Confessions of a Hoosier Democrat

Blogging Indiana Politics and the 2008 Presidential Race.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Return of Liberal Fundamentalism

Democrats are rightly enthusiastic about the opportunities afforded in this fall's midterm elections to recapture control of Congress and reverse the narrow Republican advantage of the last two electoral cycles. But there's an undertow that could undermine the potential Democratic tide: efforts by some Democratic activists and organizations to introduce ideological litmus tests for elected officials and intimidate or even purge those who do not meet a narrow definition of what makes a "real Democrat." These efforts not only threaten party unity and divert attention and resources from the broader goal of defeating Republicans; they also signal an intolerance toward dissent and diversity that can repel voters and make an enduring Democratic majority more difficult to achieve.

This phenomenon is best illustrated by the nationally driven campaign to deny re-nomination to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), with and Democracy for America (an organization founded by DNC chairman Howard Dean and now run by his brother, Jim) playing an especially active role in recruiting money and volunteers for the challenger, Ned Lamont.

We deplore this purge effort because Joe Lieberman is an outstanding and respected U.S. Senator. He is a man of utmost integrity who speaks and governs by his values and principles, even when they lead him against the popular tide -- as he did when he went to Mississippi to fight for civil rights in 1964. He is a man who always puts his country above his party or his personal interests. Those are qualities we should cherish, not disdain, in today's far too polarized politics. We need more, not fewer, people with Joe Lieberman's character in the Democratic Party.

Lieberman served as DLC chairman for six years, handing over the gavel to Sen. Evan Bayh after the 2000 presidential elections. But opposition to this kind of intra-party purge is also a matter of tradition for us: One of the major reasons for the DLC's founding in 1985 was to resist what we called "liberal fundamentalism," a conformist tendency to stifle dissent among Democrats and require adherence to litmus tests devised by interest groups and ideological advocates. The Democratic Party today is far more unified in its basic values and policy positions than it was two decades ago, and also urgently needs to expand its electoral and geographical base. There's less of an excuse than ever to indulge in liberal fundamentalism, litmus tests, intimidation of dissenters, and purges, and much more to lose from shrinking the party's big tent.

But that's exactly what the national movement to purge Joe Lieberman represents. Comparing him to apostates like Zell Miller is crazy. As Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid points out in a recent letter endorsing him, the most recent independent analysis of Lieberman's voting record shows him in solidarity with Democrats 90 percent of the time, about the same as Reid's own record. He's a recognized leader among progressives on issues ranging from the environment and labor to taxation and fiscal policy. He was a loyal partner of Al Gore's in the bitter 2000 presidential election, less than six years ago.

Some Lieberman foes, dubbing him "Holy Joe," are angry at him for championing the _expression of religious faith in the public square, and for standing up against corporate-sponsored trash culture on behalf of families struggling to control their kids' values and upbringing. But his main sin appears to be his staunch and very consistent belief that the war in Iraq was and is right, even if that means occasional agreement with a Bush administration that he criticizes on almost every other issue.

As it happens, we don't agree with Lieberman's views on Iraq in every particular, but we respect his point of view. It is especially odd that some liberal activists who are forever telling Democrats they should stand up for their principles without regard to polls and fashions are now determined to purge this senator for doing exactly that, as part of a divisive intra-party revisiting of the original war resolution. That's why Harry Reid said of Lieberman: "Very few people I've known in my lifetime are as principled and decent as Joe Lieberman. I don't agree on every position he takes, but he has an unquestionable commitment to the progressive principles that make our Party great."

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, whose liberal credentials no one could doubt, has also endorsed Lieberman despite a strong difference of opinion over Iraq, saying: "We must focus on the vast number of differences we have with our Republican opponents. While you may not agree with Joe on everything, he is truly a leader on women's rights, the environment, education, health care and so many other issues that concern our families and define our party."

Sen. Hillary Clinton was even more blunt about Lieberman's value to the Democratic Party: "We have the chance to put Democrats in control of the Senate and the House, to curb the excesses of one party Republican rule and hold Republicans accountable for their actions. Keeping Joe Lieberman in the Senate is an important part of that victory plan."

In many respects, the purge-Lieberman movement is more a test for its proponents than for its object. Internet-based liberal activists have a lot to offer the Democratic Party: energy, fundraising prowess, a commitment to open debate, and a healthy skepticism about the orthodox liberal interest groups and consultants who rarely look beyond the Beltway.

But if they want to be a serious and permanent element in progressive politics, they should resist the temptation to indulge themselves in mean-spirited vengeance against Democrats like Joe Lieberman who proudly defend the Clinton legacy and warn against counter-polarization as the sole answer to Karl Rove's polarization strategy. And they should understand the signal that the effort to purge Lieberman sends to voters with serious doubts about the party, especially on the national security and cultural issues he is so identified with.

Sen. Barack Obama perfectly captured the dangers of liberal fundamentalism last fall, in a diary he posted on the DailyKos blog site, a hotbed of anti-Lieberman sentiment:

[T]o the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.

Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority.

We couldn't agree more. A party with no room for Joe Lieberman -- or for that matter, such occasionally lonely dissenters on the left as Russ Feingold or Bernie Sanders -- is a party with no prospects for a majority. It's the worst possible time for Democrats to make that choice.

Orginally published at New Dem Dispatch, June 2, 2006


  • At July 22, 2006 11:54 AM, Blogger beepbeepitsme said…

    “Any hope that America would finally grow up vanished with the rise of fundamentalist Christianity. Fundamentalism, with its born-again regression, its pink-and-gold concept of heaven, its literal-mindedness, its rambunctious good cheer... its anti-intellectualism... its puerile hymns... and its faith-healing... are made to order for King Kid America.” Florence King


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