The Purists of the Left: Sidewalk Superintendents of Politics

Over at The People’s View, rootless_e has a post looking at the Professional Left.  Down in the comments is something I’ve seen from a lot of the “purity” side of the Left:

But consider this. Why have Republicans been in thrall to their own “purists”? They have been dragged further and further to the right, and the national along with them.

On occasion, I’ve noted more than a little jealousy from the purist left when it comes to the purist right.  They look at what is happening in the Republican Party, and wonder why the Democratic Party isn’t doing the same for them.   The reason quite simply is one that they don’t want to hear.

You have to remember (as I do) that the far right, the “purists” on the conservative side, weren’t always a major factor in Republican politics.   Even into the ’90’s, they were just one of many bases inside the party, a group that was given some consideration to, and at least lip service to their “issues.”  But, what was happening was that the evangelical right and the ultra-conservative right were moving into the local party’s structure.  They were the ones who ran for offices like town boards, town clerks, school boards.  They showed up to do the “grunt work” of stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, and getting out the vote.  They reliably showed up to vote in primaries and general elections.  Over time, they became party officials, with the ability to select and recruit candidates for office.  As their party officials moved up the chain, they became able to set platform policy for state parties, and then the national party.  But note something.  This didn’t occur overnight.  It took them the better part of three decades to do it.

The end result?  The “purists of the Right” are major players in the Republican Party.  They set policy, they select candidates.  Consider the past election, the “Tea Party movement,” and how many Republican politicians who did not meet the standard of purity fell in primaries.  Besides having a lot of primary challengers – and the backing of party officials – you need to remember that most of the challengers were either elected officials or prior candidates.  In other words, the ultraconservatives “looked to their bench,” and they had one.

Now, contrast that to the purists on the Left.  They want the same capability, but they’re ignoring the whole work your way up aspects.   As NCrissieB put it:

And yes, too many have No Little League, High School, College, Minors, Or Regular Season But I Expect To Start In The World Series Syndrome. (NLLHSCMORSBIETSITWSS, for short.)

and as I said in an earlier post here

The problem is that when it comes time to look for progressive candidates – particularly ones who can win – or push the party to move in a certain direction, it turns out that the candidates don’t magically appear, or the party doesn’t seem to want to move.   The reasons for that are quite simple. There aren’t any progressives with experience at the local level in  politics in your area, and the local party has never heard of you – or the netroots.

In other words, when it came time to make good on all the threats of primarying Blue Dogs, of going after any Democrat who had antagonized them, it turned out that they were “all bark and no bite.”  Quite simply for all their thundering rhetoric, when it came time to deliver, it turned out to be nothing.  The ability to identify, recruit, and run a primary candidate’s campaign requires a local  presence.  It requires people “on the ground” and  voters to make it happen.   It takes time, years of effort to build the local party, move up to higher levels, to build a “bench” of candidates for higher office in the lower elected offices.   None of which the purists on the Left seem to be willing to do.

There’s a pejorative term that gets used by construction workers:  Sidewalk superintendents.  They’re the people who stand on the sidewalk next to a project, and expound on how it should be done, what the workers are doing wrong, and how much better it would be if they had their way.  Ask them to pitch in, and they’ll have some excuse as to why they can’t.  The purists of the Left?  They’re the sidewalk superintendents of politics.  They’ve got a lot of opinions, they want to be in charge, but they don’t want to do the work.  That’s why the Democratic Party isn’t in thrall to them.



Filed under Politics

19 responses to “The Purists of the Left: Sidewalk Superintendents of Politics

  1. Fonsia

    Awesome post, Norbrook.

    Of course, the purist right was dismissed quite effectively by Buckley back in the 50s, but by ’64 they had themselves their very own presidential nominee. When Goldwater lost, they didn’t whine about it. They set about taking control of their party, as you describe. And here we are.

    • Thanks. 🙂 What I see the frustrati missing from the whole picture is that the reason the far right is able to control the Republican Party is that they’ve … taken control. If an elected official irritates them enough or steps out of line, they have a set of candidates ready to primary them and the apparatus in place to get them on the primary ballot.

      Most of the purist Left have no idea of how to get a candidate on the primary ballot in the first place, let alone a handy list of potential candidates to run. Let’s say they get irritated at Heath Shuler. OK, yes, he’s a Blue Dog, no question. You want to primary him? Who in his district is a good progressive to run? How do you get on the primary ballot in NC? How are you going to get your voters to the primary polls? Most of them can’t answer any of those questions, and to be honest, they can’t even answer them in their own back yards. But unless and until you’re able to do things like that, don’t expect the Party to take you seriously.

