Meddling In Republican Primaries?

As Matt discussed below, a new group, They Work for Us, has entered the political scene. Progressives have needed an organization like They Work for Us for a long time. With an alliance including labor, the netroots, and lawyers, it is, in short, a progressive--and hopefully superior--version of the Club for Growth that will focus on accountability via primaries. While incumbent Democrats who are out of step with their district will be the early targets--Al Wynn, Ellen Tauscher and Henry Cuellar have all been named--the organization offers progressives some perhaps more intriguing possibilities down the road. This includes playing a role in open primaries in blue districts, and even playing a role in a small number of Republican primaries that feature wingnut incumbents.

Now, I know what you are thinking. First, considering the near total dominance of the radical conservative wing of the Republican Party, it is even possible for a "moderate" Republican to defeat a conservative Republican incumbent in a primary anymore? I grant, at least at first, in most states it may very well be impossible. Hewll, Chafee barely beat Laffey in Rhode Island this year. However, in a handful of states, flexible election laws present openings that might offer moderate Republicans an important early foothold that would allow them to expand to other currently less favorable areas of the country. Specifically, if a state has both open primaries and election day voter registration, it might just be doable for a Republican moderate to defeat an incumbent Republican wingnut by using a broad alliance of moderate Republicans, independents, and even some Democrats. The five states that meet these criteria are Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. While this presents us with a limited target area, at the very least Bill Sali (ID-02) and Jim Sensenbrenner (WI-05), pop up as extreme wingnuts who might be vulnerable to this strategy.

Second, you may ask, why would we even want moderate Republicans to win in these districts? That is a more difficult question to answer. A strategy such as this might violate a basic principle of the fifty-state strategy: Democrats can compete everywhere. Also, the presence of hard-core extremist might actually improve Democratic chances to win in the district. Further, why would we spend any money to help any kind of Republican, especially when we are outgunned in total resources? Good points, all.

However, one of the greatest advantages Republicans have recently held in elections has been very public, internal Democratic division. Over the past twenty years, the DLC-nexus has played a key role in making the rest of the Democratic Party look out of touch with "mainstream" America by repeatedly triangulating against the party's left wing and adopting Republican language and narratives. By the same token, a revitalized Republican moderate movement, aided by strong primary challenges against wingnuts in a couple of carefully selected districts, could help fuel the growing Republican division we have witnessed over the past few months. Eventually, this could create the same sort of problems for the Republican Party that the DLC-nexus has created for the Democratic Party. For once, Republicans would be the divided ones. Conservatism would be on the bad end of Daou's triangle, instead of progressivism. Over time, Republicans would appear to be the party obsessed with electability instead of principles, a problem that has long haunted, and continues to haunt, Democrats. Further, there is precedent for this sort of action. The Club for Growth entered Democratic primaries in 2006, when it supported Henry Ceullar over Ciro Rodriguez in the TX-28 primary last past March. We also repeatedly saw Republicans and other conservative interests give massive support to both Joe Lieberman and Al Wynn in their primary struggles. And that was just in 2006. Since conservatives have been willing to dump tens of millions into supporting conservative Democrats such as these who aid national, anti-Democratic and anti-progressive narratives, they clearly, they feel like it is a worthwhile investment. Progressives might be able to score a similar return on an even smaller investment in a shorter period of time.

It is an intriguing possibility, one that I think They Work For Us should consider, and probably will consider, as they expand. While I am not entirely sold on it, progressive meddling in Republican primaries could be quite beneficial. A strategy such as this would also beg, if not straight up answer, the question as to whether or not we are an ideologically focused movement. While that is an idea I have resisted in the past, as Democrats continue to make gains nationwide, it might be an important shift for us to take in the future. If we end up with something like 56 Senators, 245 Representatives and a Democratic President after the 2008 elections, but we still aren't seeing a progressive agenda passed into law, then it may very well be time to drop our current partisan tactics in favor of something more ideologically focused.

A Leftist Canon?

This is my first diary and, it seems from comments on an earlier thread, I'm probably about to start off on the wrong foot. So while I hope I spark a big debate, I'd appreciate a few comments on the format, too.

I want to extend a tangent of the TPMCafe discussion of the netroots and in particular Max Sawicky's argument against the netroots. After making a very good historical argument about the ideologies of SDS, he makes the following claim:

The 60s left read Marx, Trotsky, Luxembourg, Lukacs, Chomsky, Franz Fanon, Malcolm X, C.L.R. James, Ernest Mandel, Joan Robinson, Herbert Marcuse, Michael Harrington, Saul Alinsky. What does the netroots read? Don't Think of an Elephant?

