Posted on | April 25, 2010 | 18 Comments
Newsweek does a feature story about Annabelle Park, who started the liberal answer to the Tea Party movement and discovered an unfortunate truth:
They were angry. They hated the Tea Party, and the Republican Party. They wanted to get even. One audience member said America was under the thumb of oligarchs and denounced “moneyed interests.” A few people hissed when Sarah Palin’s name was mentioned. . . . A man representing Code Pink, the left-wing protest group, said that “racism was the basis for everything that’s going on right now.” He also seemed to have a real problem with “fear-based rhetoric” and Northrop Grumman. . . .
[W]hen someone asked how many people in the room were Republicans, all 80 hands remained down. “I like the civility idea, but I hate the Tea Party people,” said attendee Karen Anderson.
I believe this is what Julian Sanchez would call “epistemic closure.”
(Hat-tip: Hot Air Headlines.) Also, via Instapundit, Jim Hoft observes: “It looks like caffeine and raving liberalism is a violent mix.”
UPDATE: Annabelle Park’s experience reminds me of the 2002-06 era of liberal impotence, when the general consensus within the left-wing blogosphere was that Democrats were losing elections because they weren’t angry enough or, alternatively, they weren’t liberal enough. This was the impetus, for example, of the doomed Ned Lamont campaign.
This is the obverse of Sanchez’s “epistemic closure” thesis, you see. Michael Brendan Dougherty has noted a tendency of conservatives to argue, “If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.” Yet I think no reasonable observer can deny that what has become known as “Dougherty’s Law” is equally applicable to the Left. The activist grassroots of both partisan coalitions are comprised of True Believers, who want leadership that shares not only their specific policy preferences, but also the vehement certainty of their beliefs.
The Coffee Party attendees who rail against “moneyed interests” and Northrop Grumman want to have their beliefs validated by leaders who give articulate expression to their beliefs. In a two-party political system, there is always a gap between the seething passion of the True Believer and the carefully calculated rhetoric of successful politicians, who must win the support of a great many voters who are not True Believers.
What we may call the Belief Gap in politics causes problems in two ways: When the party is losing elections, True Believers demand that the party double-down on its defining ideological principles, the passions that excite the grassroots “base” of the party. When the party wins elections, on the other hand, True Believers quickly become disillusioned and complain that they’ve been sold out by the party.
As an ex-Democrat, I’ve seen this pattern on both sides of the aisle. I well remember how liberals, disappointed at Walter Mondale’s failure to defeat Reagan in 1984, convinced themselves that Michael Dukakis was a sure-fire winner for 1988. And no sooner had I become a conservative in the mid-1990s than I found myself horrified that the GOP had nominated Bob Dole, the “Senator From Archer Daniels Midland” whom Newt Gingrich famously called “the tax collector for the Welfare State.” (I voted for Libertarian Harry Browne in ’96.)
While there are parallels between Left and Right, however, it is an error to assume that Left and Right are perfectly analogous. The most successful Republican president of the 20th century was Ronald Reagan, who was accepted by conservative True Believers as one of their own. And the worst Republican presidents of the 20th century were Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, both of whom embraced liberal policies to the consternation of True Believers. Meanwhile, the most successful Democratic president of the past 50 years, Bill Clinton, succeeded only because he was willing to abandon many of the liberal policies favored by his party’s True Believers.
The passions of True Believers are necessary to, but are not sufficient for, political success. Obviously, it helps if the True Believers believe in things that are actually true. An irrational hostility to “moneyed interests,” pursued as a matter of principle and policy, can never result in economic prosperity. Nor will Code Pink-style pacifism result in sound foreign policy.
Beyond the question of whether True Believers are committed to genuine truths, however, success in politics depends on many factors that have nothing to do with correct ideology. For example, there is the matter of backing the right candidate. As I’ve often said, good candidates win elections and bad candidates lose.
The True Believers who recruited Ned Lamont learned that lesson the hard way, as did the Republicans who chose John McCain as their 2008 presidential candidate. (See my American Spectator articles, “How John McCain Lost” and “You Did Not Lose.”)
Ronald Reagan did not succeed merely because he was conservative, but because he possessed in abundance the attributes of a successful politician. I am pro-Sarah Palin and would prefer her as the 2012 Republican nominee over any of the other names currently being bandied about. And yet, when some of our readers asked me to condemn Quin Hillyer’s criticism of Palin, I didn’t do it. I disagree with much of what Hillyer said, but thought some of his criticism was both valid and constructive.
And Hillyer’s criticism of Palin calls attention to another key to political success that True Believers routinely neglect, namely the importance of organizational competence.
Having spent a lot of time doing close-range coverage of political campaigns at every level, I find it impossible to overemphasize this point: You can have a great candidate who is 100% right on all the issues and still lose, if the campaign doesn’t have a team of competent operatives and advisers.
Say what you will about Barack Obama, his campaign team was astoundingly competent, running a “ground game” that impressed me when I got a chance to see them in action in the May 2008 West Virginia primary. Their commitment to Obama’s “organize everywhere” philosophy was why they were ultimately able to win in states like North Carolina and Indiana that some had considered terra incognita for liberal Democrats. Team Obama made strategic mistakes — I still say his July ’08 European tour was a blunder — but their tactical superiority was inarguable. And when the economic meltdown of September 2008 arrived, it was Team Maverick that hit the panic button, committing the strategic blunder that proved decisive in the election.
The rising anxieties of the grassroots Left, as exemplified by the angry expressions at this Coffee Party meeting reported by Newsweek, are at one level the usual antics of True Believers, impatient to see their party move more rapidly to implement policies favored by core constituency groups. But there’s more to it than that.
The Democratic Party’s True Believers have watched the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement, which has shown the same capacity to organize discontent that characterized Team Obama in 2008. Given that kind of fired-up grassroots enthusiasm to work with, if the Republican Party can field attractive candidates, supported by competent campaign teams, the era of Hope and Change will suffer a serious setback in November.
At some level, the Coffee Party people sense this impending disaster, and it fills their hearts with Fear and Loathing.
UPDATE II: Now a Memeorandum thread. I’m grateful for the linkage from Da Tech Guy, Midnight Blue, Virginia Right and the Tiger on Politics. And I’m amused by the utter cluelessness of Thomas Friedman. Tom: Nothing prevents you from attending a Tea Party and actually talking to the people involved. It’s called “reporting.”