osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Richard Cohen is a splendid example of the problem

Being political for a moment.

Few things illustrate the growing gap between the Liberal and Progressive wings of the Democratic party than Richard Cohen's column yesterday, available here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/08/AR2006050801323.html

I don't merely mean that Cohen didn't find Colbert funny (humor is like that). What makes this archtypical liberal stuff is (a) complete lack of anticipation or understanding of stuff like this triggers online reaction, and (b) it's all about me and my fellow boomer "centrists."

First, Cohen is shocked and amazed that he gets lots of email from people feeling passionate about the Colbert speech. He sums this up with:

"What to make of all this? First, it's not about Colbert. His show has an audience of about 1 million -- not exactly 'American Idol' numbers. Second, it marks the end of a silly pretense about interactive media: We give you our e-mail addresses and then, in theory, we have this nice chat. Forget about it. Not only is e-mail too often a kind of epistolary spitball, but there's no way I can even read the 3,506 e-mails now backed up in my queue -- seven more since I started writing this column."

What is boggling my mind is that Cohen is only just now making the discovery that when you tap people's strong feelings, you get lots of email. Most of us working in this medium have understood the double-edged nature of interactivity for some time now. But Cohen speaks for an entire segment of people I work with who think they "get the internet" because five years ago they were finally convinced to get email and learned to "surf the web."

Which, as I wrote on my professional blog back in Dec 2003, was a key difference between the Dean campaign and other Democratic campaigns. http://www.wetmachine.com/totsf/item/16. Yes, Dean was out there with the anti-Iraq message first. But what drew thousands of previously apolitical people to his campaign was that he understood the need to give the voiceless a voice by using the internet to involve people, not just raise money.

Which brings me to part two of what is wrong with Cohen and its broader implications. Cohen, like so many liberal boomers, can't get past himself and how every lesson he ever learned in life is definitive:

"But the message in this case truly is the medium. The e-mails pulse in my queue, emanating raw hatred. This spells trouble -- not for Bush or, in 2008, the next GOP presidential candidate, but for Democrats. The anger festering on the Democratic left will be taken out on the Democratic middle. (Watch out, Hillary!) I have seen this anger before -- back in the Vietnam War era. That's when the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party helped elect Richard Nixon. In this way, they managed to prolong the very war they so hated."

Some of us will recall that the big reason given to vote Kerry in the 2004 primary was precisely this, that he was "the electable one" and everyone better shut up and move center-ward or Bush and teh conservatives will win.

This is not a problem for 2006. But it is a problem for 2008 -- and not in the way Cohen thinks.
Unfortunately, I do not have time to go into this at length (I keep hoping I will soon). The unreported story is that the progressive wing of the Democratic party is growing, not shrinking. By contrast, it is the liberal wing that is remaining static and growing increasingly out of touch. To the extent the liberal/"centrist" (as defined by the Democratic Leadership Council) are responding to the growing progressive wing of the Democratic party, it is in the attempt to suppress it. This spells big trouble for 2008. Not because a progressive candidate cannot win an election, but because a progressive candidate will split the party and a liberal candidate cannot win the election WITHOUT the progressive democrats.

I would suggest to Richard Cohen that the proper historic analogy is not 1968 or 1972 but 1932. In 1932, the Republicans had suffered a completely discrediting term in office, having controlled both houses of Congress and the PResidency in time to preside over an economic recession of mamoth proportions, the massacre of the "Bonus Army," and a complete bankruptcy of ideas.

But the Democrats were themselves fiercly divided. Roosevelt and other "maintsream" Democrats feared that embracing radical reforms demanded by the progressives, socialists, communists and others would alienate "maintsream America." In fact, however, "mainstream America" were far more ready for a change than the traditional Democratic elites. The popularity of Huey Long, the "Kingfish" of Louisiana and his program of essentially nationalizing oil and key agricultural industries to break the power of vested interests, of Upton Sinclair and his "production for use" theories for restructuring the economy, of Eugene Deb and the Socialist Party, forced Roosevelt to reevaluate. The "New Deal" grafted progressive elements from Long, Sinclair, Deb and others while promising to keep the basic structure of the economy capitalist. Roosevelt embraced trade unionism, desegregation, minimum wage and other progressive causes over the objections of various conservative mainstream democrats. In doing so, he was able to keep a solid Democratic party together and win for himself and sizeable majorities in both Houses of Congress.

There's a caution in the lesson as well, of course, many progressives who sided with Roosevelt found his commitment to some fo their causes, such as racial desgregation, lukewarm at best. But most of what Democrats now embrace as the important New Deal innovations -- social security, government insurance, protections for organized labor -- came from the more progressive elements of the party that Roosevelt adopted rather than cling to the traditional Democratic platform.

I suggest that folks interested in "lessons from histroy" would do better to research the entire 20th Century, not just the part they lived in. Not every protest movement is the 1960s, and not every progressive campaign that hates the war in Iraq is Vietnam all over again. If traditional Liberal Democrats like Cohen really want to win in 2008, they need to figure out how to embrace the progressive tide in the Democratic party, not surpress it.

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