03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Fractured Left Might Not Be Such A Bad Thing

Consider a couple of tried and true axioms. "Divide and conquer." "Diversity is strength." When you think about it, they are, on the face of it, contradictory. Nevertheless, they both have an inherent wisdom, and there can be a fine line separating the two when you're talking about politics. While many on the left are now concerned about the danger of the former, it may well be time to consider instead the opportunities of the latter.

First a little context. It's hardly news to say there's a split within the left, following the bitter struggle over health care reform. While many progressives see the final Senate product as a qualified win, many others see it as a giveaway to the insurance companies that will make a bad situation worse. Gone from both sides of the left is the pretense that the White House has not been a major player; those who support the bill praise Obama for its passage, those that fear the bill blame Obama for its passage.

But while some on the pro-bill camp are now reciting the "no hard feelings" victory mantra to disheartened members of the "kill the bill" camp, leading activists from the latter set have charted a different path. Bloggers like Jane Hamsher are diving headlong into the strategy laid out by Cenk Uygur in what has become a manifesto of sorts to those liberals stinging after their expulsion from the negotiating table and steaming at the open dismissal by White House legislative hammer Rahm Emanuel. Uygur's piece gave voice to what more progressives have come to realize (based not only on the health care struggle, but virtually every other political hot potato from the Afghan War and civil liberties to Presidential appointments): that this administration will seriously consider no policy to the left of the Senate's most conservative Democrats.

The solution, to Uygur, is for an organized and mobilized progressive movement to "hurt" the President. To draw political blood. That this is, by process of elimination, the only way to be taken seriously in the hardball world of Emanuelian politics which Obama has embraced.

Again, this isn't breaking news. Still, there should be no question as to the reason for the speed and ferocity of the manifestation of the Uygur strategy that has appeared at the progressive website Firedoglake. On the one hand, this faction sees the failures of the health care bill as a massive electoral loser, and with November looming, it becomes necessary from this perspective to improve the Democratic Party's record despite itself.

More significant, though, is the fact that other major policy battles near and dear to the left are rapidly approaching (particularly climate change and the final disposition of the Employee Free Choice Act). Progressives are not willing to again cede these decisions to the "corporatist" wing of the party without a fight. In this sense, the clock is ticking to rediscover enough power to be taken seriously again (if indeed they ever were by this administration).

So that's the liberal split in a nutshell, but it's more than just a difference in strategy. It's the form the opening salvo from FDL is taking that is serving to further antagonize these divisions; a corruption charge tailored not only to the populist inclinations of independent voters, but the scandal-obsessed traditional media as well. Yes, it's increasing tensions, but there is also an undeniable cleverness to this line of attack.

The charge of corruption (through the person of Rahm Emanuel and questions around his involvement in Fannie Mae) is uniquely non-ideological, and has thereby allowed for an alliance with right wing hero Grover Norquist. This political jiu-jitsu co-opts a major driver of the very right wing machine Obama and Emanuel are concerned about, but puts it in service of a left wing ideological bloc, eager to garner the same respect from the White House. While many on the left are understandably finding the alliance distasteful, its potential potency is hard to deny.

Still, it is unquestionably cementing the fractures that have formed among the left. Calls of "why can't we all just shake hands and get back to working together" fall apart before such a strategy.

Given, then, the innate wisdom of the "divide and conquer" axiom, this scorched earth approach must be a bad thing. A fractured left is a weakened left, and a weakened left can never, ever find its way back to relevance. Right?

In reality, it all depends on how it plays out in the coming month, because "divide and conquer" may not be the axiom in play if the rift can be finessed. Instead, the far more liberal mantra of "diversity is strength" could cede policy victories to the American left -- even to those currently demonizing FDL's Jane Hamsher and her allies.

So-called "movement conservatives" have proven that size does not necessarily matter when it comes to impacting policy. In fact, the beltway seems to respond to a definition of political force that mirrors Newton's own definition of physical force in his second law: f=ma (force equals mass times acceleration). The Uygur/Hamsher activist faction may divorce itself of some mass through its approach, but through an even greater increase in its acceleration (by being more focused and nimble), it could end up a far more potent political force when all is said and done.

In addition, there's even the potential for a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic among progressive ideological allies on either side of this attack-strategy divide. It may be distasteful for the Hamsher opponents among the left to consider, but the fact is that Rahm Emanuel may be more inclined to bring what he sees as agreeable progressives into the process in an active way if he thinks it may limit or even undermine the FDL-set during delicate negotiations. It may not put Jane Hamsher or Glenn Greenwald at the table personally, but it would be progressives at the table nonetheless - which is better than what we've got at present.

Is this more optimistic view the way the dynamics will play out in the coming months? Maybe, maybe not. There's no question that FDL and company are engaging in a high stakes gamble that could either enhance the left's impact, or further erode it. The answer to the question of which way it will all turn depends less on who is right, and more on how this tightrope is walked in the coming weeks.

However you slice it, a decision to turn up the heat on this White House, in the process solidifying the split in the left, is a high risk strategy. But it would seem that the administration has left progressives little choice if they want a way back to the negotiating table.