I’m in the middle (or hopefully, at the end) of a much more involved debate than I was expecting on Twitter with a fellow named Milt Shook, who operates a blog called, colorfully enough, Please…Cut the Crap. It’s on a topic that is bound to get a reaction from me: the question of whether progressives harm Democrats’ chances with centrists and other purported persuadables by criticizing the party’s standard bearers. He puts his case in a nutshell in the last graph of an article he calls “Stop Complaining About Dems. In 2014, Voters Will Still Only Have 2 Choices: Them or Disaster“:
Voters have two choices every November, and these days, the choice is between competence and disaster. When you trash “the Democrats” mercilessly, the Republicans gain. And if you don’t think we lose when Republicans gain, then you haven’t been paying attention. And we cannot allow 2014 to become just like 2010. We really can’t afford it.
Shook’s central point, it seems to me, is that the system may be severely flawed, but it’s the only one we have, therefore, progressives need to make peace with that and work with the one of only two (face it) parties most closely resembling (vaguely) a progressive one. Here’s how he puts it himself a the beginning of this post:
I know many of the people who read this blog would love to see a “third party” pop up. Unfortunately, our system is built in such a way that all a third party does is weaken one of the other two. This is why the progressive movement keeps failing; we keep hoping for things that can’t happen, and we look down on those things that can happen.
It’s important for everyone to realize that elections are the most important element in a democratic republic. They are the linchpin for everything. Marching and occupying is not, in itself, an expression of democracy. If such activism is not followed by effective campaign strategy that puts the best available people in office every single time, then it’s pretty much worthless.
That phrase is key. The BEST AVAILABLE candidate. In a democracy as diverse as ours, the best available candidate will almost never be far left, unless he or she represents a full-on left district. Sorry.
We might call Shook a “good-enough” progressive (since he identifies himself as a progressive and not a moderate–we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt). He sees the same rickety representative democracy we all see, the same crappy candidates, the same ineffectual institutions; but unlike his fellow lefties, he knows there’s no use breathing even a word of complaint against any of it (except the part to the left of him, perhaps). You might as well complain against the weather or our impending deaths. It’s written before we’re here. It’ll be here after we go. Roll with it, Henry.
It seems reasonable to ask Shook why he bothers to complain about progressives complaining about Democrats. Hasn’t that been going on (in some form or other) since the dawn of American political time as well? I think our friend Shook is concerned that we’re due for a repeat of 2010, which, I’ve just had confirmed by him on Twitter, he believes was “100%” the fault of progressives rather than of any given Democrat:
I was a progressive working for a Dem in GOP district. I blame progs 100% for 2010.— Milt Shook (@MiltShook) April 16, 2013
Shook’s argument reminds me of a debate I had with ex-Democratic Hillary Clinton supporters about the efficacy of Occupy Wall Street late in 2011. He would agree with them that Occupy was a waste of time and a distraction from the serious work that could be done only within the electoral system as is. Oddly enough, these same disaffected raging middle-of-the-roaders were not turned off by the critique of the Democratic Party by radicals of the left. They were turned off by the Democratic Party itself, which they believed had unjustly–even ruthlessly–bootedthe rightful heir to the nomination in favor of a flavor of the month. They spent the four years of Obama’s first term bellyaching to each other and anyone who accidentally fell in the path of their invective about how robbed Hillary was and how certain they were Obama and the Democrats would pay for their sins with losses at the polls. Turns out they were partly right in 2010. I doubt, however, that they were right about Obama and the Dems paying for the perfidy of primary season 2008.
On that Shook and I probably agree. But of course where Shook blames progressives for fucking things up for the Dems, I can’t help believing the Dems blew the opportunity of their first two years of legislative and executive control all on their own. They passed lots of legislation, sure, including a stingy stimulus and the insurance lobby-friendly Affordable Care Act, but they allowed Republicans to get back on their wobbly feet and define a disheartening proportion of both of those debates. They made a mockery of Obama’s Nobel peace prize (remember that?) in short order by reneging on his promise to close Guantanamo and speed the end of the war (which was ended in 2012 according to Bush’s timetable), then turned around and tried a surge of military manpower of their own in Afghanistan (not to mention Libya). Worse, they took up the Bush-era proclivity for opacity on the government’s methods in the “global war on terror” and to its drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen with a surprising vengeance. And we won’t even touch the Democrats’ having to be led by their noses by outside activists on gay marriage and immigration reform. If all this was supposed to rouse the progressive troops to the Democratic cause in the midterms against the motivated hordes of tea partiers, it didn’t work out that way.
Shook and those who think like him may want to believe that progressives should feel they owe something to the Democrats, but I can’t imagine what they think that debt might entail. I seem to remember a history of broken promises from the party that became standard operating procedure in the wake of Reagan Republicanism. The national candidates might talk a big game about the legacy of the New Deal and civil rights to the voters they hoped to count on, all the while studiously avoiding the appearance of liberalism to the public at large. Once in office, they would commence to yielding and compromising and making small gestures with grand rhetoric, building their legacies on tearing down the New Deal piecemeal, removing the Glass-Steagall protections against predatory banking and ending welfare as we know it. The era of big government was over, President Clinton proudly declared .
And now our present audacious Democrat in chief is making clear his intentions, before he has even the slightest indication of reciprocal compromise on the other side, to make seniors pay for the banks’ sins against the national pocket book by chaining the Social Security cost of living increase to a more miserly index. And having moved the bar that far at the beginning of the bargain, who knows how much further he’ll be willing to move the line? This treachery against real leftist or liberal principle was sold to us as the best we could hope for, a phrase echoed in Mr. Shook’s angry straight talk to wayward lefties. Yes, it’s a retreat, but just imagine how much more of a retreat it would be with a Republican in the White House!
Two parties can never do justice to the diversity of thought in a polity. By restricting virtually all dialogue to false either/or, win/lose dichotomies, they can only ossify the division between the powerful and the people. The actions of a bipartisan oligarchy are necessarily restricted to a very limited palette, the colors of which the ruling class chooses. Thus, we wind up with “health care reform” lacking a strong public option, despite such being very popular among the voters. Robust publicly funded health care, let alone a single payer system, is ruled out out of hand by the leader of the allegedly “progressive” half of the oligarchy.
That should tell us all we need to know about the sensitivity of the system that Shook wants us not to criticize lest we scare persuadables from the Demo-camp.