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The Democratic Divide

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In a two-party, winner-take-all system like we have in the United States, major parties always have factions, tensions and fights within them. I'm personally enjoying the open blood-letting by the Republican Party's factions that is happening currently, and God knows you've always been able to count on us Democrats to have a good brawl at any given moment.

Something new, though, is going on inside the Democratic Party, and as someone who is both a strong progressive and a loyal Democrat, I am paying a lot of attention to the action. This is not just a little bit of a dust-up or some catty dueling between factions. This goes much deeper than that. It is the divide between the party establishment and the emerging (and rapidly strengthening) outsider progressives.

These are somewhat complicated categories, as some people (including yours truly) have a foot in both camps. Some people that are clearly more on the establishment side are actually quite progressive- and yes, even populist- in their personal views. And folks considered more in the outsider camp are in no way a monolith in terms of either issue positions or political strategy ideas. But in general, when I talk of these two camps, I am thinking in the following way:

In Camp A, the establishment camp, I am thinking of people nervous about Democrats being too aggressive in ending the Iraqi war; former Democratic staffers who are comfortable about going to work as a lobbyist or consultant for big corporate clients; people who endorsed Lieberman in his primary last year; people who are strongly pro-free trade; campaign consultants who still believe in spending most of a campaign's budget on broadcast TV ads; and people disdainful of bloggers and MoveOn.org.

In Camp B, the outsider/progressive camp, I am thinking of writers and avid readers of the blogosphere along with members of MoveOn.org; supporters of Howard Dean's 50-state strategy; people who believe Democrats should do everything in their power, ASAP, to get us out of Iraq; and people who believe that strong labor and environmental problems should be negotiated into trade packages.

Both sides have major power bases, and a formidable array of weapons to wield in any given battle. And there is serious trouble brewing between them. The level of intensity, and the level of vitriol- personal and ideological- is rising between these two groups, and it is a battle that will not be easily solved or resolved anytime soon.

When I wrote a moment ago that I had a foot in both camps, that was certainly true. I've been a D.C. consultant for a long time now. I was a part of the Clinton White House, and still have many good friends that are in the establishment camp. But in terms of my views on issues and politics, I score a zero rating in Camp A and 100 percent in Camp B. Therefore, I count myself as a strong progressive. The question for progressives is this: what is our strategy in approaching this divide? There are two viable possibilities that I see:

1. Ratchet up the intensity of the battle and aggressively take the fight to the establishment everywhere we can. Pick fights with the establishment folks in every way possible; run progressives in as many primaries as we can; do everything possible to wrest control of the Democratic Party machinery away from the establishment.

2. Pick our fights carefully while continuing to build the movement.
This strategy would accept that the battle will last for years to come. We would fight like hell on the issue battles and primaries that matter, but in the meantime, declare truces in the lead-up to the general elections and on certain issue fights that everyone agrees on (like the House 100 Hours agenda). We could even look for common ground on good policy initiatives coming from the establishment political leaders.

I think both of these are legitimate options for the progressive movement to consider, they both have good arguments for and against. Not surprisingly, given my history, my inclination is towards the latter. As much as the progressive movement has grown and strengthened itself in recent years, I don't believe outsiders/progressives are ready to win an all-out war with the establishment, but I think we can and should continue to build our foundation for the long haul. Certainly if you look at our presidential candidates, there is no clear movement option and it's hard to take over a party without a clear leader or standard-bearer for your cause. And as extreme and dangerous as the Republican Party is at this moment in history, I don't feel like it's a good time to risk losing it all by chopping the Democratic Party in half. Though the divide runs deep and there is profound passion on both sides, eight more years of Republican White House rule would tear this country apart. At the same time, there are plenty of issue battles and primary fights worth having. I just think we should pick them strategically and always look to where we have the high ground in the battle.

I would be fascinated to know what you think. Maybe I've oversimplified the divide too much, or maybe you think it goes too deep for even temporary truces. Let me know...

Mike Lux is the President of American Family Voices, an issue advocacy group sometimes described as the "free safety" of the progressive movement, and does consulting for progressive organizations and donors through his consulting firm, Progressive Strategies, L.L.C.