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Posted by on Aug 29, 2007 in Politics | 20 comments

Can We Have Too Much Democracy?

Michael van der Galien stirred the pot last week in his August 25 post, “Progressives Unite!,” criticizing the efforts of Matt Stoller, et. al., to un-elect Democrats with whom they disagree.

Subsequently, 73 comments were attached to Michael’s post, and the resulting dust cloud was significant enough to earn some extra and much-deserved attention at Real Clear Politics.

Three days late to the table, an eternity in Internet time, I finally caught up with the scuffle and suggested yesterday at Central Sanity that perhaps there is nothing wrong with Stoller’s crusade, that it is little more than democracy at work and that (much as with free speech), we can’t have too much of it. If we don’t like the speech of others, layer on our own. If we don’t like their grassroots campaign, start a countervailing one.*

As it turns out, that position echoes several of the arguments made by the 73 commenters on Michael’s original post here, which is something I didn’t fully appreciate until I actually took time to scan those comments this morning. Now, if I had done that earlier, I could have saved myself several minutes of writing time yesterday, although in the end, I’m glad I invested that time because just when you think a friendly debate has finally jumped the shark, a character like Dennis Sanders shows up. In the comments at CS, Dennis — who may very well be the single-most reasonable person on the entire planet — offered the following:

As someone who has been dealing the the militants in the GOP for a few years, I can tell you that such black/white, dualistic thinking does great harm to a political party and to the nation in general. It forces good politicians to bend themselves to the will of the base (witness what is happening to Romney, McCain and Giuliani) and it places an emphasis more on loyalty to the party than on what might be best for the nation.

The netroots and the far right do not believe in any sort of compromise, which is at the root of our democratic system. If one is so doctrinare as to never give an inch, to place politics over policy, then we all lose out.

I’m all for dissent and for disagreement. That is part of democracy. But I agree with Michael, what is not part of democracy is when people think a certain view is not valid and then [work] to purge all those who are not “right thinking” from the party. That’s hardly democratic from my viewpoint.

Net: After reading Dennis’ thoughts, I’m forced to ask, “Is there a viable way to draw the line? Can we legitimately and consistently identify cases where aggressive politics are destructive vs. constructive, where we can prevent the former while encouraging the latter?”

The Democrats made headlines not too long ago with their push to re-apply equal-time requirements to radio talk shows, distressed by the aggressiveness and tempest-inducing talents of certain conservative talking heads. Michael has not gone that far; he did not suggest legislation to prevent what Stoller is doing. However, sans rules, the Stollers (and Roves and others) of the world will surely continue their efforts, since what they’re doing is as old as democracy politics itself.

My opinion, in two parts …

(1) Political parties should police their own; enough Democrats and Republicans should get active in their respective parties’ processes to prevent the Roves and Stollers from ripping down the Big Tent and kicking misfits to the curb. But that’s a matter of party ops, not democracy, per se.

(2) In the larger democracy, we’ll never be able to agree on where the aformentioned line is drawn; we’ll never be able to conclusively say (with any kind of super-majority agreement) that Stoller is wrong but the Swift Boat Veterans are right (or vice versa). Accordingly, we’re back where we started, left with what seems the only viable opportunity that pure democracy affords us: Trumping speech with speech, aggressive politics with aggressive politics. No, that approach isn’t pretty and I’m not saying I prefer it. But it does reflect reality and it may, in the end, be the very best we can do.


* Editor’s Note: Today is apparently a day of clarifications, so for the record, Michael and I are not bickering. We’re friends and adults, and we’ve granted each other reciprocal permission to cordially challenge one another, privately and publicly, knowing that we tend to agree more than we disagree, and in the rare cases of the latter, our exchanges make us stronger by forcing us to fight for what we believe.

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  • re “Political parties should police their own,” I think this is one of the few ways – indeed, it may be the only way – that the British/European model of a political party offers an advantage that the American model doesn’t. When you have a party where one is a member, one can be thrown out. The parties here have limited tools with which to police their members: Senator Craig, for example, could be ejected from the Senate Republican caucus, but the party couldn’t stop him from seeking or even obtaining our nomination next year. Indeed, at least conceivably (depending on how Idaho structures their primary), if Craig was determined not to give in, he could seek the GOP nomination, solicit votes from Democrats who temporarily change their registration, and win reelection to the Senate on the GOP ticket, and there’s not a thing that the RNC or anyone else could do to “police their own.”

    Of course, the downside of the european model (and the reason that ultimately I prefer the american model) is that this makes it easy to conduct a purge. One can easily imagine that, if the Democratic party was run along such lines, either the kossacks would be purged by the DLC or vice versa, depending on who held the levers of power, and similarly in the GOP as between the RINOs and the religious right.

