Monthly Archives: March 2008

Joining the Elite: Writing for Fact-esque

When Kyle asked me to abandon Comments from Left Field, eRobin jumped into the vacuum and filled it by inviting me to join her very well-known efforts at the high-profile Fact-esque. I accepted with alacrity and have been posting like a madman there ever since, swathed in tears of joy.

Well, maybe not actual tears, but there was a definite sniff and a potential shiver of excitement that didn’t develop only because I was focused on devouring a Mars bar I found in an old suit.

Dump the Dems will remain here since this is where it started but for the nonce, everything else will be there since hers is a site that will comfortably ensconce everything from political tomfoolery to Trenches-like economic and labor news. See you there.

Me and Rob is a two-fer you don’t want to miss. Such a deal.

Dump the Dems 3b: Conviction v. Pragmatism

The other thing that Thomas Nephew’s post about his encounter with Eric Alterman throws into sharp relief comes from his commenters. It is the old tension between pragmatic compromise and ideological purity.

Put another way, when does the need to be elected in order to pursue your agenda cross the line into cowardice and/or philosophical emptiness? When does pragmatism turn into win-at-any-cost vapidness? IOW, where exactly is the dividing line between a Paul Wellstone and a Mitt Romney? And is there any room at all for principles? Alterman – and a great many other so-called liberals in the Democratic party – think not.

You know I have a lot of trouble thinking of any principles that I hold more dearly than defeating George Bush in 2000 (2008?) , in the election … [audience laughter] seriously! I think that principles are a form of vanity. Of moral vanity. I think principles are a very useful teaching method for children. I think… but… I have two problems with principles. One is that whatever principle you have I have a competing principle for the same situation. So when you say I’m doing this on principle I can tell you “but there’s another principle that’s at work in the same situation and you’re violating that principle.” So I think principles are what people do instead of making difficult decisions.

(emphasis in the original)

Maybe. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe pragmatism is a way to avoid the certain pain of sticking to difficult principles, principles you believe in but which may make being elected problematic.

I’m not going to discount the nerve, even the courage it takes for a committed believer to compromise his/her beliefs in order to affect a world which will leave him/her out if s/he doesn’t. But otoh, we’re now looking at a situation in the Democratic party where compromise – some say “surrender” – has gone so far that it’s hard to say what the Donkeys stand for any more or even if – like Romney – they can be said to stand for anything at all.

That isn’t a question Alterman or those like him want to discuss. Here’s Paul from Nephew’s comments section:

Thomas, I think you’ve happened upon the tension that occurs between the idealist and the pragmatist.

Alterman is a political opportunist. He’s more concerned with helping his Party obtain more power and influence than achieving goals based on ideals or principles. You may find he and his kind distasteful (as do I on more than a few occasions), but they are a necessary component of the system.

You are an idealist, who believes that the Party should use its power to push through social justice programs for the betterment of the country.

Nell disagrees.

Paul, you’re oversimplifying to the point of condescension about idealists and pragmatists. And you’re also underestimating Thomas’ pragmatism, which his response and many past posts demonstrate.

Exactly. Mr Nephew has been far more willing to compromise than I have been and I’m nothing if not a pragmatist. The difference between the Alterman/Paul school and the Nephew/Nell school is the difference between a group for whom, just as Eric said, defeating George Bush is more important than anything else, and a group that believes it’s just as and perhaps far more important to prosecute accountability in order to prevent a repitition of the Bush/Cheney lawlessness.

But it goes beyond that, even. Defeating Bush is all very well and certainly important for the country. Yet as critical as that victory is, its importance does not allow us to duck the prime question:

And replace him with…what?

Even if we accept the connected propositions that a) defeating Bush is the Prime Directive and b) defeating Bush requires adopting GOP initiatives – which I hasten to say I don’t accept and neither does Thomas or Glenn Greenwald or any number of other lefties who’ve spoken up since the ’06 election who think exactly the opposite – even if you accept that duality, you’re forced to ask what difference it really makes if his replacement is just going to go on pursuing the Bush Agenda or, at a maximum, refuse to undo the damage that has been done so far.

Democrats and liberals have all too plainly been counting on a win in 2008, and have dealt away much of their honor and self-respect in the process of waiting for that blessed event — which may not come. But even if there is a President Obama or a President Clinton next January 10, the value of that victory has already been tarnished by their party’s — and its apologists — craven refusal to hold the most powerful lawbreaker and political criminal in the land to account.

