Wanted: A New Blogosphere Epithet

What do you call a progressive who undermines his/her own party from the left, under circumstances where there is no chance his or her policy can be enacted?

Believe it or not, we need yet another new derogatory term in the blogosphere.

I think it was Dr. Black who first coined the term “wanker” to mean “ostensibly liberal Democrat who mouths right-wing talking points to undermine his party.”

But what do you call Russ Feingold, who has decided to support a Republican filibuster against the financial reform bill on the grounds that it isn’t strong enough?  The chances of a subsequent Congress enacting stronger legislation is exactly zero.  So is this bad faith?  Stupidity?

Two caveats are in order:

1)  Sometimes progressives have to withhold their votes in order to drive a bill leftward, i.e. toward the reality-based world.  So the mere fact of opposing a bill on the grounds of it being too conservative does not put a person in this category.  Theoretically, Feingold might just be doing some last-minute negotiating.  Since the bill has not yet been reported out of Conference (making it unamendable on the Senate floor), perhaps that’s the issue.  But I doubt it; Feingold really has been nowhere on this issue.  He has not made any serious proposals.  He has not been a leader on it.  It looks like prima-donnism.

2)  But of course this could apply to “wankerdom” also.  Simply because a progressive agrees with conservatives on some issues does not make him or her a wanker — or at least I hope not!  I agree with conservatives on many issues concerning teachers’ unions, for example, or some church-state issues such as charitable choice laws.  I reject wankerdom in these instances!

So I would say that this new term who have to be for a progressive who holds out against a good bill, under circumstances where it is virtually impossible to get something better, and thus undermines his/her own party’s ability to govern, while pretending to uphold the “true” values of the party, movement, coalition etc.

What would you call that?  A Hamsher?  A Nader?

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

15 thoughts on “Wanted: A New Blogosphere Epithet”

  1. The term to describe someone who wants actual change not some pot-hole filling on the road to ruin would be 'radical.'

  2. Par for the course for Feingold. He's got the fatuous self-righteousness and pompousness down pat; a bit more nasal tone and he'll be Lieberman Mark II.

    I think the term you seek is "Firebagger".

  3. yoyo: OK, great, "radical." Congratulations, it's a radical. But whaddaya call a radical who, because in this fallen world he can't get what he wants, obstructs what can be gotten? Why not stick w/ the plain old rightful name, "idiot"?

  4. I'd go for "Nader."

    But I'm not sure that Zasloff's premise is correct, and yoyo has a point. Feingold has an argument that the bill is nothing but a fig leaf.

    A contrast with HCR is useful. HCR, although a Nixon Republican bill at heart, is likely to expand coverage and reduce cost. I don't think that a reasonable person can disagree with this. If its the best we can get, pass the damn thing. Financial reform? A reasonable person can easily argue that it is the Captain Renault Act of 2010: "Round up the usual suspects." This is not worth supporting.

    The bill is not going to do much about safety and soundness. Although I think that the consumer protection provisions are meaningful, it is not unfair to say that there are no meaningful substantive changes in consumer protection. (The power of the act is procedural, allowing current law to be administered by an agency that might actually do something.)

    I think that the act is a net plus, and Feingold is wrong to oppose it. But I don't think he is crazy or Naderesque. A reasonable person could argue that the illusion of real reform is worse than the modest reform that the bill actually implements. Too big to fail still lives. And thanks to the bill, we're going to ignore this for the next ten years, until the next crisis. That is a real reason for opposing this legislation, despite the modest amount of good that it does.

  5. "Wanker" is not a coinage but an import. The verb to wank is longstanding standard British slang for male masturbation. The secondary use is as a broad derogatory epithet, with the suggestion of ineffectual, adolescent self-indulgence.

    But the etymology may be the other way round. I don't have the current OED, only the bowdkerized revised first edition, but it has "wankle" meaning "feeble, unsteady" going right back to King Alfred.

  6. James is of course right about "wanker." Remember the character in Monty Python's Life of Brian who has a speech impediment and repeatedly refers to "high-wanking officials." (Sophisticated humor, that.)

    I have access to the latest OED. While it lists a straightforward definition of "wanker," it alas lists both that and "wank" as "origin unknown" rather than as related to "wankle." It does, however, suggest a possible common root between James' "wankle" and "wonky," which is still in use (in my wife's New Zealand, at any rate), as a slang word for "faulty, unsound, unreliable."

    I second, or third depending on how one's counting, the motion for "Hamsher" for the phenomenon Jonathan's referring to. A "Nader" is someone who sinks his or her own alleged side in elections, not in legislative votes.

  7. “wonky,” which is still in use (in my wife’s New Zealand, at any rate), as a slang word for “faulty, unsound, unreliable.”

    So used I heard it regularly on the west coast of the US in the '80's at least. It is in common usage here in the US as a noun – 'wonk', in the sense of 'one who, while probably correct in a technical sense, is divorced from the cut-and thrust of practical reality, and so safely ignorable'. It's got a similar semantic field to UK 'boffin'.

  8. "The chances of a subsequent Congress enacting stronger legislation is exactly zero."

    You don't know that, therefore that is not a justification to pass this bill as is. Feingold is the only liberal who ISN'T a gasbag on such things. The left is never going to get the things that matter to them unless there are consequences for walking all over them. I don't know how much longer you can ask the left to give up their beliefs "for the greater good" and still expect them to blindly support whatever's put in front of them. Christ, just this once let's celebrate a liberal actually fighting for something!

  9. On the issue of coinage: James is clearly right as to "wanker's" derivation: I was just saying that Atrios coined it as having a particular meaning. Maybe "coined" isn't as precise as it could be: if you come up with a new definition of an old word, is that the same as having coined it?

  10. As I think Atrios has acknowledged, "wanker" in liberal-blog usage started with the great Editors of thepoorman.net.

  11. In answer to your request and your question, I call them Hamshers. I was reading down to get to the comments to proposing "Hamsher" as the word but you beat me to it.

  12. If a person who stands on principle is a "Hamsher," what is a person who never lets the "perfect" be the enemy of the "good," even when the "good" is largely cosmetic, and primarily serves to perpetuate the problem (while making a real solution less likely)? Should we call it a "Zasloff"?

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