Ned Lamont: A Wise Netroots Gamble? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation
At the risk of having my left-leaning credentials pulled, I decided I would venture into a topic that has been ruminating in my head for some time. My goal is to understand and evaluate the objective of those who comprise the left in the netroots. More specifically, I wanted to discuss and debate the calculations and benefits of seeking the ouster of Joe Lieberman by Ned Lamont as well as the more recent rumblings to possibly target the removal of Jane Harman.
First, let me offer some caveats in order to lessen the possibility of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. One, in my effort to be pragmatic and realistic, I often find myself playing the role of devils advocate; and that includes looking at my own ideas and beliefs…perhaps because as a friend once told me, “everyone is motivated by the fear of appearing to be stupid". Secondly, despite my predisposition to being opinionated, I am always interested in more information and dialogue in order to refine the opinions I may hold. Lastly, if my observations or opinions are incorrect, I’m not afraid to admit as much. Don’t get me wrong, I can be stubborn and I enjoy a good argument, but when it’s all said and done, I see no benefit in holding onto indefensible positions. Self-deception isn’t a worthy objective.
To begin, I have, like many others, found myself at odds with Joe Lieberman. To be clear, I often disagree more with the words and the style he uses to deliver his positions than I do with a number of his actual positions. As I’ve watched Lieberman since his failed Vice Presidential bid, I have sensed a bruised ego and a fair amount of recalcitrant recoil. In that regard, in my opinion, he exhibits a similarity to Howard Dean that I find troubling.
An example might be helpful to demonstrate my thinking. As much as I don’t like the fact that we have the problem, I’m inclined to agree with Lieberman that we cannot simply walk away from Iraq despite the initial misguidance and subsequent miscalculations of this administration. While the debate tends to have two extremes…we stay until Iraq is a functional democracy cast in the image of America…or we pull out and let the prevailing influences fall where they may…I doubt either is realistic. I expect any solution will continue to cost large amounts of American dollars as well as precious political capital. While this country is locked in partisan rhetoric, I’m convinced that what we desperately need is some bottom line analysis that allows us to make some informed decisions.
At the same time, I fully disagree with the critique Lieberman has leveled at those who are critical of the war effort and the administration whereby he has asserted that said criticism is detrimental to the effort and undermining of the President’s plan for victory in Iraq. In my opinion, the reality is that the lack of a plan has created the criticism. His spoken remarks are consistent with my contention that he is overly sensitive to criticism and therefore he is prone to projecting his own heightened and, in my opinion, unhealthy sensitivity onto the issues he encounters. In classic psychological analysis, his defense of the President is transference of his own issues surrounding his difficulty with criticism.
There are other issues and examples that could be provided and discussed but I don’t think that is necessary. That brings me to the next question. In supporting Ned Lamont, who in my opinion is not likely to unseat Lieberman, what are the message and the objective of the netroots movement? Is Lamont an anger driven response to Lieberman’s ill-advised remarks and his cozy relationship with Bush and does he actually have the ability to defeat Lieberman? How much energy, effort, and cash should be focused on a single senate race in a single state?
First, let me make the argument in favor. While a Democrat, Lieberman has voted with the Republicans on a number of issues and he continues to support the President on the issue and the execution of the war in Iraq. Lamont has clearly stated he would not do the same. These are legitimate reasons for Connecticut voters to support Lamont. Nonetheless, polling seems to indicate Lamont is trailing Lieberman and would lose to Lieberman even if he won the Democratic Party nomination (assuming Lieberman ran as an independent in the November election). My concern is whether the netroots can afford to pour its energy into such a narrow focus in light of the probable outcome? At the same time, I'm not certain that the desires to unseat Lieberman are properly motivated and sufficiently reasoned.
Broadening the view, I can’t help but wonder about the impact of the eventual outcome of this effort to influence this particular senate race. Is the rationale to defeat Lieberman simply an issue of policy or has it also become an issue of personality? Would Lieberman’s position be so objectionable if the Democratic Party had a coherent and comprehensive plan for the Iraq situation? I tend to think the heightened focus on the difficulties in Iraq and the lack of a successful plan amplifies the problem. I understand the strategy that says let the Republicans flounder rather than propose detailed solutions to complex problems…if the election is going to be a referendum on the Republican Party, don’t provide distractions.
The risk of such a strategy is that it tends to make situations like Lieberman’s more visible such that they undermine the Party method and the message. He brings an unwanted focus on the contrast among Democrats that garners media attention which can then be used to portray the Democrats in disarray and disagreement. At the same time, if the efforts to defeat Lieberman fail…and the battle pushes him to change party affiliations after reelection, will it have been a reasonable venue in which to invest netroot capital? In the end, each Party must live with the realities that are entailed in achieving a 51% majority coalition.
