Centrists Attack, Liberals Strike Back: Should Democrats Copy the Political Tactics of the Right?

This question came to my mind recently, while observing an interesting back and forth in the news between two factions of the Democratic Party.

Centrists Attack, Liberals Strike Back

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

A lobbying group called Third Way published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Cowan and Kessler: Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats.” Inside they say, “The political problems of liberal populism are bad enough. Worse are the actual policies proposed by left-wing populists.” They go on to attack policy proposals for Social Security and Medicare supported by Senator Elizabeth Warren and others. This excerpt characterizes the picture they paint of Sen. Warren’s wing of the democratic party:

The movement relies on a potent “we can have it all” fantasy that goes something like this: If we force the wealthy to pay higher taxes (there are 300,000 tax filers who earn more than $1 million), close a few corporate tax loopholes, and break up some big banks then—presto!—we can pay for, and even expand, existing entitlements.

Liberal democrats lashed back, as in the New York Times, “Coalition of Liberals Strikes Back at Criticism From Centrist Democrats.” At least four advocacy groups, including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, urged their members to contact Congregational Democrats who are affiliated with Third Way. Senator Warren wrote a letter to CEOs of six large banks, asking them to reveal the groups they help finance, implicitly raising questions about the funding sources for Third Way.

In the meantime, Paul Krugman debunked the economic arguments in a blog post, “Pathetic Centrists.” He argues, in addition to the Democratic Party becoming more progressive, that “centrists are also suffering from their own intellectual bankruptcy.” His points, in defense of the Warren camp, include cost savings from President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the slowing of health care costs generally. He summarizes:

It’s just so tired and tiring. If being a “centrist” means fact-free denunciations of progressives for not being willing to cut entitlements, who needs these guys?

David Weigel, of Slate, summarized the story in the article, “Left Hook, How a few liberal activists got the mainstream media to cover a “war” they made up.” The article provides good information, although I don’t see the point of characterizing this as a “made up war.” While it is true that pundits and think tanks have debated these issues for years, that does not mean that this flare up is not news. After all, one faction of a political party is aggressively using social media to get out their point of view, and trying to counterbalance another faction that has more funding. That seems to be a legitimate struggle.

Weigel describes Third way as an organization founded in 2005 by “New Democrats” that lost red state elections, and wanted to focus on how to recapture the center. He quotes Matt Bennett, VP of Public Affairs at Third Way, as saying this about the controversy:

We didn’t view the president’s speech last week as populist, for example. He was talking about poverty—and that’s a Democratic point of view, what he said. We view populism the way we view right-wing populism. It’s a way to avoid making choices. Right-wing populists say that if we cut government down, everything will be better. The idea on the left is that if we can just expand entitlements, everything will be better and we don’t have to make choices. And we just don’t agree.

This sounds like a reasonable difference of opinion, but Elizabeth Warren is not backing down from this fight, as shown by her recent interview with Mother Jones, “Elizabeth Warren Fires Back at Centrist Dems on Social Security.” She says:

If we made no changes at all to Social Security, it would continue to make payments at the current level for about 20 years . . . Modest adjustments will make certain . . . we could increase benefits for those who need it most.

She is not alone in discrediting the arguments of Cowan and Kessler: Michael Hiltzik also provides a detailed rebuttal in the Los Angeles Times, “How to debate the ‘undebatable’ falsehoods about Social Security.” Also, Richard (RJ) Eskow published a strong counter argument in the Huffington Post, “The Democrats’ ‘Third Way’ Quarrel Could Change Your Future.” In addition to discussing the original article that started the controversy, Eskow talks about possible motivations when he says:

This is not an “inside baseball” story about politics. It’s a battle for party control whose outcome could affect every household in the country. If this quarrel is to be remembered — and it’s incumbent upon genuine progressives to make sure that it is — it should be remembered as an attempt by a the corporate class to retain control of the Democratic Party and limit the leftmost limits of political and economic debate.

In our two-party system, this struggle could determine whether voters are offered a genuinely democratic and equitable economic agenda anytime in the near future.

We all worry about corporate interests having too much power. With the Democratic Party on the ascent, it is no surprise that these interests would try to keep control. Power, in corporations and on Wall Street, is more important than party, because the objective is to control policy. Senator Warren is right to vigorously defend her positions. She has the data, and she is advocating in the best interests of the majority.

Should Democrats Copy the Political Tactics of the Right?

It is frustrating to watch well-funded interests produce disinformation faster than it can be debunked. It is frustrating to watch people buy into propaganda because they can’t or won’t do the research. Maybe Third Way is advocating for Wall Street Interests. Nevertheless, we need to maintain discourse about difficult problems, while we root out bad information, unsubstantiated ideas, and lack of transparency.

What concerns me about this flare up is the suggestion that some liberals think it would be a good idea to adopt tactics used by the right (like the Tea Party) to push people out of office because they don’t uphold a single specific position. This is a bad idea. Consider this excerpt from, “Coalition of Liberals Strikes Back at Criticism From Centrist Democrats“:

Liberals have witnessed the success the right has enjoyed in recent years by using such tough tactics. Conservative groups have pushed Republicans to take a harder line, most recently over the federal health care law, and have seen their leverage with officeholders grow.

The last thing we need in this country are more litmus tests. We should remove politicians from office when they lack integrity, refuse to acknowledge facts, or ignore scientific experts. We should not, however, force them to hold uncompromising positions.

Democracy cannot flourish without people of integrity engaged in legitimate debate. If that is lost, then both sides of the political spectrum will become echo chambers of extreme positions, good ideas will be silenced, and discussion will be shut down. Sometimes progress is made one step at a time. Had Single Payer been beyond compromise, we might have failed, yet again, to enact any health care reform. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is not perfect, but it is surely a step in the right direction. Just because a faction on the right uses intimidation and disinformation to govern doesn’t mean that all interest groups should do the same.

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