A note on "liberal apathy"

Regarding my most-recent post about Jonathan Cohn’s TNR piece: I realized I never really addressed the “liberal apathy” charge which was right there in Cohn’s title. That’s largely because I was so gobsmacked over Cohn’s assertion that liberals should “show enthusiasm” (i.e. – clap appreciatively) when Obama or congressional Democrats do something right, something we agree with and support (otherwise, Cohn warns ominously, we risk our leaders losing their appetite for supporting liberal principles; apparently, according to Cohn, praise is what motivates our representatives, not doing the right thing).

Anyway, in all the excitement, I sort of forgot to address the “apathy” portion of Cohn’s “argument” (such as it is). By “liberal apathy,” Cohn and many other self-described “pragmatics” refer to their idea that it is counterproductive and therefore stupid for liberals to allow themselves to let any disappointment they might be feeling about the times when Obama has betrayed progressive values turn into inaction either in check-writing or (especially) the voting booth. Liberals, according to “pragmatics” like Cohn, ought to continue their enthusiastic support and financing of – and voting for – Democrats, as long as they remain marginally better than George W. Bush.

I actually agree with Cohn to a degree on this point, believe it or not. I feel as if there’s very little chance that a candidate for President in 2012 will emerge whose views better match my own than Barack Obama. Obama will unquestionably be the Democratic nominee; there will be no primary. That leaves the GOP (fat chance) and fringe parties. And although the Green Party candidate might seem appealing, I doubt that their platform would be that much more appealing, on paper, than the Democrats’ platform. And even if it were significantly more to my liking, there’s always the matter of electability. Running a candidate who has “street cred” amongst activists and/or environmentalists but is unknown to the larger public means that anyone who’s not consciously deluding themselves knows there’s virtually no chance that candidate has a realistic shot at winning. I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 for several reasons, but two of them were the following:

  1. I was enormously frustrated with the “Reagan as a Democrat” shtick that Clinton did during his years in office, and candidate Gore just wasn’t the same fiery guy as the environmental advocate Gore who developed only after he lost to Bush. Candidate Gore, sadly, didn’t give me much reason to hope that a President Gore would be much more than a continuation – if not a worsening – of the cowardly and increasingly corporate DLC trend of the Democratic party which had taken hold under Clinton.
  2. Ralph Nader was already a respected household name. Though he wasn’t as well-known as Clinton or Gore in 2000, he was certainly as well-known as an obscure Texas governor whose dad just happened to have been President. I’d wager most people could have told you as much about Nader as they could have about Bush in early 2000.

To me, that added up to a reason to vote for Nader: his views matched mine much more closely than my best estimation of what the Democratic candidate would be like if elected, and although I didn’t kid myself that he had a good chance to win, Nader was a serious, non-fringe candidate with a national profile who I would be voting FOR, rather than as a “lesser of two evils” vote AGAINST someone worse (meaning in the unlikely event that he did win, I’d be happy with a Nader Presidency).

I don’t feel as bad this time around as I did in 2000. Though I’ve been disappointed with some of Obama’s (and congressional Democrats’) failings and lack of courage-of-their-convictions, it’s quite clear objectively that the Democratic party as a whole has started to wake up from the torpor and corporatism which had increasingly made the party moribund since the Reagan era. Eight years of Bush made a lot of Democrats hate Ralph Nader and people like me who voted for him, but it also woke a lot of them up and made them realize both how nuts the Republicans increasingly are, and the even more-important truth that trying to ape the GOP enough to woo “swing” (or low-information) voters had only been worsening the problem. For me, that plus the undisputable truth that a return to GOP rule would be disastrously worse, add up to me agreeing on a personal level that I will (as of now) vote for Obama in ’12, and turn out to support with my vote, my time and my money genuine Democratic candidates in ’10. I won’t be “apathetic” in that sense. Things are enough better than they used to be – and there is no nationally recognized candidate like Nader on the horizon at this point – that supporting Obama and Dems makes sense to me.

