Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Democratic Purity Tests

A couple thoughts have been floating around my head in the last couple days, and hopefully, they fruitfully come together in this post with an overarching theme.

Currently, the Republican party is in turmoil. From talks of a permanent majority four years ago to near legislative irrelevance, the Republicans are currently arguing about whether either philosophical moderation or philosophical purity will best regrow the party. Unfortunately for them, it appears that ideological purity currently has the upper hand. As Republican moderates were generally defeated the last two cycles, conservative Republicans, generally from the solid, safer South, became an increased voice within their party caucuses. This increased voice, while believing in ideological purity, has become less and less tolerant of ideological moderation, and constant primaries, forcing the party ever rightward (i.e., Toomey against Specter), moved the parties philisophical tenets outside of the mainstream. In my mind, the defection of Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe's response, most recently, cemented the public understanding that Republicans are out-of-touch.

During the 2006 election, the lefty blogosophere produced a meme, the election of "More and Better Democrats." At the time, Democrats were the minority party and the Democratic campaign leadership, most notably led by Sen. Shumer and the then Rep. Rahm Emanuel, sought Democrats, from all points of the ideological spectrum, that could best represent their districts; they recruited conservative Democratic candidates to run in conservative districts (think Sen. Tester and Rep. Shuler). Democrats took the majority, but the blogosphere was disappointed that some of the newly elected Democrats produced less-than-progressive voting records.

Afterwards in 2008, burned by disappointing Democratic "betrayals," the blosopheric election meme became "Better Democrats." With control of the House and Senate, the complimentary focuses of "more and better" were seen as somewhat dualing and competing, and a hierarchy of emphases occured thereafter; the emphasis of electing more new Democrats in Republican-held seats became subordinated to the emphasis of electing better, progressive-minded Democrats. The election of new Democrats wasn't pushed aside entirely, but the blogosphere would only support progressive-minded Democrats. At the same time, conservative Democrats, many of them recently elected, were constantly berated for their "Bush-enabling" voting records within the blogosphere, and backing progressive primary challengers against non-progressive Democrats emerged as a new strategy to push the progressive agenda (think Donna Edwards).

While a devoted progressive myself, I have always felt uneasy about this strategy, and it wasn't until several random and non-related events, that I figured out why. I feel that there is a certain strand within our party so devoted to progressive principles that they, like our Republican counterparts, have created purity tests. Candidates who aren't pro-choice, pro-environmentalism, anti-Big Business, for net-neutrality, for bringing our troops home, for EFCA, etc., etc., are suspect and cursed - our progressive purity test. This mentality, as we are currently seeing within the opposition, can be counter-productive and ultimately self-destructive. Perhaps I am overblowing this sentiment, but I feel it bubbling beneath the surface, especially within the blogosphere.

Immediately after Specter joined our party, proud progressives called to primary Specter, as his stances against certain issues were anathema to our ideals. While I cannot justify his stances, I do expect an inevitable leftward slide in his voting. Specter has only been in our caucus for a week, and as such, we should summon patience. Yet, some groups are pushing the possibility of a primary hard. Just like Specter's pro-stimulus vote lost his chance of re-election as a Republican, we, displeased with his anti-EFCA stance and his opposition to the budget and Obama's nominees, have called for his head.

I'm not saying that primaries aren't good for Democrats. Primaries are good for democracy, and primaries hold elected officials accountable. No American politician is entitled to power, and primaries underly this principle. Yet, there is a danger of using purity tests to primary all Democrats. Primarying Al Winn with Donna Edwards is one thing, but primarying a Georgia congressman with a progressive is insane. If that progressive wins, they, more than likely, would be destroyed in a general. We can't fall into the potential Toomey-Specter (where ideological purification wins the primary but loses the general) primary trap (I assume that Toomey would have lost to a generic Democratic challenger).

Locally, within the last couple days, Rep. Perriello has been berated by local Democratic bloggers for some of his recent votes and comments, the latter was unfortunately caused by one reporter's misunderstandings. While neither and unwavering progressive nor a conservative blue dog, Perriello is voting with his district in mind, breaking several times with party leadership (see TARP and the budget). Perhaps oversimpified, the district is comprised of liberal Charlottesville, but, electorally speaking, 2/3 of the district is constituted with conservative-leaning Southside. Perriello cannot and does not vote with Charlottesville solely in mind. There are innumerable reasons to be proud of Perriello, and berating Perriello for his non-progressive votes employs this same purity principle.