  • C Stanley

    I think what Simon says (heh) makes sense, but also reflects on another major difference between US and European politics: two party, winner take all system vs. multiparty, parliamentary model. Purging isn’t nearly so much of a problem in the latter because the purged move to another venue. Here, they’d simply be left out of the debate/govt altogether (unless they happened to be purged for being too much like the opposing party, which isn’t usually the case)

  • C Stanley

    I meant to add: no fair squelching the rumors like that, Pete. Let the gossipmongers have some fun!

  • Pete, I published a post about this – in response to your post of yesterrday. Let me just say this here: do not mistake targeting people and going after them, or shouting matches for democracy in action.

  • Davebo

    I would like to question on aspect of Dennis’ comments.

    If one is so doctrinare as to never give an inch, to place politics over policy, then we all lose out.

    Isn’t that the exact opposite of what Stoller is doing?

    Isn’t he actually placing policy above politics? It’s not like he’s targetting certain politicians for their political affilliation.

  • kritter

    Simon- interesting hypothetical- But why would any Democrat want to change their affiliation and vote for Craig? His voting record contradicts just about everything the party stands for, lol. Maybe he would serve as a symbol of GOP hypocrisy, but who would really remember the arrest after a couple of congressional sessions?

    Or are you just trying to show that this is possible?

  • George Sorwell


    You’re drawing a parallel here between Stoller and the Swift Boat Veterans. That doesn’t seem right to me. Stoller is a Democrat bashing other Democrats. The Swift Boat Veterans were, to put it very mildly, Republicans bashing the other party.

    You also draw a parallel between Stoller and Karl Rove. You’ll have to forgive me for ROTFLMAO. Whatever ambition Stoller may have for himself, Rove has had a direct influence (and, in my opinion, a ferociously malign influence) on the current shape of our political culture. We live in Karl Rove’s world. Even if you disagree with Stoller’s intent (and I do), is it really fair to compare him to Rove?

    As I’m sure you know, Republican Ari Fleischer is leading a group called Freedom Watch. And Freedom Watch is running a $15 million campaign targeting mostly Republicans (37 out of 41) over the Iraq War. (Joe Gandelman posted about this last week.) Isn’t this group–Republicans targeting Republicans–a fairer parallel with Stoller?

    I’m asking you about this for a reason. I posted about this at MvdG’s “Progressives Unite” and was told my complaint didn’t address the substance of his post.

    Here you are comparing Matt Stoller to the notorious Karl Rove and the repugnant Swift Boat Veterans for threatening his fellow Democrats, when Ari Fleischer is actually out there Swift Boating his (and your) fellow Republicans. (Have a look at the commercial he’s running as evidence for that characterization).

    You seem like a sensible person. So I’ve just got to ask: Don’t Republicans see when they do the very things they complain about?

  • Kritter:

    Simon- interesting hypothetical- But why would any Democrat want to change their affiliation and vote for Craig? His voting record contradicts just about everything the party stands for, lol. Maybe he would serve as a symbol of GOP hypocrisy, but who would really remember the arrest after a couple of congressional sessions?

    Or are you just trying to show that this is possible?

    I was illustrating the point that the GOP would have no mechanism to prevent it, since it’s ultimately the candidate and the primary voters – not the party – who decides who gets the letter R after their name. Still, to answer the question (why would a Democrat in Idaho change their affiliation to support Craig in the primary?) the answer is that if one looks at the big picture, if you’re a liberal, and you can’t elect a democrat in your district, you can still hurt the GOP nationalally by forcing upon them a Typhoid Mary.

    As to who’d remember in a few years – ask Gerry Studds or Bill Clinton how long people’s memories are, particularly when partisans on one side or the other have a stake in refreshing those memories periodically. 😉

  • Sorry about the typo – in my defense, there’s a good reason.

  • Still, to answer the question (why would a Democrat in Idaho change their affiliation to support Craig in the primary?) the answer is that if one looks at the big picture, if you’re a liberal, and you can’t elect a democrat in your district, you can still hurt the GOP nationalally by forcing upon them a Typhoid Mary.

    This is an age-old tactic in politics, and I’ve seen it often and written about it often. If you’re in the minority party in a district, change parties for the primary and vote for the most extreme and/or objectionable candidate. Then your side can run a moderate/centrist and take a swing district.

    The parties quite often do this to themselves with no assistance, but when you’re in the minority party and you already know who your side’s candidate will be, well, it makes sense.

    This is exactly why so many states have governors who are of the opposite party as the majority of voters in the state.

