Reflections on a Core Conundrum of Progressive Politics

Today The Hill ran an article Julian Hattem titled “Fury of the Left Falls on Schumer.”

Here are the opening paragraphs:

“Liberals are livid at Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) decision to oppose the White House’s nuclear deal with Iran, and have threatened to launch a full-scale war as retribution.

“Activists and former top officials within the Obama administration are openly contemplating whether Schumer’s stance disqualifies him from serving as the next Senate Democratic leader—which he is primed to do—and seeking to temporarily cut off money to Democrats in the upper chamber.

“It’s unclear whether Schumer’s announcement will have a devastating effect on the White House’s efforts to prevent Democrats from killing the deal when it comes up for a vote in Congress next month.

“But it’s clear that he will be Public Enemy No. 1 for liberal activists throughout the August recess, as they aim to rally support from Democrats on the agreement.

“’This is a real and serious backlash, one that comes from deep within the Democratic Party’s base, and I think we’re only going to see it grow,’ said Becky Bond, the political director for Credo Action.

“Liberal groups including Credo, and Democracy for America are rallying supporters to flood congressional mailboxes and town halls over the course of the next month to demand lawmakers support the agreement. On Friday, they launched a new website,, to list upcoming town halls and aid in the push.

“Late on Thursday evening, Schumer upended the congressional debate over the Iran agreement by announcing in a lengthy statement that he ‘must oppose the agreement’ and ‘will vote yes on a motion of disapproval’ when it comes up for a vote in September.

“He also will vote to override President Obama’s veto of legislation to kill the deal, Schumer’s office confirmed.”

I support the deal with Iran because I have not heard anyone offer any plausible alternative. Minus this deal, bombing the nuclear sites in Iran will likely become the default alternative. But the consensus seems to be that bombing the sites will delay the Iranian development of nuclear weapons for only a few years, at most. Moreover, it will almost certainly isolate us even further even as we amplify the chaos that seems to be engulfing one part of the Middle East after another. (I have not heard anyone address how a U.S. military attack on Iran will impact conditions in Iraq, where the Shiite militias seem to be providing the main bulwark for the Iraqi government and against ISIS.) And any military action against Iran will almost certainly lead to more terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, here and abroad—whether the Iranians directly sponsor those attacks or not.

But, the deal with Iran is actually not in itself the main issue that I would like to address in this post. Instead, this article in The Hill made me recognize a political conundrum for Progressives to which there are no easy resolutions.

It is clear that every Republican in the House and the Senate will vote against the deal with Iran. And it suddenly struck me that Progressives have very conflicting views on that sort of Party solidarity.

On the one hand, we find it ridiculous that Republicans are willing to unite so uniformly in opposition to almost anything proposed by or supported by the Obama administration. Such opposition seems not only inflexibly ideological or thoughtlessly reflexive but also very destructive to the most fundamental conceptions of government and to most basic functioning of the political process.

On the other hand, we are envious of the Republicans’ ability to organize and to maintain such a unified front. On too many issues that matter to Progressives, we have seen Democratic legislators seemingly cave to threats to their re-election and put their own political prospects above political principles. As a result, even when a Democratic proposal manages to make its way through the legislative process, the end product often looks very much like a Far Right, rather than a Progressive, initiative. And yet, irony of ironies, Progressives end up being demonized for and paying a political price for its passage. The Affordable Care Act is now a classic example of this type of maddening circumstance. In all of its major elements, the ACA is essentially the Republican alternative to government-provided universal coverage. Nevertheless, it has been attacked by Republicans vehemently and rather successfully as a Socialist scheme imposed destructively on the American economic system.

On a broader scale, I suspect that the Democrats’ inability to achieve the sort of legislative conformity that the Republicans seem more often and more easily to muster has a paradoxical impact on the Democrats’ ability to win elections. On the one hand, the Democratic party attracts voters because it is clearly the party with the “bigger tent.” On the other hand, the multiplicity of opinions represented within the party inevitably alienates voters for whom some single issue becomes momentarily paramount or is always paramount. In addition, the party’s inability to make unified and successful stands on major issues, such as the deal with Iran, gives voters the impression that the party leadership is weak and thereby erodes confidence in the party.

Much the same dynamic seems to be at work, at least thus far, in this presidential election cycle. On the one hand, the enormous Republican field and Donald Trump’s current ascendancy within it would seem to justify the derisive judgment that it represents a return to “the clown car.” Yet, I cannot help but feel that Hillary Clinton’s very measured initiation of her campaign is beginning to suffer because it looks relatively lifeless in comparison to the somewhat unhinged volatility on the other side.

Julian Hattem’s complete article is available at:



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