Consequences vs. Ideas

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.


  1. Dallas Woodhouse

    May 6, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    Steve, while I respect your position I think you are wrong on the facts about how the smoking ban was beat.

    First of all the major tobacco producers, (RJR, Phillip Morris) were not involved in beating the ban. Lorrilard did hire Fred and Roger Bone to fight the ban.

    While you say corporate special interests beat the ban, from what I know it was calls and e-mails from people concerned about the policy. I know for a fact Hugh Holliman (D-Majority Leader) was surprised that so many people called members to complain. Many were concerned that their own small business, (local store, auto shop, car dealership) would lose the right to control their own property. Thats why the work place part of the bill had so many problems. It made alot of people outside of the major North Carolina cities really mad.

    It should be noted that 18 democrats, many of which have never recieved a donation from tobacco, voted against the ban including several who are or who have been smokers.

    With all due respect corporate special interests, may win lots of battles, but I do not think that is the case with this issue

  2. Anglico

    May 7, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    This is a good analysis of the political environment as I see it. The “center” has slid so far to the right that it is fully unrecognizable.

    Playing “nice” – as Chait would call it – means meeting the free-market fundamentalists half way. That strategy is like being trapped in Zeno’s paradox, with every move resulting in further drift to the right, toward a world in which all taxation is bad, all government is damnable, and all markets are blessed by god.

    The truth is, any position advocated by Woodhouse and his colleagues in the Art Pope Puppetshow, is on its face a position of special corporate interest.

  3. […] Shuler did not help his cause with an appearance at the conservative gabfest Civitas. It did not impress conservatives and made liberals cranky. Both define the center as that yellow line down the middle of the street. […]

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