Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Of course, the question of "tactical radicalism" can cut both ways.  As I said earlier today, tactical radicalism is Jonathan Chait's term, which he defines as "a belief that ideological purity carries no electoral cost whatsoever."  He sees it as currently predominantly a problem for conservatives, but there are liberals who hold that view, too (see, for example, Glenn Greenwald's belief that George W. Bush and the Republicans have succeeded because of tactical radicalism).  At any rate, Chait spells out the possible trade-offs:

[Republicans] made it harder on themselves because the party leadership can't control the base's tactical radicalism.  Of course, the flip side of this strategy is that, by nominating extremely conservative candidates, Republicans maintain very tight party discipline among the members they do elect. Democrats are much more prone to nominate moderates in swing districts or states. This means Democrats have more seats than they "should" have, but they also have a more fractious caucus.
OK, on to the question(s).  First: do you agree with Chait's description -- that Republicans have become "tactical radicals" but that Democrats have not?  Second, do you agree with Chait that the likely results are more Democratic seats, but a less unified Democratic caucus in Congress?  Third: how do you feel about the trade-off?

[Note: edited a bit for clarity]


  1. Pat Toomey's challenge to Arlen Specter turned an occasion turncoat Republican into a reliable Democrat and resulted in the passage of health care reform, and put the seat in play. A Republican Arlen Specter who didn't have to worry about his right flank would be sitting on a huge lead right now.

    Similarly, Marco Rubio's challenge to Charlie Crist was probably a mistake as well. He hasn't reduced the likelihood that Charlie Crist will become Florida's next senator all that much, but he did change the coalition he's using to win, from a combination of Republicans and independents to Democrats and independents. Crist will choose who he caucuses with based on the coalition that put him into office, which means he'll probably be a Democrat.

    The problems with Paul and Angle are well documented, but a mainstream Republican could have put both of those seats out of reach for the Democrats.

    This isn't something Democrats have done much of. Halter wasn't much more or less electable than Lincoln nor did defending herself make her less electable. We were probably always going to lose that seat no matter what. However, the primary challenge moved her to the left on financial reform at a critical moment, so it has to be considered a success.

    The best example of tactical radicalism for Democrats has to be Russ Feingold. He has to fight for his seat every time because he's so much more progressive than the state as a whole, whereas a mainstream Democrat like Herb Kohl never has a competitive race. As a Wisconsinite, I can see the merit in both approaches. I'd hate to lose Feingold in the Senate, but his career has been worth it. Plus if he loses, and Ginsburg retires, he'd make a great Supreme Court justice, and as a member of the Senate Club he'd be pretty much guaranteed confirmation. Also, as much as it would suck to have Ron Johnson as a Senator for six years, he'll be easy to beat in 2016.

  2. I generally agree with his conclusions, but I don't think of it that way.

    My 5 cent version is that conservatism in this country has always been an uneasy alliance between the Federalists and the Know-Nothings. The Federalists are feeling about like they did in 1815 (oops, heh heh, we'll just go hide now), so the Know-Nothings are running the show. "Tactical radicals" grants them too much dignity.

    Unified Democratic caucus?? What planet are you from?

  3. 1. Yes.

    2. Yes.

    3. Given the small conservative bias in the apportionment of the House and the large, small-state conservative bias in the apportionment of the Senate, I don't know if we have a choice if we want to be in the majority.

  4. Do I agree with Chait's description? Yes

    Do I agree that the results are more seats and a less unified caucus? Yes, but only to an extent. I actually think Democrats have been fairly unified on key votes the last two Congresses. I think this is sometimes obscured by the fact that Pelosi let's members vote against the party when they aren't needed.

    How do I feel about the trade-off? I think't it's far better than the alternative - even though it's often frustrating to watch.

  5. Republicans have become tactical radicals, and the Democrats have not, but that is just right now. A latent tendency to purity exists, always, in both parties.

    The party that opportunistically goes to the center (big tent)is by definition more fractious. Blurring the brand is the price paid to get more seats. In a party ideological blur is a vacuum that politicians jostle to fill. Within the party decrying blurring always advances someone's interests.

