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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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