The Logic of Binary Politics Compels Democrats to Vote for Herseth-Sandlin
Monday, 13 September 2010 17:23
Written by Sam Hurst
How can I criticize Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin for being a terrible member of Congress, and a worse Democrat, then in the next breath turn around and argue that Democrats have every good reason to vote for her in November? Binary math. The logic of the computer. Or, for those not so inclined...common sense. If last week's poll is any indication, Herseth-Sandlin's modest ascendancy shows that Democrats, however grudgingly, are already getting the message. While the congresswoman and her staff may argue that her anti-Democratic
campaign is winning the day in conservative South Dakota, the more cynical truth may well be that in the last weeks of the campaign disillusioned Democrats are finally accepting the relentless binary logic of the computer.
American politics are ruthlessly binary. General elections are no place for nuance or subtlety. There are no choices of principle. There is no purity. There is only the relentless logic of red light/green light. Stop/Go. "D"/"R". The most unwieldy democratic nation in the world has built its stability on the simplicity of an on/off switch.
The Founding gentlemen abhorred "faction" (which we now call parisanship). They imagined that there might be space for dialogue, for dissent, for negotiation, for new ways of solving old problems. In the space created by good will and shared values, citizens might be transcendent. Reason and practicality could win out. You could actually win me over. And I, you. The fantasy didn't last long.
Once the national consensus around George Washington cleared, Jefferson and Adams went at each other with polemical sword and pitchfork, no quarter given, and in the process carved out the two parties that in one name or another, one shifting coalition or another, one platform or another, have governed the nation ever since.
Among the popular myths of American politics is the belief that binary politics push the process of policy making to the center. Precisely where the center is located and what it means is never defined. It often comes treacherously close to wherever incumbents think they need to be to survive in office. While the edges of American politics are usually in sharp focus, the middle is a comfortable blur where incumbents live and do their work-in normal times. These are not normal times.
Occasionally, the center collapses in a storm of grassroots rebellion, and when this happens the push/pull of binary politics makes for strange bedfellows; politicians who either don't believe in or try to run away from the core principles of their own parties. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin is one such politician.
She is what we might call a self-hating Democrat. The bill of particulars against her shows a pattern of cynical opportunism. She has imported the blue dog platform of distinctly anti-government southern conservatives and tried to transplant it to the traditional farmer-labor Democratic Party of the northern Great Plains. She stands in specific opposition to the South Dakota Democratic Platform. For Democrats, she is wrong on health reform, the single most important act of social and economic policy in a generation. She is wrong on student loan reform. She is wrong on gay rights. She is wrong on climate policy. Her blue dog economic philosophy regarding federal spending and debt is simple-minded and hypocritical. She is against federal waste, but a staunch supporter of farm subsidies, wasteful defense spending, and the wars without end. These are not marginal issues.
Where she is not wrong, she is timid and disinterested to a fault; on reform of our dysfunctional farm and ranch economy and the chronic failure of federal Indian policy. And yet, none of these particulars are as cutting as her assault on the Party itself. She has long been indifferent to local Democrats, but in her current television "fly over" television commercial she actually attacks liberals and the Democratic Party!
The congresswoman asks Democrats to be sophisticated and responsible in understanding that South Dakota is a conservative state. Even though Democrats might feel betrayed by her key votes or disapprove of her public attacks on the Party she insists that they should nonetheless vote for her because she is the lesser of two evils. The binary logic of American politics compels their vote.
But Democrats might reasonably ask the same question of her. Doesn't binary logic also apply to her vote on health reform? She was not the only one who believed that the final bill fell short of her best aspirations. Liberals compromised the most to make sure it passed. Wasn't it the lesser of two evils? Wasn't the alternative of doing nothing much worse-especially for a fiscal conservative with an interest in containing costs! The Congresswoman jumped ship. In fact, she led the pirates. She sabotaged real reform and then had the nerve to call it independence. Shouldn't she be held accountable to the same logic of binary politics that she now asks Democrats to live by?
How would her campaign look upon the challenge of a few thousand Democrats (say, 3,834) who suddenly decided to show a little independence because it would be good for South Dakota?
The predicament that Democrats find themselves in is entirely of their own creation. It is a reflection of the rise of personality politics and the decline of Party accountability. Frankly, given the pathetic condition of the South Dakota Democratic Party, what incumbent wouldn't find it expedient to attack the "liberals in Washington" if it suited their re-election?
Democrats cannot control the re-election tactics of the congresswoman. She marches to her own drummer, or, perhaps, her husband's east Texas drummer. But Democrats can begin to have a serious family conversation about how they let her run so fast and so hard off the cliff. For that conversation, Democrats would do well to study and learn from what's going on in the Republican Party.
