions to ensure they do not dilute minority voting strength. The main source of this speculation was a line of questioning by Justice Anthony Kennedy, (typically the swing vote in close decisions) expressing hostility towards Congress’ alleged failure to adequately review recent voting data in deciding which jurisdictions are subject to Section 5.
Kennedy was definitely the swing vote in a recent decision prohibiting courts from requiring “majority-influence” districts on VRA grounds, which was not particularly good news for Democrats, who have been the victim of “packing” and “bleaching” practices in the past that concentrated minority voters in a small number of districts.
As with the earlier decision, the current review of Section 5 is significant due to its timing: just prior to the decennial reapportionment and redistricting process for both congressional and state legislative seats. If Section 5 were struck down, it could obviously be revisited by a Democratic Congress, and even if preclearance is no longer required, individuals can challenge districting maps on VRA grounds via a separate section of the Act.
Still, it would be nice to go into the redistricting season with a civil-rights-friendly and Democratic Justice Department exercising a full range of powers; the last two occurred under Republican presidents. In the end, the big battle affecting redistricting will be over control of state legislative chambers and governorships, which is another reason why the 2010 elections could be momentuous.

Profiles in Budgetary Courage

Using data from CQ’s Greg Giroux and from Swing State Project, I’ve taken a quick look at House and Senate Democrats who voted for and against the final budget resolution, and how their states and districts voted in the 2008 presidential election. And the real story is how many Democrats from tough territory actually voted with the president.
47 House Democrats represent districts carried by John McCain in a bad Republican year. They voted 34-13 for the Obama-backed budget. 13 Democratic senators represent states carried by McCain; they voted for the budget 10-3.
Of the four House Democrats voting against the budget who represent districts carried by Obama, three (Barrow of GA, Foster of IL, and Nye of VA) are from seats recently won by Republicans, and the fourth is Dennis Kucinich. Only two Senate Democrats from states won by Obama voted against the budget: Arlen Specter, who switched parties the day of the vote, and Evan Bayh, from a state that narrowly went Democratic for the first time in 44 years (true also, of course, for Virginia senators Warner and Webb, who voted for the budget).
Looking at the Democratic groupings often suspected of disloyalty is interesting, too. The Blue Dog Coalition in the House voted for the budget by a 41-6 margin. And in the Senate, the 15 Democrats whose names have most often been associated with the “moderate working group” led by Evan Bayh split 13-2 in favor of the budget.
All in all, not that bad a day for party unity.

Delusional Element

My last post talked about Jim DeMint’s strange and dialectical “win by losing” credo. His way of “thinking” was nicely summed up in the Washington Post today by former Reagan and Bush 41 staffer Ed Rogers:

Notice to Republicans: Arlen Specter changing parties is good for the Democrats and President Obama and bad for us. If you think otherwise, put down the Ann Coulter book and go get some fresh air. There’s always a delusional element within the GOP that thinks if we lose badly enough the Democrats will gain so much power they will implement all their crazy plans, the people will revolt and purest Republicans will then be swept back into power. Even if this were true, it doesn’t take into account the damage done while our opponents are in control.

I guess it would be too much to expect for Rogers to also note the damage that could be done if conservatives insist on lashing the true-believer party base into a permanent counter-revolutionary hate frenzy. But at least he didn’t blame the whole situation on Barack Obama’s failure to be “bipartisan.”
As a son of the Deep South, I am intimately familiar with the cultural phenomenon of believing in victory-through-defeat and the glamor of “noble” failure, a spiritual disease that inflicted many of the white folks of my region for more than a century. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Jim DeMint comes from the state whose fever swamps first fed that affliction. I’d love to see the voters of the Palmetto State (my own native state), refute that suspicion before too very long.

Will Obama’s Template Transform Race Relations?

We have to be careful about making too many generalizations about Obama’s election. After all, McCain did hoist his sails in the perfect Democratic storm, which hit ferociously on the final lap, no less. For a change, we Dems got every conceivable break. But Obama tacked into the storm with awe-inspiring confidence and calmness. In this context, Gary Kamiya’s article, “Obama and Race: Silence is Golden” just up at Salon.com is instructive. Kamiya’s larger point is that Obama’s non-racial strategy provides not only a template for getting African Americans elected in predominantly white constituencies; in so doing, he may also have transformed race relations in America. As Kamiya notes,

Barack Obama’s 100-day-old presidency has already had a remarkably positive effect on race relations in America. When asked, “Are race relations in the U.S. generally good or generally bad?” 66 percent of Americans answered that they were good, with just 22 percent saying they were bad. Asked the same question last July, 53 percent said race relations were good, 37 percent bad. The number of black respondents who said race relations were good doubled since the earlier NYT/CBS poll.

