If you believe nothing you’ll believe anything
I never thought I would need to explain the need for a political belief system here. It seemed too obvious. But upon reading stuff like this at Firedoglake, questioning the need for ideas because of the hash Republicans have made of theirs the last several years, I can see it’s not so obvious.
In a superficial way I can sympathize. As I noted in this week’s Clue, Democrats never, until recently, were defined by belief. It has been an essential element in the Nixon Thesis of Conflict that Democrats be defined, and that the definitions come from Republicans.
This results in all the things Democrats complain about concerning what they call Wingnuttia. They’re abused. They are targets of routine abuse, and it seems there’s a shield between any argument they make and their opponents.
That shield is the conservatives’ belief system.
A political belief system, whether you call it a philosophy or values, faith or assumptions, are a base you can build on. A generation ago people like William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater gave conservatives such a base. The result is their ideas seem never subject to question. When things go wrong it’s because leaders failed conservatism. This drives liberals crazy.
This belief system has also impacted liberals, often unconsciously.
It creates a constant ideological wind in the face, so it seems the
only strategy is to lean into it, as a sailboat leans into a wind, in
order to make forward progress. But when you’re sailing "into the wind"
you’re not really going forward — you’re going at an angle from your
chosen direction, and must tack repeatedly, back-and-forth, to make
That’s what Clintonism is all about. That’s the Third Way.
Liberalism can be ignored because there’s no real belief system behind
it, nothing anyone needs to respect. Conservatism is the wind, so you
sail forward at an angle, tacking as circumstances demand. It’s hard
work. You have to be enormously competent to make progress, while the
conservative sailor just needs to be a blowhard to send you hurtling
backward. That’s what happened in 2000, and it’s what has been
happening ever since.
Belief is the wind at your back. Belief gives you a set of assumptions which act as a shield in any political battle.
There are three dimensions to political choice — the person, their
programs, and their beliefs. Belief is at the heart of your brand. When
you have no fixed beliefs, you can only argue on behalf of specific
programs or on the competence of your candidate.
What has passed for belief among Democrats, over the last several
years, has been the simple dismissal of conservative figures,
conservative programs and conservative beliefs. It is almost wholly
negative. It can work, now and again, when the other side is as
obviously incompetent, corrupt and irrational as Republicans are today.
But in ordinary times, when you have a good candidate with good
programs and they do as well, it is belief that will determine the
outcome, and Republicans will usually win.
The great irony for me is that Democrats do, in fact, have the
beginnings of a belief system in front of them. Netroots Democrats are
in general agreement on what the party should stand for. The only
problem, it’s apparent to me, is that most of these Democrats don’t
know it. I really assumed they would learn these principles at events
like Yearly Kos, or at sit-downs like Drinking Liberally, but I suspect
people went in with so many shared principles they didn’t notice it.
It’s like when executives are in a board meeting, and everyone’s
wearing similar suits. No one thinks, gee, what about jeans or polos or
t-shirts. The dress code is such a natural part of your assumption it
So it has been, these last few years, with the Netroots belief system.
I have detailed this belief system many times here. It’s based on
shared values, values which emerge from the myth of the Internet.
Transparency, because the Internet drops the cost of information delivery down to nothing.
- Consensus, because technical standards don’t work unless all systems involved follow them.
- Connectivity, which is the road or canal or railroad system of the new economy.
- Openness, without which experimentation can’t occur.
- Acceptance, because most new ideas sound loony at first blush.
- Competition, because it’s in constant testing that the best ideas rise and the others fall.
The Internet Generation, the generation of Americans to which my son
and daughter belong, have internalized these values in practice. It’s
not something which needs to be explained. I believe Netroots Democrats
have done much the same thing.
The idea that these values are a political philosophy, a belief
system, doesn’t occur to most Netroots Democrats, and I sometimes
wonder why. All I can say is they’re busy. As Cliff Schecter writes
every week, "Another week, more preposterousness to report."
Then on-and-on about what’s wrong with them, and barely a word about
what we want to do, other than get them out and reverse what they’ve
That’s not good enough. Not in the long run.
Tell us what you’re for in the abstract.
Without the War or antagonism to Republicans to animate you, what will
determine your course?
That’s what Americans need to learn from the Netroots. I’ve just
told you the answers. Debate them, spread them, add to them, subtract
from them. Test them, prod them, argue against them. But don’t dismiss
the need for them.
Your boat needs a tail wind.