There's more...

Did John Kerry Really Lose the West Because He Was Too Liberal?

In today's issue of The Washington Post, T.R. Reid takes a look at the growing success of Democrats in the Mountain West, focusing specifically on the party's decision to host its nominating convention in the heart of the region, Denver, in 2008. Reid lists off the Democrats' achievements in the Mountain West in recent years -- gaining control over five of the region's eight governnorships, picking up five new congressional districts in the House, winning two new Senate seats -- while also mentioning their setbacks on the presidential level, which some apparently chalk up to the ideology of the party's nominee.

"There was nothing wrong with that strategy [of focusing on Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico]," said Denver-based Democratic consultant Terry Snyder. "The votes could be there, for the right candidate. But a liberal senator from Massachusetts turned out to be the wrong guy to make the sale in the West."

While at least some of the culpability for Senator Kerry's inability to carry any states in the Mountain West in 2004 must lie with the candidate himself and even some of the stances that he took, both during the campaign and over the course of his career in the Senate, it's not clear to me that it is necessary for a Democratic consultant to reinforce Republican talking points by specifically blaming liberalism.

This fall, Jon Tester ran as a decidedly not-conservative candidate, opposing the Patriot Act and supporting a woman's right to choose, to take just two examples, yet he won a Senate election in Montana, a state supposedly more conservative than others in the region like Nevada or Colorado. In Arizona, which was the birthplace of Goldwater conservatism, two unabashed Democrats won House elections, the Democratic Governor won reelection by a wide margin and a ban on same-sex marriage went down in flames this year. Wyoming saw a Democratic Governor reelected and a fairly progressive Democrat nearly elected to the U.S. House. In short, Democratic candidates who have been true to their beliefs, be they progressive or liberal, have performed extraordinarily well in recent cycles -- not losing as a result of their departure from third way centrism.

I understand that what plays in Foxboro might not always play in the Phoenix. Yet liberalism (or progressivism) is not the type of drag on Democratic candidates in the Mountain West, or indeed other regions of the country presumed to be more conservative, that conventional wisdom might indicate. And Democratic consultants in the region would be well served by trying to build on the party's successes rather than sniping at the ideological underpinnings of the party platform.

There's more...

A New Progressive Era?

Something strange is happening this week. Republicans are defecting in large numbers to join Democrats in passing several new pieces of legislation. Republican Senators are breaking with Bush over his escalation plans. The Republican Governor of California is proposing universal health care for residents in his state--including undocumented residents. Triangulation and political defection have a new color, and that color is red.

For the past twelve years, virtually every major legislative initiative in this country passed with overwhelming Republican support, and significant support from moderate and conservative Democrats. Welfare "reform," the telecommunications bill, Bush's tax cuts, the Iraq war authorization, Medicare "reform," the bankruptcy bill, the elimination of habeious corpus, and on and on. The direction of legislation in this country has been overwhelmingly conservative, and often facilitated by triangulating, conservative Democrats. About the only major piece of legislation passed, or even fought over, since 1995 that was overwhelmingly backed by Democrats, and made possible by just enough moderate Republican defections, was the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform act of 2002. In virtually every other case, the progressive position was left out in the triangulation formula, and conservatives romped to legislative victory after legislative victory.

Quite frankly, I thought that when Democrats took control of Congress, that this pattern would probably continue. While we had a numeric, partisan majority, I still feared that "New Democrats" and "Blue Dogs" would break with their party, join with Republicans, and continue to pass conservative legislative policy. However, so far the opposite is happening: Republicans are breaking with their party in significant numbers while Democrats hold together, creating enormous majorities on a variety of issues, from the minimum wage, to stem cells, to opposing escalation, to providing universal health care. In ways that go far beyond what I anticipated form election results, the legislative center has shifted profoundly in our favor in recent days, leaving conservatives in pretty much the same position progressives had been in for twelve years. Our victories tended to either be symbolic or, at best, came from stopping conservative legislation--hardly ever were we in a position to actually pass something form our agenda. Now, the positions are somewhat reversed, even though having Bush in the White House keeps conservatives from ever being in as bad a position as we ever faced. I guess it helps to have a very, very popular legislative agenda.

If this is what we can expect in the years to come, consider me extraordinarily encouraged. I am tired of just having to try and stop conservatism--I want progressivism to have a real chance in government. We may soon be reaching a point where moderate Republicans start chastising their own party and saying that they need to move to the center in order to be elected. When that happens, we will have achieved a victory far larger than anything we won back in November. Being moderate is closer to being a progressive than it has ever been during my lifetime. The more that trend continues, the bluer the country will become.

