10/27/2006 09:16 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Rising Threat of Partisan War Syndrome

On the same day a new poll shows middle class voters are abandoning the GOP, historian Rick Perlstein has a great op-ed in the Chicago Tribune where he dares to raise a taboo question: what happens in a Democratic majority now that the party has made itself a K Street party?

Here's an excerpt:

"I worry about the next 100 weeks. In another office on Capitol Hill, Pelosi's colleague, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has boasted that his Democratic Party in power will open the doors wide to corporate donors once only welcomed by Republicans--including, he has said, 'the distressed-debt world.' That would be a distressing debt for the Democrats to carry into 2008. Isn't the GOP being in hock to just those sorts of donors one reason red-state gun owners have started putting up Democratic lawn signs? After the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 a woman buttonholed Benjamin Franklin and asked the good doctor what kind of government he'd just helped produce. 'A republic,' he famously replied, 'if you can keep it.' Nov. 7 may produce a Democratic Washington. The question is: Can the Democrats keep it?"

It is true - Perlstein's question about whether Democrats can keep a majority is only relevant if Democrats GET a majority. But his piece implicitly makes a key point: what is the worth of a Democratic majority if we do not make sure that majority pushes fundamental change?

That's a taboo question, of course - especially to the political class. MyDD"s Jerome Armstrong, for instance, writes today that "there is not a single issue that takes precedent to the Democrats winning back a majority in the US Senate this year." I understand Jerome's general point, especially 12 days out from an election. But like Perlstein, I worry about this kind of thinking among some Democrats who somehow believe politics should always and forever more be waged only for politics' sake - not for actual issues. Would it really be acceptable for Democrats to, say, win Congress on a platform that supported expanding the Iraq War? Would the death of thousands of our soldiers really not "take precedent?" What about a Democratic Party that kept embracing a trade policy that sells out the very middle class voters it is relying on for victory? Would that corruption not "take precedent?" I sure hope not. I sure hope we don't start embracing what I call "partisan war syndrome" where the only thing that matters is a party label - not actually changing the country.

Having lived and worked on many races, one thing that becomes very, very clear: ordinary people don't give a crap about politics for politics' sake - they care about the challenges in their daily lives. And if Democrats believe otherwise, it really will be a short-lived heyday.

I am working here in the trenches because I really do believe a Democratic majority will bring fundamental change - but not without a real fight. In a majority, progressives will face the same entrenched interests, only with different party labels behind their names. Republican corporate lobbyists will be replaced by Democratic corporate lobbyists. But while the Beltway political/media elite will portray that as real change in order to pretend our democracy has worked, we will all know it's not real change, and that our democracy is still very broken.

My optimism comes from the fact that the progressives who are in Congress will have more power to fight the good fight - both against Republicans and against the faction of Democrats like Rahm Emanuel and others who have made a career out of being auctioneers at the firesale of the Democratic Party's principles. It will be up to us to get past partisan war syndrome, and get comfortable with movement politics. It will be up to us to make campaigns extensions of more than just some shill-turned-lawmaker's principle-free scheme for personal power and turn them all into actual quests for real change, like Senate campaigns in Vermont, Connecticut and Ohio really are this cycle. It will be up to us, in short, to conflate politics with movements, rather than looking at the two as separate and unequal - with principle-free politics coming before everything else.