Kamiya adds,

It’s not surprising that having a black president has caused Americans to take a sunnier view of race relations. For blacks especially, the ascension of a black man to the highest office in the land is cause for enormous and justifiable racial pride, the kind of deep personal validation that history rarely offers. The fact that millions of whites voted for Obama has obviously made blacks feel more hopeful about white racial attitudes.

The feeling that a corner has been turned is so strong now, that opponents of renewing the Voting Rights Act preclearance provisions are using it to bolster their arguments. African Americans are rightly suspicious of the argument — one election does not prove that racial injustice has been eliminated at the polls.
Still, Obama’s election and presidency have turned our racial dialogue upside down, as Kamiya argues:

We are a country used to talking endlessly about race but not doing anything about it. Obama is doing exactly the opposite. He is not talking about race, but that very fact, combined with his high popularity, has advanced racial harmony more than any utterance could do…But Obama’s silence about race, and the positive consequences of that silence, could also be the harbingers of a subtle but fundamental movement away from America’s dominant approach to race, one based on the idea that “we have to take race into account in order to get beyond it.”

I tend to agree with Kamiya to a point. But I found Attorney-General Holder’s remark about America being “a nation of cowards” for not talking more about race strangely out of synch with President Obama’s grand strategy, which is a version of T.R.’s ‘speak softly and carry a big stick” strategy. Leverage the powers of the presidency to advance racial justice, but without a lot of clamor.
Something about the feeling Obama’s presidency conveys is reminiscent of the brief period in the early sixties, just before the Beatles hit the U.S.A., when African Americans and millions of white kids were spending their dough to purchase the same music — that would be the Motown sound. Only now the shared currency is pride in a young, dynamic President, who happens to be Black.
As for the new era Kamiya hopes for, we may be disappointed if race relations revert to past patterns. But President Obama’s example will almost certainly inspire more young African Americans to run for elective office using his template. Many will win, is my guess.

Valhalla Syndrome, Southern Edition

You do have to say this for SC Sen. Jim DeMint: he represents the unmediated subconsciousness of contemporary conservatives, coming right out and saying things that others more discreetly probably just think.
That’s certainly true of his rather novel explanation for the decline of Republican fortunes in the northeast, highlighted by the Specter defection. Here’s DeMint via CNN’s Political Ticker:

Appearing on CNN Tuesday, DeMint, a hero of the conservative grassroots, denied that his party has tilted too far to the right.
“I don’t think many Americans are going to agree that the Republican party has become too conservative,” he said. “If you look at our record of spending, our record on every issue, the problem I think we have is Americans no longer believe that we believe what we say we do.”
DeMint says he isn’t worried. He denied that the GOP has become a southern party, attributing Republican losses in the northeast to some northern voters who have left the region and moved south hoping to avoid labor unions and “forced unionization.” He said Americans will eventually come back into the Republican fold because of growing alarm about the size of government and President Obama’s fiscal policies.

Let’s get this straight: southern Republicans haven’t conquered the GOP; GOP voters have just moved South, and eventually, those poor union slaves they left behind will wake up and vote Republican as well, so long as the party doesn’t do anything right now to directly appeal to their current benighted views.
DeMint is carrying dialectical reasoning to levels that would have impressed Karl Marx. Losing is winning, and winning means making no conscious effort to win.
Aside from that interesting perspective, which applauds the shrinkage of the GOP as necessary to its ultimate victory, DeMint’s geographical analysis of partisan fortunes is a fascinating variation on the ancient conservative conviction that economic growth depends on a “business climate” with no unions, low wages, low taxes on high earners and capital, and little or no regulation. According not only to DeMint but to most Republicans and (unfortunately) a fair number of Democrats in the South, keeping the Union Devil down or even out has attracted untold numbers of jobs and highly productive people from the socialist northeast and midwest.
If that hoary moonlight-and-magnolias theory of economic development were true, of course, then Mississippi would be the economic dynamo of the whole world, and DeMint’s own South Carolina wouldn’t be perpetually trailing most of the country in key economic and social indicators. (Despite its Eden-like business climate, SC’s unemployment rate according to the latest statistics is third worst in the nation, at 11.4%, rather notably higher than that of union-bossed and Democratic-governed PA at 7.8%).
But turning to the political side of DeMint’s argument, it’s highly reminiscent of the 1990s theory (dubbed the “Valhalla Syndrome” by California-based urbanologist Joel Kotkin) that prosperous white folks fleeing California’s crime, taxes and people of color were turning the Rocky Mountain States bright red even as California itself turned blue. Turns out the second half of that trajectory has panned out as predicted, but not the first, as major Democratic gains in the Rockies became one of the huge political stories of recent years.
So recent history doesn’t exactly reinforce DeMint’s theory that people in the northeast, somehow prevented from escaping the economic prisons of their anti-business homelands, and looking south with yearning eyes, will at some point start voting Republican, hoping to turn desperately poor states like Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut (ranked first, second and third in median household income) into mirror images of South Carolina (ranked 41st) or Mississippi (ranked 50th).
People do undoubtedly move or stay south for all sorts of reasons, ranging from climate and recreational opportunities to the culture, food, and sociability of the population. But for good government by the likes of DeMint or his colleague SC Gov. Mark “Herbert Hoover” Sanford? Probably not so much.