  2. Excellent post, Norbrook. We have to start now for 2012 and 2014 and 2016 and 2018.. The left actually has some grass roots … we just need to pull some weeds to get it moving again.

    One disadvantage that the right has in that they have institutionalized their far right is that they can no longer move back to the center. In a center left country they have managed to marginalize themselves. The last few election cycles for them purged all their reasonable and moderate members and their winning requires that they move the country to the right. It is not going to happen with either the demographics or on the issues they have chosen to make their stand on (“Tax cuts for the rich or die!!” and “Medicare for no one!!”).

    • Exactly. While there are still pockets (mostly in the Northeast) where the “old” Republican Party has sway, the problem is that even they are gradually being supplanted by the far right. The end result is a lot of former Republicans, who, while not being liberals, are much more pragmatic than what’s left. In states like Texas, Arizona, etc., the “moderate Republican” is virtually non-existent when it comes to the party heirarchy. While the far left, the purists, may want that for the Democratic Party, the problem they have is that none of them want to put in the work or time it’s going to take to make it a reality.

      • chicagobama

        And what’s frustrating is that the progressives are out of position to take advantage of the far right purity. They can’t field candidates who will appeal to both progressives and disaffected Republicans because, as you said, they have no bench strength.

        I don’t think the far left is interested in filling the gap that’s been created by Republican purity. They’re more about short-term gains and getting angry about the current situation.

        Building a strong foundation takes a lot of work, and much of the work is hard and happens out of the spotlight. Non-pragmatists don’t have the strength of character to do that work – they’re all about stomping their feet about the current situation. All sound and fury, no solutions.

  3. I agree, Norbrook. However, I should note that veterans in my state party disagree that we should look at local candidates as “the bench” or “farm system” for state and federal races. They say local candidates usually run because a specific issue tweaks their interest in a specific office. Those candidates aren’t thinking “I want to begin a career in politics.” They’re thinking “I could do that job better than that person.”

    I think those veterans are right, usually. But Florida elects 27 members of Congress (29 after the 2010 Census) and less than 180 non-judicial state offices. There are thousands of local elected offices in Florida. Most of those local officials neither want nor would be qualified for state or federal office. But if only a handful do and are … they are candidates with hands-on experience in campaigning and governing.

    In the meantime, if you elect good Democrats to local and state offices … you get better local and state government. And many Democrats are now learning how important that is.

    • They’re right about why people run for local office, but they’re also wrong about them not being “a bench.” While not all – even most – have any desire for higher office, it’s still one of the first places that parties tend to look for candidates. Sometimes there’s arm-twisting involved, and sometimes a local official decides that he or she has had quite enough of politician X. 😀

      When the purists were advocating staying home or not voting to “send a message,” right there it told me that they were terminally out of touch with the party as a whole. They were focusing on Congress, and ignoring the thousands of local and state races which were going on. Which is why instead of just having to worry about reclaiming the House and keeping the White House in 2012, we now have to try to regain a number of state legislatures. All the sudden horror at states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere with their state laws attempting to roll back progressive gains? That’s what you get when you sit it out.

  4. Great post. If the professional left were really concerned with more than raising money for themselves, they would actually do like the GOP did and recruit good candidates. But I don’t really think their motives are more than hurting the president and making money off it. It seems to be working for them, unfortunately.

    • Thanks. The thing is that it’s not that the PL and their minions aren’t recruiting candidates, it’s that they have no hand in the game where it counts, or interest in getting into the game. Having “boots on the ground” matters, because if you’re going to recruit, you have to know who you should be going to. Once you’ve recruited them, you have to get them on the ballot. And so on. What I’ve seen from the PL and their minions is that they have lots of ways to make money off of it, but not a lot of action.

  5. gc

    Brilliant my friend. The day they get their hands dirty is the day I MAY pay them attention.