    Note: Freedom’s Watch is an issue group, not a candidate group. They are indeed targeting districts to pressure their members, but they’re not overtly trying to defeat the members. The “Bush Dog” OpenLeft group is actively targeting Democrats for defeat. There is a difference, a distinct one if not a huge one.

  • AustinRoth

    To me, it shows the problem of a system that has been so thoroughly rigged by the two existing parties.

    I am familiar with the arguments to why a two-party system is the necessary evil format under our election rules and government design (although I don’t completely buy into them).

    However, what is different is that parties used to come and go, i.e., the two parties facing off were not always the same. Also, even when they first started ossifying into our current Dem/Rep statis, the parties themselves were subject to very severe and complete restructuring.

    But the Democratic Party has not changed significantly since the 70’s, and the Republicans since the 80’s. And there is no indication of that situation changing anytime soon.

    So, where are the non-extremist to go? In the end, they have to choose the lesser of two evils, while the extremists on each side make it harder and harder for moderate, compromise oriented leaders to actually win.

  • domajot

    Philosophically, I very strongly agree with Pete.

    I’m not sure that’s a winning strategy in these days of the the fierist speaker and the viliest tactician drawing the biggest support, but in the end, it’s a personal decision about what one considers to be the right thing to do, win or lose.

    If differences are settled by using strong arm tactis to oppose strong arm tactis, using insults to counter insults and, in general, opposing extremism with another form of extremism, it becomes a dogfight and democracy is lost, altogether.

    I’ll contiue to support those who deal with the politically unruly, by presenting better alternatives, consistently and tirelessly, by raising argument for argument instead of threat for threat.
    And I’ll keep my fingers crossed as I do so.

  • George Sorwell — As soon as I juxtaposed the Swift Boat Veterans with Stoller, I knew it wasn’t a perfect comparison, but as Tully’s comment re: Freedmon Watch demonstrates, it’s hard to find a perfect comparison. Same goes for the Rove comparison. None of them are apples to apples, though I will admit that Freedom Watch vs. Open Left probably comes the closest, Tully’s caveat notwithstanding.

    In the end, what they all do have in common is a politics of pressure, and not very nice pressure at that. Rove, Stoller, the Swift Boaters and Freedom Watchers — all are focusing or have focused their energies on people with whom they disagree, in their own parties or in other parties, attempted to discredit those people and/or their positions and either beat them at the polls or convince them to change their positions.

    Michael essentially sees this spectrum of activity (Stoller is just the latest example) as an uncivil and counterproductive shouting match that ultimately harms democracy more than it advances it. That may very well be true. But I’ve never been one to simply acknowledge that “X is wrong” without then taking the next logical step and asking: “How do we stop it?” If it’s wrong, it should be stopped.

    And that’s where I get hung up in this debate. I can fully agree that what Stoller, et. al., are doing is definitely not the nicest and probably not the most constructive way to conduct democracy — but then I quickly realize that such activity is so innate to democracy (especially American democracy) that we likely can’t stop it. The most we can do is counteract it.

    Eight or so months ago, I suggested, at TMV and CS, that we consider banning negative and/or misleading campaign ads on the same general grounds, for the same general reasons, that Michael has effectively suggested that Stoller, et. al., take a holiday from their brand of politics. In turn, TMV and CS readers blasted that idea out of the water — setting me back on my heels a bit.

    So I took their comments, studied them, did some additional research, including some interviews, coupled it all together and published this rather long (perhpas too long) essay. The conclusion of that essay was that the best way to address what Stoller and others are doing is not to complain about it or attempt to legislate it out of existence, but respond to it, in kind. More speech not less; more grassroots organization not less. Or, as I wrote in the final paragraph of the essay: “This down-in-the-trenches, power-to-the-people method may not work swiftly, surely, or orderly enough to suit every ad-disgusted voter. Furthermore, we know from experience that politicians and their handlers can be remarkably deaf to the will of the people, even when we scream. But in a society that prides itself on wide-open political debate, the populist approach to campaign advertising reform may be the most viable approach of all.”

    Net: If Open Left and Freedom Watch put pressure on candidates in their own parties, then those who disagree with Open Left and Freedom Watch have a choice: They can attack Stoller and Fleischer, or they can come to the defense of the embattled candidates. I think history has proven the latter is much more effective than the former: ref., again, the Swift Boaters: I’m oversimplifying this, but I think it’s fair to say Kerry’s campaign and the DNC spent disproportionate resources trying to discredit the Swift Boaters versus what they spent defending/boosting Kerry’s military record.

