Things I learned today about democracy

Challenging incumbents in elections is deeply anti-democratic. Only an ideologically dogmatic purist -- a Stalinist, basically -- would do something like that.


Glenn Greenwald
July 29, 2008 6:31PM (UTC)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Here's what I learned today about democracy and ideology as a result of my debate with Ed Kilgore and having read the comments to the piece I wrote about targeting Blue Dogs:

  • If you believe in the Fourth Amendment, an end to the Iraq War, the rule of law for government and corporate criminals, a ban on torture, Congressional approval before the President can attack Iran, and the preservation of habeas corpus rights, then you're a fringe, dogmatic Far Leftist ideologue, the kind who ruined the Democratic Party in 1968 and wants to do so again.
  • Even though the country is overwhelmingly against the Iraq War and intensely dislikes George Bush, it's necessary for Congressional Democrats to support the Iraq War and accommodate George Bush’s demands so that they can remain popular and be re-elected.
  • If you oppose politicians who support laws that you think are destructive and wrong, then you're an intolerant purist who hates dissent and doesn't believe in democracy.
  • If you try to defeat in elections those politicians who support the things you don't believe in, then you're similar to -- basically the same as -- Nazis and Stalinists, because targeting politicians for electoral defeat who espouse views that you think are wrong is comparable to murdering political dissidents and requiring purity of thought.
  • Recruiting primary challengers to run against Democratic incumbents -- and running ads to inform voters of what their Representatives are doing in Congress -- is anti-democratic in the extreme.
  • Being a Good Democrat means embracing, welcoming and supporting members of Congress who support unnecessary wars, the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment, the abolition of habeas corpus, the use of torture, and protections for lawbreakers -- as long as they place a "D" after their name when voting for those things.
  • Blind, uncritical allegiance to one's Party -- and to all of its officials -- is the defining attribute of a tolerant, enlightened, and savvy progressive, and is the very heart of a healthy democracy. Those who diverge from absolute Party loyalty are Stalinists.
  • Congressional incumbents in the U.S. are re-elected at rates that even Brezhnev-era Politburo officials would envy [Center for Responsive Politics]:


    Those who want to change those statistics by finding ways to undermine and defeat incumbents are disruptive purists who are just like Communists.
  • What destroyed the GOP over the last eight years wasn't their support for radical policies, disastrous wars justified by deceit, pervasive corruption, the destruction of the Constitution, or their extreme mismanagement of the economy. Rather, what destroyed the GOP was simply their demand that their officeholders support the party's core political values. Therefore, those who want to elect Democrats who support the party's value system are indistinguishable from the Republicans of the last eight years.
  • The way for Democrats to be different than the Republicans is to keep supporting and returning to Congress all of the Democratic incumbents who support the GOP's most extreme policies.
  • Between these two options -- (a) dissatisfaction with the status quo combined with no suggestions whatsoever for changing it and (b) dissatisfaction with the status quo combined with imperfect suggestions for changing it -- option (a) is clearly the superior posture, both morally and intellectually.
  • Even though -- as I documented in the very first paragraph of my piece -- Congress has record low disapproval ratings and is held in strong contempt across the entire political spectrum, including overwhelmingly among Democrats, the idea that Congress is doing a bad job and things should be drastically changed is just a fringe view that is only held by dogmatic Leftists in the twisted enclaves of San Francisco, New York and Provincetown.
  • Even though -- as I documented in my very first paragraph -- Congress has record low approval ratings and, rather remarkably, is even more unpopular among Democrats than Republicans, there is nothing unusual about any of this at all. It's just the normal state of things.
  • Democrats in Congress have repeatedly capitulated to the Right and supported extremist and draconian legislation. The solution to this problem is to keep supporting the Democrats who are responsible for that. If you just keep doing the same thing over and over, eventually you'll get different results.
  • An election year is not the time to try to provoke debate about political issues.
  • The 2006 election wasn't the time to reform the Democratic Party because taking control of Congress was too important a goal to jeopardize with fixation on issues.

    The 2008 election is not the time to reform the Democratic Party because electing Obama is too important a goal to jeopardize with fixation on issues.

