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Progressives Cannot Win on Ignorance

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by Brien Jackson

Obviously I’ve been a fairly big critic of the crowd at Open Left, particularly David Sirota, even to the point that I’m banned from the site. Thankfully, Sirota (and Chris Bowers) provide enough material to justify the criticism fairly regularly, and today is no different. In fact, I think Sirota has done me the favor of encapsulating every reason I think he and his ilk are dangerous for the Democratic Party and the progressive movement in the long term in one post. Namely, Sirota doesn’t like “equivocators:”

After dealing with the death penalty as a longtime District Attorney and then gubernatorial candidate, [Colorado Gov. Bill] Ritter is nonetheless saying that he hasn’t decided whether he will veto a bill repealing Colorado’s death penalty if it is approved by the state legislature. Considering Ritter’s experience and the prevalence of death penalty debates in politics, it’s simply inappropriate for him to say he hasn’t made up his mind on the issue[…]

As has been discussed ad nauseum, Americans are far more prone to electorally reward politicians who take clear positions, rather than politicians who try to avoid taking clear positions out of fear. This is true even on issues that voters may not agree with the politician on. Why? Because we like to elect people who we believe have their own belief system and principles, not people who we believe take given positions only to get reelected. That is, we like to elect people who we see as principled leaders who are seeking public office out of a sense of mission for their principles, rather than people whose only goal is to be in public office, and have no principles.

Of course, Sirota sees a situation where a left-of-center politician doesn’t reflexively take the Sirota position and immediately assumes there must be some malevolent reason for it. It’s entirely possible, of course, that Ritter is trying to avoid taking a controversial position (he is, after all, a politician, and the death penalty, however misguided, does remain relatively popular with the public at large), but at the same time, it’s also possible that Ritter really doesn’t have a hard and fast opinion on it, because not everyone functions the way a talk radio host or syndicated columnist does. That is to say, there actually are questions and issues that are difficult to sort out, with trade-offs replacing ideological certainty for most people. But, ironically enough, I actually agree with Sirota’s second point; people do prefer to vote for self-assured, reflexively certain, politicians. Whether or not it’s for the reasons Sirota outlines I’m not sure, but I’m also not really sure that that’s important. The difference, as I see it, is that I think that that fact is a bad thing, and that progressives should be investing their energy in changing it, not embracing the worst aspects of American polity.

Let’s be clear, this sort of preference for ideological self-assuredness (and self-justification) is exactly what the modern Republican Party feeds off of. They may not be right about much of anything, they may not know much of anything, and they may play to base ignorance as a rule, but modern conservatives are certainly sure of their convictions. I suppose progressives could be too, but as I’ve said with many other things Sirota has advocated, I don’t see how Democrats could possibly compete with Republicans at this level. Put simply, conservative positions just sound better than liberal positions when boiled down to a bumper sticker level, and when appeals must be made to the natural wisdom of home spun ‘Murikan folksiness. This is where conservative positions (tax cuts! WAR! Europe! Founding Fathers! Family values! The gay!) are at their most appealing. It’s only when you start gaming out their misconceptions and implications that they really start to unravel. Sirota is, if nothing else, arguing that progressives should compete with conservatives on the right’s best footing. It’s akin to arguing that the way to beat the New England Patriots isn’t really to run the ball and maintain control of the clock, keeping Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and company off of the field as much as possible, but rather to throw deep every play, attempting to outscore them in a shoot out. It’s just crazy like that.

What Sirota is arguing, in effect, is that progressives need to adopt a Sean Hannity strategy to politics. Everything is reflexive, complex public policy decisions become boiled down to dogmatic checklists of orthodox positions, axioms and catechisms take the place of thinking. And the reason for that is pretty simple; like Hannity, David Sirota just isn’t that smart. If progressivism embraces the idea that these issues are complex, that nuance is called for in sorting them out, and that every decision will have trade-offs that need to be considered and accounted for beforehand, then there’s no place for Sirota at the table, because he’s just not intelligent enough for those sorts of discussions. You would never, for example, see Sirota pondering whether or not EFCA might be workable for Labor without card check provisions, and whether dropping those provisions to pass the bill might not be a good, workable, idea. Instead, you get him calling for progressives to help Republicans defeat the Democratic Senate Leader if he can’t find a way to miraculously make every Democratic Senator in a 58-60 member caucus vote exactly the way David Sirota wants them too.

Sirota is the Democratic version of the conservatives trying to argue that the Republican Party is demonstrably better off, in the short run, for Arlen Specter’s defection, and would be even better off if Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins would follow him. Thankfully, Sirota remains a small, fringe voice in the Democratic coalition. Hopefully, he stays that way.


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