On the surface, it can easily appear that there is a single, relatively unified progressive consensus that is critical of President Obama’s handling of the tax cut extension. But, in fact, within this apparent consensus there are actually two profoundly different perspectives being expressed – one by mainstream progressive Democrats critical of Obama recent actions but still basically favoring a “big tent” strategy for 2012 and the other by more radical critics whose arguments logically lead in the direction of a third party.
On the one hand, many leading Democratic strategists have expressed their objections to Obama’s recent strategy. In the last week TDS contributor Mike Lux, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel, among many others, have all clearly and passionately expressed their strong objections.
At the same time, however, all three are in agreement on several basic propositions.
1. Political compromise is often necessary. Their disagreement with Obama does not reflect a rejection of compromise in general.
2. The shared near-term goal of these critics is still to build a center-left coalition for 2012 that can re-elect Obama. The three might have disagreements about the optimal balance to aim for in the composition of this coalition between the center and the left, and also regarding the best strategies for winning both groups, but they are in agreement about the need to win at least some support from both “base” and “swing” voters.
3. They agree that Obama’s particular strategy with regard to the tax cut and his criticisms of his progressive supporters were major mistakes that weakened the struggle to achieve the shared objective. Both as economic policy and as political strategy they concur that Obama’s general approach on this particular issue was simply and profoundly wrong.
The second, quite distinct perspective derives from a broader and substantially more radical critique. It is a perspective that fundamentally rejects Obama’s basic objectives and political philosophy.
The radical critique is expressed in three main propositions – propositions that are now widely repeated in online discussions across the internet:
1. That Obama has proven himself no better than a Republican.
2. That the two major political parties are the same – hopelessly corrupt and completely dominated by Wall Street and large corporations. Any apparent superiority of the Democratic Party over the Republican Party is superficial, not fundamental.
3. that the Democratic Party must be ideologically firm and completely unified around an uncompromising progressive platform and not organized as a “big tent” coalition that contains a range of moderate to progressive supporters and views. From this perspective, regardless of the particular conditions in any given election year it is a matter of core principle that it is preferable to lose an election while running on a solidly radical-progressive program rather than to win an election running on a hopelessly diluted and compromised platform.
From these, two strategic conclusions follow:
1. Unless he radically transforms himself in the next few months, Obama should be dumped and replaced with a more consistently radical candidate for 2012
2. Disappointed Dems should either not vote for Obama (or any other Dems who do not meet core left-progressive criteria) or at least adamantly refuse to contribute or volunteer in such campaigns. Even if less than firmly progressive Dems are the winners in contested primaries, they should still be boycotted in the general election.
It is difficult to find a single discussion thread in the progressive blogosphere right now that does not contain numerous comments reflecting this package of views. Often they are expressed in a very personal way e.g. “I’m completely disgusted with the Democrats. Obama is no better than Bush, I’m staying home in 2012” or “I’ll be damned if I’ll donate a single penny of my money or single second of my time to these spineless, cowardly Dems who cave in on every single issue”
On one level it can be suspected that these statements may in many cases be an emotional outburst that does not reflect the person’s more sober opinion, but at the same time it is also necessary to be realistic and face a basic fact. The moment one substitutes the name Al Gore for that of Barack Obama, the three basic radical propositions above become the exact arguments that were put forth by the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000 and, in previous decades, by third parties like the U.S. Socialist Party (The third proposition, in fact, is actually a paraphrase of early socialist leader Eugene V. Debs famous defense of third parties — that “it is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.”)
This does not mean that advocates of a third party are necessarily wrong. There is nothing inherently absurd or dishonorable in believing in the need for a third, left-wing political party or in calling for a takeover of the Democratic Party to convert it into something that would act and behave like a firmly and consistently anti-corporate left-wing third party.
