Katrina vanden Heuvel and Robert Borosage contradict themselves in the course of their latest plea for progressive unity, "A Politics for the 99 Percent," in the June 25 issue of The Nation. One of their subheads reads, "The System Isn't Broken; It's Fixed," but further down, in their wrap-up, they write, "Americans understand that the system is broken -- and rigged against them." They're consistent on the system being "fixed" or "rigged," but seem confused about the implications of admitting that it's broken. Or they may just be playing clumsily with a familiar proverb, as I am in the tag. Whether the American political system is "broken" or "fixed," the unhappy consequence for Nation writers and readers is that self-styled progressives seem shut out of power and influence. Acknowledging this, the authors still feel obliged to rally round President Obama and the Democratic party, while conceding that "Defeating Romney and the Right's ruinous agenda is necessary but not sufficient." As inevitable apologists for the Democrats, they offer the usual advice to progressives: support Democratic politicians but hold them accountable. The usual advice gets my usual response: how can you hold Democrats accountable when you have to support them unconditionally whenever a Republican walks into a room? In an ideal world the answer would be "primary them!" Vanden Heuvel and Borosage write to us from that ideal world -- one in which they can cite the example of Ned Lamont's primary victory over Senator Lieberman in 2006 without reminding us that Lieberman won the general election. Looking beyond primaries, the authors call for "movements" to "force politicians to adopt positions they might otherwise avoid." What kind of "force" do they have in mind? It seems to be the force of demonstrations, which have proven so effective in the past year -- haven't they? If anti-foreclosure movements "gain traction" in battleground states, they write, "the presidential and Congressional candidates will have to respond." But will they? Assuming an unresponsive Romney and the existential threat the Republican party always poses to the liberal imagination, why would Obama or any other Democrat have to acknowledge demonstrators at all? If anti-foreclosure groups come from the left, who else are they going to vote for, based on The Nation's own recommendations? Would the authors advise them to threaten not to vote? Of course not; that would elect Romney, as would anything, in their minds, but a vote for Obama. Where is anyone's leverage over the Democratic party if the Democrats can't be allowed to lose?
What the authors really want is a progressive movement bigger than the Democratic party -- an entity populous and powerful enough to dictate Democratic nominations and defeat disgruntled bolters in a general election. Their problem is that they can see no other way to nurture such a movement than having the Democratic party act as its nursemaid. So long as fear of Republicanism is progressives' first principle, they can only build their movement around the Democrats, with the hope that the movement will overlook its emotional dependence on the established party and learn to dominate it. After all, that's what happened with conservatives in the Republican party, right? That's the story in simplest terms, but I don't know if the analogy fits history or the current situation. My sense is that movement conservatives chose the Republican party fifty years or so ago, at a time when it remained theoretically possible to turn the Democratic party back to the right. I don't think that the Goldwater people feared the Democratic party as such the way progressives seem to fear the Republican party today. They may have identified the Democrats with what they really feared -- "communism" -- but their anti-communism at least gave them a sense of a larger struggle than the usual party battle, while for progressives today Republicanism itself is the overriding evil. Today's progressives are offered no choice: get behind the Democrats again or democracy dies in four years' time. They approach the Democrats in a posture of helplessness while the movement conservatives, I suppose, were more willing to take a "rule or ruin" risk with Republicans. They ruled and ruined the party in 1964 but had made a point; thereafter Republicans were more responsive to their demands. Some may say the Democrats had a similar moment in 1972, yet despite Republican claims to the contrary, the party wasn't permanently altered into a McGovernite image. One likely reason for that is the way circumstances encouraged centrism within a party perceived by foe and friend alike as representing the left. If all Democrats had to do to rule was prevent Republicans from ruling, progressives should never have been surprised if little positive was done. Fear of Republicans has only grown in recent years, so if anything Democrats have less, not more incentive to govern progressively, much less radically. How building a mass movement dedicated, at least initially, to defending the Democratic party will change that paradigm is unclear.
Naturally, the Nation article inspired passionate comments. They're worth reading to clarify the picture of the conflicting impulses among progressives. Apologists for the Democrats stress the short-term imperative to prevent whatever damage the GOP intends, and such short-term, purely preventative thinking surrenders all initiative to the party at the expense of the movement. While the exchanges are often bitter, it's also clear that everyone's against a common enemy. The difference is that one group clings to the ideal that one of the major parties is ultimately on their side, while the other group argues that the party in question has already gone over to the enemy, whether through its pandering to Wall Street or its prosecution of unjust wars. For one group the fact that Democrats are not Republicans, hence not evil, suffices, while for the other the distinction between the two parties is of decreasing significance in the face of the power of the "1%" whom all claim to oppose. Liberal risk-aversion is largely to blame for the current stasis on what passes for the American left. For some, risk-aversion is a moral principle, expressed in denigration of those supposedly too "pure" to care for the people sure to suffer from Republican rule. People can cry about the Republican threat to democracy, but if they think that a political party must be prevented from taking power at all costs -- though right now the real cost is only to one's integrity -- then democracy in America is already in mortal peril. When you believe yourself to have no choice but to hold your nose and cast a preventative vote, how much democracy do we really have? Vanden Heuvel and Borosage can write all they want about building movements, but if these movements only reinforce the current Bipolarchy they'll neither fix nor break the current system -- which will only continue to rot.