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Netroots Schizo

2010 July 27
by Ian Welsh

I had a good time in Vegas, so I didn’t spend a huge amount of time at NN, but I did spend enough time to take in the mood, and it was schizophrenic.  About half the people there are some combination of angry, disappointed and bitter with Democrats in general and Obama in particular.  This group sees him as not a heck of a lot better than George Bush, and in fact the Democrat who extended some of Bush’s worst policies, especially in  civil liberties.  This includes a lot of feminists (angry at what they see as betrayals on abortion), many Hispanics angry at the continued harsh enforcement of immigration laws, gays who feel Obama has betrayed clear promises on gay rights, anti-war activists saddened by escalation in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and a mishmash of folks who think health care reform was a dog’s breakfast and that the general way the economy and financial reform has been handled is a disgrace.

Then there are the folks who would characterize themselves, in general, as hard nosed pragmatists and “realists”. These range from the “Obama is the greatest liberal president since FDR” types, who think that the Obama is just wonderful and those progressives and liberals who don’t agree are simply delusional to those who feel that a lot of what he’s done has been watered down pap in general but that it’s certainly better than nothing and that those who are disappointed are unrealistic idealists who simply don’t understand the constraints Obama and Congressional Democrats are working under.

As regular readers know, I tend to the first camp, but I’m not going to go into why, I simply want to note that this divide is very real.  It’s occasioning a lot of anger on both sides.  The first sees the second as tribalistic sellouts, willing to excuse horrible things they would never excuse in Republicans so long as they are committed by Democrats and lacking an understanding of just how bad Democratic policy has been.  These are folks who tend to sneer at the “wins” as either illusionary or so underwhelming as to be a parody of the lesser evil argument.  (Reminding one inevitably of the t-shirts which say “Why Vote for the lesser evil. Cthulhu 2008.”)  To many of these folks the other side are, crudely put, sell-outs.

The second side is angry at what they parody as fairy tale thinking and deeply unrealistic.  “Obama couldn’t fix everything, but he’s better than the Republicans will be if they get back in power” is their mantra, ranging from “really, he’s wonderful and you’re insane for thinking otherwise” to “well, yes he sucks but he sucks less than what the Republicans will do when they get in power.”  Either way, they see the attacks from what they consider the “purists” as deeply damaging.  Democrats may or may not be a ton better than Republicans, but either way, they are better, and there is a moral case to be made for sucking it up one more time and working hard to elect, as the old progressive battle cry runs, “better Democrats”.  This is a two party state, with those parties having an unbreakable oligopoly on power.  Dissing Democrats just helps the even worse party win, at which point they will do even worse things.  So get over your problems, whether they are with economic policy or Obama’s continued shredding of fundamental civil liberties like Habeas Corpus, jump back into the trenches with your bowie knife or bayonet and fight for Democrats, not against them because by constantly bad mouthing Dems all you do is make it more likely that Republicans will win, and if they win, well, that will be baaaaddddd.  Very, very baaaaaddddd.

To put it crudely and unfairly to both sides, it’s the sell-outs without principles against the purists without realism.  And many of them do put it that way.  The netroots are split, in a very real way.  Life was easy when we could all agree that Bush was the worst American president in over a hundred years and all turn our guns on Republicans with the occasional shot at what we considered apostate Democrats like Lieberman.  The in-your-face discovery that people not much better ideologically than Lieberman run the Democratic party and determine its policies has split the tribe and turned brother against brother.  It’s not all-out war, not even close, but there is a disdain, bitterness and contempt between the two sides which is very real, and very dangerous.

This isn’t the Netroots of years past, it’s a Netroots torn by the question of what it means to be pragmatic: get what you can versus get what some feel the country actually needs or what they feel they were promised.  It is a Netroots torn by the question of bedrock values: of what is non-negotiable, and what isn’t non-negotiable.

It is, fundamentally, a Netroots which is learning that it isn’t one big happy family, that it does have internal disagreements which are serious and which can’t be papered over.

