08/04/2006 08:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Paul Krugman's Attack on the Sierra Club

New York -- New York Times columnist Paul Krugman devoted this morning's column to attacking the Sierra Club as a "useful idiot" and "naïve" for our endorsement of Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.). What annoyed Krugman was our insistence that we endorse political candidates based on their records and their environmental leadership, not their party. The Club has responded to the Times with a letter to the editor, but the issue actually deserves more space than that.

Krugman is not the first pundit to question our judgment in the Chafee endorsement. Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos went after us a few months ago on the same topic.

In essence, the debate is over how progressive groups such as the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, and labor unions should react to the fact that the reactionary leadership of the Republican Party has driven most of the Republican mainstream out of public office and is marginalizing and isolating those who remain.

This is a real phenomenon. And while many might like to ignore it and pretend that our politics still feature a landscape of independent, persuadable public servants, Moulitsas and Krugman are right to point out that, in today's Congress, the Republican leadership calls all the shots, as in a parliamentary system. But, even so, it's not clear what groups like the Sierra Club should do, either now or in the long term.

Purging the Republican Party of moderates was, we should remember, a reactionary project. Is helping Grover Norquist complete that project the best way to fight back? Norquist has called bipartisanship "date rape." Be careful who you lie down with.

Some progressives relish the idea of two parties -- one reactionary and one progressive. They like the ideological clarity of turning the U.S. into a quasi-parliamentary system.

Others may not like the idea, but nevertheless see it as a done deal. Mark Schmitt, for example, wrote in The American Prospect:

"This year, whether Democrats win enough seats to control the House or not, the second shoe will drop. The hardening of our country into a parliamentary democracy, with two parties representing distinct ideologies and political traditions, will be complete.... soon, whether we choose partisanship or not, we will all be absorbed into a more partisan world, and those who fight that trend will be left behind.... Liberals can lament the loss of the old pluralist world, but we had better move on and deal with the new."

But whatever one might think about the short-term attractiveness of dumping allies like Chafee to achieve an (admittedly critical) change in Congressional leadership, long-term it's still a completely different (and very tough) call. I addressed the short-term earlier today. Now I'd like to talk about the long-term, and for that a little historical background is in order.

The U.S. has already experienced one longish period of parliamentary politics -- after the Civil War. That episode laid the enduring foundation of American plutocracy, by enshrining corporations as persons, savaging small farmers, undoing African-American progress, and limiting the power of states to regulate economic power. Not a good role model.

Those who, like Schmitt, believe the die is cast are betting that Norquist and his ilk are craftier than James Madison. Madison shaped the Constitution specifically to prevent parliamentary politics, which he loathed. And his crucial bulwark was the breakwater on which previous parliamentary surges have spent their force -- the U.S. Senate.

Progressives desire an active government that solves problems. Those who would give permanent control of one of our two parties to reactionaries, in exchange for having a "pure" progressive party on the other side of the aisle, must answer this question: How can we count on typically having not only a friend in the White House, and a majority in the House, but control (and perhaps 60-vote control) in the Senate? Rural states, which traditionally have been reluctant to elect ideological progressives to the Senate, have a majority in that body. Reactionaries don't care because they don't want a problem-solving government -- they are happy with a paralyzed national government. They need to control only one branch of government to stave off losing. For most of the last 150 years, the Senate has been that branch.

This may not be fair, but it's reality. Progressives need to build power on values and issues that enjoy not 51 percent support, but 70 percent support. God knows that, after Bush, Gingrich and their ilk, there are enough of those battles. And environmentalism, unlike, say choice, truly is a 70-30 issue among the American public. Are battles where 70 percent of the public shares our goals best fought in the parliamentary fashion -- across party aisles and ideologies? Or would a politics more rooted in local concerns, problems, and values serve us better?

The Gilded Age of American oligarchy was ended by the first Progressive movement at the beginning of the last century by men like Theodore Roosevelt, Hiram Johnson, and Bob LaFollette (Republicans, all). They created the modern bipartisan, centrist tradition. Do we really want to throw that away for an idea embraced by Grover Norquist? Are we so certain that Madison's cagily balanced machinery isn't going to trip up the parliamentarians once again? Is it really wise to sacrifice the environment to the short-term vicissitudes of party politics? American history suggests that we make our case to the entire nation, not to a single political party.