Keith’s post, and others’, on Jim Messina’s decision to work for the Tories, have led me to think about the different reasons for being attached to a political party. Those who differ in their reasons for being partisans in the first place will assess concrete questions of loyalty and disloyalty in very different ways.
Leaving aside mere habit and a tendency to passively adopt the affiliations of those like oneself (no doubt the most common reasons for partisanship but no fun to argue about), I see three possible reasons for attaching oneself for a party and working for its success: (1) belief in that party’s specific policy positions; (2) primal loyalty to a group or a “side”; or (3) pragmatic acquiescence in a party whose positions are more moderate than one’s own, in the hope of moving politics in a more uncompromising direction over time.
If (1) you are a Democrat because of specific policies, Messina’s decision is not that hard to justify. Keith and others can argue quite plausibly that the U.S. Democratic party on a great many issues endorses policies similar to, or indeed to the right of, Britain’s Conservatives. It’s been pointed out that even British austerity is not necessarily to Obama’s Right if one sees it in absolute rather than relative terms: as targeting a certain level of public deficits, or a certain level of government spending as a percentage of GDP. (Now, if one is a determined Keynesian, relative terms are the only ones that matter: one increases spending and deficits, from whatever level, in recessions. But pace Krugman, not everyone sees short-term Keynesian categories as the only relevant ones, and a country that doesn’t borrow in the world’s reserve currency is arguably less free to be exclusively Keynesian than Americans are. I don’t myself buy this line of argument, but buying it is by no means crazy.) Even immigration may be no exception. While Cameron’s recent rhetoric has been inflammatory, for all I know his government’s policies don’t differ that much from those of President Obama, whose stance towards the undocumented involves proposing a long and difficult path to citizenship, and mass deportation in the meantime.
This is a complex and interesting debate. But it’s beside the point if (2) one is a Democrat because one supports “working people,” “the 99 percent,” women (defining their interests, as is fine with me but of course rejected by traditionalists, in feminist terms), racial and cultural/ethnic minorities, or the poor as opposed to “the one percent,” “angry white men,” “corporate power,” or the like. If one is choosing sides in such battles, and sees them as elemental, one simply must choose Labour in Britain as wellâ€”or at the very least the Liberal Democratsâ€”because the Tories are the party of the people with wealth and power. (The same goes for a visceral ideological attachment to “the Left” as opposed to the Rightâ€”though that way of putting it is in the U.S., unlike in France, very much a minority taste.)
Finally, a lot of progressive activists put up with Obama, and the Democratic Party generally, not because they love the specific policies he calls for but (3) because they regard those policies as better than the Republican alternative and accept the pragmatic need to lock in moderate reforms now so as to pursue ever more equality in the future. (It’s common on the Right to portray all Democrats as like this, radical egalitarians in moderate clothing. That’s absurd as a sweeping generalization, but true of some partisans and, frankly, quite common among the base.) From this perspective, someone who supports moving towards the reforms that Obama proposes now and no further is not a proper partisan but a sellout or a dupe. Such a person has mistaken the start of the journey for its end.
By endorsing (1), partisanship based on specific policy positions, Keith has taken a position that’s quite common among policy experts. It may also be common among the more wonkish, data-driven type of political operative. (I honestly have no idea.) But it’s very uncommon, and the side-taking or pragmatic-activist positions are much more common, among the kind of devoted partisans who constitute any party’s base and who dominate blog-based commentary. That’s why Keith wonders why anyone would regard Messina as a sellout, while so many in Left Blogistan wonder how anyone could regard him as anything else.