The Liberal Civil War

Americans who enjoy suffering enough to follow politics, have been treated to a slow-motion implosion by the various stakeholders on the left over the past several months. Robert Gibbs’ crude departure from the no-drama-Obama theme, via his ridiculous blast of the “professional left”, was the body of the iceberg reaching the hull of the ship. We have seen various tips of the iceberg for many moons; protests of every shape and demeanor, by actors in the progressive production, have grown in intensity. It would, perhaps, be clumsy hyperbole to suggest that this is the treatment Jackie Robinson would have received had he batted .250 and kicked the ball 30 times as a rookie.

Only the very naive would suggest that race and culture have nothing (or even very little) to do with the state of affairs in the progressive camp. That ghost safely out of the closet, I would say that the time-honored dysfunction of liberalism is the real villain. The simple fact is, we are witnessing a liberal civil war. That it coincides with rumbles, from conservatives, of a real civil war is noted and appreciated, but this war has been brewing for many decades. It is the natural result of a fractious constituency, quarreling ever over principle, lacking the stamina that less complicated belief systems have aplenty.

Both liberalism and conservatism have deep intellectual roots, but conservatives have the advantage of having willingly conceded some of those intellectual principles 4 decades ago. Led by Ronald Reagan, conservatives came together to fight a common enemy; those who weren’t conservative. Every political argument, Reagan and his people realized, could be traced (creatively) back to some dastardly enemy, either foreign or domestic. If two friends could differ over politics and still remain friends, the Reaganites realized, then there would never be enough emotion to crowd out the logic. Saint Ronny the Gipper enjoys the postumous status he does, because he created that common liberal enemy, and smoothed over the differences between conservative factions.

Liberals, progressives, and Democrats have never had that presence in their caucus. Had Bill Clinton matched his vast intelligence, ability to relate to common folks, and political savvy with any increment of morality, he might have been that figure. As it is, the camp on the left bank is as divided as it ever has been, and President Obama and an unprecedented House/Senate power-base are presently going to suffer because of that division. This Congress and this President have made real progress, against ruthless opposition and in 18 months, along an unprecedented number of progressive issues. Yet liberals and independents are unsatisfied, angry even, at both entities.

The why in this story is at once simple and painful. The liberal civil war is a product of two attributes of liberalism that conservatives have long pointed at, and liberals have long bristled against. A fundamental immaturity, and a missing ability to see a challenge through long periods of disappointment and crisis. These themes are present in today’s debate, but they are accompanied by a third, far more noble trait; the willingness, by the liberal grass roots, to put principles ahead of electoral strategy. It is for this reason that technocrats like Harry Reid, and even pragmatic activists like the President, often fall out of favor with the energized group that elect them.

Reagan united business conservatives, social conservatives, and civil libertarians under the banner of the Republican Party at a time when all three groups had little in common. Among liberal groups, union Democrats, environmental organizations, anti-poverty activists, peaceniks, LGBT groups, and corporate watchdogs all have agendas that they are quite unwilling to see below the top of the list. Health care reform is wonderful, but if you are working to pass legislation to arrest climate change before it is too late, it is reasonable to be impatient. That scenario is repeated up and down the list of organizations that elect Democrats, and is the major fuel that fires the engines of the grassroots.

The notion that departure from basic principles must be noted, is another driver of discontent within the ranks of the left. Conservatives are remarkable in their ability to close ranks around a politician when that individual has proven their conservative credentials. There is a long history of conservative pundits and writers running interference for policy and policy-makers when the world knew that something was amiss. If Barack Obama or the Congressional leadership steps out of line, or is less than fanatic in the prosecution of an agenda item, they can expect no such cover from the media or the netroots. They will be called out for their sins regardless of the very real effect that will have on coming elections.

Maybe honesty and the persistent admonishments to hold onto one’s principals are a positive, regardless of result. Perhaps this is a proverbial red badge of courage. To be wounded is to have proof of courageous participation. But this writer wonders what happens to progressive principles when the GOP retakes the House, trims the Senate majority, and brings a halt to any further progress. Would we not wish for just a few more legislative sessions with slower progress than we hoped? But this situation does not surprise me; it is the reason why, in a state that lets you make the choice, I never registered as a Democrat. The simple understanding that one needs to cling to the courage of their convictions, even while one looks for friends to stand against a common enemy. Liberals are fond of berating conservatives for their disdain of political compromise, but we too often turn away from the notion ourselves.

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2 Responses to “The Liberal Civil War”

  • Michael Chase says:

    While I appreciate your comments Michael, I think you missed the point of the article. As the author, I will take responsibility for that, but I will also take exception to your charge that I need to “get my facts straight”. We liberals are imploding at the moment, to deny that fact is to live in a world of fantasy. My point was that liberals should be thrilled at the progress that has been made by this Administration and Congress, and this Administration and Congress should be happy for regular engagement with an active netroots.

    Michael, neither is happening. The patience I refer to is council to progressives unhappy with the progress on subjects like Guantanamo and DADT. They should be happy with the health care bill (a bill, by the way, that I fought hard for in my own way). They should be happy about these things, but they instead complain that they do not go far enough.

    It isn’t pessimism I am displaying towards a group that would “benefit me”; it is a rebuke of a group of which I am part and parcel of. In report after report, progressive voters complain about a perceived lack of progress, and live that complaint with low voter excitement levels. These are the reports from “the planet I live on”.

    As for relevance my passionate friend…if the article or its author is not relevant, then why did you feel compelled to comment on it? Have a good day.

  • Michael Montgomery says:

    The progressive movement displays immaturity? Lacks patience?
    From what planet do you hail?

    The pessimism that you display toward the very movement that would benefit you is astounding! Articles like this one are part of the reason people get turned off about progressives. The differences between a progressive and a conservative are clear; progressives have compashion, they can think for themselves, and want fair and equal treatment for everyone! Conservatives are only interested in the preservation of their personal wealth and protecting the rich! They have no concern for the average person, who is struggling in today’s economy!
    As for patience, the Democrats passed the healthcare reform bill. We have been waiting for about 70 years for that!
    So, before you go and write an article about progressives that is demeaning toward there cause, get your facts straight. Just because you write an article, it does not mean that it is true, or even relevant.

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