What that means in the short run is simply that the enthusiasm and support which has been there in the past for Democrats is no longer as strong as it was before.  2010 will see a lot of the Netroots at best tepidly pro-Democratic.  “Well, they are very slightly the lesser evil, so yeah, vote for them I guess”.  In the long-run, we’ll see.  It could be that a new consensus will coalesce, especially if Republicans win in 2010 and 2012.  It could be that this is the new normal.  Or it could be that the splits will continue to widen and become even more bitter, till the tribal identity is completely destroyed.

But last week, in Vegas, I found a Netroots that is more divided than I’ve ever seen it in its short existence.  I think, contrary to what the “realists” might say that this isn’t entirely bad. It is a real split, over real issues, and thrashing it out is worth the pain, because until we do, we won’t know what it really means to be a modern Netroots liberal or progressive: what our bedrock values are, and what we’re fighting for.

133 Responses
  1. Cloud permalink
    July 28, 2010

    I notice you did not mention state secrets, assassination, torture.

    Maybe that’s not by accident. Notions like “realism” or “pragmatism” do not really stand up when we hit the rock bottom of open society and rule of law.

    The “netroots” have no power, hence they should leave concerns about feasibility to those that do, and focus on calling a hatchet man a hatchet man. “Pragmatism” is just another word for self-censorship. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and stand for what is just and right.

    With netroots like these, MLK himself would not be able to push civil rights reform.


    Or as the Army War College verbally pwned us: The internet is to the techno-capable disaffected what the United Nations is to marginal states: it offers the illusion of empowerment and community.

  2. July 28, 2010

    You probably mean this article. It’s unipolar-world, neocon-triumphalist 90s claptrap, most of it, and a lot of it has been belied by events, such as the absurd reference to the IRanian establishment as a be-turbaned corpse…is it still, 13 years after this was written?

  3. July 29, 2010

    I certainly wouldn’t accuse Obama of being LBJ

    Haven’t you been paying attention? Obama is the best Democrat since FDR!

    That’s what Journolist says anyway.

  4. Dancing Opossum permalink
    July 29, 2010

    Third party, folks. It’s the only way.

    I was a Clinton supporter but I would not support her if she ran again for a number of reasons, although I still know that she would have been many heaping times better than Obama.

    Currently, the only D I’m voting for is my state’s governor, because he really is a lot less evil than the very evil alternative. But that’s it. Not a single other Dem gets my support or my vote, and that includes my county councilmember who sold his constituents out on an issue that was crucial to them (and that he ran on!!) when big money came calling. I am done. I will vote for a Green in every slot where one is running, or a libertarian.

    At this point there isn’t a single thing the Dems can do to win me back–short of resigning en masse and establishing Dennis Kucinich as the new president (and yeah, I know he sold out on HCR also). They lost me when they allowed Obama to cheat his way into the nomination and nothing they’ve done since has changed my mind. In reality, I should have abandoned them long ago, I’m ashamed that I let the wool be pulled over my eyes for so long. But amends can be made, and this is the time to make them.

  5. anon2525 permalink
    July 29, 2010

    Third party, folks. It’s the only way.

    There are other ways. Options for change I have seen people write about:

    – Non-voting
    – Third party
    – Voting against whichever party is incumbent in an office

    Additional options used historically:

    – National strikes
    – Civil disobedience

    Given the nature of many of the problems that we face, I don’t think that the thwarted democratic process is going to address them in time.

  6. Dancing Opossum permalink
    July 30, 2010

    Unfortunately, “not voting” puts you in the category of “apathetic,” which is not helpful. Actively voting against an incumbent or a party sings a different tune, because it gets counted as a “protest” vote (a reason some Hillary supporters voted for McCain instead of Obama, a move for which they were roundly vilified by idiots who don’t get the simple meaning of “protest.”)

    I think the last three are becoming increasingly crucial. It’s time to storm the Bastille.

  7. July 30, 2010

    A vote for McCain actually gets counted as a vote for McCain, not a “protest vote”.

  8. July 30, 2010

    Work for electoral reform: that’s something worth doing.