It seems to me that mounting a publicized netroots campaign to oust Lieberman runs the risk of bringing more unwanted attention to the divisions and also provides fodder for the opposition to portray the far left as more intolerant and radical than the far right. Now the response from the left to these observations will likely be that they are simply honoring their principles and demonstrating the spine that they feel is absent in many establishment Democrats. Point taken.
There is truth in that response, however I keep returning my focus to the goal of victory. Perhaps I’m simply not a purist but in saying as much, I’m left to wonder if either party can hope to establish a majority constituency when the vocal left and right seek to drive doctrine such that incongruence is not tolerated. I’m just not convinced that can ever be a winning strategy...especially in a party that generally exhibits disparate views. Lieberman may not be ideal but what price are netroots Democrats willing to pay if they don’t succeed and could their efforts be better spent elsewhere? I’m not persuaded that that calculation has been discussed or derived.
I’ve often labored to understand the calculations of the left and the right when pushing for what I view as rigid compliance. In my thinking, I can’t fathom that either side believes they have enough votes and that they can assemble enough philosophical symmetry to obtain or maintain power while still remaining true to a purist platform. I think a simple understanding of the bell curve is all that is needed to dispel such beliefs. By necessity, if I’m correct, it seems obvious that both sides must then calculate the degree of tolerance they will entertain in order to create a majority coalition to obtain the necessary authority to implement change.
As I’ve read the thoughts of many on the left and the right, there is a tendency on both sides to talk about wholesale change such that they believe that the existing order needs to be cast aside. The premise is that there is no palpable distinction amongst establishment politicians and therefore there is no impetus for supporting the objectives of those who seek change. I comprehend the argument but, in attempting to understand the concerns, I’m left to struggle with the difficulties inherent in the notion of black and white thinking. Despite my efforts to understand or even adopt such thinking, I remain convinced that stasis and equilibrium is gray…or as I recall it said statistically…there is a natural regression to the mean. Therefore efforts to retool the government lead me to expect the same predominantly gray results.
Where does that leave us? Well, the charge that those in the establishment are all the same has some legitimacy. The problem is that it exists more by the nature of politics, sociology, and psychology than by any antagonistic or deliberate disregard for the changes sought by those on the left or the right. In my estimation, understanding this reality is the best argument one can make for limited government in that the more government seeks to limit, impose, or dictate to the society, the greater the risk of fomenting the margins. Simply stated, limited government provides less to oppose or change.
The ability to find equilibrium and balance is difficult…especially when those on opposite ends of the spectrum make value judgments about the beliefs and actions of those they disagree with. When this is prevalent, there is pressure to push the system out of balance in order to alter the society through the imposition of a set of beliefs. From the definitional perspective of political science, we are simply identifying the parameters of the social contract that is a necessary element of any successful government. If that contract fails, the potential for anarchy and revolution enters the equation. While America is clearly divided, I don’t believe we are poised or prepared for either and that has to be a factor in the current considerations.
There is another psychological concept that must be explored when attempting to understand the actions of opposition groups…it is called the “false consensus effect". Essentially, the concept states that if you form a group of individuals with similar thoughts and beliefs and they remain relatively isolated from opposing views or dissention, the certainty of their convictions will be falsely amplified by the constant reinforcement being provided.
An example might be helpful. Before undertaking a blog, most individuals (me included) believe they have some unique thoughts and insights to share. Typically, a degree of confidence exists that the thoughts and ideas have been vetted such that they are comprehensive and relatively conclusive. That often comes about because the blogger has shared these thoughts and ideas with friends and family who posses a similar mindset. Once an individual begins to broadcast those thoughts and ideas into the blogosphere, there is likely to be an array of unexpected or unexplored feedback from discordant individuals. All of a sudden, there is more data and more divergent perspectives to entertain and analyze.
The example isn’t perfect because blogs tend to draw like minded participants but that often takes some time to materialize. It is during the period of time when this is being defined that the blogger will experience what I am speaking about. I think the example is sufficient to demonstrate the concept. In looking at the group that can loosely be defined as left-leaning progressives, there is a tangible risk of false consensus just as there is on the right.
Coming back to the netroots, Lieberman, and Harman…I am convinced that all of the above issues are at play. Also at play is a period in American politics that has seen increasing apathy to vote, especially by those who are not sufficiently moved by any particular issues. This reality has led the two parties to a realization that the best way to influence the outcome of an election, which is largely driven by the motivations to turn out the vote, is to address the topics of those on the opposite ends of emotional and impassioned issues. The calculation is to determine if there are enough votes at either end of the spectrum to tip an election. Further, the party must evaluate if the right tone can be struck with the targeted groups such that they will vote in disproportionately large numbers.
This strategy has proven effective yet increasingly unpredictable and volatile. Each party also realizes that those who occupy the middle are constantly monitoring the degree to which either party has moved too far in either direction. Since this is ultimately the largest voting block, the rhetoric used by each party to entice those on the polar opposites must be constantly tempered and adjusted to prevent other wholesale voter defections. In so doing, the left and the right frequently feel they have been misled and manipulated while the middle feels ignored. Further, if the promises made are not fulfilled, the pendulum is put in motion and the equilibrium is again lost. At that point, each party must recalculate their constituency and adjust accordingly.
