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August 04, 2006

My Generation Gap on Lamont

There's been a good discussion on the "generation gap" in response to the Lamont-Lieberman race, generations being something like ten years in the political world. (See here for links to some of the discussion).

So what strikes me most is Ed Kilgore's view that his politics is defined by the DLC beating down the left in the early 90s. As someone who was a left activist in that period, I agree with Ed that those fights back then set the stage for today.

Which is one reason I find some of the blog triumphalism over Lamont being something so new a bit off. As many in the blogs admit, the organizing around Lamont is quite rooted in actions by older activists like Tom Swan, Lamont's campaign manager and a leader in the Connecticut Citizen's Action Group (whose sister organization the now-defunct Mass Fair Share I did early political work with in the 1980s).

The idea that the Democratic establishment is disconnected from the grassroots and too beholden to corporate interests is nothing new. Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" run for President in 1988 was based on that argument and a range of new people ran for office in the 1980s and early 1990s based on that argument, most notably Paul Wellstone who had managed Jackson's 1988 campaign in Minnesota and connected "people powered politics" to a Senate campaign before most people had even heard the word "Internet."

What is true is that most activists had great distrust of electoral politics and it was hard to get them to take seriously buiding serious infrastructure to keep winning elections in this way. In a pre-blog world, back in the mid-90s I wrote an essay, Are the Democrats are the Third Party We've Been Looking For?, which got blog-like distribution in various email lists and links on left websites at the time. It analyzed the emerging political realignment of the parties-- as progressives gained greater power within the Democratic caucus and as Newt Gingrich helped wipe out corporate-DLC types -- to argue for greater attention by progressives to strengthening that progressive wing in the Democrats. This was largely in reaction to the general electoral apathy and third party fetishism of many progressive activists of the time.

So the new Democratic partisanship of the liberal blog world is welcome. But as Ed emphasizes (from the other side of the trench from those earlier internal battles) -- the Lamont-Liberman fight is hardly unprecedented. Some in the blogs argue that the Lamont campaign is not about "ideology" (shudder at the thought) but about Lieberman being insufficiently partisan.

Yet why partisanship is needed is unclear unless you have a clear understanding of the values and ideology that define the differences of progressives from the rightwing. The activists who supported the Jackson and Paul Wellstone counter-establishment campaigns were clear about those ideological differences-- and were unashamed to stand up for those values. Of course, most in the blogs express progressive values much of the time, so it's just odd that they are so shy of admitting it matters in places like the Lamont race.

Progressives sometimes argue they are building an infrastructure to counter the rightwing, but it's worth remembering that the Right didn't build a strong Republican Party, then add a program to help it win elections. It was the other way around. Organizations with clear ideology built a range of organizations-- the Free Congress Foundation, Young Americans for Freedom, the Christian Coalition, the Federalist Society -- then used programs and ideas from those organizations to define what the modern GOP program would be. Folks like Newt Gingrich who engineered the GOP takeover of Congress in the early 1990s were partisans around ideas and ideology-- and unapologetic about it.

For the GOP, a lot of this was disingenuous-- corporate money fueling electoral ideas they couldn't care less about as long as they got their special interest goodies -- but those ideas and ideology were crucial for mobilizing the church and other grassroots activists that gave the GOP boots on the ground to claim an electoral majority. And many of those grassroots activists are disenchanted now that Bush has so clearly abandoned that ideology in favor of naked corporate payoffs to GOP special interests.

The Democrats may win back Congress based on this internal collapse of the GOP -- encouraged by general anger over the Iraq War -- but once they win, the general pro-partisan, ideology-light blog-related Democratic activism is likely to give away to internal ideological disarray and fights. What I share with Ed Kilgore is that the fights from the early 90s, when the Dems last had control of Congress, are likely to return with a vengenace very soon.

Mark Schmitt says hopefully that the blog world really represents the end of "checklist liberalism", implicitly a vision of a just world, which I think has truth but is encased in a movement that pretends to eschew ideology. But it's actually easier to hold such nascent ideology in opposition-- with any degree of power, the corporate "friends" of the Democrats will reappear quickly and try to drown that vision in a bathtub. So whether blogish unity around "strong partisanship" can survive victory seems uncertain.

That said, victory is better than defeat, and Lamont seems like a good guy who will be more progressive than Lieberman. But Lamont's uncertain ideological profile -- clearly contrasting with a Paul Wellstone of an earlier political generation -- is a reflection of this uncertain bloggish partisan profile. So for my part, I'm far more excited by the likely elections of Bernie Sanders and (hopefully) Sherrod Brown, who come with clearer records of clear progressive values reflecting that earlier generation of political politics.

Posted by Nathan at August 4, 2006 07:48 AM