Blinded by ideology

Just 10 years ago I was at the forefront of a Democratic Party civil war, one fought between a corporatist-dominated establishment and a band of rebels fighting for — in the words of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone — the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.

Ours was a Democratic Party that had acquiesced to President George W. Bush’s disastrous wars. It was furiously backtracking on social issues, willing to cede territory on choice; guns; immigration and equality. It had grown too cozy with Wall Street. It was a party that had forgotten what it represented, and more importantly, who it was fighting for. 


So along came former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who spearheaded a movement made up mostly of online (netroots) activists and a handful of reformist unions like SEIU. And rather than sulk after his failed presidential bid, we fought to elect him as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2005. In 2006, aided by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s surprise primary loss, Democrats saw the light on the Iraq war. By 2008, they had positively evolved on immigration. The Occupy movement brought back economic populism in 2011, and marriage equality followed in 2012. In 2013, the party is moving on guns. It may have happened incrementally, but today’s Democratic Party bears surprisingly little resemblance to its 2003 edition. And that change wouldn’t have happened without an energized and activist base pushing the party leftward. 

On its surface, that story appears surprisingly similar to the GOP’s ongoing civil war pitting the Tea Party versus its establishment. Just like the progressive rebels a decade ago, these conservative insurgents believe their party has lost touch with the values and principles that once made their party great. 

But that’s where the similarities end. We were data-obsessed, poring over polling numbers and demographic trends. When we pushed the party leftward, we did so by arguing electability. We either proved those shifts would win an election (like opposing the Iraq war), or we waited for a more opportune time (like marriage equality). 

The GOP’s present-day mutineers have no such allegiance to electability. After decades of addiction to reality-altering conservative media, they are more comfortable “unskewing” polls than they are in properly evaluating the data. Even today, they’re convincing themselves that the huge demographic gains among Latinos and Asians will be offset by increased birth rates among evangelicals. Good luck with that. 

Thus, the GOP’s insurgents aren’t motivated by moving their party to help them win elections. Their adherence to ideology, in fact, is actively undermining it — as former Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar and many others could attest. Furthermore, while the Republican National Committee’s officially commissioned autopsy urged the party to better appeal to critical youth and nonwhite voters, the party’s dominant right flank is doubling down on the very issues, like rape and anti-gay bigotry, that make the party so unappealing to those voters.

The results are objectively disastrous for Republicans. The Huffington Post polling composite for party identification shows that Democrats currently enjoy a 9-point advantage in party ID, 36.1 to 27.0. A year ago, it was less than 5 points, 34.5 to 29.7. Furthermore, the GOP’s totals have been on a slow but unmistakably downward trajectory since last October. 

A decade ago, data-driven Democratic insurgents pushed their party left toward the American mainstream, leading to a stronger, more modern, more competitive party. Today’s establishment Republicans can only wish that their own rebels had that kind of foresight and savvy.

Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).