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The Left, Changing Course, Goes Pragmatic

This column was written by Peter Beinart.

What does Markos Moulitsas have against Mike Gravel? The über-blogger recently called for exiling the longshot presidential candidate from future Democratic debates. "Mike Gravel is a waste of our time," he wrote in an August 7 post. "[He's] a running joke."

That's an odd assessment coming from the founder of Daily Kos. Every time Gravel gets behind a lectern, he flays the Democratic Party for knuckling under to militarists and corporations. In other words, he sounds just like Markos Moulitsas. Gravel was a hero of the anti-Vietnam fight and is arguably the most radical Democrat running for president. (Dennis Kucinich comes close, but Moulitsas doesn't much like him, either.) It's understandable that Moulitsas and his Kossacks wouldn't support a quixotic candidate like the former senator from Alaska, but you'd think they would at least afford him some respect — the way Ralph Reed treated Alan Keyes in 2000. You might even think they would want him on stage, pushing the Democratic debate to the left. Instead, they mock the poor guy. In the most recent poll of Kos readers, he got 1 percent.

Gravel's sin? He's impractical. It's not just that he doesn't have a prayer of becoming president — it's that he doesn't seem to care. The thing that set Moulitsas off was Gravel's discussion of his national sales tax at the YearlyKos presidential debate. Moulitsas disapproves of the tax on its merits, but what really angered him was Gravel's acknowledgement that the proposal would never pass. "At least Kucinich pretends his agenda matters," he fumed. "Gravel won't even give us that courtesy."

It's no secret that Moulitsas cares more about victory than ideology. He's said it repeatedly. But it's worth pausing for a moment to recognize how remarkable this ultra-pragmatism is. As long as there has been an American left, American leftists have been arguing about their relationship to "the system." Can fundamental change come through one of the two major parties, or through the ballot box at all? Or must the system itself be overthrown through some sort of direct action?

For at least a century, this debate has been playing itself out again and again. It's Samuel Gompers versus Bill Haywood in 1905. Walter Lippmann versus John Reed in 1917. Franklin Roosevelt versus Norman Thomas in 1932. Bayard Rustin versus Stokely Carmichael in 1964. Michael Harrington versus Tom Hayden in 1968. Al Gore versus Ralph Nader in 2000. The outsiders have generally lost, but they have been a powerful force. Haywood's Industrial Workers of the World — with its call for a revolutionary general strike — enjoyed real strength in the pre-World War I American West. In 1932, 53 prominent intellectuals, including THE NEW REPUBLIC's Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley, signed a statement demanding "the establishment of a workers' and farmers' government which will usher in the Socialist Commonwealth." And by 1965, after Lyndon Johnson spurned the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and escalated the Vietnam war, much of the New Left abandoned electoral politics in favor of outright resistance.

Today, by contrast, the debate is so lopsided that it barely qualifies as a debate at all. Among the netroots, it's taken as a virtual given that the best way to fundamentally change America isn't just to work through the political system, but through one of the two major parties and, at the presidential level, through mainstream candidates. (Even in 2004, the netroots overwhelmingly favored Howard Dean — who at that point didn't want to withdraw troops from Iraq — over Kucinich, who did.) The netroots aren't infinitely flexible, of course. Had Joe Lieberman won the Democratic nomination in 2004, some might have bailed. But, by historical standards, they're at the pragmatic extreme. Perhaps no progressive movement in U.S. history has so wholly identified itself with one party and with the political system writ large. That's the movement's great strength and, potentially, its greatest weakness.

What explains the netroots' faith in the Democratic Party? First, as Jonathan Chait has noted ("The Left's New Machine," May 7, 2007), they are using the right as a model. Between 1964 and 1980, the conservative movement captured the GOP. And, since then, the divide between movement groups like the Christian Coalition and the party itself has largely disappeared, with right-wing activists taking over the party in state after state. But just because conservatives took over the GOP doesn't explain why the netroots were so confident they could do the same in the Democratic Party. After all, although movement conservatives faced cultural barriers in overthrowing old-guard Rockefeller Republicans, they never threatened the people who paid the party's bills. Indeed, starting in the 1970s, corporate America's new hostility to government regulation meshed nicely with the concerns of the Goldwaterites and Christian conservatives then crashing the GOP's gates. The Democratic Party, by contrast, relies on big donations from people sharply at odds with the economic leanings of the netroots. (Though the netroots may be changing that by becoming a significant source of donations themselves.) After the 1990s — when Democrats became more dependent on corporate money and Bill Clinton pushed an aggressive free-trade agenda — it would have been reasonable for some on the left to argue that a progressive movement couldn't take over the Democratic Party in the way conservatives took over the GOP, and that the anti-corporate left needed to build a party of its own.

In fact, someone did make that argument: Ralph Nader. And herein lies another explanation for the netroots' devotion to the Democrats. There have been lots of progressive third-party candidates in U.S. history — Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette, Norman Thomas, Henry Wallace — all arguing that, even if they didn't win, they would push American politics to the left. Whether they succeeded is debatable. But, until Nader, no progressive third-party candidate had dramatically pushed American politics to the right — as Nader did when he helped elect George W. Bush. In the process, he discredited progressive third parties for a generation. Had Nader — once a liberal icon — showed up at YearlyKos, he probably would have been booed.

