Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

Speaking, as I was earlier today, of organized efforts to nominate very conservative Senators -- what's your explanation, if any, for why there's no equivalent effort on the left? Or, do you think that MoveOn/Kos/etc. are more-or-less parallel to Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Tea Party groups, but just don't get as much coverage from the explicitly neutral press?


  1. the majority of us don't currently believe our far-left candidates can win. I don't know if that's right or not, but I think it's the widely accepted reasoning behind why we accept moderation from our progressives and moderate politicians who we think can win.

  2. I think there are a number of contributing factors. Conservative groups are more likely to be well-financed than their liberal counterparts.

    But I think a big part of it is that for all the rhetoric conservatives like to spew about rugged individualism, the American right is highly prone to group think. Fox News and the Tea Party are two manifestations of this phenomenon. I think Grover Norquist is also regrettably correct when he argues that the conservative issues coalition is more cohesive and unified than the liberals.

    The flip-side of this is liberals tend to be more introspective and less like herd animals in their philosophical and tactical approach to politics. If the left-wing movement to nominate very liberal senators means being part of the Obama is a right-wing, imperialist, corporate shill school of thought, i personally want no part of it and would actively fight it.

    And as Brendan indicates above, in many parts of the country a candidate as left-wing a Rand Paul is right-wing simply wouldn't be viable in a general election. I sympathize with lefty primary challengers most in solidly blue states (Lamont v. Lieberman) or solidly red states where we're likely to lose anyway (Halter v. Lincoln). When the nominee looks like it can determine the outcome in the general, balancing the interests is much more difficult.

  3. I agree with Brendan - "liberal" is almost a dirty word in the political arena. While some regions can get away with very liberal Senators, I think the majority of Liberals recognize that they have to pick and choose their battles.

    I also think the far right movements that are occurring are a result of what conservatives view as a failure of conservative ideals of the Bush era, in particular in the Big Government department. No such failure of Liberal ideals has occurred yet that would drive Democrats to redefine their party.

  4. Kos, at least, is liberal but also unabashedly partisan; didn't DKos support Joe Manchin, even knowing full well that he will probably be well to the right of any Senate Dem in the last session?

    The contemporary left (other than the hopelessly marginalized) seems much more strategy-minded than the right. TapirBoy1 speaks for many. Lieberman drew a challenge because he was seen as to the right of his state - especially on Iraq - while Blanche Lincoln was seen as toast anyway.

    Even though the question is focused on the Senate, I think the recent left has been deeply marked by the 2000 presidential election, pretty much the nightmare scenario for 'challenges from the left.'

    I'll also speculate that liberals and Dems in general remain influenced by the 1 for 6 experience of the 1968-88 presidential elections. Dems held the House through the whole period, and the Senate for most of it, but GOP domination of the WH was seen as effectively pushing the country rightward, leaving Dems in a very defensive posture.

    If so, the psychology might be quite different after 2012. If Obama wins, Dems will have gone 3 for 6, and 4 for 6 in the popular vote, and the focus might shift from 'can we win elections?' to advancing an agenda.

  5. On the far left it appears that there is no real (cohesive, as others have suggested) constituency with as much at stake in organized politics as those on the right. The left is far more fractured than the right; between labor, environmental, and ethnic minority groups vying for the attention of policy, in such a way that it makes it more difficult to merge these constituencies into a permanent party base and force Democratic politicians to toe the line with regards to each of these three major interests. Social conservatism and economic conservatives seem to have a natural relationship: both are groups which seek to maintain the status quo either culturally or economically. That said, I think the views of the economic right are viewed as more "respectable" by the media, reporters, and a great deal of the public. It's acceptable by the mainstream press to advocate for cuts to Medicare, raising the retirement age for Social Security or reduction in benefits, and cuts to other social programs...In reality these are right-wing positions but the press has swallowed whole these ideas, and left-wing alternatives are not discussed or are rejected as being too left wing. Norquist et al are, after all, the business experts, entreprenuers; they speak with some natural credibility because of their business success.

  6. I don't think this is a particularly novel explanation, but the Democratic coalition is center-left, and the Republican coalition is simply right-wing. Particularly ideological candidates would alienate a substantial part of our coalition, and we've had to reach to the center (and even part of the center-right) just in order to be competitive.

    Now when the liberals were clearly dominant (in the sixties and seventies) you saw a lot of centrist Republicans. That time has--for this historical moment--passed.

    Now the root cause of THIS phenomonon is much more interesting to me. I think that conservatives have made their political case in a much more effective way, and the fact that the Republicans are more ideologically cohesive makes it a little harder for liberals to push back against conservative assertions.

    How this will play out in the coming few election cycles is very interesting to me. I think that Obama's talents as politician are vastly underrated by both sides, and he has shown some real adeptness since the midterm election that gives me hope that he is still working on building a larger and more cohesive coalition.

