My Own Take

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One aspect of American politics that I’ve become increasingly obsessed with of late is what seems to be an ongoing separation of “liberals” from “Democrats.”

by Steven Rubio

One aspect of American politics that I’ve become increasingly obsessed with of late is what seems to be an ongoing separation of “liberals” from “Democrats.” I don’t quite get it, which is why it obsesses me. I’ve always been self-marginalized, but in doing this, I’ve placed myself to the left of the Democratic Party. Now I notice that within the Party itself, liberals aren’t seen as simply the left wing of the Democrats, but as an entity of their own, to the left of the Democrats. There are a couple of potential problems here … one, that I’m misreading the situation and/or exaggerating it, and two, that this has actually been true all along but I didn’t notice. Both of these possibilities are very likely, of course.

I think it’s important because there are people like me who vote for Democrats when the difference between them and their Republican opponents is clear, but who “waste” our votes on marginal left-wing candidates otherwise. As I’ve noted many times in the last few years, Bush II’s accomplishment was to make the difference clear on an essential basis: he was so bad, the worst Democrat was an improvement that even I could see. If, though, liberals are outsiders in their own party, if the Democratic mainstream marginalizes their liberal wing, they make their differences with the Republicans less clear.

If the Republican Party has remade itself, however temporarily, as one where its most radical right-wing members are in charge, so, too, the Democratic Party is remaking itself, with the same rightward drift as the Republicans. The most radical Republicans would apparently purge the party of all moderates in the name of purity. The Democrats use different language, and it isn’t the radicals in charge but the moderates, but the same actions are in effect: separating “true” Democrats from those who just don’t get how things work. Ed Kilgore, in the New Republic blog The Plank, is right to call us on the increasing tendency to demonize each other; we most certainly do, as he says, need to “take seriously other people's ideological and strategic underpinnings.” But the longer mainstream Democrats dismiss their more liberal colleagues, the more likely it is that those colleagues will cease to think of themselves as colleagues, and that wouldn’t seem to be a good thing for the Democratic Party.

Whether we ascribe this growing separation to petulance on the part of liberals or arrogance on the part of centrists, I suspect that we’re on the verge of finding out just how “necessary” liberals are to the Democratic Party. Liberals and progressives may just be whiny babies, but that doesn’t matter … if they take their collective balls and go home for the 2010 elections (assuming they still have balls … sorry, I couldn’t resist) and Democrats maintain a healthy advantage over Republicans, the liberals will indeed seem irrelevant, while if the Democrats suffer significant losses, they will rue the day they pushed the liberals to the margins.

I should finish by noting that I feel very shaky about this. I have little confidence in my ability to read the American political scene … I’m much better at figuring out how Battlestar Galactica examines the intersection of government, the military, and religion. There’s a reason I tend to just quote others instead of presenting my own comments when it comes to current affairs. More than usual, I hope someone will come along and show the flaws in my discussion here. But one thing does seem clear to me: liberals and progressives are extremely pissed off right now, rightly or wrongly, and their anger is going to play out in next year’s elections.

Steven Rubio teaches at Los Rios Colleges in California. He was a much-appreciated Bad Subject and frequent contributor 1992-2000.

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