Update: The Medicare bill passes, with 24 Republicans suporting and no Demcorats opposing it.

Progressive Etymology

During my time away, Matt did a lot of interesting writing about the history of the 1960's and the impact of 1960's leftism within the contemporary progressive political environment. In keeping with Matt's work, I would like to open up a discussion on the history ideological self-identification within the American left and center-left. Specifically, I would like to take a quick look at the history of the ideological moniker "progressive," in order to develop a better grasp of what we mean by the term, how it differs from liberalism, and how it connects our current political actions to a tradition of American leftism.

I'll start the discussion with how I understand the history of the term in an American political context:
  • 19th Century Roots. The term "progressive" first came into use in an American political context in the late 19th century. It was the ideological term many American leftists self-identified with, from women suffrage activists, to Teddy Roosevelt supporters, to backers of Robert LaFollette. At this time, "progressivism," was clearly distinct from "liberalism" in American political discourse. At the time, "liberalism" was a distinctly middle-class and American bourgeois view of a laissez-faire economic policies and (very) gradual movement toward universal suffrage. Progressivism was associated with the more forthright and hard-nosed suffrage and governmental accountability movements of the time, including the popular election of Senators, first wave feminism, and the implementation of ballot initiatives. Economically, it was vehemently anti-trust and pro-corporate regulation. In many ways, it is what we would now define as the differences between "neo-liberalism" and "progressivism."

  • The Flip. Until FDR, "progressive" was actually the most common term used to describe the mainstream of American leftism. In what can be considered an early example of triangulation, FDR instead chose to call himself a "liberal," thereby poaching some of Hoover's turf while also distancing himself from the left-wing label "progressive." FDR thus changed the meaning of both terms in American political discourse, as the "progressive" label was rendered fringe left-wing, and the "liberal" label was tied to the economic policies of the New Deal instead of the laissez-faire and corporatist policies. From what I understand, Hoover was so outraged over FDR calling himself a liberal during the 1932 campaign, that Hoover challenged FDR to a debate entirely over who was the true "liberal" in the race. It is also important to note that when former Vice President Henry Wallace broke from the Democratic Party in 1948, he took up the banner of the "progressive" party. After that debacle, people did not call themselves "progressive" for some time.

  • The 1990's revival. After nearly fifty years in the post-Wallace wilderness, the term "progressive" saw a revival in our political discourse in the 1990's primarily from two sources. First, "third way" triangulation types such as the DLC took to the term as a means to avoid being labeled as "liberal." Second, left-wing creative class types, at first primarily in the Bay Area, took to the term in order to disassociate themselves with the exiting "liberal" political infrastructure on both ideological and identity-based grounds. It must have been unpalatable for the wildly successful, and generally cutting edge, entrepreneurs of the Bay Area to self-associate with an ideological term that appeared to be old-fashioned and failing.

  • The New Big-Tent Term. Entering 2007, "progressive" appears to be the new and emerging "big-tent" term for the American center-left. The term is used just as comfortably by New Dem types as it is by the Democratic Party's left-wing. Whether or not this has drained it of any significant meaning is open to debate. Whether or not it still has any significant difference from the term "liberal" is also open to debate. It certainly appears to have morphed into something of an empty vessel term that an increasingly large segment, if not the majority, of the left and center-left political activist community feels comfortable self-identifying with. That is a good thing, because it allows us a sense of unity we lacked when many would call themselves moderate and many would call themselves liberal. However, it is difficult to tell what degree of resonance the term has outside of the universe of political activists. Pollsters like to use the same question for decades, and thus are not ready to start including the term "progressive" in ideological self-identification questions anytime soon.
Personally, I far prefer the term "progressive" to the term "liberal." Logically, "progressive" is more of a direct opposite of "conservative" than is "liberal." I also don't identify with the ideological position the term "liberal" posits when used in an academic sense, and coming from academia that means a lot to me. I also like the way it is able to unite Democratic activists, and how it ties in with many of the great American political actors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Which do you prefer? I have added a poll to the extended entry. Also, what detail can you add to this etymology? What mistakes did I make? I would like to get a better handle on how the term "progressive" is currently used, and has been used over time, within the context of American political discourse. Even if we cannot think of any other reason why this is important, if we are going to have a "progressive movement," it is probably a good idea to grasp what we mean by the term "progressive."

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