The Argument by Matt Bai
The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics
by Matt Bai
Penguin. 336 pp. $25.95
The first six years of the new century were dark times for Democrats. Republicans appeared to be inexorably expanding their majorities in all the nation’s electoral institutions. With President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, Democratic strength in the modern era reached a low ebb. Not until last year, when the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, and a series of congressional scandals led to a Republican implosion and the loss of both houses of Congress, did light begin to shine on the party once more.
During its spell in the wilderness, the “progressive” faction of the Democratic party became greatly energized. Matt Bai, an enterprising and talented writer for the New York Times Magazine, spent a good deal of time circulating among the leading protagonists of this movement and recording what he heard and saw. The result is The Argument, a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour through what Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and himself a major figure among the new progressives, has called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”
Three interlocking elements comprise this coalition. One is a collection of billionaires (and millionaires) led by the financier George Soros, the insurance tycoon Peter Lewis, and a bevy of Hollywood icons. These joined together to create something called the Democracy Alliance, which serves as a clearinghouse for their political pocket-change. Most of these ultrarich people are baby-boomers galvanized by the Iraq war, and some of them by nostalgic memories of their earlier opposition to the American role in Vietnam.
The second group is the “netroots,” or liberal bloggers. A number of these online commentators—the top two are Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the proprietor of dailykos.com, and Jerome Armstrong of MyDD.com—run hard-hitting political websites that draw over a half-million readers a day. The bloggers tend to be thirty-something white males, generally lacking experience in hands-on electoral battles.
The third element is a complex of grassroots campaign organizations (including MoveOn.org and ACORN), political-action committees (Simon Rosenberg’s New Democratic Network), and Left-leaning think tanks (John Podesta’s Center for American Progress) that can help provide candidates with a message and also turn out the vote.
According to Bai, the new progressive coalition is primarily united by what it is against. Its opposition to the Iraq war is ferocious. The person of George W. Bush, who has been described by one activist as a “chicken hawk” bent on instituting a “dictatorship,” elicits emotions of universal fear and loathing. Bush aside, almost any policy initiative associated with the Republican party is regarded as stupid, malicious, or both.
But the new progressives have great difficulty in saying what they are for. Although Bai reports that intellectual circles on the Left have put forth many technocratic policy prescriptions, mostly aimed at extending the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society, the movement lacks any sort of larger vision. A typical statement from the Democracy Alliance proclaimed support for such vagaries as “the highest quality education, affordable health care, retirement security, and the opportunity to earn a living wage.” Similarly, MoveOn.org was able to distill only three goals from a series of tightly scripted “meet-ups” held across the country: “health care for all, energy independence, and democracy restored.”
Despite this paltry output, the new progressives are convinced not only of their intellectual superiority but of their political acumen. They see only two possible explanations for the errant behavior of Americans in the “fly-over” states who remain stubbornly in the Republican column. One is that red-state residents tend to be Christian evangelicals who do not know any better than to “vote against their own economic self-interest.” The other is that they have been manipulated by Republican operatives who, however dim-witted their policies, are cunning masters of electioneering. Some bloggers also complain that establishment Democrats, as the Daily Kos has explained, “don’t care [enough] about winning” to engage in the sort of campaign skullduggery that is routine for the GOP.
With such convictions as the backdrop, debate inside the Democratic party’s “Democratic wing,” Bai shows, is less about policy than about tactics and strategy. But even at that level, the new progressives have enjoyed success only on the margins. Their most publicly visible foray, Ned Lamont’s successful bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut in 2006, ended in ashes when the centrist incumbent Joseph Lieberman won the general election running on an independent ticket.
In digesting defeats like that one, Bai writes, the new progressives oscillate between denial that anything is wrong with their message and blaming their messengers. The denial reflex is best expressed in a proposal by George Lakoff, a linguistics professor and liberal activist, to “reframe” Democratic policies, not by rethinking the policies themselves but simply by changing the words used to describe them. The blame-the-messenger position is expressed best in the claim, leveled by the Daily Kos and others, that too many establishment Democrats continue to commit the strategic error of searching for the “mythical middle” of the American electorate.
As an up-close and personal account of the new progressive movement, Bai’s book hits the mark; it succeeds handsomely in bringing to life and illustrating the passions of a number of the leading luminaries of today’s Left. Although Bai writes sympathetically about some of these activists and holds his own political cards close to the vest, it is clear that he is ultimately highly skeptical of their project and leans more to the sort of Clintonism (Bill Clintonism, that is) associated with the Democratic Leadership Council and efforts to find a “third way” between Left and Right. No political movement, he maintains, will enjoy sustainable success if it does not stand for something. Rather than reframing and repositioning, the best way to win elections is to craft a coherent public philosophy that can credibly claim to advance the public interest.
But if this is sensible enough, The Argument also suffers from weaknesses that are akin, ironically, to those Bai pinpoints in the politics of the new progressives. One is a thin grasp of how modern liberalism arrived at its present sorry condition. Why, by the turn of the 21st century, had the Democratic party come to resemble “nothing so much as a hollow-eye, stubble-faced craps player in the early hours of the morning”? Like the billionaires and bloggers, Bai himself does not seem to remember the issues—racial preferences, crime, abortion, taxes, the expansion of the welfare rolls—that drove many Democratic voters into the arms of the GOP.
By the same token, Bai helps to maintain the fiction—and it is very much a fiction—that the new progressives are outsiders “storming the gates” of the Democratic party and engaged in a great argument with its center. While it is true that most started out as political neophytes, they remained outside party councils for all of a New York minute. Rather than a struggle of outsiders versus insiders, what emerges conspicuously in Bai’s account is the rapidity with which the insurgents have been brought into the orbit of leadership.
The Argument is replete with scenes of major Democratic politicians prostrating themselves before the progressives at events like the YearlyKos convention. After the third or fourth such vignette, the claim of an ongoing power struggle in the party rings hollow. Given how little Bai thinks the bloggers actually have to offer, apart from “profanity, hyperbole, and conspiracy theories,” one cannot but be struck by the respect they are paid by Washington Democrats.
Finally, one wishes Bai had gone further in evaluating the consequences of all this ferment for the Democratic party. Developing new ideas may not be the forte of the new progressives, but enforcing adherence to old ones is. They have already become the energized base of the party. If they succeed in destroying what remains of its center, what then? The coming election season may offer an answer.