  7. Um, what?

    Did you miss that Ned Lamont challenge to Joe Lieberman 4 years before the teabaggers got all the attention? Jim Webb garnering all the online support over DLCer Harris Miller? Tester? And then in 2010, the effort to take out Blanche Lincoln?

    The reality is that most DC/NYC-based media types don't enjoy reporting on the liberal/progressive movement as much as they enjoy reporting on teabaggers, who they view as a freakshow but like to imbue with greater power than they have in the broader electorate (although, obviously, their ability to nominate loser Senate candidates can't be denied).

    Also, teabagger complaints about the lamestream media roll off most media types, who recognize the complaints are usually crazy. But many of them them don't enjoy covering the liberal/progressive movement as much because the criticisms leveled at the media from those circles usually hit much closer to home.

  8. I just found this blog - great concept.

    I think the media likes to frame elections as horse races and when a group is seen as an underdog or spoiler and gets a little traction, that group gets inordinate attention. Environmentalists and feminists got such attention in the 70s. But these counter culture figures now live next to Time and Times columnists in Georgetown. In the 90s, it seemed to be the Neo Libs/Cons who got the attention. Now, its the tea party, as many of the them (not the funders) are new to politics. Thus Dana's freak show.

    If true, this means the tea party types will get attention for several more years. In the meantime, the left and the middle may be too entrenched and the media too bored with them to get any spoiler status. Getting back to the question, the left then, needs to work on some astro turfing of its own to develop some real or supposed grass roots groups (e.g. Soccer Moms for Peace), or coming up with some kind of new movement, e.g. Constitutional Progressives to get back that media momentum.

  9. I think it has something to do with the long experience Dems have had with two phenomena: fantastically safe districts, and a diverse coalition.

    Speaker Sam had to allow members to vote their districts. But, by so doing, liberal Dems have a long history of observing their fellows win reelection with moderate (or even conservative) records. Thus, liberals are more tolerant of the different viewpoints because they've learned they have to accept them over a huge history.

    The overwhelmingly Democratic districts could also serve as a pressure valve. Members from Madison, Berkeley, San Fran and NYC (among many other places) give us Democrats essentially as liberal as possible in a 2-party system. Few Republican districts are anywhere near as solid, making outside groups more likely to not find the purity they desire.

    OK, that's my theoretical explanation. But, look at the knuckle-draggers that the GOP manages to nominate and elect. While I'm coming at this from the left, I still have to believe that Coburn is WAY further to the right than Waxman is to the left. I might be blinded, but am I wrong? If I'm not wrong, then my explanation really doesn't cut it. The theory doesn't quite seem to expain the data.

  10. @Tapirboy: the greater prevalence of primary challenges and intra-party divisions in the GOP, as contrasted with the stipulated willingness of rank and file Democrats to follow the recommendations of traditional elites, is not obviously evidence for the claim that Republicans have more of a herd mentality than Democrats ...

  11. @ the classicist -

    I argued that there are more intraparty divisions in the Democratic Party, not fewer. Nor do I accept your premise that "rank and file Democrats...follow the recommendations of traditional elites." Were that truly the case, Hilary Rodham Clinton would be President.

    By herd mentality, I meant that an inordinate number of Americans who describe themselves as "conservatives" simply repeat bromides and shibboleths learned on Fox News and elsewhere. See the recent article on Frum Forum on this topic. Much of American "conservatism" is really a nostalgic ultranationalism that can't be meaningfully described as conservative in a historical or philosophical sense.

  12. @tapirboy: Thanks for clarifying that you were talking about divisions over issues. I think you're right about that (although I think we liberals tend to overestimate the unity on the Republican side too). I agree too that there are plenty of people who call themselves "conservative" without much grounding in the writings of Burke and Hume and Bagehot, or whoever. If I hadn't spent my life in New York City and then a series of college towns, I might be more overwhelmed with their numbers. As it is, I'm pretty aware of the phenomenon of people who call themselves "liberal" but don't understand Mill or Rawls. They don't understand Hobbes and Nozick and how to argue with them, either. (Disclosure: I'm speaking as someone who graded a LOT of essays on these topics last term.) That's fine -- you don't, and shouldn't, have to be highly politically educated to have policy preferences or partisan identity. You're clearly right too that the Republicans have a more effective message machine than the Democrats, and that that makes a difference in the way people express their preferences. I just think your explanation in terms of financial interests is more likely to be fruitful than your explanation in terms of engrained personality traits.

  13. I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that a plurality of Democrats ideologically self-ID as moderates, and a plurality of Republicans self-ID as conservatives. With a few exceptions (e.g. Al Wynn in Maryland), there's just not enough of a base for a challenge that's explicitly framed in terms of "the incumbent isn't far enough left", even in relatively Dem-leaning House seats.


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