But it doesn’t to everyone, and that’s where I think the “pragmatics'” reasoning – and their argument – falls apart.

“Everyone has a breaking point. You and I have them,” said the colonel in Apocalypse Now to a incredulous-seeming Martin Sheen. And he was right, not only in what they were discussing, but in many senses. In politics, everyone has a point past which they will abandon their support for parties or candidates they traditionally favor. In fact, that’s the way politics is supposed to work: if a candidate or a party strays too far from what they promised or what they said they stood for, their supporters desert them, and they lose. Even long-time incumbents are susceptible to this — just ask Bob Bennett. Politics on the national level is simply a numbers game, when all the shouting’s over. Every move a politician (or candidate) makes, every vote they cast, every alliance they form or break, will affect their numbers. With each, they add or lose supporters. Often both – they will lose some but gain others.

The “pragmatics” problem is that they appear to believe that just scolding or shouting at the liberal base will cause the base to “fall in line,” whether they want to or not, and it’s at this point that I not only oppose but no longer even understand the “pragmatics'” strategy. I may have personally decided that at this juncture, it still makes more sense for me to support Obama and Dems with my vote and my time and money, but everyone has a different “breaking point.” Those of us who haunt the political blogs and hashtags on Twitter often know, but often forget on a day-to-day basis, that the average person is not nearly as politically motivated, nor as politically educated and saavy, as we are. Most folks don’t “game out” different scenarios like we tend to do; they’re just citizens who care enough to usually vote, and who have certain values — and who get upset when politicians vote against those values, especially if/when those politicians said they agreed with the values, or come from the party which supports them.

That forgetfulness about how politically plugged-in the average person is goes for me too, not just for people like Karoli, many of the people within the Washington bubble (White House or otherwise), and for Jonathan Cohn. It seems to me that where those who hold Cohn’s view regarding the supposed “stupidity” of liberal apathy fail with their approach is in recognizing that, while appeals to “you have to support these guys and not sit this out because the alternative will be much worse” may work on political junkies like me, it’s much less likely to work when it’s delivered with an implied or explicit haughtiness which not only assumes frustrated base voters’ support as the birthright of anyone with a D after their name, but also delivers such advice/reasoning attached to insulting language like telling base voters they are “stupid” if they disagree or question. No one likes to be told their vote is “owed” to this or that candidate or party, and no one likes to be told they’re stupid for standing up for their beliefs…even if what they’re doing IS stupid, which is always a matter of opinion anyway. Even more than that, the “pragmatics” miss the fact that the people who aren’t political junkies like me are even less approachable with this sort of appeal. Those voters may not think it through that thoroughly, they may not even know as much about the issues. They just know from what they have seen that they don’t like many of the things they see leaders on “their side” doing – escalation of war, continued opposition to gay marriage, giveaways to banksters, supp0rt of blue dogs like Lincoln against viable progressive primary challengers, etc.

I don’t object to reminding base voters (or anyone else, in fact) of the things Obama has done right, even though it always rubs me personally the wrong way to hear such cheerleading – it simply sounds Pollyanna-ish to my ears. But at least that kind of approach is a reason-based, proactive reminder (or possibly even fresh reasons) of why liberals SHOULD vote for Obama & Dems, instead of a hectoring, insulting lecture from someone who considers himself smarter than everyone else. In contrast, how does it attract or retain support to high-handedly assert to disillusioned base voters that they OWE Dems their vote, by calling them “stupid” if they don’t? Do people like Cohn and Karoli, who insist liberals stand united or else face ruin – but whose definition of “united” appears to be “see it my way or you’re stupid” – genuinely believe that such an approach to disillusioned base voters who may not be political junkies actually convinces and attracts more of those voters than it repels and pisses off? That’s an honest question, one I wish I could get a Cohn or a Karoli to answer. If these supposed “pragmatics” truly believe that only by standing together and voting for Dems – even though they’re flawed because the alternative would be much worse – can we hope to make progress, is it even a good strategy to thusly excoriate average liberal voters who are upset and wavering? Will it really advance their goal, to treat such voters thusly?

