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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Bulldozers and Barriers

[Note: this is cross-posted from TPMCafe.com, as part of a discussion of Todd Gitlin’s new book about the Democratic Party, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent.}
There’s another important reason for Democrats to maintain a “big tent” party beyond those already discussed in this conversation about Todd’s book: if we want to prevent conservative “bulldozers” in the future, we need to embrace traditions and institutions that empower diverse points of view, sometimes at the expense of quick or thorough progressive policy achievements.
It was no accident that Bush-era conservatives steadily descended into thuggish, scofflaw behavior at home and abroad. Building their “ bulldozer” required them to brush aside a vast array of traditional limitations on the exercise of raw power, ranging from international agreements and alliances to the U.S. Constitution itself, along with basic respect for facts and reasoned debate.
Reviving these barriers to “bulldozing” is a task for progressives as urgent as the pursuit of any specific policy goal, however worthy. But we can’t limit the other side without in some respects limiting ourselves.
In his post, Matt Yglesias expressed a widely-held sense of frustration that a “big tent” party may have to tolerate people who don’t share his priorities, or maybe even his values, and who enjoy disproportionate power in Congress. Barring a constitutional reformation of how the various branches of the federal government operate, that will often be the case, no matter how energetically progressives “whip” Democratic elected officials or seek to draw a sharper definition of what it means to be a good Democrat.
And in her post, Digby eloquently explains the reflexive hostility of many netroots activists to “big tent” rhetoric, particularly when deployed by self-appointed “gatekeeper” elites with a poor record of effective opposition to the “bulldozer.” But when the final gate is crashed, and the last Beltway pundit has shuffled off to self-absorbed retirement, there will remain legitimate differences of opinion among Democrats on subjects large and small that can’t be dismissed as representing cowardice or corruption.
Indeed, you hear those differences of opinion every day in the progressive blogosphere, which, despite all the talk about movement-building and Noise Machines, is itself a “big tent.” The only “compromise” really required of netroots activists in the maintenance of a “big tent” Democratic Party is to extend their own community’s implicit code of open debate in which no one, whether it’s a U.S. Senator or Markos Moulitsas, gets to pull rank and squelch diverse points of view.
Every time I get into one of these “who’s a real Democrat” arguments, I think of an apocryphal tale many years ago of a sociologist whose research into the “Protestant work ethic” led her to Wrigley Field on a summer afternoon, curious about the 30,000 or so fans who didn’t appear to have a day job. She asked one grizzled Bleacher Bum about his apparent defiance of the “Protestant work ethic,” and he replied: “Look, lady, I’m a bad Catholic. Sometimes I’m even an atheist Catholic. But I’m no goddamned Protestant.”
There will always be a few self-identified but self-exiled Democrats who have to be ejected from the flock, but by and large, those who are clear that they are “no goddamned Republican” should be embraced. And a big part of being “no goddamned Republican” is to eschew the “bulldozer” tactics of the latter-day GOP, and its assault on principles and institutions necessary to restrain raw power and give democracy a fighting chance.

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