    The base (either side) tolerates the big tent so long as the unpleasant compromises give them a majority. Lose the majority and the base rejects the compromises. Because the compromises make the party less attractive to them, they mistakenly assume they are making the party less attractive in general, hence the defeats. Listen to Limbaugh these days.

    Serial defeats threaten political irrelevance, eventually convincing the base (even the Limbaughs) to make those horrible compromises, which they do. Success usually follows, especially when the base on the other side, careless with victory, decide to "tighten their message".

    Right now, except for the recession, Democrats would be getting careless and the Republicans, after another failure in November, would purge the purity mongers. The recession has halted this realignment. The Democrats will do poorly despite their big tent, and many Republicans will attribute their success to their pursuit of purity.

    National politicians are partially exempt from this. Although a wide (though fractious) coalition is good for the party, undefined national politicians are seen as unprincipled. Therefore at the presidential level the public tolerates candidates who do not openly tack to the center, thinking them authentic.

  6. One thing that seems unique to the right is its unshakable belief that the country as a whole agrees with them. It is a belief that runs contrary to a great deal of evidence, but then so does supply-sidism. That's why people like Limbaugh can state with a straight face that Republicans lost the 2008 election because they nominated a moderate. They truly, sincerely believe that they constitute a silent majority that has been suppressed by the mainstream media, and this belief is absolutely central to their way of thinking, driving how they interpret every event. If Sharon Angle wins Reid's seat this year, they will see it as proof that their strategy works; if she loses, they will blame it on the media. Mark my words.

    You simply don't see anything comparable on the left. There is ideological purity, to be sure, but no progressive would argue that the country is progressive. We'd argue that Americans tend to agree more with the policies of Democrats than Republicans (as poll after poll shows), but we're well aware that the power center of the Democratic Party is somewhat to the right of where progressives stand. Therefore, I don't think there is any leftish version of "tactical radicalism" as Chait defines it. There are progressives who argue that being progressive is more to our advantage than not, but I don't think any one of us would suggest that it carries no electoral costs.

  7. Lester Freamon:(Re Feingold)as a member of the Senate Club he'd be pretty much guaranteed confirmation.

    Are you sure this still applies? Everything I've seen about Republicans would make it impossible for them not to filibuster anyone to the left of center. Obama not being a tactical purist and wanting to get his first two appointments confirmed selected pretty moderate (in the bad sense of the word).

  8. I'm not sure I agree with Chait's description. In particular, I don't think either party has very many adherents to this description of "tactical radicalism." However, that doesn't preclude the polarization of the parties. First, a lot of the purists are what I would call deluded tactical radicals; they truly believe that their viewpoint is MORE popular, if they could only package it right. These people are more common within the two parties than one might think.
    Second, some people pushing for purity could be called omelette radicals; they see the tradeoff of losing seats as being worthwhile. I'd put Kos and the labor folks in AR on this side; they figure that the harm that might be done by losing the seat is either a) not much ("he's a RINO anyway") or b) that the signal they send that impurity will not be tolerated is worth it.

    Now, there may be some who think that it's all about the money they raise and the political environment and campaigns, and the message matters not a bit. These people COULD be tactical radicals (as Chait defines them). But I don't think they're particularly numerous compared to the two other groups.

    On the second point: yeah, they lose their sides seats. Both sides have them, but the forces of purity are stronger within the GOP, which has been the smaller-tent party since at least 1930. However, I doubt this advantage the Dems have outweighs their geographic disadvantage of having their partisans live in much closer proximity (so the Dems have a ton of "waster" votes in 90-10 districts).

    On the third question: I'm generally OK with it. Where I get concerned is when there are political environments that elect a majority of seriously insane ideologues, such as an awful economy with a Dem prez. However, in the long run, the arrangement works in the favor of the good guys. But, if not for blind retrospection amongst voters (ie, simply punishing/rewarding the in-party for things WAY beyond their control), I'd think this was a fine and dandy thing for parties in the US or a multiparty system.


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