From Blinded by the Right, in which he spoke of his experiences as a conservative “hit man,” to his work with Media Matters, David Brock has made us all aware of just how easy it is for those on the right to refract data through the prism of radical conservatism and watch it spread like wildfire from The Drudge Report and The American Spectator to the most cherished outlets of the “liberal media.” Every time the media (and even Democratic leaders, who often themselves become unwitting conduits for messages from the right) repeat the well-crafted, market-tested phrases constructed by a multi-billion dollar conservative messaging infrastructure--from “the war on terror” to “support our troops”--they are putting political capital into the piggybank of the Republican Party. (Both the media and prominent Democrats still too often repeat the phrase, “war on terror,” which conflates the battle against Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups with the Iraq War, and “support our troops,” which confounds concern for our men and women in uniform with support of their deployment to Iraq.)
A recent--and particularly insidious--case in point is an
idea that has spread from right-wing pundits to Democratic strategists and
prestigious media outlets: The notion of an unruly “liberal base” that is
pulling the Democratic Party hopelessly away from mainstream
For example, along with VoteVets, MoveOn.org has produced
some of the most powerful television ads over the last several years in support
of progressive positions, and they happened to have been well ahead of the
curve in opposing two of the most egregious political acts in modern American
history, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the rush to war in Iraq. Yet a
campaign by the right designed to deflect attention from the fiasco in
When Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell made outrageous statements that make MoveOn’s headline seem milquetoast by comparison (e.g., about gays and the ACLU causing everything from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina), the Republicans never considered censuring them. They simply waited until the storm blew over (if there even was a storm). But it didn’t take long for a flood of Republican officials and candidates (such as presidential contender Fred Thompson) to call for all Democratic candidates to return any money ever donated to them by the group.
Conservatives have good reason to want to brand MoveOn as part of the out-of-touch, blog-infested version of the liberal elite: As Fox News’s Major Garrett put it:
Here's a pop quiz on money in politics: Who gives more money to federal candidates, the National Rifle Association or MoveOn.org?
And it isn't even close.
In the last two election cycles, MoveOn.org Political Action Committee spent more than $58 million in pro-Democrat political advocacy, according to Federal Election Commission records.
These kinds of Republican branding efforts should be all too familiar to Democrats. It is no accident that the GOP has done everything possible to brand unions in the most unflattering terms and, since assuming control in Washington and in many state governments, to try to block workers from joining them. Why? Because unionized workers vote Democratic where their non-union counterparts are more likely to vote Republican, and unions have been among the largest contributors to Democratic campaign efforts. The same is true of the “trial lawyers” who became so tainted by the right that they had to change the name of their national trade association. Democrats have seen the same thing happen to the term “liberal” itself (which Democrats can no longer utter); to their only two-term first-couple since Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were accused of everything from illicit land deals to murdering close friends; to the effort to reform a health care system that Hillary Clinton (an oddly centrist front-runner for a party presumably being led astray by its liberal base) presciently recognized to be breaking down 15 years ago; to the “histrionic” rantings of Al Gore on global warming.
I should be clear that I do not write this as an apologist for the “radical left,” wherever they may be. I haven’t really seen many of them since my days in college in the late 1970s. Most Democrats I know have no idea that Tom Franks’ What’s the Matter with Kansas? is probably the most elegant description of Karl Marx’s concept of “false consciousness” written since Marx’s early writings. No one talks anymore about the “military-industrial complex” (although radicals like Dwight D. Eisenhower did). I would certainly not deny that one can find some “angry young men” and rebels without a cause (or rebels with a cause, probably displaced from their relationships with their fathers) among the ranks of liberal bloggers. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to find angry young, middle-aged, and old men among devotees of Rush Limbaugh, either.
But even if I wanted to write as an apologist for the unruly, radical, left-wing “base” of the Democratic Party, I would be a poor messenger for that apology. I have too much equity in my home, and appreciate too much both the medical discoveries and technological wonders that only entrepreneurship can produce. I wouldn't be a credible spokesman for any Lenin other than John. As a progressive son of the South, I also know what red clay looks like. And as far as I know, I was the only person to speak this year at the annual conventions of both the Democratic Leadership Council and the Yearly Kos--rendering me, I suppose, the only progressive ever to triangulate in his pajamas.
Thereality is that I can’t find either the moral or pragmatic grounds from which to condemn people who care about the most fundamental values that lie at the heart of contemporary progressive politics: That tolerance is a virtue, not a sign of moral decline; that national security, economic security for our families (what Roosevelt called “freedom from want”), and protection of the liberties generations of Americans have fought and died for are the first and most important jobs of government; that all Americans, regardless of their wealth, status, skin color, or sexual orientation, are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect and to have a fair chance at fulfilling their hopes and aspirations; that the open-minded pursuit of knowledge, the humble acknowledgement of what we don’t know, and the ability to live with the paradox that we can hold beliefs strongly but must tolerate others who hold opposing views are the essence of good citizenship, not bad character; that we have an obligation to leave to our children a nation--including our land, our water, our infrastructure, our standing in the world, our Constitution--stronger, richer, and healthier than the country our parents and grandparents left us; and that opportunity for every member of our community is all of our responsibility, just as personal responsibility is an obligation of every member of our community.
