Political Space (specifics of chart not intended for serious discussion, just a pretty picture)
An age old question for a progressive site like Daily Kos, one committed to advancing progressive values within the electoral system, has been embodied in what many of us thought could be a definitive ethos (Big Lebowski reference): "More and better Democrats." Markos revisited the issue the other day:
This site's unofficial motto used to be "more and better Democrats", but we've gradually evolved it to "better Democrats". The reasons why are obvious. And post-redistricting, there's no better place to have an impact electing better Democrats than in these open primaries—particularly when the seat is safe in the general.
Is this a call for political "nihilism" as some have interpreted it? A call for "anti-pragmatism"? I think that is, at best, a misreading of the meaning of "More and better Democrats" and Markos' apparent reformulation. The basic misunderstanding is reflected in appeals to the "50 State Strategy" and other positions Daily Kos urged and supported over the years for the Democratic Party. Daily Kos is not the Democratic Party. Yes, Daily Kos is a "Democratic" blog, indeed, a part of the Democratic Big Tent. But Daily Kos is in the progressive flank of the Big Tent Democratic Party. It wants, in my opinion, to pull the Party toward progressive values. Part of pulling the country toward progressive values requires the Democratic Party winning of course. This should go without saying as central to the Daily Kos ethos (one I share.)
And that's where the "More" in the "More and Better Democrats" formulation comes from. But it also requires, from the progressive standpoint, a "better Democrats" component—in order to have progressive values triumph, the Democratic Party has to get better—it has to become more progressive. This is accomplished not by electing fewer Democrats, but by electing more progressive Democrats.
It seems to me that Markos is throwing Daily Kos more fully into the fight for "Better Democrats" and placing less emphasis on the "More" part of the equation. From the progressive point of view, this seems a pragmatic approach. Between OFA, Move On, the DNC, DCCC, the DSCC, the DGA and all the other D electoral organizations, there seems to be plenty of folks working on the "More." There seems to be less focus on the "Better." If not Daily Kos (remember Occupy Wall Street is not an electorally focused movement), then who will focus on the "better"?
This is not a new question. In 2006, I wrote a post about Political Space, where I explored the issue of how progressives can expand political space within the electoral system. In that post, relying on some great work by Ruy Texeira and John Halpin, I suggested the following "rules for Progressive Democrats" interested in pulling the Democratic Party and the country toward progressive values:
Let's recall T&H's 5 postulates:
(1) The starting point for all political organizing and campaigns should be: "What are my core beliefs and principles and how do I best explain them to supporters and skeptics alike?"
(2) Every political battle, both proactive and defensive, should represent a basic statement of progressive character and present a clear, concise contrast with conservatives. Do not blur lines.
(3) All issue campaigns and agenda items are not equal. Progressives should focus their efforts on issues that can simultaneously strengthen the base and appeal to centrist voters. Progressives must be willing to make sacrifices and tradeoffs -- in terms of coalition building and budgetary concerns -- to achieve their most important agenda items.
(4) Escalate battles that expose the extremism of the right or splinter their coalition. [Follow-up: When confronted with the right's social, cultural, or national security agenda, the absolute worst response is to fail to combat these caricatures or to explain one's position directly to voters, regardless of the popularity of the position.]
(5) Every political action should highlight three essential progressive attributes: a clear stand on the side of those who lack power, wealth or influence; a deep commitment to the common good; and a strong belief in fairness and opportunity for all.
As general themes and principles, these postulates can be applied in every region of the nation. But they will not lead to uniform specific issue positions for Democrats everywhere. The political gravity or, "political space time curvature" in Nebraska or Mississippi is different from that in say, Rhode Island. But the progressive or Democratic position in each of these locations can clearly be discerned and is the position for Democrats to follow in each of them.
So how do we determine what the political gravity is in the locales and how do we determine the "progressive position?" How do we determine how far progressives can push? What is the velocity of progressivism and where does it stand across the Nation?
I believe these thoughts hold up, but are incomplete. The geographic focus fails to take into account that it is more than geography that affects political space, both inside and outside of the Democratic Party. The left flank of the Democratic Party, Daily Kos and many many others need to fight for candidates who occupy and expand progressive political space.
Some have misinterpreted concentrating support on progressive candidates as opposing Democrats who are not progressive in general elections. If this were the case, then Markos' statement would indeed be unpragmatic. If Daily Kos' new mission statement was "help a Republican beat Ben Nelson," then include me out. But of course that is not the new Daily Kos mission statement.
Progressive political forces have finite resources and just as focusing on electing progressive Democrats would be a prudent investment of those resources, investing those resources in a campaign to defeat Ben Nelson in a general election in Nebraska would be incredibly imprudent. This question came up more subtly with regard to the campaign against Joe Lieberman in 2006. At that time I wrote Political Space in Connecticut:
Of course primaries are also the exercise of choosing candidates for a general election and thus will not exclusively be a test of ideas. [...] To me the CT-Sen race was the primary that best illustrates my theory of political space curvature as well as being an accountability moment for an elected official.
Here, Ned Lamont tested Lieberman's progressive bona fides, his efficacy as a voice of progressivism, his ability to represent the views of Connecticut Democrats and his notion of what it means to be a Democratic Senator in the Age of Rove. Lieberman was found inadequate.
To wit, Lieberman was not progressive enough, not partisan enough, not enough of a Democrat for Connecticut Democrats. [...] Lieberman was a poor representative for Connecticut Democrats and thus was rightly rejected by Connecticut Democrats.
Just as Lieberman was a poor representative for Connecticut Democrats, many elected Democratic officials not only would be poor representatives for the progressive flank of the Democratic Party, they would be aghast to be thought of as such. Ben Nelson would be quite unhappy to hear that Daily Kos and other progressive groups would be working hard for him. He does not want to be associated with progressives or Daily Kos.
I'm not offended by that myself. Nebraska is Nebraska (until Nebraska progressives can make it different.) The fact is Ben Nelson has very little direct relevance to the activism of progressives and daily kos (there is indirect relevance explained further down in the article.) Ben Nelson's electoral battles are not the kind where daily kos style activism will help him, or daily kos and progressives.
Interestingly, Markos' newest expression for dedicating to the election of "better Democrats" should be less contentious than the actions of 2006. After all, he is not calling for a war against any particular conservative Democrat. Ben Nelson is not a target. No doubt due to Markos' pragmatic streak—what progressive is gonna win in Nebraska right now? (Sorry Nebraska Democrats, that fight is up to you right now.)
Markos is expressing the view that Daily Kos will be dedicated to helping progressive candidates, candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Darcy Burner, win elections. Given the finite resources of progressives, this seems an utterly pragmatic approach, from the perspective of a progressive.
I've thought so for a while:
Going after John Barrow was silly. But so was throwing support behind Travis Childers and Heath Shuler.
The counterargument to the focus on better Democrats is that progressive values are more damaged by Democrats being in minority than in there being less progressive Democrats in office. I don't think it is an either/or question.
I firmly believe that Democrats win more elections when they embrace core progressive values. Democrats, being pols, embrace more progressive values when they believe it is good for their election chances. There are two ways of getting more Democrats to embrace progressive values: (1) threaten non-progressive Democrats with opposition; (2) elect more progressive Democrats. Electing non-progressive Democrats will not make the Democratic Party more progressive. It will keep the country from becoming more conservative. And as such, it is something to be in favor of.
By all means, in general elections, let's all vote and support the Democrats. But let's work, donate, fight, as much as we can, for the progressive candidates. It's the path to a victory for progressive values in the Democratic Party and the country.
I call that the pragmatic progressive approach.