Unfortunately, often absent from this equation is any sincere emphasis or interest in public service on the part of many politicians. All too often they seek to serve their own interests and in so doing become focused on the manipulations needed to maintain office. This dynamic becomes a seesaw scenario whereby many voters become disenchanted and either look for alternative candidates or merely refuse to vote. Sadly, many of the alternative candidates simply learn to employ the same tactics and the process becomes self-perpetuating.
From my vantage point, the solutions are complex and difficult. Expecting those on the extremes (and I don’t use that as a pejorative…it is simply used to point out proximity) to compromise is a daunting task. The underlying beliefs are often derived from religious convictions and often weighted with moral judgments. Both groups feel their beliefs are threatened by the beliefs or non-beliefs of the other. Absent compromise, we are forced to continue down the path that requires voting out politicians that fail to meet our strict expectations in a never ending ideological tug of war…or, conversely, we can agree to return to a system where government provides a basic structure that allows for diversity and difference; one that wisely chooses to remain impartial beyond providing the means and the methods to insure fairness and equal opportunity with as few moral and religious judgments as possible. One might call it a live and let live equation.
That brings me back to asking if the netroots effort to support Lamont will ultimately help or hurt the movement. If I were a betting person, I think it is an overreach that has the potential to damage the credibility and diminish the influence that the movement has gained over the last few years. Again, my remarks are intentionally an attempt to look beyond the merits of Lamont vs. Lieberman and towards the larger goal of the netroots to effect structural changes. If by virtue of the defeat of Lamont the netroots were to simply be viewed as a vehicle to raise capital for left leaning candidates in order to deliver a message of protest, it will have ceased to be a viable change agent and will have evolved into being a faction on the fringe. A loss may also hinder the ability to raise funds for future candidates as all donors eventually make determinations about the feasibility of any groups recommended campaigns. Unfortunately, the line between vision and obscurity is measured by the success that is achieved. Whether that is fair or not, each miscalculation of those who represent themselves as visionaries raises the subsequent bar over which they and their successors must navigate.
I simply don’t see sufficient meaningful, permanent, or transformative results emanating from the current political positioning to unseat Lieberman. Perhaps that remark ignores the satisfaction that comes from prosecuting and fighting the battle and I apologize if I am minimizing the value and the meaning of that associated benefit. In no way am I attempting to diminish the sincerity or disregard the emotions of any group or individual. However, I find myself struggling to endorse a position that I perceive may be choosing to engage in a risky endeavor. The decision may offer some immediate satisfaction but it may also jeopardize the larger goals in that it could possibly be construed to be the prioritizing of narrow or punitive objectives over meaningful and sustainable changes.
In my opinion, promoting a change that risks simply fomenting an equally threatening outcome is not unlike the folly of the mythological character Sisyphus. It’s a lot of effort for little return. That is my concern regarding the effort to oust Lieberman even though I have significant issues with some of his positions. I’m just not sure there is an upside unless one can be certain Lamont can win. Granted, I may be wrong but the odds seem to be formidable. Keep in mind that the Lieberman vs. Lamont primary election will take place in early August. A loss by Lamont, so close to November, could have an additional adverse impact on the netroots ability to influence the midterm elections.
Ultimately, I’m hoping the netroots will be thoughtful and prudent in choosing to invest its hard earned and well deserved capital. Frustrating as it may be, sometimes victory includes accepting some calculable defeats. Remaining a viable change agent is essential. Like it or not, inherent in that is a significant amount of acceptance and compromise. In the end, all change should posses the potential to sustain itself. That can only be achieved if it seeks, at its core, to honor and adapt to the realities and complexities of the existing terrain and the full spectrum of the human condition. I fear that efforts to narrowly define and diminish the size of the Democratic tent in order to effect the desired change may be detrimental to the goals and successes of the Party in the long run.
A functional society is a formidable challenge. When all is said and done, in order to achieve some degree of equilibrium, both the citizenry and the leadership must be equally committed to a social contract. That commitment must contain a willingness to demonstrate the restraint that comes from knowing that no one group will ever be able to assert absolute influence over another and, in so acknowledging, we each must cease our futile efforts to dictate the lives of others. I have to trust that the people of Connecticut and California and next door will honor that contract and make thoughtful decisions accordingly. It is the ultimate responsibility of each citizen and it is the fabric of every successful society. If that doesn’t happen, the battle has been lost. Therein lays my passion.
The alternative is to squander energy and effort to assuage the demands of our often fragile egos…demands that can so easily succumb to requiring compliance in order to validate our chosen existence. In my way of thinking, that isn’t an existence worth fighting for. Likely, it is actually no existence at all.