  9. Hudson permalink
    July 31, 2010

    The problem is in that definition of “getting what you can.” Many so-called pragmatists define the possibilities down so far that they might as well be Republicans. At least, they allow “pragmatism” to be defined by the most pessimistic conventional wisdom. Many of the so-called “purists” are quite able and willing to recognize hard political realities. What they seek, however, is a Democratic Party that remembers the role of persuasion and leadership in extending what’s possible beyond what Meet the Press centrists imagine is the best we can do. The reluctance up push even the most popular and rational envelopes is what causes this division over “realism.” I side more the “purists” who want to deploy hard-headed organization, strategy, persuasion and work to make progress, rather than with the lazy complacency and unimaginative fearfulness which too often passes for “pragmatic.”

  10. John permalink
    July 31, 2010

    Hudson, you nailed it.

  11. Goober Peas permalink
    July 31, 2010

    Pragmatism has brought us this ugly scenario: when Obama decided to let Ben Nelson control the HCR bill the idea was that allowing him to be in the limelight would assuage his conservative republican tendencies; he would be there for Obama when it counted! Yesterday Nelson announced he was voting against Elena Kagan. No loyalty, no fear of retribution, no consequences for stabbing the party and Obama in the back. And this is just the latest in a long string of party defections yet Nelson retains his committee appointments.

    Same thing happened with Lieberman. Harry Reid defended Lieberman when he was campaigning for McCain by claiming that Lieberman was there for the party on the important votes 90% of the time. Except he isn’t. He consistently votes against the party and the president. He also retains his committee appointments without fear of retribution.

    The end result of this pragmatic catering to and coddling of conservative, blue dog democrats is that they have de facto control of all legislation and they vote far more consistently with republicans. They will put the kibosh on filibuster reform just like they ensured that the stimulus was too small and too tax cut-centric. They were the major reason that Bush was able to pass nearly 100% of his legislative initiatives with a much, much smaller majority in the senate.

    Unless and until the democratic party learns to maintain a little party discipline and send the blue dogs to the republican party where they belong they will always be seen as feckless, rudderless, clueless, powerless failures at leadership.

    The “yes, we can!” and “change we can believe in!” slogans are biting them in the butts because all they have accomplished is a watered down version of Bush, the sequel, in the constitution/civil rights/presidential powers areas. The rest of their accomplishments are like the Rovian doublespeak of the past — named “reform” but actually accomplishing nothing that doesn’t maintain the status quo of the plutocracy. Americans are pissed and will vote (or not) as they see it. It’s the economy, the wars, and strong leadership, stupid, to paraphrase Bill Clinton.

  12. raptor permalink
    July 31, 2010

    The Democrats are afraid of their own shadows. A prime example of this is when Abu Gaharib
    broke, Dick Durbin stood up on the Senate floor and denounced Abu Gharib as a “Russian Gulag!”
    Bush/Cheney immediately attacked him for having the audacity to speak the truth.
    The next day Dick Durbin stood up on the Senate floor and apologized for calling Abu Gharib
    a “Russian Gulag!”
    That’s all folks.

  13. tolkien permalink
    July 31, 2010

    The way I see it, the political and media establishment has drifted (over the course of the last several decades, but at a faster and faster pace) far to the right of where the American people are. This may not be reflected in rhetoric (which is, in part, due to the media control over much of the rhetoric), but is true in terms of what concrete things people actually do and don’t want from their government and society. If Americans want to change their government they basically have four choices:
    1) Bloody revolution/storm the bastille: this option is probably the most viscerally satisfying and is the only one that (if successful) would have an effect in the short term. The problem is that if you look at history, in almost all instances of bloody revolution, the people ended up with a worse government and society then what they started with. There are certainly many notable exceptions, but percentage wise the odds aren’t good.
    2) Political pressure to change politics: Basically this consists of getting more organized, especially in terms of funding, that politicians of both parties start to see their power base as the American people, rather then the wealthy few and multinational corporations and the military-industrial complex. It would also involve proving to politicians that the American people will completely ignore their words and pay great attention to their actions, in addition to having long memories for those actions and holding strong grudges. If we try this, the media will work against us relentlessly, and quite effectively. Also, I am not convinced that it is possible to maintain a strongly untied and organized front over the very long term that would be required for this by a majority of Americans. People have jobs and lives they have to attend to.
    3) Start a new political party that accurately reflects what Americans want: this has the advantage that we would not have to change our leader’s mindset, but the disadvantage that, in terms fo power, we would be starting from scratch. It’s been tried before and, again, it usually fails. The media would be working very hard against us, as would both political parties. Finally, if our new party started to see any real successes the leaders of the new party would face a barrage of corrupting influences, and nobody is completely incorruptible. It might work, but this may be the strategy that would take the longest to bear fruit. POssibly not decades, but as much as a century or more.
    4) Somehow change the media: I’m not sure how you would go about this (working the refs, starting new media companies, etc). but somehow, if it were possible to get the media to at the very least stop DISinforming the American people, even if it didn’t do a very good job of actually informing them of what was going on, that might go a long way to setting the stage for eventual change. Pros and cons are not as clear to me here. Again, like just about everything else, this has been tried and it has failed. Entrenched interests are very powerful, and you have to accept that you will lose an enormous amount of money in the process.

