I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The virtues of passion and anger

The New York Times has an article this morning on the surprisingly strong challenge to 20-year incumbent GOP Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon being mounted by Joe Sestak, a former Naval officer and Clinton White House national security aide. Polls show the race even -- a startling state of affairs for a district that has sent the bizarre Republican Weldon to Congress for two decades -- and these two paragraphs from the article reveal not only why Sestak appears to be doing so well, but why Democrats are as well:

When Joe Sestak announced he was running for Congress, national Democrats and media consultants told him not to talk about pulling troops out of Iraq, arguing it would only encourage the image of Democrats as weak on national security.

Nine months later, having ignored their advice, Mr. Sestak has put a 20-year Republican incumbent on the run for the first time, turning a bid by a political novice into a real race. Polls show that Mr. Sestak is running even or better with his opponent, Representative Curt Weldon, and that the war more than any other issue is propelling voters toward him.

The single most erroneous and destructive premise among the Beltway political class -- which includes the Democratic consulting class along with their intellectual twins in the David-Broder-led punditry circles -- is that anger and passion are the enemies of successful political movements. They preach a mindset of fear and defensiveness -- never articulate a view too strenuously and never be driven by principle or passion because to do so renders one an unmoderate extremist who will alienate normal Americans.

Whatever else you might want to say about them, the Bush-led Republicans embrace their radical ideas enthusiastically and are never shy about advocating them. But the mentality of the Democratic consultancy and pundit class have, outside of that extremist GOP crevice, stripped our political system of any real conviction, passion, belief, and resolve.

Democrats so rarely mold, shape or drive public opinion because their consultants and pundits operate from the premise that passion and principle are to be avoided at all costs. Stripped to its essence, the core advice of these consultants, which most national Democrats have been embracing, is to follow, not lead. But Americans -- understandably -- want to elect leaders, not followers, and that is why nothing has been more damaging to the Democratic Party brand than the self-consciously clever, soul-less, fear-driven advice of their consultants to abandon their own beliefs.

The Democratic consultants who told Joe Sestak not to advocate troop withdraw from Iraq -- even though, as a military veteran and national security expert, that is what he believes is best for his country -- suffer not only from a serious character defect but also towering strategic stupidity. Everyone other than the most self-deluded Bush followers recognize that the core impetus for the collapse of the Republican Party's popularity is the public's anger and disgust over the deceitful way we were led into Iraq and the subsequent ineptitude and dishonesty that has characterized our ongoing disastrous occupation. Yet even on that issue, Democratic consultants and the Richard Cohens and Fred Hiatts of the world counsel against taking strong or clear positions.

Why would anyone advise a Congressional candidate -- let alone a military veteran and national security expert -- to sound as much as possible like the embarrassingly unpopular George Bush when talking about the equally unpopular war in Iraq? It's because they have an intrinsic and by-now instinctive fear of their own political views and have adopted, as their guiding principle, the mandate that all strongly-held (and, even more so, clearly articulated) convictions must be avoided at all costs.

The principal reason this happens is because the extremist wing of the Republican party (the foreign policy neoconservatives and domestic moralists) has been preaching that the defining views of Democrats are repugnant and alien to mainstream, normal Americans. And that view has been fully internalized by Beltway Democrats and the pundit class. Time and again, that is the message that is sent -- that Democrats can't advocate their real views because most Americans reject those views -- even when it is so plainly false.

But all of this happens precisely because Republicans want Democrats to be afraid of advocating their views and to think that they have to run away from them. The Rovians know what the hapless Democratic consultancy mystifyingly fails to see -- that anger and passion are the keys to political success. Several months ago, I wrote a post about the virtues of anger in response to a worried, fretful column by Richard Cohen lamenting (based upon some mean e-mails he received) that the anger among blogs and the Democratic base "spells trouble -- not for Bush or, in 2008, the next GOP presidential candidate, but for Democrats." This is part of what I wrote:

Most successful political movements need passion. Anger, when constructively directed, is a potent and inspiring passion. It is noble to be angry about dangerous situations and corrupt leaders, and there are few passions which can compete with anger for inspiring oneself and others to meaningful action. Conversely, those who are entirely devoid of anger are often lifeless, limp, uninspiring figures who seem to be drained of soul and purpose. . . . .