    The frustrating part about all this is that sometimes the savviest, best-funded, best-implemented campaign wins — even if it’s the worst possible choice the voters could make. Net: Sometimes, voters get hoodwinked. But by and large I think that, most of the time, voters get it right and if they’re not getting it right, then each competing voice in a campaign needs to focus more on strengthening the effectiveness of its own house rather than complaining about the way the competition plays the game.

  • Clarification: When I say “respond in kind” in my last comment, I don’t mean to suggest we should exchange ugliness for ugliness; not at all; rather, bring equally heavy guns to the political battlefield; defend and/or boost candidates with which we agree to the same level they’re attacked and/or torn down by the opposition. In other words, play the game without sacrificing principles. I believe in politics, a cordial, civil fighter can still win the war against mud-slingers. Net: It’s not the tenor of your debate that has to be matched to the opponents, but your level of commitment and passion and ACTivism.

    (Thanks, domajot, for your comment, which prompted this clarification.)

  • George Sorwell

    I appreciate the fact that you didn’t just blow me off. I’m sorry to hassle you further after you were willing to take my complaint seriously.

    But here you are comparing some guy who has a lot of ambition, a modest platform and not much in the way of accomplishment with the worst Republicans have had to offer our political culture.

    Meanwhile, Republicans doing the same thing, only with a multi-million dollar budget, go unmentioned.

    Do you think people don’t notice this kind of thing?

  • George Sorwell

    That was a rhetorical question, by the way, not a challenge. I just wanted to make my complaint clear.

  • No worries, George, I understand. And perhaps you’re right: the comparison may not be fair. Then again, I honestly don’t think Matt Stoller’s resources are all that limited. (As I understand it, he and Kos are hooked at the hip, working this together, and collectively have a lot on which to draw; money, influence, and otherwise.) Nor do I think Fleischer is getting off easy. I saw quite a bit of buzz around the ‘sphere on his venture; with multiple voices criticizing him, comparable to what Michael said about Stoller.

    Net, I’m not defending the extremists in either the Republican’s or the Democrat’s camp. All I’m saying is that, in the end, my motto is increasingly aligned with the old adage: “Each to his own.” Whether it’s Fleischer or Stoller or others richer or poorer, more maligned or not, I won’t begrudge any of them the opportunity to do their damnedest to participate fully (and vehemently if they choose) in the political process. Meanwhile, it’s incumbent on me and others to match their enthusiasm wit for wit in pushing our candidates and our perspectives.

  • Pete, if you wait around for a perfect comparison, hell may freeze over first. It’s a valid pair of examples to examine and compare, I just wanted to point out some of the differences.

    FW is using classic issue lobbying tactics, running generic ads in targeted districts but no names used in the ads, lobbying for “swing” on a single issue position. From a quick check, they’re not really targeting swing districts. There’s little chance that those targeted are in any danger of losing their seats from it. They’re just going to get lots of phone calls from their party base on that one issue.

    OL/Stoller are aiming grassroots pressure directly at the specific members by name, in swing districts, in an overt “our way or the highway” broad-spectrum dogma-squeeze. They are not just trying to put pressure on them on a single issue, they are threatening to blow them out of Congress for their entire record of voting behavior, even if it costs the party the seats.

    Both are most assuredly squeeze plays.

  • Somebody

    The alternative to playing to the base of each party is what?

    Just what is the alternative?

    The huge explosion in blogging and personal communications that has occurred during George W. Bush’s presidency will go down in history as an amazingly significant change in the political landscape and climate.

    We as a nation. Nay as a world are wading thru the internet and a blogging minefield, along with 5 billion personal critics in a desperate attempt to find common ground. It is this wading, sloshing and blindly stumbling in the midst of a billion screaming bloggers that has led people on both sides to begin screaming loudly for a new way. For moderation. For sanity. Yet it is their very screams which add to the confusion of an already disjointed political landscape.

    This country and this world must come to grips and find common ground and a stable environment in which to progress politically or else there will only be more of the same with the results spiraling out of control until worldwide anarchy rules the day.

    I have posted before and I post again. The antagonism that has become blogging has made way for world wide anarchy. It is the begining. How does Anarchy end? With a STRONG central ruler. Someone who takes charge and forces the people to believe as he believes.

    AntiChrist anyone? Perhaps. Perhaps not but the parallels are scary for me.

  • Matt Stoller

    First of all, I’m not Karl Rove and I don’t have $15 million. I’m just a dude with a blog.

    Second, I’m not ‘purging anyone’. I’m just arguing that local activists should support politicians who support their values and criticize those who don’t. How is that an extremist agenda or a ‘crusade’? It’s just a bit of criticism on the internet.

    Third, is anyone on this thread actually going to talk about the FISA wiretapping expansion or the blank check bill passed four months ago?

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