The Liberal Ouroboros

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

I voted for Obama in 2008, but now that he’s betrayed us I’m beginning to realize that he’s no better than George W. Bush. I won’t be supporting him or his party in the future.

It’s an increasingly common sentiment on the left, and on some level it’s understandable. But assuming that it’s not simple venting–and that it leads to, as this article suggests trouble for the Democrats in the midterm elections–then the left is going to drive itself back into political irrelevance at a time when the United States really can’t afford to let that happen.

The problem is, as it always has been, that progressive change is extremely incremental. In order to make things happen, we need to swallow a number of bitter pills for the time being. Example: Health care reform likely won’t pass with a strong public option, but withdrawing support for the bill because we don’t get the version of the public option we would like means trading in a small gain (and the opportunity for further gain in the future) for a return to the terrible, terrible status quo.

What I’m worried about is that we’re going to witness a widespread shift back to that terrible status quo across the board if we don’t embrace incrementalism. Imagine, for example, what happens if the grassroots donations, volunteering and enthusiasm does dry up to a significant extent in 2010. What’s that going to accomplish? The Democrats lose some seats, and it makes enacting the agenda that we want them to pass–that we’re angry at them for not representing effectively enough–even harder. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are still uninsured, and we’re still facing a global environmental crisis that the opposition party won’t even acknowledge.

And it’s facile to argue that at least the Democrats will have “learned their lesson.” Instead, we will have simply confirmed their suspicions about the liberal base: that they’re fickle and nearly impossible to please, to the point where there’s no electoral percentage in trying to accommodate them. The small gains we’ve already made will evaporate.

To be clear, I’m not asking organizers or those frustrated with the Obama administration to be quiet. Internal debate is perfectly healthy, and some of left-wing brinksmanship going on right now is an effective way of putting pressure on legislators. But if that morphs into more than just a negotiating tactic, and the liberal base demonstrates a willingness to take electoral losses in exchange for “sending a message,” then we’re fucked.

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