Those are the values of the “liberal base.” They are also the values of the progressive centrists I know. And those are precisely the values that are threatened when well-meaning journalists, pundits, or progressives succumb to the conservative spin machine’s branding of the out-of-control liberal base.
Consider a front-page news story published recently in The New York Times. The article provides an index of just how thoroughly the myth of the liberal basis has spread into the “liberal media,” and how even our most prestigious newspapers can find themselves, if unwittingly, pushing right-wing propaganda. The article described a situation faced by openly gay Congressman Barney Frank. Frank was taking some heat from members of the transgendered and transsexual communities for not including them in the Employment and Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination in the workplace against gays and lesbians but does not include the phrase "gender identity" or explicitly protect the “T” in “LGBT.” Why didn't it? Because it’s taken years to reach the point where most Americans believe gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against on the job, and it's time to settle that question once and for all. Martin Luther King similarly focused on voting rights first and put off challenging anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding “mixing of the races”) with his comment, “I want to be a white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.”
The problem with the Times article lay in the way the author used this case as if it were a prototypic example of the problem Democrats have with their unruly liberal base (as reflected in the article's title, "Liberal Base Proves Trying to Democrats") that is so far outside the mainstream of American society that its agenda includes transsexual bank tellers and an end to the Iraq War.
Wait, what was that juxtaposition?
Watch how the Times piece pivots from Frank’s plight with the transsexuals to the party’s plight with its fringe anti-war base:
There is almost no chance that President Bush would ever sign the bill. But the bitter tug of war between gay groups and one of their best friends on Capitol Hill is the latest example of how Democrats in Congress, since regaining majority control this year, have been torn between making compromises needed to pass legislation and satisfying the unrelenting demands of the party’s liberal base.
The tension between Democratic lawmakers and their base has been most visible on the Iraq war, where the insistence by some of the most outspoken antiwar groups on setting hard deadlines for the withdrawal of American troops has often handcuffed Senate Democrats trying to reach a bipartisan deal on legislation to change the war strategy.
The comparison to Iraq is deeply misleading, in two ways. First, there has been no bipartisan deal on the table. Sensing that Democrats would not push the envelope, Republicans have felt no reason to compromise, and until this point they haven’t needed to on Iraq. As a result, the standing of the Democratic Congress has dropped steadily since Americans overwhelmingly elected Democrats in 2006 to put an end to the war. Second, the struggle to include “gender identity” in the legislation on employment discrimination was the struggle of a distinct minority--a very particular, and particularly small, corner of the Democrats’ Big Tent. The desire to end the Iraq War, in contrast, is not the exclusive province of the “liberal base.” The latest Pew polls suggest that nearly 65 percent of Democrats--not just some unwashed group of liberal extremists--fault their leaders for not going far enough to challenge the president on his Iraq policy. And this is not just the view of Democrats, whether centrist or liberal: It is the view of the majority of the country. Among Independents, the Pew poll found that roughly half agree that the Democrats have been too weak in standing up to the President, compared with less than one-fifth who thinks they have been too confrontational.
The frustration with both the president’s policies in Iraq and the failure of the Democratic leadership to take on the president with more than rhetoric and symbolic votes is not a conflict between the leadership in Congress and the liberal base. It is a conflict between the Congress and the people who elected them. Having a bull-headed commander-in-chief has no doubt made things more difficult for those who favor a responsible withdrawal, which is what most Americans favor (i.e., a withdrawal guided by generals, not by political operatives calculating the effects of one plan or another--the kind of political calculations that led both to the war and to the grossly inadequate numbers of troops the Bush administration placed on the ground from the start).
But you don’t have to cut off funding of the war precipitously to end the war. Just make the president pay for it: Demand that he show the courage (and use that word, with all its military connotations) to tell us who the Republican Iraq War Tax Increase Act of 2007 will target to pay for this war, because right now it is being paid for by our children and grandchildren. (As a father of young children, that makes me mad as hell, and it would make most parents furious if someone would tell them who is financing this war.) The president wants to be the tax-and-spend liberal without the tax part? Demand that he put his money where his mouth is, and the war will be over faster than you can say “read my lips.”
As long as progressives and Democrats do not brand themselves effectively, they will succumb to the branding of the right, and they will fall into traps conservatives lay for them. Voters will continue to hear tales of a wild-haired anti-war fringe pulling the Democrats hopelessly to the left. Like, say, Jim Webb? Now there’s a hippie in Birkenstocks.
The only antidote to conservative branding is progressive branding. It is time to articulate a progressive vision.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is author of The Political Brain.
By Drew Westen