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David Sirota Headshot

The Rise of Seinfeld Politics & The End of Principles

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Berating the entire concept of ideology has become something of a fad in contemporary Washington, D.C. The David Broders lead us to believe that ideology - defined by the dictionary as "a set of beliefs" - is exactly the same thing as rigid, counterproductive dogma that prevents people from compromising. Of course, the chattering class is perhaps the most rigidly dogmatic demographic in America, loyally clinging to a rather strident elitist ideology on everything from trade, to the war and to democracy itself. Put another way, "ideology" is berated even as an ideological war is being fought by the beraters. And while the conservative movement actually believes in movement politics and rejects the idiotic attack on the concept of having "a set of beliefs," many Democratic Party elites buy the whole frame hook, line and sinker - for clearly corrupt reasons.

Nowhere has this been spelled out more clearly than this week's New York Times magazine story on Barack Obama's top campaign consultant. In this stunning passage, we see that the rejection of all ideology and principles is now not just a short-term tactic in a soundbite media environment, but instead the central theme of the Democratic Party Establishment in Washington, D.C.:

"Axelrod’s is a less grand, postideological approach, and his campaigns are rooted less in issues than in the particulars of his candidate’s life. For him, running campaigns hitched to personality rather than ideology is a way of reclaiming fleeting authenticity. It is also, more and more, the way of the Democratic Party. Its 2006 Congressional campaign strategy — run by Axelrod’s close friend Emanuel, with the Chicago consultant acting as principal sounding board — did not depend on any great idea of where the party ought to go, like the last political cataclysm, Newt Gingrich’s 1994 House 'revolution.' As they have reclaimed power, the Democrats have done so not by moving appreciably to the left or the right; rather, they have done so by allowing their candidates to move in both directions at once. 'What David is basically doing — and this is somewhat new for Democrats — isn’t trying to figure out how to sell policies,' says the Democratic media consultant Saul Shorr. 'It’s a matter of personality. How do we sell leadership?'"

This is really an eye-opening commentary, and not just because it explains Sen. Barack Obama's (D) sad attempts to portray himself as a conviction politician while refusing to display real conviction on the tough issues that require conviction. We are expected to believe that the American people want candidates who stand for nothing but have good "personalities" - that, say, a gameshow host like Alex Trebek or Bob Barker is the ideal Democratic Party candidates. We are expected to believe that you can "sell leadership" without actually SHOWING any leadership. And perhaps most ridiculously of all, we are expected to believe that the way to "reclaim fleeting authenticity" is to eliminate a coherent belief system - the critical ingredient of authenticity itself.

I cannot get over this. How can a top campaign consultant - and really, Democratic elites in general - look at the 2006 election and come away claiming it was a mandate for personality to trump all ideology? Here you have most of the successful red-region Democratic candidates running on strongly economic populist platforms, and yet here you have a Democratic Party apparatus in Washington demanding an end to the whole concept of a platform.

Then again, I shouldn't be surprised. This isn't the sheer stupidity of people who don't understand these facts - this is the end stage of the disease I laid out in Hostile Takeover: a very deliberate strategy of people who have become part of a system where corruption has become innate. The effort to replace the Democratic Party's historic pro-little-guy ideology with a ruling class ideology (masked as "postideology" and "personality") has been a very shrewd, very deliberate strategy that starts with Big Money interests, filters down to the campaign consultants (many of whom are simultaneously advising Democratic candidates and being paid by large corporations), and is ultimately administered by candidates who are trying to woo both the voting public and a handful of superwealthy political financiers. Put another way, the people who shun the concept of "ideology" aren't anti-ideological - they are quietly pushing an elitist ideology they know that most of America doesn't support.

Beyond watching Democrats support lobbyist-written bills like bankruptcy or free trade legislation, the public gets only the occasional glimpse of how it all works. Once in a while, we hear Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) bragging to Businessweek that “there’s no checklist that you have to run on” to be considered a Democrat (Why would a former investment banker and NAFTA architect like Emanuel want ideology? It would only get in the way of him shaking down lobbyists for cash). Every now and again, we see a few stories that shows how major Democratic presidential candidates prefer to let Wall Street CEOs "revise" their entire economic agenda, and how congressional Democrats are selling access to corporate lobbyists just weeks after running an anti-corruption campaign. And, of course, we get politicians like Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton the people most intensely devoted to this bait-and-switch game of pretending to be anti-ideological while being rigidly dogmatic. They tell us they want to end the war in a pragmatic way, while pushing to continue the war - expecting us never to wake up and smell the coffee.

Obviously, the Democratic Party did not engineer the original rise of personality politics. That happened as part of a broader political evolution that took place in the era of infotainment. But a political party's active efforts to prioritize personality politics over any core ideology unifying the party is something very new, and something that changes the definition of political party in fundamental ways. If one of the objectives of a political party is to shun any core agenda, then the political party ceases to become a political party, and becomes something akin to a gang: an entity that is concerned exclusively with power and money and that sees anything like convictions, conscience or ideology that might get in the way of those assets as a mortal threat.

The David Broders have been cheering this all on. The chattering class will continue contributing to this devolution through its inane and classless "reporting," whether through incessant speculation about the horse-race impact of Elizabeth Edwards life-threatening cancer, or through investigative coverage of politicians' workout schedules. But when the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C. cries and moans about the public believing it stands for nothing, it should look square in the mirror, because it has itself to blame. Seinfeld - the show about nothing - may have made for good TV, but it does not make for winning politics. And the only thing that can save the Democratic Party from itself is a reinvigorated progressive movement that puts its convictions first.

Can that happen? Can the battle be won? This is a major subject of the book I am writing right now, and I'd say the jury is out. Some in the progressive movement are caught in the throes of power-worshiping, thrilled that icons like Clinton and Obama just know their name, even if these icons are playing games with the issues that matter. Other parts of the new progressive "infrastructure" are anchored in the status quo of Washington, D.C., unwilling or unable to even fathom what an actual "movement" is, much less devote real resources to organizing anything other than a cocktail party in Dupont Circle.

But then, there are other reasons to be quite optimistic. Away from a celebrity-obsessed, East Coast-anchored media, real organizing around real issues is taking place, and local leaders are increasingly ignoring the "have no convictions" mantra from the Democratic Party in Washington. I see this everyday in my work with the Progressive States Network. There is, in short, reason for both pessimism and optimism - but one thing's for sure: This battle between the populists and the dogmatic elites who shroud their elitism in "personality over ideology" rhetoric will only intensify as the 2008 election approaches.