It seems to me that Noam Scheiber and Garance Franke-Ruta are both making too much of the distinction between “netroots” and traditional Democratic interest groups, especially the possible “split” between netroots liberals and organized labor.
It’s as simple as this: Interest groups think like interest groups, netroots want to think like a party. They are two different ways of operating and thinking in a political world, not two different constituencies competing for a zero-sum quantity of influence.
The key fact adduced as evidence of a breach is that unions have endorsed seven of the most vulnerable northeastern House Republicans, seats that the netroots are enthusiastic about taking back for Democrats. Is that evidence of an ideological divide between labor and the netroots? Does labor have a problem with the Democratic challengers for those seats?
No. It’s evidence of nothing of the kind. It’s simply a function of the way interest groups work, the way they have to work. I used the example of environmental groups in my column in the Prospect in June, but it applies to organized labor just as well. The one thing they know is that to get anything done, they need bipartisan support. They have to be able to go into the offices of Republican members of Congress from districts where labor has influence and ask for their help. And when the member says, “If I’m with you on these three things, will you endorse me in the fall?” they need to be able to say Yes. They need to be strategic about it, they shouldn’t sell out for peanuts. But they can’t say, “Oh, gee, we like you and we need your help, but we are a Democratic interest group after all.” That would be malpractice. And these groups can all point to good things they’ve gotten done, or terrible things they’ve prevented, as a result of offering these incentives.
So labor’s not stupid or mistaken to endorse Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania, just as NARAL’s not stupid to endorse Lincoln Chafee. Sure, both know that their causes would be better served by changing the majority, but neither can give up the retail trade of your support for our endorsement that is their basic way of doing business. But as I wrote in my column, “at a certain point, rewarding friendly Republicans crosses the line into desperately trying to prop up a few so that you can still seem bipartisan -- at the price of legitimating a majority whose highest priority after tax cuts is the evisceration of environmental regulation” (or, substitute “labor laws” or “abortion rights” for “environmental regulation.” Perhaps I should have said, amongst their priorities are such diverse elements as…) Of course it’s hard to know when that line has been crossed: after Gerlach, Shays and a dozen other Republican moderates with good records on labor, environment and choice lose this year, then how are these interest groups going to continue to function in the normal bipartisan way? Will they define moderation down, endorsing Republicans they wouldn’t touch in the past but who are now the best the party has to offer? Or will they accept that their cause is best served by operating within the single party that is pro-labor, pro-environment and largely pro-choice?
Netroots, on the other hand, doesn’t need to worry about bipartisan deals because it doesn’t have a cause. Instead, it is a vision of what the Democratic Party ought to be: Liberal, sure - up to a point. (Ideology barely begins to explain why some politicians - Brian Schweitzer, Harry Reid - are netroots favs). Fights back. Responsive. Broadly critical of corporate power. It is not a faction looking for influence in the Democratic Party, as Scheiber puts it, but the vanguard of a strong and cohesive party.
While Garance is right to point out that the netroots can’t substitute for the voter mobilization that labor produces (and doesn’t even try - this is not a voter turnout operation), there are also shortcomings to the traditional advocacy-group model of voter turnout. Only a party can do the kind of serious targeting that the Republicans do, not finding voters through membership lists but locating people who fit the economic and demographic profile of Republican voters.
There’s a lot to be said for a strong and cohesive party, even apart from questions of whether Democrats win elections or not. For one thing, as Scheiber does note, it puts different issues on the table. Interest groups, for as many as there are, leave hundreds of important issues un-spoken for. That’s why the bankruptcy bill was such a good example of the value of netroots. Members had voted for that bill several times before, and they had not heard a word about. Sure, there was a little effort by bankruptcy lawyers, but they seemed like a petty, interested party. (Although most were so busy that losing business was the least of their worries.) Near bankrupt families simply had no one to speak for them in Washington, and no power if they did. There are more such collective-action problems than there are solutions. And so a politician goes through life thinking that there are a few issues on which he has to deal with engaged and interested constituents that will endorse him or not, rank him on scorecards, mobilize voters, and then lots of other issues that no one pays attention to, and on which he can just go with his cash constituents. Netroots totally changes the logic of this - an issue he thought was invisible suddenly becomes a key marker of Democratic Party principles. And that’s a good thing.
I didn’t mean this to be so laudatory of the netroots world, because it’s not without its problems. But the era of interest-group politics is dead, and the strong party that the netroots advocates foresee will take its place, and while that won’t be without some disruptions, it will be to the good.