We are the big-tent party, the party of moderates, independents, and progressives. Inherent within this diversity is a tension of philosophies, a grating of ideologies. A constitutional Democratic characteristic is the appreciation and the embracing of the plurality of voices and ideas in our society. We preach toleration and acceptance as part of our social justice platforms, standing firm against rigid ideology. As such, we should respect those within our party who aren't progressives; we grow stronger, electorally speaking, with a plurality of voices within our party. Let us recognize the beauty and strength in diversity. Having districts represented by like-minded Democrats is good for us in the long run, even if those Democrats vote against the progressive agenda. Let us view ideological purity as counter to our party's principles, even if we respectfully disagree with the personal stances of certain elected officials.

Yesterday James Carville mused that the Democratic Party will be in power for the next 40 years. This is only true if we maintain our big-tent and refrain from our own set of purity tests. Look where ideological purity is taking the Republican party.

(h/t JohnCos for the inspiration)


fishingincrisis said...

I'd take a slightly different position. Sure, in 06 (and other years) when we were elected conservative Democrats, we knew exactly what and who we were electing, and we shouldn't be surprised when they didn't vote with the progressive caucus. On the other hand a) control of the House doesn't mean too much if we have a strong wing of the Democratic party that consistently votes against the House leadership and the Whitehouse, and b) we as Democrats have a limited window of time to demonstrate to the American people that we have new ideas and we have good ideas. At this point, there aren't a lot of districts left where we can replace a Republican with a progressive Democrat, whereas there are a number of districts where we can replace a conservative Democrat with one that is more liberal, and I think that that effort is one that is worthy of the progressive movement's support.

Moreover, the Tom Perriello incident was one that would have had disturbing implications if true. Its fine for a Democrat to run as a centrist and to legislate like a centrist. My fear is always that you elect a Democrat with the best intentions, and when he or she gets to Washington, they start hearing from different groups of people, and stop voting the way they were campaigning. Tom, for instance, always made a point to reassure traditional Democrats that while he was running a new kind of campaign with language that you don't hear Democrats using, it didn't mean he was abandoning the Democratic position on a lot of issues. Were he to do that, there would be a lot of people in his district and out that felt that either they had been betrayed, or Washington had changed their Congressman, and I think they would be justified in being pretty upset. So I was very happy to see that Tom had been completely misreported, but if it actually happened in a different district where the candidate had campaigned as a progressive, I do think the progressive movement should stick by the Congressman regardless.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Drew, thank you for saying something important that needed to be said.

Fishingincrisis is right to one extent. If somebody ran as a progressive in a district that elects progressives and misled the voters, yes, a primary challenge would not only be appropriate, it would be necessary.

But, I think, what Drew was talking about is the progressive wing of the party sometimes wanting to even challenge Blue Dogs in districts where it's a miracle that a Democrat even won.

I want to push the progressive agenda too. And I agree that we have a small window of opportunity to make our case that our ideas are better than those of the Reagan-Bush-DLC-free market-globalization factions.

But the way to press our case is to win the war of ideas, not to villify more conservative Democrats. We need a big tent, and we need to respect that some Democrats truly are representing more conservative regions.

I have been disturbed by the growing intolerance in our party because it sounds suspiciously like what the Republicans have been doing to the detriment of their party. We should avoid that.

Hank Bostwick said...

Thanks for the link.

I hope my friend from AIAW isn't suggesting that SCH has "vilified" Mr. Perriello for his stance on assault weapons and the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

I can think of no rationale reason why any civilian in the United States needs to be in possession of an assault weapon. It cannot be left to the "several states" because consistent law related to assault weapons, or the lack thereof, has profound connections to safe interstate commerce.

Please explain to me the "theological" justification for advocating against the assault weapons ban (I understood from the campaign Mr. Perriello to be interested in questions of ethics and spirituality). That would really interest me.

Ditto on FDA regulation of tobacco. I'm ready to hear the standard anti-government line, "Oh, the FDA, they'll just screw everything up . . . the last thing we need is more regulation." Hmmm . . . I think I heard that about Wall Street from a few old white guys who just can't stay out of the news.

