Opinion: The Left’s Civility Wars

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

You may recall Jonathan Chait’s recent column about not letting the activist left -- ‘a pack of crazed, ignorant ideological cannibals’ -- defeat the otherwise objectionable Joe Lieberman in the upcoming Connecticut primary. Chait’s conclusion:

[T]he anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman’s sins. It’s a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent. Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad is seen as stemming from his pro-war stance, the practical effect of toppling Lieberman would be to intimidate other hawkish Democrats and encourage more primary challengers against them. If Lieberman loses, he’ll play the same role as before, only this time with the power of martyrdom behind him: the virtuous anti-Democrat, too good and honest for his party. If you think Lieberman is sanctimonious now, wait until you see him in defeat.


The reaction by said ‘fanatics’ has (unsurprisingly) not been particularly charitable, triggering a train-wreck of a ruckus on the left side of the commentariat about ‘civility,’ Stephen Colbert, circular firing squads, and shifting the goalposts on the ideological debate. Valley lefty Steve Smith called Chait’s column ‘a bizarre apologia for Joementum,’ adding:

Hell, I think Lieberman’s being scapegoated, being held to account for sins other Democrats have committed with the same enthusiasm. But primary challenges are a good thing; they prevent incumbents from taking the base for granted. And the Democratic Party has suffered for too long from elected officials who value the office more than the people they represent. We shall not be free until the last corporate Democrat is strangled by the entrails of the last liberal hawk.

Ezra Klein called Chait ‘surprisingly incoherent,’ explaining:

So Lieberman should win not because the critique of him is wrong, but because his critics think in slogans? How bizarre. If the netroots are right on the merits, and Chait’s reluctance to substantively defend Lieberman suggests he thinks they are, then their simplistic sloganeering belies subtle, sophisticated political minds that he might wish to listen to. After all, they’re right. As for the netroots’ supposed inability to tolerate ideological dissent, I happen to know that’s untrue. Why? Because this guy Jon Chait, a couple paragraphs earlier, smartly explained that ‘lots of Democrats supported the Iraq war initially and believe now that we can and must win. Moderates such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton say this all the time. But you don’t see anybody trying to oust them.’ In other words, the test isn’t ideological at all, as evidenced by the netroots’ full acceptance of Democrats ideologically indistinguishable from Lieberman.

Chait responded to his lefty critics over at New Republic‘s website. A sample:

Daily Kos has taken particular umbrage. He introduces me as a writer for Lieberman Weekly, the left-wing blogosphere’s term for TNR. (It seems not to occur to him that the fact that I wrote a mostly anti-Lieberman column itself undermines the accuracy of their epithet. He evidently cannot imagine a magazine where different writers have different opinions on a topic.) After quoting my column, he proceeds in the next two paragraphs to call my column ‘obvious crap,’ ‘intellectually dishonest,’ and ‘bullshit.’ Oh, and he also calls me a ‘moron.’ Atrios, for his part, has taken issue as well. His counterargument, which I hereby quote in its entirety, is this: ‘Wanker of the Day.’ Simple slogans? Refusing to tolerate dissent? Can’t imagine where I got that idea.

To which the Washington Monthly‘s Irvine-residing blogger Kevin Drum reacted by musing about the alleged far-leftiness of lefty bloggers:

Chait calls the Kos/Atrios wing ‘left-wing activists.’ Marshall Wittman more colorfully calls them ‘McGovernites with modems.’ But this is a serious misreading. In fact, if I have a problem with the Kossite wing of the blogosphere, it’s the fact that they aren’t especially left wing. Markos in particular specifically prides himself on caring mostly about winning elections, not fighting ideological battles. [...] So is the liberal blogosphere liberal? Of course it is. But to compare it to the left-wing radicals of the early 70s is to misunderstand it completely. Netroots favorite Howard Dean is no lefty radical, and at a policy level most of the high-traffic liberal blogs are only modestly to the left of the DLC — except on Iraq.

Chait’s response?

This is true if you consider only their policy agenda in a vacuum. But it’s not true if you take account of their political style, which is distinctly New Left. It’s a paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage. The fact that the contemporary blog-based left, unlike the McGovernite New Left, lacks a well-formed radical program is some measure of comfort. However, I think there’s lots of evidence to suggest that this style of thinking is suggestive of a tendency to move in more radical directions over time. That, of course, is exactly what happened to the New Left, many of whose members starting off as relatively sensible liberals, or left-liberals before veering into the abyss.

Drum calls this restate a ‘pretty weak brew,’ then provides a short-list of policies he thinks most lefty bloggers agree on. Chait’s last word here. Meanwhile, there is a parallel fooferaw between the Atrios/Kos wing, and those on the left who didn’t find Stephen Colbert’s hilarious Beltway takedown to be hilarious. In the crosshairs of that fusillade is UCLA professor Mark Kleiman; read his two posts, and follow the links accordingly.

Last word in this catfight goes to Steve Smith:

The most noxious trend among lefty bloggers in recent months has been the abandonment of any pretense that people who take contrary positions can do so in good faith. It is not enough that someone has an opposing viewpoint; they must be lying as well. Or if the media doesn’t report a story, or give emphasis to the right set of ‘facts’, it’s because they’re in bed with the Bushies. Liberal bloggers seem to have looked at the weapons the right uses in playing the political field, what with talk radio, FoxNews, etc., and decided that the tone of political discourse doesn’t need to be changed, but copied. It’s as if there has been a collective decision that what’s objectionable about Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter is their ends, not their means.