Do Progressives Have What It Takes To Win?

09/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean.
My fist got hard and my wits got keen.

- from A Boy Named Sue by Shel Silverstein

Maybe it is something congenital about the left. Faced with lies, propaganda and intimidation, liberals go to Google to arm themselves with more and better facts.

Here! See my data?

Writing on, Dick Polman wonders "whether there is some fundamental flaw in the Democratic gene pool ..." that the Democratic leadership was caught off guard by the conservative backlash against health care reform.

Recent town hall displays -- including the swastikas and death threats, explicit and implied -- prove again that it's past time that progressives got a clue and stopped bringing letter openers to gun fights.

Rank and file conservatives may not, but their leaders know exactly what they're doing with the storm of distortions and lies. They are playing hardball. Fights like this are not about political philosophy or experts disagreeing over facts. Conservatives love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like ... you know.

Ask Sen. Dick Durbin. The GOP's torches and pitchfork brigade went after him in 2005 after he held up FBI documents detailing treatment of terrorist suspects in U.S. custody. The accounts evoked images of concentration camps and gulags, Durbin suggested.

How dare he dishonor our troops? conservatives screamed. They hit the TV, talk radio and blogs. They were relentless. They called for Durbin's immediate resignation. They demanded an apology.

After a week of intense criticism, Durbin dragged himself onto the Senate floor and offered a tearful one.

Afterwards, the GOP leadership must have returned to their offices, closed the doors and doubled over laughing. (The infamous torture memos came out much later.)

And what was the point of the torches and pitchforks ritual? Truth? Honor? Principle? Hardly.

The point is dominance. Nothing more evolved than alpha dog behavior. Bark fiercely enough and get the other dog to roll over and pee in their air just to show who's boss.

Rick Perlstein related another illustrative story after attending a conservative conference in Princeton later in 2005:

Karl Rove showed up for a surprise after-lunch briefing and Q&A, in which he defended his conservative purity by boasting of how he pressured a reluctant Republican into voting for a free trade bill ("That sombitch was cryin!").

More and better facts are irrelevant in an alley fight, as Polman observed. But as a group, liberals and progressives have yet to figure that out. It may cost them dearly this time if they cannot awaken their inner George McFlys. (I'd settle for a few more Barney Franks and Bernie Sanders.)

At Netroots Nation last weekend, Darcy Burner urged the netroots community to throw everything they have into the health care fight. The question is whether they have what it takes.

Conservatives believe -- with justification -- that if they get angry enough and loud enough that liberals will back down from fights like this one. If so, conservative leaders will go somewhere and have themselves a good, long laugh.

They got game. We got Google.

The left needs to learn how to throw a few elbows. Every minute the right spends on defense is one less minute they have for lies and fear-mongering. Knock them off their game. Break their rhythm. Make them play defense and our jobs get easier.

Yes, debunking the lies and distortions is critical. They must be knocked down swiftly. Dukakis, the Clintons, Gore and Kerry let them fester, unchallenged, believing Americans would never believe such tripe, and they paid for it. Mencken and Barnum would not have made that mistake, but modern Democrats make it over and over.

But until progressives figure out that they are up against political opponents whose core view of the world is simply, "Son, this world is rough and if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough," they'll be bullied into submission again and again.