Oh well, it eventually had to happen.
For weeks now the mainstream media has been absolutely desperate to start writing the typical political stories about conflict between a newly elected Democratic president and his liberal-progressive supporters. For mainstream commentators, it’s an absolute zero-effort, no-brainer kind of story – kind of like profiles of Olympic athletes triumphing over early adversity or good Samaritans helping the needy around Christmas. The stories damn-near leap out of the keyboard and write themselves.
But this year liberals and progressive Democrats have refused to play along. Even the people the mainstream media have always trusted to give them combative, fiery quotes – Kos, Chris Bowers, the gang at Campaign for America’s Future – none of them have given reporters’ the red-meat clichés they were looking for.
To be sure, progressives have been critical of some Obama appointments – strongly and passionately so in some cases. But from the pages of The Nation to Daily Kos, Open Left and Huffpo they have consistently and carefully qualified their disagreements – noting that they were not attacking Obama’s motives or rejecting his attempts to put together an administration that could both maintain the support of a stable majority coalition and also confront the unusually difficult economic and military problems the country was confronting.
Don’t take my word for it. Go ahead and check the major writers for The Nation, Kos, Open Left, Talking Points Memo, the Campaign for America’s Future website. Sure, if you go out and cherry-pick the whole bloody internet you can find progressive bloggers and even more people in the comments threads who have thrown verbal hand-grenades, but the strong majority of the major liberal and progressive strategists have been consistently careful and measured in their commentary.
In fact, in recent weeks it has actually been possible to see the outlines of a fundamental and profoundly exciting change in Democratic thinking beginning to emerge. In the past, both centrist and liberal-progressive Democrats frequently saw each other as the chief problem and insisted that the Democratic Party could never succeed until one or the other was subordinated or even purged from the party. Disagreements over policies and strategy were redefined as proof of the other sides’ basic “corruption” or “myopic political stupidity”.
In the last few weeks, in contrast, both centrist and liberal-progressive Democrats have been converging on a new conceptual framework. There is increasing hope and consensus that the Democratic Party actually has the potential to create a broad long-term center-left majority coalition – one that that might be able to maintain a stable majority of 55 or even 60% of the electorate. If you read the recent discussions in the liberal-progressive world carefully, the argument is more and more over what the best strategies are for accomplishing this – For example, how far is it actually necessary to move toward the center on various issues to retain majority support? Is it better to try to move quickly to enact important legislation or should Obama attempt to gradually consolidate support before launching certain initiatives? What does the public really want some specific public policy to be?
These are difficult questions and they will inescapably generate powerful and emotional arguments. But these debates are ultimately arguments over political strategy – arguments that can be successfully conducted inside a broad coalition that is sufficiently in agreement on basic Democratic values and policies to maintain a cohesive political identity.
This is a profound sea-change in Democratic thinking and so it’s not surprising that it has now generated a counter-reaction.
On the one hand, for conservatives and Republicans, Democratic unity along these lines is the ultimate nightmare scenario. So it is not surprising that conservative commentators like Jonah Goldberg, Fred Barnes and a gaggle of others are inventing insults, betrayals and intra-party battles with a flair for fantasy that rivals the best of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings (Media Matters has the details here).
The mainstream media, on the other hand, leans toward a “divided Democrats” narrative more out of a lazy reliance on easy clichés rather than any conscious agenda. Actually, until today, most articles carefully added qualifications to their reports on liberal-progressive reactions to Obama’s decisions, qualifications like “although liberals are not yet sounding any alarms” or “while still basically optimistic…”.
An article that appeared in The Politico today, however, is probably the first of many. It is titled “Liberals Voice Concerns about Obama” and provocatively begins “Liberals are growing increasingly nervous – and some just flat-out angry – that President-elect Barack Obama seems to be stiffing them…”
Now that’s a pretty strong statement. The problem is that out of nine people directly quoted in the article, three actually express balanced support for Obama, two are ambivalent, the actual, nuanced positions of two (Chris Bowers and David Corn) are misrepresented, and of the two people quoted who clearly express unqualified, “flat out anger,” one is – surprise, surprise – an anonymous blogger. But now that the “divided Democrats” notion has been floated in a major publication, other equally sloppy reporters – of whom there are unfortunately legions – will undoubtedly follow suit.
[update – Today’s New York Times has a much better piece that more accurately presents the liberal-progressive perspective and deflates the “deep divisions among the dems” storyline. It highlights the degree to which the Politico piece cherry-picks the facts to fit the “divided Dems” meme] Lastly, even one top Obama aide has unfortunately reinforced this divisive rhetoric, in a Huffington Post commentary today that criticized liberals and progressives by provocatively suggesting that their goals are basically in conflict with those of “the vast majority of the American people” (The commentary says “… After all, he (Obama) was elected to be the president of all the people – not just those on the left…As a liberal member of our Party, I hope and expect our new president to address those issues that will benefit the vast majority of Americans first and foremost. That’s his job.”).
Ironically, the reaction from David Sirota and TPM’s Greg Sargent – two of the first left-progressives to respond – are more nuanced and thoughtful than the original commentary itself and strongly reinforce the emerging approach which views progressive disagreements with the new administration as fundamentally arguments about political strategy among the members of a broad political coalition and not as comic book confrontations between good guys and bad guys.
Let’s be clear – Democrats can and must have vigorous debates over strategy. It’s vital, and it’s inevitable. But – whatever sector of the party they are from, centrist, progressive, whatever – Democrats can all do so while remaining loyal members of a broad Democratic political coalition.
Articles that promote the notion that Democratic disagreements necessarily reflect internal splits, intra-party warfare and deep divisions within the coalition, on the other hand, are nothing but big red capes being waved in front of all Democrats’ eyes. And where there are capes around, you can bet that swords and matadors are somewhere close nearby.