  6. soonergrunt

    The other side of that equation is that the Democratic party was taken over by the far left in the 1970s. They, as extremists do, ran the party into the ground with answers that passed ideological tests but did not address the questions of the day. The voters turned against them in droves. The conservative surge of the ’80s and ’90s had help. As this effect magnified, the liberal coalitions of the ’60s and ’70s split as each independent interest group (unions, women’s groups, racial minorities, etc) each sought to maintain their individual power-bases, sometimes at the expense of their erstwhile partners.
    Ted Kennedy primaried Carter, attacking him from the left, and wounding him for Reagan to kill.
    The reverse is happening now in the Republican party. Their answer to everything is to cut taxes on the rich, and cut government expenditures on the non-rich, non-white population. This passes their ideological purity tests, but it doesn’t answer the pressing questions for the vast majority of Americans regardless of their race, gender, or especially their income level–even for the very wealthy. The fact that party discipline within Republican ranks was stronger in 2004 than it was in Democratic ranks in 1980 is the only thing really keeping the story from being a complete mirror effect.
    The country is slowly moving left, as younger people and especially minorities desert the Republicans. But this has nothing to with Jane Hamsher or Kos. Kos, to his credit, at least sees the world the way it is, and can see what’s coming for what it will be. Jane and most of the others–not so much.

    • One of the things I find amusing about many of today’s liberals is their canonization of Jimmy Carter. As you pointed out, back in 1980, he was attacked from the left, now they think he’s a saint. 🙄

      I think Kos may see what’s coming for what it is, but where he ended up on my shit list is that he very cynically is riding the poutrage horse for all it’s worth. Just my opinion, Kos is more interested in what makes him money rather than political movements as a whole.

      • soonergrunt

        I wouldn’t argue much with your characterization of Kos. He sees reality for what is is (mostly) and is trying to make a buck off of it. But I can at least respect that more than the kind of behavior one sees from Jane and the rest, which has no basis in reality at all.

  7. Bobfr

    Fortunately, being an Obama Democrat rather than a purist, I have many folk to join with as we work through the nitty gritty of building a strong campaign, and to whatever extent possible, reconstruct the damage done by the 2010 sit-it-out ‘progressive purists’ to the House of Representatives, to many State Governments, and, most importantly and already demonstrably, to millions of Americans.

    I was encouraged by the appearance of the emergence of House Majority PAC and, as The Hill noted today, their quite clear message – “… lawmakers in the [Democratic] party are more than happy, messaging-wise, to set themselves up as champions of programs like Medicare and Medicaid while casting Republicans as defenders of millionaires and billionaires.”

    So, we have an easy metric by which to determine whether anyone claiming to be a progressive, a liberal, on the left are really supporting the Democratic Party or – as we know for several – are merely hiding their true libertarian/Republican affiliation behind the term ‘progressive.’

    If these ‘progressives’ do not focus on supporting the President and all Democratic candidates who have already clearly delineated their support for Medicare and Medicaid and their intention to have the rich pay their fair share, as opposed to the Republicans, then we know them for what they are – hypocrites – and move on.

    For us, our task is to leverage the stunningly cruel Ryan/Republican legislation passed by the House. They explicitly have four objectives: more tax cuts for the wealthy, destroy Medicare and Medicaid, crush the recovery (i.e., fewer jobs in the next 16 months), and have the majority of Americans pay for and suffer the consequences. Our day to day task – in any venue, with any person whom we can have a conversation – is to speak accurately and persistently about that reality. And, the Republicans in WI, OH, FL, etc., have mightily armed us with all the facts about that Republican reality.

    Yes.We.Can. …. Do.More.Together.

  8. rian90

    Give us some credit, please. This isn’t only about ‘having the right’ candidates and the time to promote progressive values. The far right has an entire population of low income, poorly educated, angry people who hate taxes. Add the angry religious people who believe the only way is to tell everyone else how to live and you have a base, a place to start. I have met a few educated people who are Tea Baggers, but they sincerely believe they will be rich someday and want to protect their interests. Most of the people I know on the left and in the middle have more education, are less idealistic and more pragmatic, believe that taxes are a necessary evil, and do not want religion in politics. Those I know in person that I would call far left are mostly conspiracy theorists or people who hang on every twitter they find that tells them the world is coming to an end unless they do something about it.

    It is going to be much more difficult to put together a progressive ‘tea party’ than it was a conservative ‘tea party’. Those on the left are just to smart to allow themselves to be least most of them…although those conspiracy theorists folks are getting close. When I look at my political ideals over the past few years, my views have not changed. However, I no longer tell people I am a ‘liberal’ or a ‘progressive’. I use the label pragmatic and I am ready to attack the left as well as the right. I didn’t move there because my views on issues changed, but because I am sick of people on the left and right attempting to use other people like pawns, lying to us, using hyperbole and conspiracies to whip up the masses.

