Tearing open the tent

I sense — or perhaps just hope — that the left (you say progressives, I say liberals) is grappling with the need to open its tent. That’s because I’m starting to hear those who fear — on the eve of possibly cashing in the greatest gift certificate in recent political history, the botched Bush administration — that the closed orthodoxy of a chosen few could shrink the party just when it need to grow.

See today’s Washington Post on Democrats’ efforts to reassess.

Those in the middle of these events share a similar conviction, which is that for too long Republicans have been winning the battle of ideas (and often campaign strategy) in American politics, in part because conservatives invested in what is now a well-funded infrastructure of organizations that have produced ideas, thinkers, publications, strategists, and politicians who now control the White House, Congress and increasingly the federal judiciary.

There is also a belief shared at least by some of the participants that Democrats have ridden for too long on what are the fumes of the New Deal and the Great Society, which sustained Democrats for half a century. . . .

Doug Hattaway, a Democratic communications consultant who worked for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, recalled a moment of epiphany during a focus group of Democratic operatives and marketing professionals he attended last year. The participants were asked to say what Democratic accomplishments they were most proud of. Their responses filled several pages on a flip chart set up in the focus group facility. “We all realized there was nothing there within the past 30 years,” Hattaway said.

That is painful but necessary reassessment. See also Russell Shaw lecturing fellow progressives at Huffingtonpost:

But reading some of the posts and Comments here and in other Blogs, I notice a key fault shared by many of my fellow progressives. A fault so endemic and irritating that it ignores the realities of politics and human nature. A fault that turns more people off than it converts.

Just as with the true believers on the right, the overarching fault of too many of the left’s true believers is a combination of rampant self-righteousness and a lack of respect for other positions that may happen to differ with yours. Differ greatly, or differ slightly.

A fault that fuels articles, posts and comments that ring with the wrathful tone of I am right and if you are not 100% in agreement with what I say, you are a right-wing lackey of the Rove Administration. And in being that, you are either horribly naïve, or getting paid by them. . . .

The best trajectory for change is to convince those who may not agree with you on everything, but agree with you on some things to side with you on those things you both agree on. That’s how alliances are made, and sometimes, how minds are changed.

My fellow progressives, when you scorn everybody who does not agree with everything you say, a process inimical to human nature ensues. When you shout people down and call them names, they tend to get defensive and either shut down or shout back at you. When an ultra-progressive (of which I bear some traits) tells a moderate liberal “you are full of shit, fuck you,” that’s not the best way to get buy-in on any of your ideas.

Not the best way to engage your fellow citizens. For if you go down this absolutist path, you lose the opportunity to engage, and change, the minds of those whose critical mass we really need to change things about what is wrong with our nation and the world.

I’ve been on the other end of those silly and ultimately destructive efforts by a few to kick some of us out of what they think is their club if we don’t copy everything they say about every issue and candidate: a political party as a high-school clique. In the end, of course, that’s not going to stop me from voting for the candidates I want (though in their skewed logic, voting for Democrats Hillary Clinton or Joe Lieberman makes you less than a Democrat) but I fear it will affect the ability of the party to get the right candidates and to get them elected. If they take this too far, the Democratic Party will act like a third party with no second party inbetween.

The Democratic Party, of all parties, should be inclusive and open to debate. And I’m glad that debate is underway.

: Something similar is happening in the UK with the Euston Manifesto (see posts here, here, and here).