A Reality Check in the Progressive Civil War

Glenn Greewald and Jane Hamsher: No fans of President Obama

By Bob Cesca: There’s a “cold” civil war among progressives that’s always existed, but it’s been rapidly heating up since the earliest days of the 2008 campaign. The most visible front of this feud is taking place between prominent bloggers, on Twitter and, well, right here on The Daily Banter.

I’ve written about this topic extensively over the years, and on more than one occasion I’ve been caught up in the middle of it all. First, during the 2008 campaign, I endorsed President Obama quite early in the process and subsequently engaged in the contentious primary battle between Obama supporters and Clinton supporters. It baffled me how progressives could support Hillary Clinton given some of her tactics (a bit of fear-mongering and the like), her moderate third-way DLC politics and well as her early support for the Iraq War. And I made my opinions about her abundantly clear. If you’d like a solid retelling of the progressives in-fighting during the primaries, check out Eric Boehlert’s wonderful Bloggers On The Bus.

The primaries gave way to mixed and ambivalent support for the president during the general election. The PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass) evolved into the current movement of progressives who universally oppose the president and, more importantly, ridicule anyone who dares to defend his record so far — even in a piecemeal way. More on that presently.

The first major battle following the primaries took place around the inauguration when progressives were divided over the president’s choice to inclused pastor/profiteer Rick Warren as the invocation speaker. Personally, I was loudly against Warren appearing at the inaugural, due to his various anti-gay remarks and my general opposition to mixing state and church matters. Following that fracas, progressives were divided over the stimulus. Some argued that it was too small, others argued that it was the best the president could achieve. I’ve always thought the stimulus was too small, but there wasn’t enough congressional support for a larger amount. Next up, the healthcare reform bill divided progressives over the president’s lack of support for single-payer, and some progressives theorized that the president was also opposed to the public option. I knew single-payer was never promised and was completely impractical given political and economic realities in Washington and nationwide. If it was proposed as the centerpiece of healthcare reform, the whole thing would have never been taken up by Congress resulting in a major failure on healthcare — again. However, I blogged extensively about the importance of the public option and how critical it was to the success of the legislation. (In fact, Rachel Maddow once quoted one of my columns in which I made the pitch that reform without a public option would be a nightmare.) But when the dust cleared and tempers had subsided, I began to see the benefits of the bill and my prior hard-line opinion softened to the realities of the bill and all of its highly positive aspects, including massive subsidies for middle class families, new rules about preventative care, birth control, pre-existing conditions and a massive expansion of Medicaid. After healthcare was the Afghanistan surge, the continued existence of the prison at Guantanamo, the apparent lack of speed on LGBT issues, drone strikes and the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki.

Just about every move by the president has subdivided progressives along the following lines.

Group #1. The Neo-PUMAs. Many of those who have taken a consistent anti-Obama approach are beyond convincing. They’ve indelably decided that President Obama is “worse than Bush” and other pejoratives, and will never be convinced otherwise. They feel as if they’re doing the right thing by holding the president accoutable at all costs and, in their mind, with the same ferocity they used against George W. Bush.

Group #2. The Obamabots. There’s a considerable counter-movement of bloggers and Twitter denizens who actively denounce the Neo-PUMAs while pitching the president’s record from a more supportive and positive angle. Their primary goal, which is a noble one, is to make sure the president is re-elected as a means to long-term progressive successes.

Group #3. The Pragmatic Progressives. The rest of us are generally supportive of this president (overlapping with Obamabots), but have also opposed his policies — quite loudly on occasion. Some Neo-PUMAs consider Pragmatic Progressives to be across-the-board Obamabots, and I know this because I consider myself part of this third group even though I’m sure you can find plenty of progressives who have insultingly labeled me an Obamabot despite the fact that I opposed the president’s actions on a variety of issues beginning the ones I listed above, and especially including the debt ceiling deal and regarding various deficit reduction measures. That said, I believe I have a realistic view of the importance of the president’s considerable list of accomplishments beginning with The Rescuing Of The Economy From A Second Great Depression, as well as a strong sense of the political obstacles that are preventing the president from taking a more progressive approach to his agenda. And I think I’m in good company here.