  14. douglas permalink
    July 31, 2010

    No, this analysis in completely wrong.
    I am in the angry camp because none of the “successes” have been pragmatic.
    They haven’t even been pragmatic politically. We aren’t winning politically.
    It’s not such a difficult thing to give away federal dollars to do tangible local projects.
    Let’s take Atrios’s roof painting idea. Give the money to a republican district. I don’t care.
    Is a republican congressmen going to turn down millions of dollars for his district?
    They won’t care what the money is for. They’ll take it. Have Obama show up in the district
    with the congressman supporting green initiatives that get Americans back to work.

  15. Ian Welsh permalink
    July 31, 2010

    One camp sees themselves as pragmatic. The other camp doesn’t. This is about perception, not reality.

  16. willf permalink
    August 1, 2010

    Did you mean “One camp sees themselves as pragmatic. The other camp doesn’t see the first camp that way, or that the other camp doesn’t see themselves as pragmatic? Because I’d argue that the purists hold the party hacks’ definition of pragmatic as far too narrow.

  17. Ian Welsh permalink
    August 1, 2010

    The “pragmatists” see themselves as practical. The purists disagree, they don’t think the pragmatists are practical. (For example, a better stimulus would have been more electorally pragmatic.)

  18. jeer9 permalink
    August 1, 2010

    Goober Peas: great analysis as always. Tolkien: #1 is highly unlikely, especially with our lazy, easily distracted culture of television and movies – it is much more plausible that we will continue on our slow slide toward a fascism with an unaccountable state security apparatus, increased surveillance, diminished civil liberties, and perpetual war – demonstrations will be tased; #2 remains the most sensible option only because it requires the least effort – we must elect more and better democrats who unfortunately always seem to side with party hacks on crucial votes – keep trying, guys! (see Goober’s analysis) ; #3 seems ridiculously far-fetched as well because to effect any immediate change it would require some sort of magical philanthropic billionaire’s assistance and Gates et al. seem more interested these days in turning public education into a corporate enterprise (still, if one considers the harmful influence Faux News has had on our political discourse since just 1996, the model for reform is there, if only in one’s imagination); #4 can only occur in conjunction with something like #3; otherwise, we’re on our own – reading blogs which try to keep the propagandists and plutocratic shills in line and getting excited whenever Maddow or Goodman nails a topic for the appreciative choir.

  19. jcapan permalink
    August 1, 2010

    Just got to this valuable post. Probably too late for a question but … what’s your take on the 84% approval rating for Obama among NN attendees, a TAP poll I believe it was. As someone who’s also in the 1st camp, are we really that marginalized? Whether we continue to vote for dems or not, obviously, great progress will be achieved if tribalism can be destroyed once and for all (i.e. dream on).

    Per elections, congressional races are complicated. Do you not vote against your own local, liberal candidate b/c the party he fronts is totally fucked? Or, per Kucinich, do we punish such members for their “betrayal”? But where a presidential election is concerned, if the incumbent is by and large ignoring your interests, and your reaction is to vote for him anyway b/c, well, shit, Sarah is so terrifying…

    I mean, the only actual pressure we can bring to bear on these people is to not support their legacy, I mean reelection. IOW, give us a public option, get out of Af-Pak-Iraq, close Gitmo … or what? That’s Rahm’s view–or what you pathetic fucking hippies?