Republicans tell Democrats to repudiate their "angry base" so that eager-to-be liked-and-desperate-to-be-considered-reasonable Democrats like Joe Klein, Marshall Whitman, Joe Lieberman and Richard Cohen will attack other Democrats and depict them as radical, deranged freaks. Because when a bulk of Democrats are so eager to curry head-pats from the Right that they spend more time attacking the symbols of their own party than they do attacking the Right, that is a good thing for Republicans.

It breeds divisiveness among Democrats, confuses their message, and destroys the symbols of their own party . . . That is why the Right encourages this idea among Democrats that anger is fatal and to be avoided - even as they perfect the art of using it themselves. They know from lots of experience that a political party that coalesces around its impassioned anger can be very successful. The sooner Democrats figure that out, the better off they will be.

The David Broders, Richard Cohens, Joe Kleins and New Republic editors and the consultants molded in their blurry, murky, shapeless image have truly come to believe that Democrats can win only by hiding and diluting their real views and especially by running away from any real challenge to the extremist Bush movement. As a result, the Beltway Democratic political class has transformed itself into amorphous, apologetic, defensive symbols of nothing.

But numerous candidates like Joe Sestak, Jon "Repeal-the-Patriot-Act-now" Tester, and scores of candidates running on an aggressive anti-Bush platform are succeeding because they are galvanizing -- rather than trying to suppress -- the passion and anger of Americans over how our country has been run. Democrats are poised to win their first national election in what seems like an eternity for one principal reason -- the electorate is angry at what is going on in our country and is moved by passion and anger to change it.

Every poll, and the consensus of political analysts, is revealing that at the heart of the Democratic political advantage are extreme emotions and passions, not muted technocratic preferences or some yearning for a plodding, GOP-accommodating centrism. It is self-evident that people who are dissatisfied with Republican rule -- which is a solid majority of the country -- want a political movement that is different than the Bush-led political movement in clear and unapologetic ways and will oppose and battle it, not try to copy it.

Anger and passion are indispensable weapons for overcoming indifference and motivating political action. Particularly in a non-presidential election -- but, really, always -- people need a reason to care about the outcome. If a political party can't even muster enough conviction in its own views to articulate clear ideas -- if candidates like Joe Sestak had listened to the listless, fear-based advice from consultants "not to talk about pulling troops out of Iraq, arguing it would only encourage the image of Democrats as weak on national security" -- then Democrats are not going to motivate anyone to even care enough if they succeed, let alone take action to promote that outcome. Why would anyone?

The related problem is that the fear-driven advice to avoid strong positions because those positions are unpopular becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy over and over and over. When Democrats are continuously told to avoid taking a stand for their positions, their positions will inevitably be unpopular because they have failed to advocate them forcefully. Viewpoints become popular when persuasive leaders make a passionate and persuasive case for those viewpoints. If the public sees one party viciously attacking Position X, while the other party defensively and half-heartedly says that Position X is not as awful as it seems and, besides, they only half-believe in Position X, the public will inevitably conclude that Position X is wrong and even toxic. What other conclusion can one draw if nobody is willing to advocate that position?

The ethos of the Democratic consultant and Beltway political class is one of the lowly follower -- operating on the assumption that public opinion is static and immovable and one must therefore be enslaved to it rather than trying to shape, change and control it. But those who are enslaved to public opinion -- or to anything -- will appear to be weak and fearful people who are the very antithesis of leaders, and it is that perception, not any specific views, which has enabled the GOP to depict Democrats as weak, whiny losers. Listening to those consultant voices and reducing themselves to meek and apologetic followers -- transparently stripped of passion and conviction and purpose and driven only be fear and base self-preservation -- has been the single gravest problem of Democrats over the last six years.

If Democrats win in three weeks, it will be for one simple reason -- because the country has been so awakened and stirred by anger and intense dissatisfaction with our system of one-party Republican rule that they will be motivated to turn out incumbents in large numbers and even change their normal voting patterns. Nobody disputes that this passion is one that is oppositional in nature. It is driven by a disgust for the views and behavior of Republicans, not by an embrace of Democrats.

But there are lessons to be learned about the value of passion and emotion, including anger. This passion could be a positive one as well -- one that motivates and inspires support for a political movement rather than merely a disgust-driven desire to punish. But for that to happen, the bland, fearful, status-quo-loving Democratic pundits and consultants need to be ignored (as Joe Sestak obviously chose to do), and those who want to be elected need to embrace their real beliefs in the attempt to trigger public passion and anger, not run away from it in fear.

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