Republicans Spinning Specter

The reactions from Republicans to Arlen Specter’s defection yesterday are in some respects more interesting than the event itself.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) lost no time repairing to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to accuse conservatives of driving off Specter and deliberately shrinking the party’s Big Tent with cultural-issues litmus tests.
Snowe was obviously warning her Republican affiliation shouldn’t be taken for granted, either.
RNC Chairman Micheal Steele, in a not unprecedented case, seemed to be of two minds (as noted by Jason Zengerle), first expressing unhappiness over Specter’s move, but then dismissing him and his “left-wing voting record.”
In a spin that I am quite sure we will hear more of in the next few days, Patrick Ruffini of NextRight heaved a sigh of relief that having lost one Senate vote, Republicans may now, finally, lay down the burden of responsibility they’ve so patriotically shouldered up until now:

Today the mandate was cemented. The Democrats now have full control over Washington, D.C. They can now break the filibuster. And any failure to do so is not the result of GOP “obstruction” but of self-beclowning Democratic overreach of the sort they couldn’t possibly hope to get away with if any semblance of a balance of power existed.
The Democrats are now fully responsible for what happens in Washington. And though it is necessary that the GOP go above and beyond to demonstrate their eventual fitness to govern, their first responsibility right now as the loyal opposition is to hold the majority in check. And that will entail a lot of “no” votes — and persistent explanation of why the “no” votes will lead to better outcomes for ordinary Americans.

(BTW, Patrick, you need to get word to Norm Coleman that he’s gumming up your scenario for the GOP by refusing to concede he lost the 2008 election. There certainly ain’t no “full control” of the Senate by Democrats so long as Coleman’s lawyers keep Al Franken from assuming his seat.)
In a similar vein, Michael G. Franc at National Review‘s The Corner chortles happily that Specter’s defection will suddenly cast a giant spotlight on moderate Democrats whose perfidious support for socialism will now be exposed.
But I’ve found these examples of “constructive” thinking only after some research. By and large, and overwhelmingly, the conservative “base ‘n’ blogosphere” reaction has been one of absolute joy at getting rid of this RINO. The list of 50 trackbacks to Michelle Malkin’s “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” post about Specter speaks volumes, with titles like “PA RINO Specter Goes Home to Dems” and “Good Riddance, and Take Your Friends from Maine With You.”
All in all, the hopes and fears of many Republicans seem to have been nicely summed up in a remarks on the Senate floor last week by the increasingly rabid Jim DeMint of SC:

I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs.

Looks like he could get his wish sooner rather than later.

When Republican Moderates Walked the Earth

As the chattering classes meditate over the defection of Sen. Arlen Spector (R, now D-PA), it seems as good a time as any to dust off an article I wrote for Blueprint magazine in 2001, when Jim Jeffords switched parties, that looked back to the astonishingly robust condition of moderate Republicanism, especially in the U.S. Senate, in the mid-1970s. This may be of interest to younger readers who may be under the impression that this now-virtually-extinct political species was wiped out the day Barry Goldwater won the GOP nomination in 1964.
If you do read this piece, please don’t be offended by my suggestion that John McCain had come to represent the “centrist” impulse in the GOP. That was actually true back then, before McCain subsequently rediscovered his “Reagan Republican” roots and repudiated much of what he was saying and doing from 1999-2003.

