There is one, overriding error among progressives throughout modern history that has continually eroded our hopes, undermined morale, turned pragmatists into sycophants of the status quo, and warped idealistic liberators into authoritarian prison wardens: Complete, utter denial about the fact that conservatives cannot and will not change. They cannot and will not be cajoled, bribed, appeased, or otherwise showered with affection into acknowledging the slightest thing they find inconvenient, nor can or will their sociopathic mentality be educated, mocked, sermonized, or punished into honesty, decency, and sanity. Every single time in history, the moment progressives have lost sight of what we were trying to accomplish and instead began to obsess on the people hindering it, that was when progress ground to a halt. The "good times" do not resume until we once again care more about what we do to move forward than what they do to stop us.
When there is a coherent obstacle, usually you can move around it, over it, or under it with a lot more ease than trying to plow directly through it, but in progressive politics there is a moralistic compulsion to seek the hardest possible way: A deep, visceral horror and moral outrage at the very existence of the stupidity, madness, and evil that is constantly getting in the way of intelligent citizenship. It isn't merely frustrating, but offensive to the very nature of a moral, responsible being: Conservatives reject the underlying foundations of morality and consciousness that make humanity something more than a pack of hyenas. The unmitigated nihilism, hatred, and murder-suicidal compulsiveness of their attitudes is like staring into the deepest of abysses, and it makes us sick. And because we are progressives, we want to correct the problem, and fill in or at least bridge that abyss.
I know this feeling personally, and because of it for several years I wasted my activist energies arguing with conservatives trying to force various and sundry dimwits, nincompoops, predators, parasites, paranoiacs, bigots, whiny bullies, and raving psychotics of the most basic and obvious facts through the sheer power of my oh-so-awesome wit and intellect. For some, I tried to ingratiate and educate; for others, confront and hammer - and as far as I know, I didn't convince a single jackbooted one of anything, ever, or stop even one of them from telling a single repeatedly-debunked lie. Eventually it stopped even being about trying to accomplish anything, and became an ego-trip where I fed off of constantly proving how superior I was to them. I'd fallen into an intellectual version of the same trap as 20th century Communism - my opponents couldn't be persuaded or reformed, so instead I contented myself creating elaborate verbal prisons and tortures out of words to punish them. And all that came of it was that I was degraded, my energy for positive change was sapped, and I despised the humanity whose love had originally motivated me.
The fallacy of it all is that in reality, the absence of a thing is not a problem in itself: Do we consider it a problem that there are no apple orchards at the North Pole? Of course not - there's no reason to have an apple orchard at the North Pole: It would be impractical, unsustainable, and contribute little to the relative handful of people who briefly visit it every year, let alone anyone else. But obsessing on what conservatives say and do is the equivalent of trying to do exactly that, or trying to solve global warming on Earth by planting trees on the Moon.
The problem is when there are no apple orchards where there are people who would derive some reasonable benefit from them, or no trees where trees could grow strong with reasonable care. You can't improve America by focusing on people in this country who don't even know what it is and despise everything it stands for - you can only improve it by strengthening its successes and expanding the margins of those successes into areas that would benefit from attention.
This has been true from the very beginning of this country: Once it was established to the satisfaction of a sufficiently motivated and competent minority that the American colonists had been wronged by the entire British state - both the parliament and the Crown - the discussion proceeded to what should be done about it: They didn't allow the subject to bog down in whether they even had a right to complain, regardless of the virulent protests of an irreconcilable faction of colonials ideologically wed to Britain and monarchy. And because they were willing to advance the subject based on where the intelligent and enlightened were rather than dwelling on idiots and miscreants determinedly on the wrong side of history, actual progress resulted from their discussions - issues and disagreements were clarified, consensus was built, and new points of contention arose rather than fighting futilely and eternally over disputes already settled in objective fact.
But let's imagine a different history where instead of moving forward, the representatives and pamphleteers allowed sheer dishonesty, fanaticism, and imbecility on the part of determined enemies of the slightest progress to stop them in their tracks: Many colonists protest that taxation without representation is unjust, and request the King grant them seats in parliament. The aggrieved publish well-argued, philosophical treatises justifying their complaints, and many of those who disagree sharply on how to address them publish their own in response, characterizing both the grievances and potential remedies in different terms. But a small minority of Tory colonials simply ignore the points being made and dismiss the entire debate as disloyalty, political protests as mob disorders, and the publishers of reasoned debate as traitorous criminals.
So far, this is a pretty accurate description of what happened: There were many disputes and differences of opinion, but even committed loyalists tried to make some kind of effort to justify themselves and the system they were defending. They acknowledged and disputed the arguments of their opponents - not always honestly, but typically with some level of credibility - and engaged in real dialog. The kind of jackbooted, bellicose, unreasoning rejection of all fact and debate we see from the GOP was not much present at the time, but let's just assume that due to human nature there were a few like that - a few barking dogs in a great hall of relatively productive discussion.
