Most of us know that politics doesn't only go from left to right. But there's a lot of disagreement about which other axes are most important for understanding political difference or politics more generally. Pragmatist vs. idealist? Grassroots vs. establishment?
When we get into arguing strategy, terms like those often fly fast and loose (and I don't exempt myself from that). If we stop and think, though, pragmatist vs. idealist serves no purpose other than to insult everyone involved in a conversation. Does the person proclaiming themself a pragmatist mean to say "I have no ideals"? Does the person identifying as an idealist mean to say "I don't care about getting things done"? These terms don't work to describe people, only motives -- for instance, my pragmatic streak may be at work but it will always be in consultation with my ideals.
What, then? I've suggested in the past that in arguing about politics, it's easy to confuse strategy and ideology. The Fifty-State Strategy, for instance, isn't inherently progressive. It's a strategy: to work in the long term to strengthen a party in every state, to refuse regionalism or investing only in places where the party can win this cycle. But it could be used to promote ideologically conservative positions or candidates as easily as progressive ones. (We could add tactics to this, too: How specifically do you implement your strategy?)
Let's say two people both want to see the House moved as far to the left as possible. One thinks the Fifty-State Strategy is the best way to achieve that, that spreading available resources as widely as possible will yield the most possible chances now and that strengthening local parties will produce good candidates and create chances a few cycles down the road; the other thinks that turning every available resource to races that are winnable now is better, figuring that victory today will create chances further down the road. Same goal, yet if these two people get into an argument with each other, their very different strategies might lead them to believe they want substantially different things.
And of course, it is actually more complicated than wanting the same electoral or legislative outcome. A strategy that hands power to the already powerful will tend to be effectively conservative (in the classic sense of resisting change as opposed to in the radical wingnut sense); the already powerful have every incentive not to change things too much.
Which brings us to party and movement. As the battles over the Fifty State Strategy and other strategic questions of how the party will go about obtaining power show, and of course as the contrast between the Democratic and Republican parties show, parties can be more or less controlled by the powerful and/or responsive to the grassroots. (This contrast is shown still more by parties in other countries, as our Democratic party may be among the most conservative and certainly among the most pro-corporate "left" major parties in the democratic world.) But parties and movements are always different.
Parties, bluntly, exist to win elections -- and that usually means the next election. They form as parties around ideologies or policies, but the impulse to win elections is always primary. Movements, on the other hand, come together around issues, and, to be maximally effective, have to always remember that their interests are not identical to those of parties.
The Democratic party is much more friendly to women than the Republican party, but that doesn't mean that feminist groups or pro-choice groups can sit back and say "the Democratic party is taking care of our interests." They have to always be pushing the party apparatus to put the principles of fair pay and choice above the temptations of corporate donations, chiding bishops, and Village wisdom. Because the party can hold the right position and still decide that selling that position out is in its own interest.
To take the main issue we're facing these days: The DSCC cares more about electing Democrats to the Senate than about passing a strong health care bill. The DCCC cares more about electing Democrats to the House than about passing a strong health care bill. And the DNC -- and components thereof, like OFA -- cares more about reelecting Barack Obama than it does about passing a strong health care bill.
That's definitional. Exactly to the extent that the party committees think that victory requires a public option, they will push for it. To the extent they think they can pass a weaker version of reform that will piss off marginally fewer Republicans without depressing their own Democratic base, they'll do it.
Questions raised about the efforts of the party committees to pass health care reform are less about their competence at achieving their goals and more about whether their goals are identical with those of the uninsured, the underinsured, those who might be vulnerable to losing their insurance.
Would we be better off with Republicans in power? Hell, no. No one here is saying that. But should we sit back and expect that Democrats in Congress and the administration will fight for the best possible policies without pressure from the grassroots? Equally, no. And an arm of the party is never a part of the grassroots. No matter how effectively OFA engages grassroots activists, for instance, its priorities and strategies are defined by Barack Obama's legislative priorities and by the need to maximize Democratic support (ie voting), and it is an arm of the DNC.
We fight to elect Democrats, but when they are in office, we have to take a page from generations of social movements and fight the party's fear of losing elections, the money they're tempted with by lobbyists and corporate PACs, their desire to be respectable in the Village. Fighting to get them to pass the legislation the people of this country need is not betrayal of the party. It's a healthy recognition that the goals of a broader progressive movement are not identical with the goals of the Democratic party. That the party will, in the long term, be stronger for having its base keeping up the pressure to do the right thing.