The Rise of the Rebels

The political news from Connecticut did not seem earth-shaking on its face, but the New York Times and the Washington Post were both sufficiently alarmed to put the story on page one. Some upstart citizens are talking about challenging their warrior senator, Joe Lieberman, by running an antiwar candidate against him next fall. The Wall Street Journal went ballistic. Its hysterical editorial denounced the "liberal animosity" toward Wall Street's favorite Democrat.

Possibly, this rump-group assault on the established order will come to nothing, just another angry rant from frustrated Democrats.

But it could be the start of something big--a David-and-Goliath challenge that encourages other nascent insurgencies around the country. Rebellion can be fun--who doesn't enjoy upsetting the mainstream media?--but in these dispiriting times it is also good for one's mental health. Even better, rebellion could revive the Democratic Party.

Intraparty challenges are one of the most effective ways to get the attention of risk-averse politicians and force them to change their thinking. Even if the targeted politicians are not defeated, they hate intrusions from meddlesome citizens messing with their job-for-life security. And nothing upsets members of Congress like seeing a few of their colleagues abruptly taken down by outsiders with supposedly marginal issues the Washington Club didn't take seriously. Incumbents will do quite a lot to avoid the same fate.

With persistence and strong convictions, insurgents can change a political party. Witness the right's slow-motion crusade to conquer and transform the Republican Party. Thirty years ago right-wing activists regularly mounted hopeless challenges to the GOP establishment--including Richard Nixon--and usually lost. They were called "ankle biters" in those days. Today, they are running the party. The right continues to use this tactic to threaten and punish wayward incumbents. The Wall Street-financed Club for Growth ran a right-wing primary opponent against Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in 2004, and it is doing the same thing to Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island in 2006. New York Times columnist David Brooks astutely observed: "When conservatism was a movement of ideas, it attracted oddballs; now that it's a movement with power, it attracts sleazeballs."

The Democratic Party is never going to change substantively and again become a reform party with a serious agenda until some of its blood is spilled in the same fashion. For years, incumbent Dems have distanced themselves from fundamental convictions, confident the party's "base" wouldn't do anything about it beyond whimpering. Until now, the cynicism was well founded. Galvanized by the war, disgusted with weak-spined party leaders, the rank-and-file may at last be ready to bite back.

The fuse was lit for Lieberman a few weeks ago, when let it be known that the web-savvy organization will support a challenger if that's what its Connecticut members decide to do. "Our first allegiance is to our members," explains Tom Matzzie, MoveOn's Washington director, "and they are just as frustrated with the Democrats as anybody else. So they've given us the charge to change the Dems, and we're taking that very seriously." Politicians and media learned to respect MoveOn in 2004, when it proved its ability to organize people and money.

The center-right senator, meanwhile, is practically taunting the party's loyal voters with his extreme embrace of Bush and Bush's misbegotten war. "What a colossal mistake it would be," Lieberman lamented recently, "for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will." Party leaders in DC--Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean--all took shots at him. Rumors started that Lieberman must be fishing for a job in Bush's Cabinet.

A showdown in Connecticut--rank-and-file voters versus the big money bankrolling the party--would provide a fabulous test case, sure to attract maximum funding from Lieberman's patrons in business and finance. The prospects for denying him the party nomination in the primary look encouraging, Matzzie says, citing private polling he won't discuss. Voters are bitter about Iraq but also about Lieberman's toadying to corporate interests. If the senator gets past the 2006 primary, he would still be deeply wounded and vulnerable for the general election. It's too early to know whether a viable Democratic challenger will emerge, but the search is on. Lowell Weicker, the much admired former governor and senator, has proclaimed that if nobody else of stature will take on Lieberman, he will do it in the general election as an independent. Weicker, a maverick and liberal Republican, has the stature to pull it off, though a three-way race might backfire by splitting the anti-Lieberman vote.

Democratic leaders in Washington naturally discourage the talk of insurgency, warning it could endanger the party's chance of regaining a majority in the House or Senate. Some progressives doubtless agree. But this is the same logic--follow the leaders and keep your mouth shut--that has produced a long string of lame candidates with empty agendas, most recently John Kerry in 2004. The strategy of unity and weak substance led Democrats further to the right, further from their most loyal constituents. And they lost power across the board.

MoveOn doesn't believe in kamikaze politics, Matzzie says, and won't get into the race unless local members are committed and have a plausible challenger. "We have to make sure we can back up our swagger," he says, "so it's not just talk." Other antiwar forces are less cautious than MoveOn, more willing to support long-shot candidates and at least deliver a message to the hawks. Progressive Democrats of America, with activists across the nation, is pushing antiwar resolutions in state party organizations and searching for viable peace candidates. In California activists are shopping for a primary challenger to Senator Dianne Feinstein (antiwar heroine Cindy Sheehan has been approached). A candidate was lined up to run against House minority leader Nancy Pelosi until Pelosi got religion and endorsed Representative John Murtha's call for speedy withdrawal. In New York a little-known labor activist, Jonathan Tasini, plans to run against Senator Hillary Clinton.

MoveOn is proceeding more cautiously to pick its spots, and it is testing various techniques for turning up the heat on Democrats who consistently offend the grassroots on principled concerns. Representative Allen Boyd of Florida got a warning shot earlier this year for endorsing a Social Security privatization scheme similar to Bush's. MoveOn peppered his district with TV ads, and Boyd fell silent on the issue. Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland got a similar admonition because, as a party leader, he supported the credit card industry's bankruptcy bill. MoveOn has developed an informal evaluation system that judges the quality of incumbents' performance according to four categories, ranging from "American hero" and "Stand up and fight" to "As expected" and "Wrong." For Lieberman and some others, "Wrong" is not a close call. But that doesn't necessarily insure that they will be challenged. "People who fall into the fourth category--Wrong--are in play," Matzzie said, "but these are ultimately going to be decided on the numbers." That is, do we have the money and people to win, or at least to make a serious impact?

MoveOn and many other groups are, in essence, experimenting in the early stages of democratic invention--developing ways to restore influence to citizens at large and exert discipline on party incumbents. These are the self-correcting mechanisms of representative democracy that have been largely lost in the Democratic Party. "We are challenging the incoherence and appeasement of the Democratic Party," Matzzie says, "but we also have to do the work and develop the movement."

Obviously, this is political work for the long run. It requires patience and self-discipline and, since no one can claim proven results, it requires a generous respect for others trying to achieve the same thing in very different ways. It will need many more rump groups and freelance guerrillas, asserting convictions and educating citizens, disturbing the peace in moribund politics.

The antiwar fervor is likely to exert real impact in the electoral arena, but that would only be a beginning for an insurgency. To sustain the transformation, people will have to broaden the agenda to include the bedrock economic and social issues--issues like deindustrialization, corporate power, decayed democracy and poverty--that reluctant Democrats are unwilling to confront with a serious determination for change. Re-educating comfortable incumbents is difficult; sometimes it's easier to replace them. Long-term organizing is good. So is kamikaze assault. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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