Mr Nephew is convinced – he and Paul have at least this in common – that the Democratic refusal to stop the war, the spying, the torture, and the destruction of the economy that have been hallmarks of the Bush Regime is some sort of campaign strategy that they will jettison once the election is over and the White House is theirs. Far from being too idealistic, Mr Nephew is arguing that the Democrats are chasing the wrong strategy, that unprincipled surrender is a losing strategy.

In point of fact, it’s much more likely that the Democratic refusal to oppiose George Bush has much less to do with winning the election (as Greenwald pointed out months ago, the numbers suggest their willingness to roll over for the Bushies has badly hurt them in opinion polls, thus actually making it harder for them to win the longer they are seen as Bush enablers) than it has with the strong and demonstrable possibility that the Democratic party has been so focused on its need to WIN that it has become poisoned by its own obsession, infected by Republican success with the They’re Right/We’re Wrong Virus. If that’s the case, then they have chosen deflect a base uncomfortable with their new “principles” by using the win-at-any-cost excuse.

And much of the base is buying it.

There’s a legitimate argument here but those of us willing to have it must be just as willing to go all the way to the ultimate questions:

What has the Democratic party become since it was taken over by the neo-liberal New Democrats in the late 80’s?


Do they deserve to win? Are we really going to be any better off with a party that has grown used to making excuses for torture, supporting govt spying, prosecuting an illegal war, and abetting the growth of imperial powers in the presidency as if they aren’t worth worrying about?

Dump the Dems 3a: The Conundrum

I’m going to take a short breather from attacking the Democratic leadership in order to steer you toward a post at Thomas Nephew’s excellent newsrack blog wherein he recounts a recent and somewhat disappointing encounter with Eric Alterman. I do this because between the encounter itself and a few readers’ responses to it, the post pretty much lays out in a nutshell the conundrum facing liberals and progressives when trying to deal with the Dems or trying to decide if they’ve really sold out to corporations, or if it’s all some sort of “strategy” to roll over to the Bush Gang and yelp, “Please, sir, may I have another?” to the man with the whip in the apparent hope that people will feel sorry enough for them to vote Blue in ’08.

The post is titled “Why We’re Liberals” because that’s the name of Alterman’s new book, but it’s also the central question Nephew finds himself asking after a question about impeachment draws this response from Eric. 

In the question and answer session, Alterman was asked about impeachment — and he kind of went off on the guy, comparing impeachment advocates to Nader supporters in 2000, allegedly blind to the consequences of their actions, indirectly complicit in the disasters that followed.

So I joined the short line of questioners, and wound up being the last one. I asked where he saw the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution in his definition of liberalism; in the tension between adhering to principles and focusing on winning the next election, where were the bright lines Alterman was willing to draw to say “this far and no further”, regardless of the cost?

Alterman, as Thomas pointed out later in response to a comment, is “an ally who is great at skewering the right” and has “earned a lot of respect over the years.” The fact that he has accepted the wholesale Democratic surrender of the last few years and defends it despite its manifest abandonment of core liberal values is precisely the dilemma that faces us. How can liberals continue, as Alterman does, to support a political party that no longer seems at all interested in liberal values?

Thomas put the question on himself.

Because, I told him, his answer to the first questioner had me thinking, ‘maybe I’m not a liberal after all.’

But Eric’s answer makes it perfectly plain that Thomas has the question backwards: it isn’t he who isn’t the liberal, it’s the Democratic Party.

So…he sort of squared up and said that to him principles were a form of moral vanity….

(emphasis added)

Principles are a form of vanity?? Really, Eric?

That is precisely the kind of so-called “pragmatic” sophistry that’s been running the Dems since Carter lost to Reagan. Whether he knows it or not, Alterman is aligning himself with the very people who have dumped overboard everything he claims to believe in, and that’s OK with him if it means winning. Anything else is “vanity”.

This actually supports my notion that the Democrats have been so infected by the GOP’s conservative propaganda that they actually believe most of it, making them, as I’ve said many times, little better than Republicans-Lite. If someone as “acute an observer” as him can be buffaloed into abandoning all his principles in favor of a conservative-skewed New Dem “pragmatism”, what can be left of the party we used to know?

Thomas puts it beautifully:

That’s funny, though, because to me that particular principle — rule of law, or “playing by the rules” in 90s Democratic vernacular — is a core liberal value and is not some kind of luxury item we can do without in tough times. Without it, the little guy has no recourse against the high and mighty, whether they’re government officials or CEOs. To me liberalism, plainly put, is saying the little guy should always have a chance to get his grievance heard and to be made whole, and that there’s a public sphere where the big guy with lawyers, guns and money can’t expect to win.