  20. jcapan permalink
    August 1, 2010

    Sorry, that should be “Do you vote against your own local…”

    Wife to husband: I want you to stop beating me, ridiculing me, ignoring my needs.

    Husband’s response: Or what?

  21. Stuart Zechman permalink
    August 1, 2010

    You’ve got to listen to Virtually Speaking Sundays with Eve Gittelson and Marcy Wheeler as guests, JC.

    Check out the last fifteen minutes:

    Listen to Marcy, one of the 26%, lay down the gauntlet for Eve, one of the 84%.

    A glimpse into the future…

  22. Ian Welsh permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Haven’t seen the TAP poll, but I would take it with a grain of salt depending on its wording. I mean, a lot of people in camp one will still vote for the lesser evil of Obama despite despising the man. That may qualify as support (may not, I didn’t take the poll.)

    For what it’s worth, if you have a good local candidate, I would vote for him or her. I might even vote for Obama, BUT I would not give any money to party committees, would not volunteer for Obama and would not volunteer or give money to any bad candidate.

    I don’t see Marcy and Eve’s episode up yet.

  23. Ian Welsh permalink
    August 2, 2010

    As for NN, one of the interesting things about it is how it has become professionalized. When I sat in (briefly) on the Wall Street panel, for example, I noted how none of the people on it were name bloggers. I had to leave, because some of the things being said were pissing me off.

  24. Ian Welsh permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Ah found it. “Is there a moment where we should shut up or hurt Obama’s chance of reelection”. NYCEve

    OTOH she agrees with Marcy that Obama has sucked.

    Marcy points out that we (bloggers) are not powerful enough to significantly effect his reelection chances, and that it is his job to make the case. Also that progressives first job is to be honest.

    I’ve always liked Marcy, which hardly makes me unique.

    Marcy: if Obama continues to suck, recruit Warren to run against him in 2012 in the Democratic Primary. Obama won’t vote as a corporate President anyway. “Obama isn’t going to win with a 10% unemployment rate…. his administration is beginning to see 10% unemployment as the new normal.”

  25. anon2525 permalink
    August 2, 2010

    I don’t see Marcy and Eve’s episode up yet.

    Here’s a link. The program starts talking about 3:30 in.

  26. jcapan permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Thanks for the link SZ. Will definitely listen later on tonight. Good to ‘see ya.’ I must say, however, that your math is dubious–84/26!?

    And sorry Ian–I now realize I’d only read about it at TAP last week. See here. The poll was conducted by Revolution Messaging, which means nothing to me.

    Funny, I don’t begin to “despise” Obama but at this early date I can’t imagine voting for him again[st Satan]. Good to hear your take on the NN panel. I’ve not seen a lot of follow up to the conference. I get this sneaking suspicion that after a rousing rendition of the Black Eyed Peas everyone marched out into the desert ready to bitchslap a republican.

    Agree that bloggers are not [yet] powerful enough to significantly effect Obama’s reelection chances, but I daresay the limitations of such influence start with that 84% figure. Hard to influence someone if you’re polishing his shoes with praise. If it were reversed, if we were a unified brigade of shrieking harlots, I’d guess the WH shop would snap to attn. But with the likes of Digby spending most of her time pointing at Palins, Becks, and Bears, oh my…

    I’m more a 3rd-party dreamer than a dem party redeemer, but a primary challenge can’t hurt. First time a sitting pres. would be challenged since Kennedy in 1980, right? I’d say it’s always a healthy thing. Even if our current president were liberal, incumbents should be challenged.

    But this preemptively smacks of despair too. The media would (Dean) destroy a progressive candidate. And even if such a challenge made him momentarily shift leftward, upon winning, he’d immediately return to the crease in David Broder’s boxers. The greater threat/pressure pt. IMO is a liberal/green 3rd party challenge b/c it would mean almost certain defeat. That’s the bludgeon. You may not be a liberal, sir, but you will begin to govern like one or you will, a la Gore, lose. And since I’m of the mind that village terms like winning & losing are entirely decoupled from the lives of Americans, I’d say this would prove crystal clear.