But there has been a profound change in the way radical critics of the Democratic Party have expressed themselves in recent years. Before 2000, advocates of a third party would assert their “plague on both your houses” perspective proudly and openly. Since the 2000 Nader campaign catastrophically discredited the notion of a third party campaign, however, most radicals do not mention a third party directly and have almost completely shifted to arguing for transforming the Democratic Party into a radical party from within. As a result, the three propositions and two recommendations above are now invariably presented as the opinions of “disillusioned Democrats” rather than as challenges to the Democratic Party from the independent left.
This creates a very real and debilitating problem for any serious discussion of Democratic strategy. On the one hand there is a serious debate that must go on within the circle of Democrats who – while they are progressives – accept the near-term realities of today’s Democratic Party as a center-left coalition and as a deeply flawed but still worthwhile institution. This is a debate over Political Strategy. On the other hand there is also a separate and equally serious debate that must go on between most Democrats – including most progressives – on the one hand and the independent left that advocates the three propositions and recommendations above on the other. This is a debate over basic political objectives and philosophy
Intellectually serious Democratic discussion must sharply distinguish between intra-Democratic debates over strategy for 2012 and extra-Democratic debates with the advocates of a third left-wing party (or of converting the Democratic Party into a radical, anti-corporate party – which, in practice, produces the same result). These are two fundamentally different debates which must be conducted within two profoundly different conceptual frameworks – of strategy versus objectives — or both invariably and inevitably sink into incoherence.
Consider the parallel situation in the military world when a basic conflict over strategy and objectives arises. When a general fundamentally disagrees with the basic objectives established for a military campaign, it is his obligation to offer his resignation and step away from the map table. It is absolutely unacceptable for him to continue to stand around the map table with the other generals and make strategic recommendations that he quite consciously crafts for the purpose of thwarting the achievement of the chosen objective and accomplishing his own preferred objective instead. In the military world it is universally viewed as profoundly irresponsible and indeed dishonorable for a general to behave in this latter way.
In similar fashion, independent leftists who fundamentally do not accept the objective of creating a majority Democratic coalition in 2010 by seeking to balance the demands of the progressive democratic base with compromises aimed at winning the support of swing voters cannot sincerely participate in debates over how to achieve this particular objective. If they do, they place themselves in the same essentially untenable position as the general who disagrees with the objective of a campaign and yet still tries to participate in the crafting of its strategy.
In fact, there are actually three distinct debates contained within the general arguments about what the Dems should do to prepare for the next two years. They are all now hopelessly mixed together and urgently need to be separated.
1. A debate among “big tent” Dems over the best strategy for building a majority center-left coalition for 2012
2. A debate within the left over the best strategy for creating an independent, ideologically unified, left-progressive third party (or taking over the Democratic Party in order to convert it into a unified party of that kind).
3. A larger meta-debate between “big tent” Democrats on the one hand and the independent leftists on the other hand over the choice between their two profoundly divergent political objectives.
The first two are debates over strategy – they take place standing around a metaphorical map-table where people who agree on an objective debate the best strategy for achieving it. The third is a debate over objectives themselves – a philosophical debate over what kind of political party America needs as an alternative to the Republicans.
Right now these three debates all go on within the same comment threads and posts at the same time. As a result a vast proportion of the discussion is devoted to futile misunderstandings that confuse strategy and objectives or that laboriously attempt to disentangle the two.
As a result, all three debates will benefit by being clearly distinguished and separately pursued. Each debate will gain clarity and advance further in separation from the others. The current failure to distinguish between these three different debates, on the other hand, does not benefit any of the participants and degrades the quality of the analysis in all of them.
Although Obama’s widely criticized strategy in the tax cut vote was unquestionably the catalyst for the massive outpouring of commentary and debate in the last two weeks and turbocharged all three debates his actions do not provide unambiguous support for any particular position on these basic issues. They have instead been incorporated into the arguments made by advocates on all sides. As a result, in the long run Dems will be better served if they redirect their attention to the core issues involved and directly debate the basic strategic choices that confront them rather than remaining focused on Obama’s statements and actions around the recent tax cut bill.