The Specter Flip: Mild Glee Everywhere

You’ll probably hear a lot of crowing and shrieking about Sen. Arlen Specter’s announcement today that he will run for re-election in the Democratic primary next year. But ritualistic reactions aside, this is probably one of those “dramatic” decisions that will actually produce little more than a mild, warm feeling among activists in both parties.
The immediate implications in Congress are modest if real. Yes, Specter’s flip theoretically gives Democrats (in conjunction with the eventual seating of Al Franken) the magic 60 votes necessary to cut off filibusters. And that may matter on relatively small Senate matters where party-line voting is routine. On bigger issues, there’s no way Democrats can entirely rely on Ben Nelson, and several other Dems have shown a willingness to buck the administration. Moreover, Specter’s no guaranteed vote, either; he’s already indicated he won’t reverse his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act (though it wouldn’t be surprising if he became more amenable to a compromise, if one emerges).
On the other hand, if Specter faces or fears a Democratic primary opponent in 2010 (those promises by leading PA Dems to clear the field for him are a little stale at present), he may well toe his new party’s line more faithfully than would otherwise be the case.
In terms of PA politics, Specter definitely will have an easier path to reelection as a Democrat, even if he attracts primary opposition. He was getting pretty toasty in his Republican primary race against Pat Toomey, who nearly beat him last time around. Toomey’s own slim hopes of actually becoming a senator just went down, ironically enough, but his challenge was always more about punishing Specter than winning a general election.
It’s the high symbolism of Specter’s switch that may matter most. Departing from the GOP with Specter was another chunk of the ever-dwindling legacy of moderate Republicanism, which activists in both parties largely deplore. It certainly won’t be regretted by culturally conservative GOPers, who have long thought of Specter as a bitter enemy, or by the broad ranks of conservatives who have convinced themselves that ideological vagueness is the party’s chief political problem. Specter’s essentially a relic of those days when heterodox Republicans could create a power base in Congress for themselves through the power of the seniority system; with Republicans back in the minority, that power base was long gone.
So although some of the rhetoric you’ll hear will echo that of the days after Jim Jeffords’ party switch in 2001, which flipped control of the Senate, it’s more a matter of an old shoe finally dropping than any real change in the balance of power. Republicans decided a long time ago that they really had little use for their “moderate” wing, and what’s left of it is predictably winging away.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist
Joe’s direction.

“Libertarians” For a Torture State

As Andrew Levison argued in his post last night on the ideological character of “tea party” participants, it’s not so easy to attach a convenient and internally consistent label to many people.
If that’s true of tea party participants, it’s doubly true of those gabbers who simultaneously shriek at Barack Obama for allegedly building a police state and for dismantling the extralegal system of detainee warehousing and interrogation, as he promised he would during the 2008 campaign. And indeed, the complete lack of inhibition with which many on the Right have defended the use of torture provides a good warning sign against hasty judgments that the GOP is moving in a “libertarian” direction.
The best example, as it happens, is the rising star of conservative media, Fox’s Glenn Beck. Here’s what that self-styled populist libertarian had to say last September (long before this became a talking point for most on the Right) about Barack Obama’s interest in expanding national and community service opportunities:

We’ve heard about this national service corps, haven’t we? Universal voluntary public service. When Michelle Obama said he’ll never allow you to sit idly by again, he will never allow you to be unengaged. What does that mean? Universal voluntary public service, a national service corps. Quoting from the story: Our alumni from Public Allies are more than twice as likely as 18 34 year olds to engage in protest activities. Public Allies boasts in a document found with its tax filings. It has already deployed an army of 2,200 community organizers like Obama to agitate for “Justice and equality” in his hometown of Chicago and other U.S. cities including Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Washington. Cincinnati recruit Amy Vinson said, “I get to practice being an activist and I get paid for it.” The Obamas’ plan is to herd American youth into government funded reeducation camps where they will be brainwashed into thinking that America is a racist, oppressive place in need of social change.

And here’s Beck on efforts to reign in the power of an executive branch with extralegal and extraconstitutional powers to dispose of detainees as they wish:

I’m sick and tired of the spineless weasels who’ve never fought a war or run a business but keep trying to tell people how to fight wars and run businesses.
Let’s be clear: The president has to make decisions that most people don’t even want to think about. Do you know if waterboarding is torture? The president must. He has to make the tough calls and then the people who actually fight wars need to be left alone to do their job and stand by what they’ve done, no matter what the consequences.

Now I understand that it is possible to favor an extremely weak state in domestic matters while supporting a snarling, aggressive national security structure that dishes out hell to “enemies” or to foreigners generally. But it’s not so easy to maintain that position when the supervisors of said snarling national security structure, the president and vice president of the United States, are consistently suggesting that national security in the post-9/11 age requires the power to disregard all laws, domestic and international, and the constitution itself, whenever they deem it necessary, up to and including their treatment of U.S. citizens.
That’s why most actual libertarians dislike the Torture State as much as they dislike the Welfare State. It was no surprise when 2008 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr hailed the president’s quick reversal of Bush detainee policies in January:

Barr, long a critic of steps taken by the former administration of George W. Bush to undermine civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights by, among other things, conducting electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens in their own country without court order and without any evidence of wrongdoing, said he “hopes these steps taken by the new president will be followed by further actions reestablishing the rule of law and respect for our Constitution that has been dramatically and unnecessarily eroded over the past seven years of the preceding administration.”

Maybe some readers think it’s a waste of time to adjudge people like Glenn Beck according to any sort of standard of reasonableness or self-consistency, in that he is self-evidently nuts. But in reasoning with people who watch the man, it is helpful to note that there is a rather dramatic difference between a consistent and principled opposition to state power in both domestic and international arenas, and a violent hostility to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party that is expressed in patently self-contradictory ways. Nothing but “opportunist” can serve as an adequate label for those who barely pause between describing the president as a swaggering would-be jackbooted fascist and calling him a wimp who weeps at the thought of terrorists feeling pain.