Thursday, January 26, 2006

Politics as a ballgame without an umpire

I wrote this piece for the Daily Kos, but want to develop it further...

Kos wrote an interesting piece responding to Andrew Sullivan's charge that there are few things more valuable to GWB and the Religious Right than dKos. I understand where he is coming from—as Sullivan's charges as non-specific, broad, and immensely insulting.

But Kos's response, as well as many of the comments to his response, reveal the partial truth in Sullivan's point. (Please read on before you write a comment.) Sullivan is certainly blind to the value of a community like dKos--which manages to be an enormous fact-checking resource, a great place to organize political action, a place to vent, and a place to test political arguments. But much of the site's potential is obscured for anyone to the site's political right by the extremist rhetoric of so many diarists.


While many Americans may oppose Bush and much of the Republican agenda, they are basically happy with the way things are--as a character on West Wing said of the status quo: "It should be hard. I like that it's hard...But it should be a little easier." That is what people want--not radical change, but modest progress. There us an electoral majority in this country that wants a party that fights for the little guy, that pushes for modest but real social and political progress, that favors a strong and practical position on national security—and the Republicans are not that party.

If the strength of dKos is its activist, passionate (and currently extremely frustrated) community, then its weakness stems from its attempt to fight the Republicans on the Republican's terms. The time for discussion is never over in a political community. The left needs to fight back—but if the best we can do is to meet every right-wing attack with one equally vicious, if the best we can do is to let our contribution to the public debate settle into the mirror image of the extremist language that Republicans use, then we might as well give up; for the right wing has won.

(Much of the rise of the Republicans has been a direct result of their ability to portray Democrats as extremists and themselves as practical conservatives. The rhetoric that comes from dKos about fascism, theocracy, etc. only reinforces this Republican propaganda.)

The errors of dKos and attacks on MSM

Right wing groups set out to systematically undermine the mainstream press beginning in the late 1960s as part of a larger plan. These groups wanted to take out the "umpire" who could give an objective assessment of political stories. And in this, they have succeeded. The MSM has been reduced to reporting controversial stories in a "he said, she said" manner—the Swift Boat coverage is a perfect example of this. Even when the media does take a strong stance, much of the public has been taught to regard it as a biased source. We are now playing a ballgame without an umpire.

Republicans took advantage of this change in public perception before the Democrats and began to launch smears, cite blatantly partisan reports, engage in character assassination, and otherwise take advantage of the situation. Without an umpire, the public assumed that both sides bore some measure of the blame.

The second part of the right wing plan was to begin building a conservative brand centered a kind of "Team Republican". Rather than building a party on policy positions, Republicans had the novel idea of building it by creating an attractive brand. The brand was based on an emotional attachment and a kind of pure partisanship common to sports fans. At the same time, they created as their mascot a kind of “identity conservative”—a traditional white Christian (which happens to represent a large portion of the population).

Liberals have yet to find a credible means of responding to this identity conservatism. Some at dKos have settled on trying to create a mirror “Team Democrat” to respond to the partisan attacks of the right. This brand of politics might win a few battles, but it will never win the war because this war is being fought in an environment created by the right wing.


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