Whatever we want to call these generalized groupings (I hasten to note that there are overlaps and additional smaller groups), and regardless of who occupies their ranks, these divisions have always existed in some form or another, but the success of the Obama campaign in 2008 and the inspiring potential of this administration have amplified the differences in the movement.

Prior to the 2008 primary fight, earlier rifts in the progressive movement, especially during the 2000 election when Ralph Nader picked up the support of progressives to the detriment of Al Gore’s campaign, have haunted and exacerbated the current civil war. The Neo-PUMAs are mostly willing to accept Democratic/progressive electoral defeat and the election of more Republicans in the name of left-wing ideological purity. Obamabots are unwaveringly pushing back against that in the name of victory, and Pragmatic Progressives agree about the urgency of re-electing the president, but they’re not quite as combative against Neo-PUMAs.

And that leads me around to the point of this post. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing on the issues, as Ben Cohen wrote here. But the tactics being employed by certain “combatants” are counterproductive to their respective groups and, consequently, counterproductive to the goals of progressivism. After all, the aim of all three groups is to work diligently and patriotically towards more progressive voters, more progressive lawmakers and more progressive legislation. Admittedly, I’ve written some things on occasion that have been more than a little incendiary about fellow progressives, and, suffice to say, when someone writes something I don’t like, I’m going to say so. Always. I don’t care who it is, how hip they think they are, or who his or her friends happen to be. But no matter what I end up blurtng out — or what I carefully construct using research and numbers — I always try to keep the following three principles in mind.

1) Modulating our loudness. If we’re always yelling, then we’re easier to ignore. Oh, it’s just the left and their screeching again. But if we remain proactive, if we give credit where credit is due and pick our battles, then, when we have to get loud, we get noticed. Rachel Maddow is a good example of modulating her tone. When it comes to the administration, she’s always been fair and reasonable, yet tough when necessary. So when she has to yell, it really, really resonates.

2) Smart accountability. Holding the president accountable is, naturally, important and inherent to how democracy should function. Government Of The People was established as a means of checking power. It’s our patriotic duty to call out our leadership whenever necessary. But as movement activists, we have to be cautious that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by unfairly and mercilessly attacking our allies — and by “allies” I mean this: we want the White House to listen to our ideas, and this White House is more likely to listen to progressives than any administration since FDR. But if we add fuel to conservative fires either by perpetually fostering progressive disillusionment or by offering up easily-repeatably memes to conservative anti-Obama operatives, then we empower the opposition and frighten away our allies. If we kneejerk about a news story and make accusations against the administration that simply aren’t backed up by facts and/or political realities, then we look like spastic idiots. If we only write about administration mistakes or, as Scahill said the other day, “murders,” then we signal to our friends and readers that the administration is a disaster when, in fact, its liberal accomplishments are quite significant.

3) Winning the debate on the ground. How do we make America more progressive? By changing minds. Yelling at the president won’t change the fact that a considerably large chunk of the American electorate is moderate, undecided and independent. The Democrats need the middle in order to win because the left simply isn’t large enough, and if we systematically and deliberately change minds — if we’re disciplined about taking the longview approach and convincing voters that progressivism is the best way to govern, then we will eventually force politicians to move leftward as the electorate does.

Honestly, I’d like to see a lot more of this from all factions of the movement. Even if we disagree on the details of what it means to be a progressive, we should be unified around More Progressivism. Agreeing to the spirit of these three principles will help to get us there. Otherwise we’re screwed and we might as well forfeit the nation to conservatism.

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  • http://thegloomyhistorian.blogspot.com/ The Gloomy Historian

    This is not a new divide. Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote about “doers” vs. “wailers” in The Vital Center, there was the old left and the new, liberals vs. socialists of various stripes. It was never quite the Life of Brian parody, but there have always been disagreements. If we had a parliamentary system the different factions might be able to slug it out without threatening a complete authoritarian takeover, or maybe not I don’t know. Bob, you have spent a great deal of time researching the Civil War Era are there any parallels you see with the post-war Republican Party? Or the division between Stalwarts and Progressives in the GOP at the turn of the Century? There are always factions and it is always messy, people disagree. But what do I know?