And it seems self-evident to me that that credo starts at the top; the measure of a country isn’t just how it treats its weakest members, but the standards it applies to its most powerful ones. We are plainly failing both tests; I think it’s a single test, and that those failures go hand in hand.


[The Democratic Party] has to all appearances been running a two year stall, a political “four corners” drill running out the clock to an anticipated win in 2008 — a strategy that may not be as clever as its authors thought. Late feints notwithstanding, it has effectively stood by — both before and after 2006 — and let the corruption of the Justice Department go unpunished; it has allowed the Bush administration to play semantic games about the meaning of torture and whether waterboarding fits the definition; it’s doing its level best to find as much as possible about warrantless surveillance to be legal after all — and it’s done nothing meaningful whatsoever to get out of a war built on lies that a majority of us (and a vast majority of self-described liberals) considers to be a disastrous mistake. If that’s liberalism, I want off.

(emphasis added)

So wouldn’t we all. But it isn’t liberalism, that’s the point I’ve been trying to make for months. Thomas is making it for me through classic liberal Alterman: THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY IS NOT LIBERAL. It doesn’t support liberal beliefs or fight for liberal causes, so how can liberals support it?

Black Humor Is Where You Find It (no pun intended)


This is, well, amusing, n’est-ce pas?

“We are going to do an investigation through the inspector general, who will get to the bottom of it and make certain that nothing more was going on,” Rice told reporters. She added that she told Obama “that I myself would be very disturbed if I learned that somebody had looked into my passport file.”

Yet it doesn’t bother her to be at a high level in an administration that has made spying into Americans’ every word and action an article of faith and not questionable (or else you’re not a patriot but an Al Qaeda sympathizer).

Come on. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

A New Low: 31

Yes, I’m talking about George. The 1/3’s worth of dead-enders just shrunk.

CNN: 31% approval rating.

Hillary’s “Family”

I’ve occasionally been asked why I don’t seem to go after Hillary with the same frequency or consistency as Obama. The primary answer is that as far as I’m concerned, Hillary is a foregone conclusion. There’s no more need to cover her than to cover Bill Richardson: she isn’t going to win.

The second reason is pointlessness. Hillaryites refuse to listen to anything negative about her, especially if it happens to be true. Trying to tell a Hillaryite something as obvious as the fact that she’s a conservative is like trying to convince a concrete block to do jumping jacks.

But the third reason is the one that concerns me today: everybody else (non-Hillaryites) go after her. When you criticize Hillary, you join a brigade from all sides of the spectrum doing likewise. It’s a crowded field. Still, occasionally there’s a reason: something important is being ignored. Today I was reminded of that something by Talk to Action’s Fred Clarkson.

In the wake of the controversy over Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Barbara Erenreich, writing at The Nation, thinks it is only fair and reasonable to ask Hillary Clinton about her relationship with Doug Coe, the controversial leader of The Family, and for that matter, The Family itself.

Barbara’s right, as usual. It’s more than fair, it’s about time. Jeff Sharlet wrote about that relationship in Mother Jones last fall. I remember intending to write about it then but got sidetracked by something else. Given the attacks on BO and Hillary’s sainthood in the eyes of too many Democrats, it’s time this got more of the attention it deserves.

The usual critical take on Hillary – and it’s accurate as far as it goes – is that she’s power-hungry, a bit of a Mitt Romney-type who will say anything to get elected. Generally, that’s probably true but as Sharlet points out in MJ, there’s more going on than that.

Clinton’s God talk is more complicated—and more deeply rooted—than either fans or foes would have it, a revelation not just of her determination to out-Jesus the gop, but of the powerful religious strand in her own politics. Over the past year, we’ve interviewed dozens of Clinton’s friends, mentors, and pastors about her faith, her politics, and how each shapes the other. And while media reports tend to characterize Clinton’s subtle recalibration of tone and style as part of the Democrats’ broader move to recapture the terrain of “moral values,” those who know her say there’s far more to it than that.

Through all of her years in Washington, Clinton has been an active participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the Fellowship. Her collaborations with right-wingers such as Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) grow in part from that connection. “A lot of evangelicals would see that as just cynical exploitation,” says the Reverend Rob Schenck, a former leader of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who now ministers to decision makers in Washington. “I don’t….there is a real good that is infected in people when they are around Jesus talk, and open Bibles, and prayer.”

A lot of political good, the critics would respond. But there’s a weight of personal history here. As far back as high school, Hillary was flirting with conservatism and right-wing religion as the result of her friendship with a 30-yr-old minister named Don Jones.