So, while I really enjoy DB, I simply differ on these crucial health and human safety issues.

But does that mean I have somehow "vilified" Mr. Perriello?

I seem to recall a time not too long ago when anyone who criticized the executive branch was branded disloyal.

Goodness, are you suggesting that if I point out some very significant moral divergence from the mainstream in a Democratic candidate, I'm suggesting a litmus test and reducing the size of the Democrat's Big Tent?

The title of your post could also be read, "Democratic Loyalty Tests." One could read your post to suggest that progressives just need to get behind the Democratic incumbent or candidate simply because she or he is a Democrat. You even add a corollary--the rule applies doubly in hard-to-win, conservative districts. Logically, that is an extremely slippery slope, I'm afraid.

And just a minor point, SCH is, as difficult as it may be to believe, nonpartisan progressive . . . we do not endorse candidates for elected office. We simply write about local news and politics from the progressive perspective as faithfully as we can while attempting to remain factually objective.

We just don't shrill. It is not in our nature.

Thanks again for the link!

Hank Bostwick said...

If you don't mind the link, this is a recent post from our front page about how Specter's switch signals a movement away from ideology-centric politics:

Drew said...


Again, I am an unabashed progressive, but I don't want my progressivism to compromise the gains we have made within the country. So when you say there are districts that we can run progressives against conservative Democrats - an effort worthy of progressive movements support - I can walk but so far with you. To replace an Al Winn with a Donna Edwards is great. But to run a progressive against a Jim Marshall of Georgia is not a good idea. We have to be deliberate and practical about this strategy. We cannot run progressives just for the sake of moving the party leftward, a scenario that will inevitably shrink our party - look at the Republicans now.

And, I do agree, a politician who has become beholden to Washington, who has compromised his campaign promises does not deserve a free pass at a primary. But, this isn't the case with Perriello.

Drew said...


Thank you for your comment! It pleases me that you and I are on the same page with this.

Drew said...


Thank you for your comment. It appears that my portrait in this post has upset you. I respectfully apologize. And, I don't think that AIAW was saying you "vilify" conservatives; I think she was speaking generally.

Again, I am a progressive like you, and I am biased towards supporting Perriello, as I was a campaign staffer for him. I picked your post, not because of any rancorous disagreement with you (we agree on much), but that your post was very recent and fit my overarching argument. So my point, utilizing your post as an example, was to highlight that this district has a strong conservative-leaning constituency, and as such, Tom's voting record will reflect the needs of his district. Steadfast progressives will have some tough votes to handle. And while I agree with you on the assaults weapons ban in principle, I would need more information on Tom's voting rationale to comment; ditto with the Tobacco regulation - but keep in mind here that our district is part of the Tobacco belt, with heavy swaths of tobacco farmers represented.

My overarching arguement is not about loyalty, its about the necessity of caution when employing progressive purity tests, seen by certain strands within our party. We lose when we shrink our tent by these tests, no matter if I agree with the test or not. I have read two articles today (posts forthcoming) about the purity tests of Republicans killing thier party. We must not go down that same track.

This doesn't mean that we should not question (doubly so in conservative districts, as you suggest), but that we should be hesitant to create litmus tests for Democrats. That is all I am saying, and. to a certain extent, I see us doing this, especially in the blogosphere (many national sites come to mind). Our electoral strength at the moment comes from our ideological diversity, and to weaken this diversity is detrimental to our long term health as a party. There now is an inherent ideological dissonance within our party, and we must respect this fact. We are the party of moderates, and to question their loyalties at the altar of progressive purity is counter-productive and self-defeating.

I'm not saying don't question, don't be disloyal, in a Bush-like fashion. Have at it, but let us, as a collective, view purity tests as dangerous.

Does that make sense?

p.s. Good post on Specter.

Hank Bostwick said...

Thanks and, yes, it does (I can agree without conceding my original point!)

Please don't get me wrong, DB, I'm was not upset by your post just befuddled. I wanted to make sure that SCH was not being accused of "vilification" for raising moral issues about allegedly progressive candidates.

I have a matter-of-fact tone when I write quickly, which some interpret as "being upset" . . . to the contrary, DB, I love fiery debate . . . for sure !

Have a great weekend!