Monday, September 06, 2010

Tony Blair and progressive discontent

This is an interesting post on some comments made by former British PM Tony Blair. It raises some important questions about how the political process works and the role of individuals and activists in that process. It reminds me of a characterization of political principles that I like. We have sets of ethical/principle callings. For example, we have beliefs and policy positions that we want to advance (i.e. cutting taxes or providing health care for all). We also have an ethical calling in our conduct when attempting to advance those policies (i.e. is it okay to lie in order to win an election – that is, do ends justify means?).

The problem is that sometimes we have to choose between those two ethical callings.

We can spread half-truths or outright lies about our political opponents or run attack ads (ads which may have some truth to them, but are slanted to paint an ugly picture of our political opponent) in order to win an election. Once the election is won, we are free to pursue the policy positions we believe will most benefit the nation. So, we have traded certain principles about clean politicking in exchange for the ability to advance those political principles.

On the other hand we can run a clean campaign, do no mud slinging, and lose. This means we are unable to advance a policy agenda, but we can still say we adhered to those political principles of clean electioneering (but at what cost).

Similarly, Blair wants progressive activists and rank-and-file voters to do a little more marching in line so to speak. We need to stick up for Obama a little more even if he gives us milquetoast SCOTUS nominees instead the progressive equivalents of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Even if there is no public option we need to fall in line and defend HCR to the death. And even though the Employee Free Choice Act seems to have fallen off the agenda we should get out and pound the pavement to save the Democratic majorities in congress.

Up until recent years, the right has done a much better job keeping their troops in a line. It seems that on the whole conservative voters are more willing to line up behind an R and march. And here is where competing political principles have to be reconciled. Democratic/progressive voters can sit at home in November and watch Democratic congressional majorities disappear. Next year we can look forward to trumped up investigations in house committees that will put a complete stop to a less-than-progressive agenda (that is still better than the right-win agenda we are going to get or had through the Bush years), not to mention the conservative threats to simply shut down the government (exactly what we need in the middle our economic problems).

As a result, we will still have our principles though. We can still proudly say we didn’t go out and vote for some senate, congressional or gubernatorial candidate who wasn’t progressive enough. And we can feel really good about that while Pat Toomey runs amok in the Senate.

This is the political conundrum we face. I don’t think we should reflexively line up behind a pol like Tony Blair. At the same time, I think progressives have been too critical, and not strong enough in defense of President Obama. We haven’t gotten a strong enough fight in favor of progressive policy positions from the White House or congressional Democrats. But sitting at home in November and turning congress over to a paleo-conservative, Club for Growth corporatist like Pat Toomey isn’t going to help things at all.

The question is which set of political/ethical principles are most important to us right now, because I don’t think progressive, or conservatives for that matter, can have political purity.