    From my chair, most of my friends feel the same way I do. We are sick of politics, admire Obama for his cool realistic approach, and would NEVER in a million years vote for Grayson or Kucinich. Once upon a time, maybe. But I am sick of the Donald Trumps of the progressives just as I am sick of the far right. Give us some credit..we are too smart to be used by the powers that be, unlike the Tea Party members.

    • In some ways, you’re missing the major point. The far right didn’t just come up with candidates, or tap into the low income/low information voter’s anger. They took over the Republican Party’s structure starting at the local level, and they started it decades ago. The Tea Party would have been, 20 or 30 years ago, a bunch of annoyingly loud people but would never have had the ability to get a candidate on the primary ticket, or if they had, their candidate would have been crushed.

      Today, when you look at the Republican Party, at the local and state level, most of the committee members, the party chairs were far-right activists, and still hold that philosophy. They have control of who gets on the Republican Party ballot, and they have a major role in setting the Party platform. The success of the Tea Party, no matter how much money the Koch brothers threw at it or Fox News covered it was due in great part to the fact that the Republican Party in those areas were already on the far right.

      Now, for the purists on the left, the problem is that they want the same influence, or think that the Democratic Party should dance to their tune, without having any of that control of the Party apparatus.

      • rian90

        Absolutely, Norbrook. But you can’t build that influence without having constituents. A Kucinich-like candidate might be re-elected in his own district, but he is not going to be elected nation-wide or even state-wide because he does not appeal to the broad base of democrats out there voting. It would be very difficult for someone that pleases the far left fringe of the party to actually get elected outside of a small district.

        Of course, maybe I am missing the point. I forget that politics is really just a game and it is the players who count, not the people. The people have been relegated to numbers, figures, and spreadsheets. The far right and the far left make money off of this game, publishing books, starting huge blogs like DK, making TV appearances, etc. Could it be that all this ‘far fringe’ of both parties are really just trying to manipulate the people and make money or gain power?

        The pure left can’t gain the same footholds on the Democrats because they do not represent most of the people..a broad diverse group of folks who are educated, are union members, or are minority groups who know the right doesn’t have time for their issues. It is a tiny group that can really be called far left and they don’t represent the people. The right, on the other hand, tapped into the anger regarding taxes, the religious bigotry, the racism, and other emotional issues that bind a group of ignorant and poor individuals together. That group is not small and it is powerful because its built on emotional triggers..abortion, no taxes (code word: small government), etc. What emotional issues bind the far left? We are too smart, too practical, and too jaded to let a small fringe group of people with issues that are idealistic and unrealistic actually pull us together. The Tea Party folks read Ann Rand and see it as a bible of the right. Most of us know better.

        George W. Bush was able to pull together the progressives..he is gone and we are falling apart, fracturing. That is why we can’t grow the party in small towns and rural areas…the activists are progressives and idealists, the people are much more moderate and pragmatic. Activists want idealistic progressives, not pragmatic moderates. We won’t win until we start redefining who we are and focusing on issues that actually motivate the people to vote for our candidates.

        I probably missed the point again..but I am not an insider political guru like you are. 🙂 I am just a mom who cares about the future for her children…just one of the people.

        • The problem is that what you’re defining as “Activist” and “idealistic progressives” comes out to being “I don’t want to get involved with the local Democratic Party.” You have to remember that the activists, the “idealists” can form the base in the primary. That’s where your get to push the ideology. Then you start working on the general electorate. I live in a small, very, very rural area, and yes, I’m pragmatic as all get out. But at the same time, I’m also a liberal. Now, our concerns are different from what an urban area’s concern are. I also know that when I first moved back here, there wasn’t a single Democrat in local elected office. There’s now more. I had very little to do with that, but that’s change. I might also note that we now have, for the first time in most people’s living memory, a Democratic Congressman. If you give up before you even try, then yes, you deserve to lose.

  9. rian90

    Actually, when I refer to activist, I don’t mean local supporters. I see a huge disconnect between the local activists and those that call themselves activists on the internet. 🙂 Here in Florida, its the moderates that get elected, like it or not. And we have a very distinct lack of good candidates, probably due to the demographics here. Unfortunately, I don’t see the idealists as the base here. The base are the union members, usually moderate working class folks, African Americans, and Hispanics…toss in a few of us over-educated people who work in the few industries left in Florida or for the state…although those numbers are shrinking. Our ‘activists’ are far to the middle compared to the ones on the net. They are real and yet their values are progressive.