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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Decline of Conservative Envy

Over at MyDD, Chris Bowers has an important post about one of the most fundamental but insufficiently discussed lessons of the 2006 elections: the collapse of the supposedly invincible Right Wing Machine.

One of the nice side effects from our great electoral success in 2006 is that the tide of books, speeches, and studies by progressives with conservative movement envy has been significantly reduced. No more do we have to hear about how great Republicans are at virtually everything political: language crafting, staying on message, voter identification, GOTV, paid media quality, free media booking, etc. Now that Republicans and the conservative movement have been historically trounced on the electoral front, their political sophistication no longer appears all that profound. We beat them at the height of their fundraising prowess, the height of their early voting programs, the height of their voter contact programs, and basically the height of their everything. Republicans did not lose in 2006 because of mistakes. In fact, their machine was working so well that supposed uber-genius Karl Rove was convinced that Republicans would do just fine in the 2006 elections.

That’s all quite true. But I’d go a bit deeper on why the machine crashed, and what progressives should infer not simply about the quality of that machine, but about the seeds of destruction that were inherent in its very nature. The “conservative movement envy” Chris is talking about, and that I’ve deplored on many occasions, was all about admiration for the unity, discipline, ideological rigor, “base” orientation, and sheer ruthlessness of the conservative apparatus in all its many subelements. Progressives who were convinced that Democrats as a whole were losing elections because they were disunited, ideologically heterodox, disloyal to the “base,” and cowardly, looked across the great divide and often expressed a desire to make Democrats more like Republicans in every one of those respects. To put it simply, many progressives reflexively thought that a coalition party like the Democrats was at a permanent disadvantage against an ideological party like the GOP, and moreover, that its coalition character made even electoral victories bittersweet, given the necessity for both internal and external compromise. But as we’ve seen over the last few years, “machine” politics, particularly of the conservative variety, are largely incompatible, except in very unusual circumstances, with any sort of effective government. When ideology drives policy, and partisan unity is made an end in itself, there’s no internal debate, no respect for empirical reality, no interest in genuine persuasion, no flexibility, no room for error, and no feedback mechanism other than the demands of “base” activists and opinion-leaders and the money-lenders who feed the whole beast. And when the ideology in question denies a positive role for government, favors unilateral violence as the sole instrument for American influence in the world, and views half of the U.S. population as complicit in a domestic Holocaust (legalized abortion) and in the destruction of all the norms of western civilization–well, it’s not surprising that you wind up with a record of folly, malicious mendacity, incompetence, corruption and authoritarianism like Bush’s. It’s very important that progressives understand that the results in 2006 were largely dictated by that record, not by strategic or tactical errors in the GOP campaign, or for that matter, by the strategic or tactical brilliance of Democrats. Yes, the expanded playing field and “fighting spirit” adopted by Democrats, and the hard work and enthusiasm evident at the grassroots (and in the netroots) were crucial in exploiting the opportunity created by the GOP “machine,” but when you look at the freshman congressional class of 2006, it’s clear we are still a coalition party, notwithstanding efforts to describe last year’s winners as a new breed of “populists.” All this is immediately relevant in view of the anger and despair (and those words are no exaggeration) of many progressive activists over last week’s Democratic divisions on Iraq funding. Such divisions are inevitably going to happen in a coalition party, and for all its sometimes maddening disadvantages, it’s still better than a party whose unity and ideological rigor can sometimes lead it down the road to perdition, with no road back (viz., a Republican Party still chained to its conservative base and its domestic and international delusions).

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