Scott Winship: A Must Read For Democrats genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation


Following on the heels of my latest foray into the jaws of the political beast, I thought I would direct readers to an excellent article that summarizes the current conflict within the Democratic Party using the best available data and a fully reasoned and rational approach.

Scott Winship is one of the founding participants at a newly created website called The Democratic Strategist. Specifically, Scott is the managing editor and he routinely posts articles on the site. He has done a number of postings that have sought to understand the influence and impact of the netroots on the Democratic Party using available statistical data. He recently wrote an article that appeared in The American Prospect that can be found here. I highly recommend reading the entire article as the following excerpts are simply an inadequate sampling.

Tuesday’s Connecticut primary race between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont is not about the netroots. The outcome will be a referendum on Lieberman’s Iraq stance, his coziness with President Bush, and his attention to his constituents, as well as Lamont’s qualifications. But you can bet that if Lieberman loses, both the netroots -- the online activists organized around political blogs -- and their moderate critics will agree that the netroots community is responsible.

That’s because neither side has forgotten the bitterness of the 2003 fight over Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy or last year’s battle over the Democratic National Committee chairmanship. More importantly, both sides anticipate that the netroots will play an influential role in the next presidential election and beyond. The netroots community portrays itself as non-ideological but rabidly partisan pragmatists whose only goal is to put Democrats back in power. To their critics, netroots activists are amateurish ideologues whose across-the-board liberalism will drive the party off a cliff.

In these two paragraphs, Winship has hit on the essence of the arguments that underlie the struggle that is being waged within the Party. All too often we have a tendency to ignore historical factors that are fundamental in guiding current strategies...that is not the case with the Winship analysis and that is why it is so compelling.

Reading the major blogs oriented toward the netroots community, it is difficult to discern issue priorities or positions that are shared and emphasized by a strong majority of netroots members, with two important exceptions to which I will return later. In this sense, the netroots really are non-ideological. Moulitsas and others have repeatedly described themselves as primarily concerned with winning and building a majority. Hence, they will generally support relatively moderate candidates in red states. Their only litmus test, they claim, is that Democrats must not shy away from or undermine the party.

Take note of the fact that Winship points out that the netroots "will generally support moderate candidates in red states", an important point in that it demonstrates that the netroots are aware of the realities that are at play in the left / right divide. When he comes back to this point, he supports a contradiction previously discussed here at Thought Theater...the fact that the netroots is to the left of a majority of voters such that it is counterintuitive to believe that if the Party moves the netroots prefers...that the Democratic Party can assemble a majority voting block.

When it comes to presidential politics, however, if the netroots were truly non-ideological, we would expect to see signs that they accept that the national party cannot be as liberal as they are. But in the Pew data, fully 70 percent of netroots members wanted the party to become more liberal, and there were as many members who wanted the party to “die off and be replaced" as there were who wanted it to become more centrist.

The netroots generally believe that down the line, the progressive agenda is fully compatible with winning presidential elections and achieving and maintaining a congressional majority. Indeed, many in the netroots doubt that ideology is important at all, believing that campaign tactics, messaging, and political discipline and backbone count for much more than issue positions. Of course, if that were true, there would be no need to run moderate candidates in red states.

Hence the contradiction and the reason I have argued that the effort to unseat Lieberman is a risky strategy. Let me be isn't that Lieberman doesn't deserve to be removed or that Connecticut shouldn't elect Lamont if they so choose. The problem is that the netroots can't unseat Lieberman in a vacuum and the more visible the effort, the more difficult it becomes to assemble a majority voting block because the Connecticut effort will likely be interpreted nationally (by voters with an assist from Rove and the RNC) to mean that the netroots are determined to pull the Party to the left.

Let me point out a flawed conflation of data that is being used by many to discount the significance of this particular argument. Time and again I see the citation that contends that because a majority of Americans favor a withdrawal from Iraq (the latest data shows that a majority of Americans favor a withdrawal within a year), the netroots is ideologically aligned with mainstream Americans. The problem is that the sentiment on the war cannot be extrapolated to conclude that a majority of Americans will align with the is merely a measure of disfavor with the war...but cannot be concluded to be a fundamental leftward voter shift.

Thought Theater previously discussed the "Hillary Meter", an ongoing Rasmussen survey that gauges her proximity to the center point of voter left / right sentiment...and she remains notably left of center. At the same time Clinton is seen to be a DLC centrist and that puts her too far right for the netroots. Therefore, one cannot reasonably conclude that the majority sentiment on Iraq...despite the fact that it coincides with netroot sentiment...will translate into a netroots defined Democratic voter majority.

Nevertheless, evidence of this position can be found in the Pew data, where 40 percent of the netroots said that Dean’s willingness to take unpopular positions was the most important reason (other than his issue positions themselves) to vote for him. The less fanciful but still dubious position that the public is on board with the netroots’ agenda is also well-represented in the data. Forty percent said that John Kerry lost the 2004 election in part because his positions were too conservative. Fully two-thirds of the netroots took one of these two positions. From these perspectives, it logically follows that an ideological critique of the party that takes the form of opposition to down-the-line liberalism is tantamount to undermining the party, reinforcing Republican talking points, advocating a Republican-lite agenda.

The netroots could be right that full-throated liberalism is compatible with Democratic electoral success. There may be no reason to worry that Feingold blew away the competition in the latest Daily Kos presidential straw poll. But netroots members should care about whether they are right or not, and make the case that they are, rather than demonize moderate elements of the party that are every bit as dedicated to building a Democratic majority as they are. If netroots activists’ assumptions about electoral viability are wrong, then despite their intentions, they are working against their stated goal. As members of the reality-based community, we all ought to be willing to step back and question our biases. Whether for the sake of the Democratic Party or for the sake of progressivism, we must.

Winship's conclusion raises the same questions and concerns that I've shared here at Thought Theater in the Political Strategy series that can be found and accessed here. I fully agree that it is time for Democrats to begin an unbiased evaluation of the political realities. Failure to do so may well lead to a further schism within the Party...but more importantly it may well spell defeat in 2006 and foster and foment an insurmountable obstacle for the 2008 presidential election.

Daniel DiRito | August 3, 2006 | 4:09 PM
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