When Ideology and Politics Collide

David Sirota is the co-chairperson of the liberal Progressive Legislative Action Network and has written about what he dubs “Partisan War Syndrome” and how it is negatively affecting the political prospects of the left. In short, Sirota writes about how partisanship and political opportunism–the anything to get Bush syndrome, as it were–has eclipsed ideological steadfastness in the Democrat party, which is weaker for it. In his conclusion, he explains the importance of ideology over what some would call “pragmatic” politics:

Make no mistake about it – we cannot expect political parties to resist Partisan War Syndrome. In fact, we can expect parties to actively spread it. Just like corporations exist only to make money, political parties exist solely to win elections, no matter how opportunistic and partisan they have to be.
But while it may be acceptable for politicians and parties to exhibit cynical, conniving, convictionless behavior, it is quite alarming for the supposed idealistic “ideological” foot soldiers supporting them to operate in the same way. The former has elections to think about. But the latter is supposed to be about broader movements that are larger than just the next November. And without the latter, the best-run, best-funded party in the world will always emanate a self-defeating image of standing for nothing.
This, in part, explains why the Democratic Party emanates such an image today: It is not only the spineless politicians in Washington who have no compass, but also a large and vocal swath of the base that lacks ideological cohesion as well. The politicians are, in a sense, just a public representation of that deeply-rooted lack of conviction. Put another way, looking at the typical evasive, jellyfish-like Democratic politician on the nightly news is like putting a mirror up to a growing swath of the grassroots left itself.
Why should this be troubling to the average progressive? First, it is both soulless and aimless. Partisanship is not ideology, and movements are not political parties – they are bigger than political parties, and shape those parties accordingly through pressure. As much as paid party hacks would argue otherwise, the most significant movements in American history did not emanate from the innards of the Democratic or Republican Party headquarters, and they did not come from groups of activists who put labels before substance: They spawned from millions of people committed to grassroots movements organized around ideas – movements which pushed both parties’ establishments to deal with given issues. Without those movements transcending exclusively partisan concerns, American history would be a one-page tale of status quo.
Second, even for those concerned more about electoral victories than ideology, this Partisan War Syndrome that subverts ideological movements ultimately hurts electoral prospects. Today’s Republican Party, for instance, could not win without the corresponding conservative ideological movement that gets that party its committed donors, fervent foot soldiers and loyal activists. That base certainly operates as an arm of the GOP’s party infrastructure – but few doubt it is fueled less by hollow partisanship, and more by their grassroots’ commitment to social, economic and religious conservatism.

We err if we dismiss his insight simply because he is liberal (Sun Tzu anyone?). It seems to me that there are some obvious parallels between Sirota’s characterization of the national Democrats and our own Rhode Island GOP in the context of the current Senate campaign. That being said, conservatives in Rhode Island face the prospect of choosing the more conservative (or less liberal) of two candidates who appear to be moderate within the context of the national GOP.
One issue that has been discussed frequently hereabouts, is whether supporting the apparently more conservative candidate (Laffey) on the micro (Rhode Island) level will ultimately help or hurt the conservative movement on the macro (national) level. Will pragmatic politics waged and won on the local level–ie; the safe approach of re-electing the aggravatingly moderate incumbent Chafee–really safeguard the conservative ideological movement nationally, or can conservative ideology be fought for and won on both levels by electing the “insurgent” Laffey?
The former path is a circle and will lead to where RI Republicans are now: with a perception that Rhode Island is full of “go-along Republicans” who pick the safe route because it offers a safer play for keeping the U.S. Senate in Republican (ie; more conservative) hands. So while it may not do much to further the conservative cause within Rhode Island, it will vouchsafe conservatism nationally. Choosing the other path will align the RI Republican base with an ideologically closer candidate, though he may be less likely to win in a statewide election. Many believe such an outcome will lead to a Republican loss in the general election and a Senate turned over to the Democrats (ie; more liberal).
While the big “IF” is whether the more conservative Laffey can translate statewide or not, a less-voiced question is: will Laffey’s campaign for a national political office translate into an upswing of conservative representation at the state or local level? In other words, will he have “coattails” within RI? Past elections have indicated that Sen. Chafee doesn’t. Should conservatives be more or less concerned with the the national or local political scene? What has support for the national conservative movement garnered RI conservatives? Instead of looking for a top-down solution, is the solution really to be had from the bottom up?

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