Now let's differ with history and imagine that instead of focusing on each other and building on their own discussions toward an action-oriented consensus, the honest and intelligent turned instead to this tiny minority of nutjobs and dedicated an ever-increasing proportion of their debates to debunking and ridiculing the latest craziness from the stupidest and most maniacal of their enemies. The amiable and pusillanimous beg these idiots to acknowledge them, and are met with contempt; the passionate inveigh against them with stern moral condemnations, and in response face cheap personal attacks to undermine their credibility and distract attention from their points; intellectuals and philosophers craft undeniable engines of Fact and Reason, and are simply ignored. And the more this happens and less productive it becomes, the more committed they are to framing their entire debate around how crazy their opponents are for not recognizing Fact 1.
Meanwhile, they're so busy promoting this narrative that they forget to ever move on to Fact 2, let alone what to do about anything. The entire content of the "debate" bogs down into an endless, unresolved loop whereby sane people defensively insist that 2 + 2 = 4 as if it were a legitimate subject of dispute, insane people are rewarded for denying the obvious and making an unproductive circus of the whole thing, and the people who originally were using this arithmetic to achieve something are now too caught up in defending the very concept of mathematics to actually build anything from it.
So the 1770s pass into the 1780s, 1790s, and 1800s, and the colonials are still complaining about taxation without representation because they didn't feel like they could move on to the next subject - independence from Britain - without the permission of a handful of lying psychopaths who never even agreed with their underlying moral foundations. Instead of a reasoned debate only lightly sprinkled with Crazy on the fringes, they now face a political juggernaut of gridlock, stasis, and governmental dysfunction because the entire resources of progressive society are poured into trying to fill the intellectual abyss of maniacal minds rather than keeping their attention within the confines of productive discussion. They sigh, and moan, and wring their hands that the bright ideals of those first days of dissent never rose to the great occasion some of the more eloquent speakers foresaw, because the British Empire was just too powerful, and has only gotten worse since then as the nutcases they themselves empowered have risen to prominence.
Meanwhile, entire generations are living within the context of two irreconcilable - but for some reason, mutually obsessed - groups disputing things that are not really disputable, with nothing ever coming of it. And what exactly would that tend to indicate to someone who isn't terribly inquisitive? Probably that politics is a worthless pursuit of vain, morally equivalent factions; that the disagreements underlying the gridlock will never be resolved, or else will be resolved to the worse by the more ruthless and less reasoned faction; and perhaps that the legitimate focus of compassion and reason should be to avoid confrontation and disorder so that the decline can be slowed rather than boldly pursuing any agenda of progress that might contain some element of risk.
Basically, everyone becomes conservative, and the meaning of "progress" is perverted into filling holes and avoiding pain rather than freeing people with new perspectives and opportunities. Once proud, bold progressive voices of a heroic and hopeful future are bowed down, becoming pathetic, monkish retreatists who feel themselves incapable of achieving anything more substantive than limiting the damage created by the stupid and evil. Any one leader among them who attempts to rise above this morass is undermined by the fickleness and cowardice of their own side, and their bold practical projects are left unsupported by the political base in favor of more idle and comfortably familiar disputes with the Wingnut Zoo.
Self-evident problems are left unaddressed; self-evident truths are left unacknowledged; and everything simply gets worse and worse. The good become weaker and morally degenerate, the bad stronger and increasingly evil; taxation without representation comes to seem like a laughably genteel object of dispute, and people are instead fighting for the right to exist; and an arrogant constitutional monarch who ignores and insults people would seem like progress, because now the King, born and bred in the climate of the barking-dog nutjob antagonists who reject the Enlightenment, is more like a pharaoh or a Fuhrer than a British monarch. And then God help the people when finally, at long last, the burdens and insults become unbearable and they try to move forward again: Then the result would be more like the French or Russian Revolutions than the American one - a general conflagration of alternating chaos and punitive ideological tyranny that eviscerates civilization from within.
All because the people who were present at the crucial moment of decision didn't have the presence of mind, self-confidence, and strength of character to trust their own judgment that something had been established and count on their subsequent actions on that basis to embody its truth rather than leaving it open to perpetual attack from silly propaganda that couldn't withstand the slightest practical refutation. Don't waste yourself proving the obvious ad infinitum because liars deny it - they'll never stop denying it - and the more abstract the subject remains, the easier it will be for their denial (and your denial about their denial) to convince ordinary people that the subject is actually a matter of credible dispute. Just accept that what they deny is plainly true, and proceed accordingly in your life, career, and political affairs, and let every moment of your efforts be its own refutation of people who prosper through dishonesty.
This is what I think of when I see a liberal blogosphere reduced to an engine of second-layer MSM commentary and paparazzi-like emphasis on every word that comes out of the mouths of idiots and psychos. "(Insert talking head) Debunks/Lambastes/Burns (Insert wingnut)"; "(Insert wingnut) claims/says/repeats (Insert outrageous lie)" - how many headlines on how many liberal websites would be covered by that template title? There seems to be not much understanding that credibility is not your opinion of someone's intelligence, reason, or veracity, but the level of significance you place on their words and actions. It doesn't matter how many Republican lies you debunk or how crazy you show them to be - as long as they are your favorite subject, you guarantee their credibility and neutralize yourself as a progressive force.