  27. jcapan permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Just listened to VS, and, yes, she just about nails my sentiment. Happy she threw in the part about E. Warren not necessarily being the line in the sand, as who knows what tricks the admin. might have up its sleeve to neuter the agency before she takes over. D-Day recently talked about this.

    But, yes, her concluding pt. that it’ll be Obama’s fault, not the base’s, is spot on. Though I voted for Gore, it was neither Nader’s nor his supporters’ fault that he failed.

    But again, it’s a bit naive to think the posturing of a primary campaign (Obama vis a vis a liberal challenger) will get us anywhere in the end. It reads to me more like an insult to power (how dare they primary me!?) than the resolute, dead-fucking serious challenge of the estab. that America so desperately needs. Cursing at your dad is very different than moving out and finding your own way.

  28. anon2525 permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Though I voted for Gore, it was neither Nader’s nor his supporters’ fault that he failed.

    “Failed?” Since when is getting 500,000 votes more than your opponent failing? Five people on the supreme court interfered in a federal election and halted the counting of votes.

  29. Stuart Zechman permalink
    August 2, 2010


    “I must say, however, that your math is dubious–84/26!?”


    Stupid typo.

    Good to see you here, too.

  30. Ian Welsh permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Took a lot more than that. Jeb disenfranchised 400K people, iirc, before the election even occured. Stealing 2000 was a team effort.

    Gore’s failure was to not push, harder. He should have called out the demonstraters in large numbers. I have it on good authority they were ready to go, but Gore, the “good man” didn’t want to risk violence.

    What’s the line? All evil requires is that good men don’t fight?

    For all the good he’s done since, I’ll never forgive Gore for that.

  31. August 2, 2010

    gore has gone thru a makeover since he quit politics … he’s probably found himself. But as a politician he was a democratic party establishment hack who was a proud dlcer, went on a promotional tour for nafta, picked leibermann as his running mate, ran a poor campaign, and even hired bad luck bob schrum to work in his campaign. In the post-election, he first claimed to want to have ALL the votes recounted, but that was all for semantics and he instead only chose counties that he knew were predominately democratic to look into with finer detail … which was all right IMO becoz it was within the rules and was essentially a tactic although I don’t think it was very ethical. Then once he couldn’t get enough votes, he then worked to get the standard of what constituted a vote relaxed to include hanging chads. Once he couldn’t get enough votes that way, he resorted to trying to get dimpled chads counted as votes, which was outrageous and completely unethical IMO … it would have led to election officials playing Tarmac the Magnificent to try to figure out who the hell someone intended to vote for even when they didn’t break a perforation on their ballot for a candidate … with a metal, pointy stylus.

    There is a very large difference between gore the citizen and gore the politician, which Ian somewhat acknowledges.

    That being said, we would have very likely been in much better shape even with the 2000 gore than what we ended up with: the most damaging president in our nation’s history.


  32. August 2, 2010

    It’s not really a question of pragmatism vs…whatever the opposite of pragmatism is. It’s question of how to react to the failure of Normal Politics—the existing political system and its actors and agencies—to respond to the needs of the people as many people now see them. That is, the failure of Normal Politics to respond to crises.

    There are lots of ways you can propose to deal with the failure of Normal Politics. For example, you can propose to abandon engagement in Normal Politics. But Normal Politics has real consequences. So if you’re going to abandon engagement in Normal Politics, you better have at least a smidgen of a backup plan.

    Another thing one can do is that one can notice the fact that Normal Politics isn’t going away any time soon. And how one deals with that realization is another set of solutions.

    “Pragmatism” is a loaded word and no one knows what it really means. The question is simply how we choose to stand in relation to the failure of existing systems, and what the consequences of that really are.

  33. orionATL permalink
    August 2, 2010

    purist = analytical

    realist = loyal

    loyalty is the sina qua non of politics.

    the right-wing is all about loyalty, rather like members of a close extended family.

    and so are those democrats who cannot bring thenselves to seperate prez obama’s future-looking
    actions from his backward-looking actions.

Comments are closed.