Under Jones’ mentorship, Clinton learned about Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich—thinkers whom liberals consider their own, but whom young Hillary Rodham encountered as theological conservatives. The Niebuhr she studied was a cold warrior, dismissive of the progressive politics of his earlier writing. “He’d thought that once we were unionized, the kingdom of God would be ushered in,” Jones explains. “But the effect of those two world wars and the violence that they produced shook his faith in liberal theology. He came to believe that the achievement of justice meant a clear understanding of the limitations of the human condition.” Tillich, whose sermon on grace Clinton turned to during the Lewinsky scandal, today enjoys a following among conservatives for revising the social gospel—the notion that Christians are to improve humanity’s lot here on earth by fighting poverty, inequality, and exploitation—to emphasize individual redemption instead of activism.

Niebuhr and Tillich’s combination of aggressiveness in foreign affairs and limited domestic ambition naturally led Clinton toward the gop. She was a Goldwater Girl who, under the tutelage of her high school history teacher Paul Carlson (whom Jones describes as “to the right of the John Birchers”), attended biweekly anticommunist meetings and later served as president of Wellesley’s Young Republicans chapter. Out of step with the era’s radicalism, Clinton wrote Jones from college, lamenting that her fellow students didn’t believe that one could be “a mind conservative and a heart liberal.” To Jones, this question indicated that Clinton shared Niebuhr’s notion of Christians needing to have “a dark enough view of life that they can be realistic about what’s possible.”

She may have lamented her compadres‘ lack of belief but it’s understandable given that Hillary was forcing a reconciliation between two opposing belief sets, thus violating each and proving pretty convincingly that she didn’t understand either. Hillary, to put it bluntly, wanted it all, iow she was a “compassionate conservative” long before Karl Rove came along to build a campaign on that lie. The difference between them, of course, is that Karl knew it was a lie. Hillary is so dumb she believes it to be possible to this day despite all available evidence to the contrary. Including her own husband’s version.

Eessentially what “compassionate conservatives” end up doing is pursuing conservative agendas while talking like compassionate liberals. Bill would make us feel like he had great empathy for the poor just before he “reformed” welfare and threw many of them off the rolls to get along as best they could. He portrayed NAFTA as a boon for US workers even as it helped drain working class jobs from the country. He would give speeches about protecting the working poor from scam artists and corporate skullduggery and then promote policies and laws that protected corporations from being accountable for scams and skullduggery.

If you understand Hillary’s determination to squeeze a round peg into a square hole despite repeated warnings that one of them would have to give, then you have to ask which she preferred to bring into reality. Sharlet notes:

When Clinton first came to Washington in 1993, one of her first steps was to join a Bible study group. For the next eight years, she regularly met with a Christian “cell” whose members included Susan Baker, wife of Bush consigliere James Baker; Joanne Kemp, wife of conservative icon Jack Kemp; Eileen Bakke, wife of Dennis Bakke, a leader in the anti-union Christian management movement; and Grace Nelson, the wife of Senator Bill Nelson, a conservative Florida Democrat.

Clinton’s prayer group was part of the Fellowship (or “the Family”), a network of sex-segregated cells of political, business, and military leaders dedicated to “spiritual war” on behalf of Christ, many of them recruited at the Fellowship’s only public event, the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Aside from the breakfast, the group has “made a fetish of being invisible,” former Republican Senator William Armstrong has said.) The Fellowship believes that the elite win power by the will of God, who uses them for his purposes. Its mission is to help the powerful understand their role in God’s plan.

Sharlet exposed The Family back in January or ’04, and I wrote about it then in a post titled “Christian Theocrats Exposed“. The Family turned out to consist of such ultraconservative theocrats and hard-line GOP stalwarts as Jim DeMint and James Inhofe – the guy who thinks the Bible should replace science textbooks and that history books need to be rewritten so they line up with theocratic goals (Jefferson was a right-wing evangelical theocrat, according to Inhofe).

Those are the people Hillary has been hanging around with – voluntarily – for the past 16 yrs: elitist right-wing Xtian theocrats.

Clinton declined our requests for an interview about her faith, but in Living History, she describes her first encounter with Fellowship leader Doug Coe at a 1993 lunch with her prayer cell at the Cedars, the Fellowship’s majestic estate on the Potomac. Coe, she writes, “is a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.”

The Fellowship’s ideas are essentially a blend of Calvinism and Norman Vincent Peale, the 1960s preacher of positive thinking. It’s a cheery faith in the “elect” chosen by a single voter—God—and a devotion to Romans 13:1: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers….The powers that be are ordained of God.” Or, as Coe has put it, “we work with power where we can, build new power where we can’t.”