I won’t ever vote FOR any of the authoritarian cultists who masquerade these days as (and dominate) the GOP. And as things stand now, I’m in no danger of “sitting out” the fall elections, or the one in 2012. But everyone’s different about how much is too much; everyone has a different threshold. I assume – no, I KNOW – that even die-hards like Karoli and Cohn themselves have personal breaking points beyond which they would be so disgusted with Democrat X (or Democrats in general) that they would advocate abandoning ship in one form or another. Their personal thresholds for such a breaking point are obviously much higher than mine or many other base voters. But Cohn and Karoli know as well as I do that they each have such thresholds, even if they’re very different from mine. That’s why I continue to find it “stupid” for pundits like Cohn to pursue the vinegar strategy to keep disillusioned voters from simply staying home, rather than they honey strategy. Obviously, pundits can’t do anything concrete to make Obama or the Democrats act in any particular fashion. But elected Democrats themselves can choose how they vote. And if they want to retain their seats and their majorities, they’d be far better served by putting more points on the board, or at least showing that they’re willing to stand on shared liberal principles even if it means defeat, rather than pursuing appeasing the GOP with flattery and concessions and then turning around and lambasting their strongest supporters and closest ideological cousins for being disappointed by such giveaways and pointless courting of people whose votes aren’t “gettable” anyway. Rahm Emanuel, during the health care debates, famously (and cynically) suggested that progressives in congress who were making noise about the public option and other provisions which were stronger than the ones the leadership and the administration were advocating, were just blowing smoke and would cave in the end because they had nowhere else to go. He turned out to be right. All the work Jane Hamsher and emptywheel at FireDogLake did getting members of congress to pledge not to support any bill without a public option turned out to be wasted work; progressives, in the end, took half a loaf and supported the final bill.

Without even getting into whether it was a wise decision for congressional progressives to support the final bill in the end, even though they didn’t get what they said was their minimum for supporting it, the salient point is that Rahm was right; he didn’t have to worry about progressives because he judged (correctly) that he could ignore their threats of voting against any bill without a public option. But part of the reason people like Rahm and Cohn and Karoli are so angry with “straying” base voters in the public (Rahm famously referred to liberal activists as “f—ing retarded”) is that they remember the 2000 election quite well; when 537 votes decided the Presidency. They know in their bones that liberals and progressive citizens have more steel in their spine than members of congress. They know that the more severely Democrats abandon genuine liberal principles, the more base voters will begin wavering, or even be just too disillusioned to vote come election day. This drives “pragmatics” NUTS, because although they continue to try, they’re aware they cannot simply force or yell or demand their way to acquiescence. Yes, Al Gore probably still would have won had the SCOTUS not intervened….but if 90,000 progressives and liberals in Florida hadn’t voted for Ralph Nader (and who knows how many more hadn’t stayed home), it wouldn’t even have been close, either on election night OR in the recounts. Heck, there wouldn’t even have BEEN a recount, nor any need for the SCOTUS to get involved. Rahm and Cohn and Karoli and innumerable other Very Serious People know this in their bones. They remember 2000 just as well as the rest of us. Rahm may be right when it comes to congress when he haughtily declares progressive support to be both a fait accompli and the Divine Right of Democrats…but he knows that’s much less true when it comes to the voters themselves.

All of which makes me wonder why supposed “pragmatics” like Cohn and Karoli and many others apparently can’t find any better way to do their part to stem liberal disillusionment than to continue to depict wavering liberals, whose support for Democrats is because they best embody liberal principles, as idiotic and counterproductive. As a strategy, to re-repeat Cohn’s title formulation, that’s STUPID.

4 thoughts on “A note on "liberal apathy"

  1. Great! Great! Great! Bravo. My view as well. But we can move these folks to left by proving we will can support in November. I remember Newt Gingrich and gang and hope not to live thru a period again and this time with an even nutty right.

Comments are closed.