Make no mistake. Republicans understood that George Bush was a failure as president. With his bungling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, runaway, off-budget federal spending, tax breaks for multi-millionaires, and the financial meltdown two months before the general election, a substantial minority of the Party decided it was time to challenge their own gray-haired incumbent bulls in Washington.
Ideological conservatives in the GOP simply concluded that they were no longer willing to trade their core principles for the re-election of incumbents. It has made for a raucous tea party. Suffice to say that even if mainstream Republicans survive, the party will move to the right. That is as it should be. Where have Republicans conducted their family fight? Inside Republican primaries. That is precisely where Democrats should have their family fight.
Primaries are the one kink in the armor of binary politics, the one place where family can fight about principle. The self-reinforcing bulwark of incumbency makes it difficult to have serious primary debates, and often there is blood on the floor in their wake (the GOP knows this only too well). But over time the process can be valuable, even essential. Primaries create new leadership. They hold incumbents accountable to principle. They sharpen a party's ability to explain core values to voters. Primaries can infuse energy into the party's base. They can focus the party on the difference between personality and principle.
Incumbents prefer a passive and loyal base (loyal, of course, to the incumbent, not the party platform). An energized base is the terror of incumbents, who are quick to point out that grassroots partisans threaten the mythical center. On this point Democrats would do well to ask themselves whether the knock down, drag out, year-long primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hurt the party in the general election against John McCain. The answer is that the base was energized by the primary and enthusiastically held together for the general election. Even the most frustrated, angry, disappointed, middle-aged women supporters of Hillary Clinton, driven by the logic of binary politics, moved to Obama in the general election.
The key is post-primary unity. Ask Gordon Howie. He is a rebellious tea party activist, but when the primary smoke settles, he is a loyal (and God fearing) Republican. He pushes the Party right in the primary, and the party pulls him back in the general. No such dynamic exists in the Democratic Party, which too often operates like a whipped dog to its incumbents. The result is that Democrats rarely have a robust debate about their own core principles, and never hold their leaders accountable to anything other than electability.
The South Dakota Democratic Party is broke (in both ways). The mercurial challenge of Dr. Kevin Weiland in May was a naïve, last-minute, act of desperation. The congresswoman dodged a pop gun. But even as Weiland was graciously withdrawing, she refused to learn the lesson, and continued to attack the Party. 3,834 Democrats signed Weiland's petitions in less ten days, and then sulked back into the shadows when he withdrew. In a state where Democrats win by the narrowest of margins, it is a foreboding number.
Maybe the congresswoman survives in November, maybe she loses. Maybe the 3,834 Democrats who signed Dr. Weiland's petitions come home to Stephanie in November. Maybe they stay home. Either way she has crafted a strategy where she has only herself to blame. She has not given Democrats a single reason to vote for her. She imagines that she has won moderate Republicans with her maneuvering. But the curse of opportunism is that neither side trusts her.
She asks Democrats to withhold their criticisms until after November. She asks Democrats to be better citizens than she has been a congresswoman. She asks Democrats to be better realists than she is.
Why? Because in the binary world of red-light/green-light, she does not need to be a good congresswoman...just a better one than Kristi Noem. That is an easy case for Herseth-Sandlin to make. And in a season where the balance of power in the House is at stake, that is enough. This is a frail reason to vote. It is utterly without imagination or enthusiasm. It is a strategy built on the most crass understanding of practical binary politics. But this November, that is reason enough.
It seems ridiculously off-point to argue that only weeks away from the general election Democrats should be thinking about the 2012 primary, but win or lose, come the first Wednesday in November, South Dakota Democrats should go looking for a new congresswoman, and spend two years preparing for a primary fight in 2012. South Dakota Democrats desperately need to refocus their attention on a family debate about core principles. And the first article of evidence against Herseth-Sandlin should be the "fly over" television commercial.
This very subject is something that my core group of friends have been discussing for weeks now. When Herseth-Sandlin voted against healthcare reform I contacted her to say that she had lost my vote...simply because she no longer represented my views and there for my vote.
Now I am being compelled to vote for someone that I feel hustled by, simply to keep the other party from gaining control. I put forth that this has already happened in SD. We have a wolf in sheep clothing and a message must be sent that if you don't vote for me...I don't vote for you.
Your choice comes down to this: you can put in power a neo-fascist party (the Republicans) who use power to destroy the middle class and uplift the corporate upper class; or you can put in power a party with a dysfunctional blending of corporatists, moderate conservatives, liberals and progressives who sometimes do the right thing, no thanks to the person you have to cast your ballot for. That's your choice, and a vote against fascism is a vote you can be proud of.