(emphasis added)

You can understand why a supposedly liberal Democratic presidential nominee might not want to grant an interview about her long association with a far-right conservative evangelical/theocratic prayer group. Not exactly the image she’d like to present, eh?

But if you think about it you’ll understand how the flow went. It’s simply the opposite of what we’ve always thought it was. Instead of Hillary being a liberal who played conservative for power, she’s a conservative playing liberal, a Goldwater right-winger who found the opportunity to gain power in pretending to be a Kennedy-style left-winger.

It fits. She’s a member of the financial elite who went to Wellesley College to become a corporate lawyer. She’s never been liberal, let alone progressive. She understands and values money and the people who make it. That she isn’t already a Republican is a matter of timing and pure, unadulterated ambition. No wonder it was so easy for Bill to steal GOP values – they’re the ones he and Hillary have believed all along: elitist corporate Xtian values.

The Family, from that angle, was an inevitable power connection. But 16 years surrounded by her enemies is more than ambition. It’s belief.

Personally, I don’t want her in a position to prove it.

Dump the Dems 2: Are 3rd Parties Really Hopeless?

Credit where credit is due: Ralph Nader was right.

There isn’t much difference any more between the Democrats and the Republicans. When, in 2000, Ralph coined the term “Republicrats”, he was roundly criticized for supposedly missing or at least minimizing the significant dissimularities between George Bush and Al Gore. But his critics, afraid of his being a spoiler, were the ones who, in retrospect, missed the point.

That point has been driven home with brutal regularity since Nov ’06 when the Democrats were elected to stop the war, the torture, and the wholesale spying of the Bush Administration and then handed Bush everything he wanted on a plate with salad dressing and parsley. It is winding up with two corporate-friendly Dem candidates in the ’08 election, one who says the Iraq war isn’t a mistake and she won’t end it, and the other who says he’ll withdraw troops but leave a “residual force”; one who’s a backer of NAFTA and similar corporate rip-offs, and the other who has supported horrendous trade deals, including the deal turning Panama into a corporate tax haven and legal limbo where Big Business can’t be held accountable for any crime it chooses to commit.

But for all their chummy protect-the-corporations votes, it means something that both have stolen a good deal of John Edwards’ populist approach during his run at the White House. They’ve adopted his policies, his initiatives, and some of his rhetoric (though they’re careful to play down the anti-corporate and class warfare stuff for fear of alienating corporate money). In fact, it may be fair to say that Edwards’ platform is enjoying far greater success since he quit than it did when he was an active candidate.

This means something because it’s a carbon copy of the effect third parties often have, especially populist parties: even when they lose elections, they may still control the discussion and the issues around which those elections are fought. Look at the populist parties of the 1920’s and 30’s. They rarely won seats but in the end FDR had to absorb most of their issues and solutions in order to win the ’32 election, and it was their issues and solutions around which he built the Democratic coalition that governed effectively for most of the next 40 yrs.

The fact is that without the pressure on the Democrats brought by the populists, we wouldn’t have had Social Security, economic stability, food stamps, HUD, Medicare, or any of dozens of programs that have fed and housed the hungry, brought medical care to sick kids, or made the middle class of the post-WW II generation the strongest, healthiest in history. The fear of seeing the Democrats splinter into a dozen ineffective little parties with no power or influence forced FDR and a reluctant Dem party hierarchy to dump Republican solutions and fight for their own.

So, contrary to the conventional wisdom that third parties are poison pills and don’t work because they can’t win, history says quite the opposite. If you look beyond the lost elections to the larger picture of political accomplishments, third parties have a pretty fair history of success. In that case, what’s the problem?

eRobin of Fact-esque as usual sums it up in a couple of pithy sentences.

One [a third party] may be able to get traction in the coming ruins of the U.S. economy. Of course, it may look more like the Minute Men and the less totally awesome aspects of Ron Paul than anything you’d probably want to see come along. Devil you know??

IOW, isn’t it more likely, given the temper of the American people – and their distaste for complex problems and even more complex solutions – that even if we managed to form a successful third party it would be worse than what it replaced?

Not necessarily. While the example of John Edwards is two-edged certainly, there’s nevertheless a fairly vibrant lesson or two to be learned from his campaign and from the way his issues so smoothly and seamlessly became immediately central to his opponents’ campaigns.

  1. The corporate media will try to drown you in minutiae if you bring it up.
  2. There are several issues hitting home hard that many – if not most – of us have in common, threads that will draw us together.

A third party that can solve the first and build on the second has a real chance of success.

(Next: The Greens)