Monday, February 26, 2007

Thou Shalt Not: Reflections on the So-Called "Eleventh Commandment"

Recently, Bill Richardson asked Democrats to hold their fire against other Dems.  Richardson and others suggested that the worst thing Dems do is bring out the "circular firing squad."  Some suggest that, in the 1990s, the GOP's refusal to criticize their own helped them win Congress and, ultimately, the presidency in 2000.  The truth is the GOP has been pretty ruthless at disposing of real and pseudo-mavericks.  However, Richardson is both right and wrong.  He's right in that we should avoid senseless, untruthful, or unkind attacks.  He's wrong in that airing "negatives" is necessary for informed decisions and necessary change.  Additionally, we have every right, even a responsibility, to be angry that some of our Congressional representatives let us down in 2002 and that their neglect leaves a pall over their candidacies.  Too many traded away our Bill of Rights, refused to speak out (or didn't do it enough), handed our public resources to the private sector, and constrained and gutted public education.

Just as patriotism depends on our questioning, keeping in formed, and speaking out when our leaders go astray, so too does commitment to party candidates who hope to lead the nation.  As a party, we must do more, not less, reflection, and  discussion (even heated).  I realize the old party regulars'mantra: "The party is not a debate society; its an organization to elect Democratic candidates." I disagree.  The party has its primary mission to elect candidates, but the party and its leaders earn our commitment.  Commitment requires much more than mindless buy-in.

We invest in our candidates our best hopes for our country, our labor, and hard-earned money. We owe them earnest appreciation, thanks and respect for their effort and time, not subservience.  We are neither their grunts, nor their groupies. They are, in fact, applying to serve us.  This is their employment screening.  The employment process is more rough-and-tumble than the ordinary applicant process, but the job is arguably the most complex in the world.

"Circular firing squads" can be either informative or destructive.  It's up to everyone to assure they are not abused, don't create false impressions, or disseminate false information.  The main problem with them isn't that they give the GOP its ammunition. Republicans are plenty good at developing their own opposition research.  The real danger is that they cause our own side of the aisle to cave to groupthink.

I respect any Democrats, whether they agree with me or not, who arrive at their decisions reasonably early (not during the last six or eight weeks), do so out of conviction, and stick with their candidate. I would rather someone disagree with me than move on a whim.  Rather, I challenge those fair-weather supporters, who turn on a dime and according to the media Gestault.  It is they who are vulnerable to over-influence by the "circular firing squad," the media and the GOP. But they both game the process (go with the winner at the moment) and believe everything they hear.  They can't make up their minds because they haven't done their homework.  With their citizenship self-suspended, they let the media decide for them.  How do we engage them earlier?  How do we persuade them that their pliability is a danger to a free society? If they are so malleability where our own party is concerned, they may be malleable at the hands of demogogues from other quarters.

Bloggers and the super-active at least partially inoculate themselves against the fickle nature of primary support.  They do this with their active engagement, research, writings, commitment and proximity to issues and ideas.  Bloggers and the super-active aren't guaranteed freedom from flights of whimsy away from their candidates either, though.

Of course, there are rare circumstances in which we must change our support.  Except for the most extreme cases, there is usually no cause for panic.  Our candidates are not and cannot be perfect.  We are bound to have differences with them.  However, the last reasons for switching support should be either that we haven't done our homework or that the media "made us do it."  How can we persuade Independents, Republicans and Greens of our positions and candidates if we aren't steadfast?

Ironically, many dennigrate activists who get too involved because "politics is so dirty." This feigned superiority belies a different truth: What's dirty and ugly about politics, aside from possible corrupting influences, is its whimsical opportunism.  Politics can't be so with engaged citizens.  What have the apathetic done to make it better? 

Though in 2004 I worked to support Howard Dean with all of my energies, I do not argue here that Howard Dean should have won in 2004.  What I argue is that we should never again see an entire election change so dramatically in just 6-8 weeks.  That rapid turn-around suggests deeper problems for our party.  Essentially, the media owns us and not the other way around.

2004 was not the first time this has happened, but it was possibly the most dramatic instance.  Howard Dean, clearly the front-runner for most of the primary campaign, and far ahead of other contenders, fell prey to the circular firing squad, malicious ads (equating him with Bin Laden), robo-calls accusing him of "environmental racism," rigged caucus processes, and 4 AM robo-calls falsly claiming they were from the Dean campaign.  But there was no Keith Olbermann exposing the dirty tricks unfolding even as election day dawned. 

The media helped by pushing its own version of crash and burn.  It replayed the so-called scream thousands of times and created rigged buzz.  Dean, they suggested, had "lost it" mentally.  In fact he had laryngitis and was trying to be heard above 3,000 screaming supporters, whose noise had been sound engineered out of the video. Most who heard CNN, MSNBC and FOX never knew that. 

Who really caused the crash and burn?  You may have your own ideas.  But a candidate who made even more mistakes won our nomination.  And the most fallible of all candidates "won" the general election. 

I believe that understanding this vulnerability to media whim, the most likely "victims," and the mechanisms by which such momentum shifts, is crucial to our survival as a party and nation.  When I grew up, we were taught to never make last minute shifts in our vote based on calculated attacks. But in 2004 voters did just that.  Any time an electorate is that pliable, it is no longer in charge of their own vote.

PS: The irony that I have not made my own 2008 decision is not lost on me.  In the next couple of months I will decide.  But I await the possibility of one or two more hats in the ring.