Sunday, July 17, 2011

The lessons of history: understanding purity movements

Over the last few days, something Peter Beinart wrote almost a year ago keeps tickling the back of my brain as I watch events unfold. I must say that I don't always agree with Beinart on policy issues, but he seemed to capture some important lessons for us in the big picture swings of political alignment from a look at our not-too-distant history.

Beinart's point of the article is to compare what is happening today to the Republican Party to what happened to Democrats between 1968 and 1972. Here's how he described the later:

The clearest example is the Democrats in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the time Humphrey lost in 1968, Democratic presidents had been in power for eight years, and by passing civil-rights laws and the Great Society measures, had moved American politics substantially to the left. But liberal activists were unimpressed. For them, the Kennedy-Johnson years mostly constituted a betrayal: Government efforts on behalf of minorities and the poor had been paltry, and Democratic presidents had taken the country into Vietnam. Freed from the excruciating compromises required to keep the Democratic Party’s big tent aloft, liberals were now free to act on principle.

So between 1968 and 1972, grassroots activists—many of them incubated in the anti-war movement—took over the Democratic Party, state by state... “The old Liberal Idea,” wrote the famed campaign chronicler Theodore White, “held that the job of a politician was to be a craftsman… as long as the politician moved the state or the majority in the right direction… they [activists] left the pace of change to him… In 1970, the Liberal Theology drew new lines—men of morality must take over the party and operate it; politics was too important to be left to the craftsmen of accommodation.” In 1972, several of those craftsmen of accommodation—Edmund Muskie, Scoop Jackson, and Humphrey himself—sought the Democratic presidential nomination and were stunned by a purist, George McGovern, the darling of the party’s newly dominant liberal activists.

And we all know how that one turned out.

Here's how he summarizes the process:

When parties lose power, activists ascribe the loss to the ideological impurity of their incumbent president. In so doing, they vent the frustrations they kept bottled up while their side was in power. Since defeat frees them from the messy business of governing, ideological purity suddenly becomes easier. And since defeat usually hits party moderates disproportionately hard, the opponents of purity usually hold less sway.

Beinart sees the same thing happening to Republicans following the defeat of George W. Bush.

Something similar is happening in today’s GOP. Between 2000 and 2008, George W. Bush pushed American politics sharply to the right: cutting taxes, appointing highly conservative judges, and shredding government regulation. But the Tea Partiers aren’t inclined toward gratitude. In their minds, Bush was an accomodationist, a big spender. Like the McGovernites in the Vietnam-era Democratic Party, the Tea Partiers are taking over the GOP, state by state. And in all likelihood, they will select a party nominee who runs substantially to the right of both Bush in 2000 and 2004 and John McCain in 2008.

Barring some major intervention related to a bad economy, he predicts a similar loss for the Republican Party in 2012 as a result of their embrace of purity.

Historically, it is only after a party loses two or three times that its activists come to terms with the reality that retaking power will require not ideological purity, but ideological compromise of the most wrenching kind.

Who can doubt that we're watching the tea partiers bring down the Republican Party when even their financial backers on Wall Street get nervous about their commitment to purity? I was still pretty politically naive when the purists on the left scared the whole country and brought us Nixon in 1972. But I can sure read history to see it play out and we all know the results.

Anyone who's read President Obama's book The Audacity of Hope knows that he also learned from that history. I'd suggest that the entire book is a cautionary tale against purity/polarization and an attempt to plot a new way forward for progressive ideals.

In the poutragers of today, we see the same seeds of discontent with the pace of change that led us to defeat in 1972. And its why addressing them RIGHT NOW is so important. The tea party purists have ensured the defeat of the Republican brand for the next few elections I'd suspect. We can learn from their mistakes as well as our own history...progress is slow and, in a democracy, requires compromise. When we fail to recognize that, we set the stage for blowback and our future defeat.


  1. Mo'nin', Ms. Pants

    Interesting morning shaping up from "our" thinkers I'm noting.

    EXcellent points for pragmatism vs. purity that I am seeing being presented well more and more. And, they MUST be presented.

    Went to dinner with some very good friends who tend to be on the Right this past Friday. Inevitably, the husband and I went political. Short, but intense. Of interest was his own disgust with his own side. I was able, thoroughly, to tell him what was at stake and what PBO was actually trying to do. He listened. And, asked more questions. Wound up bein' quite good.

    Ahhh, aware maturity.

    Thank you, as always, for your part in our continuing struggle.

    MAN, that film clip of PBO with the youngsters summed it up and brought it HOME SO beautifully, didn't it??

  2. Great work with friends at dinner Blackman!

    As they say..."each one reach one." That's how its done.

    When I watched that video, I thought about the casual conversations and teachings we'll get from Obama once he's done with politics. In some ways, I dread that day because we have so much to do with him in office. But in other ways, I can't wait to see him freed of the need to be "political" in every utterance.

  3. Appreciate the historical perspective, SP. If there's one thing PBO has done in MY life it's to open up my eyes and ears to American politics. Hi Anon, it's so encouraging to hear that another 'Rightie' is listening, AND hearing!


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