Now, that's not to say that any given lie, fallacy, or meme is insignificant or should be properly ignored, but there has to be some level of intelligence involved in making these judgments: You can't choose to be nothing more than a lie-refutation engine and still expect to contribute anything but to be a speed bump on the other side's way to victory, because - as has been noted, and as we've seen before - all they have to do is tell more lies, more absurdly, and more quickly than you have time or energy to refute them, and you will simply be overwhelmed. It's a classic trick, manipulating the substantive, progressive element into thinking and behaving in thoroughly negative, stasis-oriented ways that merely serve the people who are negative and retrograde by nature.
"It's a cactus." "It's not a cactus." "Yes, it is a cactus." "No, it's not a cactus." The one word that has been repeated the most in the previous exchange is cactus, and when you see that word, the idea of a cactus is conjured regardless of the presence of a negation in the sentence. You can't think about not a cactus - there's no way to envision a negative without doing the mental effort of selecting some positive that fits into its place. So what does that indicate about a debate consisting almost entirely of Republican lies and Democratic refutations of Republican lies? That the most prominent ideational element in the debate are the things Republicans are asserting, regardless of their insanity and mendacity. Some things bear repeating, but other things are only compromised by repeating them, so let's get this straight once and for all and then ACT accordingly - don't just keep saying it over and over with each new anecdote that proves it:
1. The Republican "case" for itself and against us consists entirely of bald-faced lies, fallacies, denial, and appeals to pathological and often criminal impulses that have no place in a free and enlightened society. We have established this - we don't have to keep proving it, and indeed attempts to keep proving it just harm us for the reasons already described. It doesn't help anyone to expend hours of discourse on every fart and burp that comes out of a Republican in the form of words.Ask yourself, are we more likely to defeat Mitt Romney because we focus endlessly on every last gaffe and lie, or does it simply distract from the relatively simple, overarching reasons why he is an unsuitable candidate, a lousy American, and a bad person? We've been down this road before with George W. Bush, and seemingly learned nothing about how to deal with someone who manages to pack ten lies into a five-word sentence. What cuts through a thousand lies best? A thousand refutations iterated cacophanously by a million voices, or a single, clear, concise articulation of the truth deployed to swat them all down simultaneously by reasoned people acting cooperatively and progressively?
2. As it has been established that virtually nothing Republicans say or do contributes to the progress of this country or mankind in general, very little of what they say is a suitable subject of interest to us - at least not in the basic sense of prioritizing it over making our own, positive efforts to achieve progress.
3. What should always be of interest, however, is what they do. Forget about what nonsense they make up to justify it - as per #1, they aren't really arguing, just pushing buttons to make people stop thinking and make determined thinkers obsess on their bullshit rather than fighting their actions.
Moreover, it isn't even really a question of a given campaign or candidate, but of the connective tissue of our society and republic: What the people with ideas are doing between elections, when the real substance of politics unfolds, and what they're doing besides elections when an election is unfolding. Do we collaborate with the Republican denial of settled issues, or do we proceed to debate the implementation of our understanding and leave the idiots, whackadoos, and financially interested liars to grumble amongst themselves that it simply ain't so that the world is round? Do we define "settled" by infinitely malleable opinion polls and Overton Windows, or do we define it by facts and let our actions move the opinion? Which is more commonplace in what passes for debate now - arguments over whether people have a right to healthcare (a thoroughly settled issue), or how to implement that right? Arguments over whether climate change exists, or how to deal with it? Arguments over whether abortion is a right, or how to protect and expand access to it?
In every case, it's been my impression that the former is far more prominent, and that people who fall on our side of issues are far more comfortable in these trivial disputes with loons and fringe elements than participating in the harder topics of how to build real progress on their opinions. And it isn't just because it's easier: A painfully large proportion of people nominally on our side just can't seem to fathom that they don't need any special dispensation, authority, or permission to act constructively on an idea or a moral perspective. They don't need the approval of an election, institution, referendum, opinion poll, corporation, or other authority figure to act positively on the basis of their own intelligence and conscience. All they need is the honesty to see what's what, the accountability to change what they're doing when they're failing to make progress, and the courage to keep seeking the path forward even when it's not obvious.
So let the abyss be the abyss, and don't pour your soul into it trying to fill, shame, or punish it into somehow becoming substantive. The problem with conservatives that makes them who they are is that they lack qualities you have - qualities that allow you to have hope amid fear, see opportunity to better the world amid problems that endanger it, acknowledge difficult realities as the first step to building a better future, love humanity regardless of all the people who pervert and betray it, and have a will to see not only yourself but others grow and flourish. Or at least these are the fundamental characteristics of a progressive, when not in a state of distraction or moral degeneration.