But if Nader explains why the netroots spurn third parties, he doesn't answer the more fundamental question of why they put so much faith in the electoral process at all. Winning elections was rarely a central concern for Students for a Democratic Society or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, never mind the gun-toting militants of the Black Panther Party. By contrast, Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong's 2006 book, "Crashing the Gate," is basically a primer on campaign strategy.

This metamorphosis owes itself in part to the cultural shifts of the past four decades. Postwar America was an exclusionary place that forced blacks, women, students, gays, and others to contort their identities into the narrow and often demeaning spaces permitted by the straight white men who made up the establishment. The movements of the 1960s, therefore — especially later in the decade — were as much about identity as about policy, aimed at allowing historically marginalized groups to decide for themselves how they looked, dressed, procreated, recreated, worked, and loved. And, even when these movements did seek political change, they often relied on institutions outside the electoral system. The civil rights movement operated largely through black churches and communities. In the Port Huron Statement, SDS argued that universities were a key vehicle for radical change. For the left, therefore, elections were not the only — or even the best — path to progress.

The netroots are different. Largely because of the civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements, today's cultural mainstream is far broader, and the activists who attend YearlyKos fit in fine. The netroots may consist of political outsiders, but, unlike their progressive predecessors, they are not cultural ones. When Moulitsas talks about crashing the gate, he's not talking about social acceptance; he's talking about political power.

If the netroots work through the Democratic Party because they have political rather than cultural goals, they also do so because there aren't many other options. In today's America, few powerful institutions outside the electoral system are pushing for progressive change. The universities are politically quiet. Some union leaders want to make labor a national protest movement (and the netroots want that too), but, after decades of decline, it isn't — at least not yet. Black activism has also moved firmly inside the political system. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — who are part politicians, part agitators — increasingly look like transitional figures, as activist ministers give way to black mayors and members of Congress who campaign and govern rather than protest. Perhaps the closest thing to a robust political movement outside today's two-party system is the campaign for immigrants' rights — organized through unions, ethnic organizations, and churches — which showed flashes of power earlier this year. But, while the civil rights and antiwar movements split the Democratic Party 40 years ago, labor's decision to abandon its historic fear of immigration means that immigrant activism and partisan activism can probably go hand in hand. The netroots doesn't have to choose.

Finally, there's one last — deeper — explanation for the netroots' pragmatism. It's the first broad-based liberal movement to emerge since communism's demise. In the Progressive era, it was conventional wisdom on the American left — asserted by everyone from Eugene Debs to John Dewey — that socialism was historically inevitable. Then, during the Depression — until Stalin's alliance with Hitler and the news of his terrible crimes brought most leftists to their senses — the Soviet Union became a real-life model of what revolution, as opposed to mere reform, could achieve. Even in the '60s, the shift towards outright resistance coincided with an enthusiasm for revolutions abroad. In Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Frantz Fanon, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, the New Left saw blueprints for the revolution it desired at home. Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd visited Hanoi, and Stokely Carmichael moved to West Africa, where he took the name Kwame Toure in honor of the leaders who had brought independence to Ghana and Guinea. "For generations," writes Todd Gitlin in his excellent book "The Sixties," "the American left has externalized good: we needed to tie our fates to someone, somewhere in the world, who was seizing the chances for a humane society."

Now that's impossible. Sean Penn can embrace Hugo Chávez and Michael Moore may swoon over Cuban health care, but such radical camaraderie pales in comparison even to that of the Reagan years, when every major campus boasted a branch of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, which championed El Salvador's Marxist FMLN. The Soviet Union is gone, and, virtually without exception, leftist revolutions in the third world have ended in tears. (Nelson Mandela, perhaps the only recent foreign leader to enjoy demigod status on the American left, underscores the point. Post-apartheid South Africa may be anti-American, but it is more capitalist than it was under white rule.) Even the social democracies of Western Europe don't shine as brightly as they did a few decades ago. With the cold war's end, there is simply no compelling ideological alternative beyond America's shores.

On the right, this has produced a utopian spasm: a belief that communism's demise proves capitalism's perfection, vindicating its purest, most deregulated form. But, on the left, it has made revolutionary rhetoric sound absurd. The netroots feel the American system has gone fundamentally wrong; that, in some profound ways, it has become less just, less decent, less free. And yet, the American system is all they have. It can be reformed, turned into a better version of itself. But it can't be overthrown because there is nothing with which to replace it. Markos Moulitsas is an idealist in a post-utopian age.

On balance, that's a very good thing. Revolutionary leftism has usually turned ugly. And the netroots' pragmatism — their willingness to sully themselves with the compromise that electoral politics inevitably entails, their preference for achieving results rather than just bearing witness — could make them a formidable force for change. There is, however, a danger. The sophisticated argument for outside agitation, for staking out an extreme position and refusing to budge, has always been that it empowers the pragmatists. It lets reformers tell people in power that, if they don't make reforms, all hell will break loose. In that way, Haywood empowered Gompers. Thomas empowered FDR. And Carmichael empowered Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King. The sophisticated argument against pure pragmatism is that, without an unpragmatic alternative, it doesn't work.

If Democrats take power, the absence of such an alternative in a post-Marxist, post-Nader age may prove the netroots' Achilles heel. What if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama doesn't fully withdraw from Iraq, or push hard for universal health care? What is the liberal blogosphere's implied threat? What is the institutional — or even ideological — basis for threatening to leave the Democratic mainstream, or the political game altogether, and join the threatening hordes outside? One day in the not-too-distant future, Markos Moulitsas may realize that Mike Gravel isn't such a waste of time after all.
By Peter Beinart
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