    The 2010 election won't be the time to reform the Democratic Party because keeping and expanding the Democratic majority in Congress for Obama will be too important a goal to jeopardize with fixation on issues.

    The 2012 election won't be the time to reform the Democratic Party because re-electing Obama will be too important a goal to jeopardize with fixation on issues.

    Come back in 2014 with your Purist Fixation on "Issues" -- all this nattering about the Constitution and war and habeas corpus and torture and all of that irritating ideological purist garbage -- and maybe then they'll be some time to worry about all that (though that's doubtful, since there will be a Really Important Midterm Election in 2014 that will determine who will control Congress for Obama's last two years in office, and keeping Democratic control of Congress will almost certainly be too important a goal to jeopardize with some purist fixation on issues.).

In fairness, this is more or less the conventional wisdom of the Beltway class. In 2006, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait denounced Democrats who were trying to defeat the pro-war, pro-Bush and now pro-McCain Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary as "a pack of crazed, ignorant ideological cannibals" -- "exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s." How dare those radicals try to remove from office a distinguished Democratic leader -- due to petty purity issues like his support for a destructive war and a constant enabling of a Far Right radical agenda. Crazed, ignorant ideological cannibals. How can the Democratic Party thrive unless it warmly welcomes its Joe Liebermans?

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Even with 95% re-election rates (in bad years), the political class has actually succeeded in training a huge bulk of citizens to believe there is something deeply disruptive, radical, even anti-democratic about daring to challenge incumbents in elections. That the political class would want to inculcate people with zombie-like allegiance to Party and to incumbent rulers isn't surprising; it's natural. What is surprising, and more than a little disturbing, is how enthusiastically our citizenry has embraced this premise.

Now, even among a sizable portion of Democrats, the enemies aren't those in Congress who support wars, torture, or the evisceration of core Constitutional liberties. The enemies are those who are so audacious and shrill that they want to campaign against those individuals in an effort to bring about a situation where there's at least one political party in this country opposed to such extremism. Hence: primary challenges are anti-Democratic. Campaigning against incumbents is Stalinist. Opposition to war and torture are the hallmarks of Far Left purists. Blind Party allegiance is the essence of tolerant, shrewd progressivism.

UPDATE: Fairness compels me to note that not everyone is unhappy with the Democratic Congressional leadership. For instance, Jennifer Rubin of Norman Podhoretz's ultimate neocon magazine, Commentary, thinks they're doing exactly what they ought to be doing. Just as I indicated, Republicans often approve of the job the Democratic Congress is doing even more than Democrats do, and Rubin's praise of Rahm Emanuel's conduct is illustrative of that dynamic. Anyone wanting to defend the Democratic Congressional leadership needs to explain that perverse polling data. If Congressional Democrats are merely catering to the storied Mainstream, Heartland Democrats, why are they so deeply unpopular among Democrats as a whole -- while receiving praise from the likes of Commentary warmongers?

Rubin also claims that my arguments regarding public opinion are unaccompanied by polling data. That's false. I linked to polls in the piece I wrote regarding Americans' view of Congress and the reasons for it. Only in the further fringe neocon precincts is it still in dispute whether Americans want the war in Iraq to end, but for those wishing to see data on these questions, see -- for starters -- here and here (Americans overwhelmingly in favor of unconditional withdraw from Iraq); here, here, here (.pdf), here, and here (Americans oppose warrantless eavesdropping, telecom immunity, believe Bush broke the law and favored having him censured); and here and here (Americans want investigations of the Bush administration, more Congressional control over war policies and the equal application of the rule of law for Bush officials who commit crimes).

UPDATE II: To clarify, not all of the points I address here are ones advanced by Kilgore. Many of the points here are not ones he raised, particularly the first half or so. As I indicated, I was addressing the points I had seen not only in Kilgore's response, but also from reader comments and elsewhere, including in the Reason and Commentary responses to which I linked above.

UPDATE III: Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, The American Conservative's Daniel Larison -- who has observed the same Party-allegiance demands from Republicans that are made by some Democrats (i.e.: "support every one of our Party's candidates no matter how radically they deviate from your political values, and if you refuse, then you're a disruptive, counter-productive purist and a Bad, Disloyal Conservative") -- makes some additional persuasive points on this topic.


Glenn Greenwald

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