As I mulled over the defeat of common sense this week (smoking ban bill defeated 61 to 55) I was having trouble getting in touch with the better angels of my nature. How the hell do you make progress within a political system that is owned and operated by corporate special interests (big tobacco, in this case)? I then came upon a fascinating and relevant article that is a variation on whether the ends justify the means. See if you agree:
“If you are chiefly interested in the consequences, then you are not chiefly interested in the ideas. The netroots, like most of the conservative movement, is interested in the consequences, not the ideas. The battle is being joined at last.” ~ Jonathan Chait
If you are reading this blog you owe it to yourself to read the cover story in The New Republic by Jonathan Chait “The Left’s New Machine: How the netroots became the most important mass movement in U.S. politics.” Be forewarned, this is not a sympathetic look at the contribution of the Internet to public debate.
In essence, Chait mourns the demise of intellectual debate and civility. In his interpretation, the “netroots” (exemplified by DailyKos, Atrios, MyDD) uses a take-no-prisoners approach to combat the ever-present right wing message machine (i.e. talk radio, Drudge Report, right wing think tanks such as Heritage Foundation, AEI, and daresay our own John Locke Foundation). Chait is not amused that some progressives have engaged the right in this manner:
“Liberalism is indeed undergoing a reformation. At the end of this reformation, what will the left look like? It will look a lot like the Republican machine that prevailed in Florida (Bush v Gore 2000). It will be nastier and more ruthless, and less concerned with intellectual or procedural niceties.”
I believe Chait’s error is in presuming this transformation among progressives is an “either/or” choice. Why can’t intellectual elites and take-no-prisoners activists coexist? Of what use is a political idea if it has no consequence? In truth, the two need one another if either is going to be relevant to the political process.
Jonathan Chait would say that a group like NC Policy Watch is part of the “wonkosphere,” they advocate for progressive policies but do not directly involve themselves in politics. Go here to see their ambitious agenda. Chait’s “netroots,” on the other hand, would be like our friends at BlueNC. They are unapologetically political, and advocate for causes and candidates which will shift the Democratic Party to the left. And if you don’t think the so-called “centrist” position has drifted to the right since the rise of conservatism, consider this: Recently elected Democrat Heath Shuler (NC 11) may be to the right of Richard Nixon. (Disclaimer: let me say that I am only a guest blogger here at The Progressive Pulse and, much like the US Attorneys, I serve at the pleasure of my friend, NC Policy Watch Director Chris Fitzsimon. I have no association with NC Policy Watch or their parent organization the AJ Fletcher Foundation; BlueNC; or any other group that, as Groucho Marx said, would have me as a member. The opinions expressed are my own.)
Chait has no reason to despair. Playing hardball doesn’t have to mean playing dirty. After all, economic fairness and social justice are on our side. The “netroots” can help identify and elect candidates that the “wonkosphere” can embrace. The progressive groups will need to work together to overcome the special interests which currently dominate North Carolina and national politics. With luck, by the next election cycle North Carolina can pass not only the smoking ban, but progressive policies on health, education, and housing.