On Friday, I was on the phone with Darcy Burner, who told me that she got a call from people affiliated with the conservative Jewish political group AIPAC. They told her to distance herself from the new pro-peace group J Street, which they said is full of radical leftists who believe in capitulation to the forces of the Arab world who would overrun and destroy Israel. Like most conservative arguments, it is utter nonsense backed up by a political threat designed to suppress alternative legitimate political views.
J Street is engaging in such controversial anti-Israel stances as praising the Israeli government for negotiating a Gaza ceasefire and using diplomacy to achieve security. AIPAC is silent on the negotiations, focusing on supporting the use of force and sanctions against Iran. Rather than a pro-Israel group designed to back the policies of the Israeli government, they are, to be blunt, acting as warmongers and using the shield of a Jewish ethnicity to push their own far right views. This has provoked a reaction in the form of J Street, which thousands of Jews support, including me (I am an advisor).
AIPAC's people are backing Darcy's opponent, Dave Reichert, so if they are calling her up and arguing with her, it shows just how confident they are politically at intimidating the opposition. A J Street endorsement is clearly a very risky and scary thing to take, because you'll bring down the wrath of a powerful and well-organized group. I know of several candidates who have refused J Street's endorsements because they don't want to become targets for AIPAC. Darcy Burner, Steve Cohen, Dennis Schulman, Debbie Halvorson, and Mary Jo Kilroy are all showing incredible bravery in doing so; they are not just running as Democrats, they are running as leaders.
And this is how change happens. What's important to understand in calculating where we should direct our resources is how much candidates are willing to lead as candidates, so that we know what kind of risk profiles they will take as office-holders. Every House candidate was offered the opportunity to endorse a Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq, despite substantial institutional opposition. Every House candidate could seek the endorsement of J Street. Every House candidate could come out for net neutrality. Every candidate could associate themselves heavily with the internet left.
And yet, very few of them actually do this. It's far easier to take PAC money and AIPAC money and telecom money and say 'change' and 'Obama' and fill out some questionnaires. It's easy to go through existing power centers, existing networks, rather than support new ones that are competitive to the ones dominating the status quo. Of course, the cost to the politician of using existing networks is that they have to pretend like attacking Iran is the right thing to do, that the lies the telecom companies tell us have merit, and that liberals are crazy. They have to, in other words, sell their soul and become part of an incredibly corroded establishment process.
I'd be remiss if I didn't push our Actblue page of 'Better Democrats' as changing this dynamic. Merkley, Massa, Burner, Perriello and Donna Edwards have all come out for a Responsible Plan to End the war in Iraq. All of them are out on net neutrality. And Darcy Burner and Donna Edwards are also endorsed by J Street. This is a powerful group of candidates who reinforce each other and new centers of power through their campaigns, explicitly and overtly. So supporting them with donations strengthens the whole network and weakens the conservative side, whereas just giving to random Democrats, the Presidential ticket, or establishment parties like the DSCC or DCCC may not do so.
If you follow me on to the flip, I'll discuss how this relates to our project on mapping Congress.
As we map DC as a social network, we are beginning to understand that it is not the number of Democrats in office that moves legislative priorities, it is the density of the connections between progressive office-holders and their supporters relative to the density of the connections between conservatives and their supporters. Christunity at Swing State Project has an excellent diary, which shows that this Congress is actually more progressive than the 1992-1994 Congress Clinton had to work with. Yet, this Congress has done a whole lot less than they did to pass progressive legislation, probably because the conservative networks are far denser today. In 1993, Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich organized a filibuster of Clinton's health care plan, along with the business right. Today, filibusters are so routine that the Senate has more than 70 bills pending that are held up by a Republican filibuster. The networks Gingrich used have solidified into almost uniform party unity, whereas on the progressive side there is very little holding Democrats together.
In 1993, such routine and important functions as staffing and intra-caucus communications were handled by progressives. In 1995, following the Congressional debacle at the polls, individual ideological caucuses - including the Blue Dog caucus - began to handle their own staffing and communications, and the Republicans took all the resources that had gone to Democratic leadership for caucus management. In addition, specialty caucuses lost all their public funding, so progressive members lost their ability to investigate different social problems and network with each other. Republicans went even further, allowing think tanks to fill much of the organizing role internal processes had played within Congress. Progressive social and financial networks withered away, and conservative networks grew stronger and denser.
In 2002, the Iraq War was put on the table, and the Democratic Party had no way to coordinate internal communications, and staff had no common ideological training or even networking functions where they could learn each other's name. The caucuses were divided into silos. The Democrats crumpled like tissue paper to an organized and aggressive right-wing. As late as 2005, the Democrats were making such elementary mistakes as not having a single meeting of Judiciary committee Democrats to prepare for the Alito hearings. Democratic aides had the audacity to whine that Republicans scheduled the hearings right after Christmas, so everyone was on vacation, which was a function of how disorganized petulant ineffectiveness had seeped into the core value system of the Democratic Party elites.
The new internet-infused left stepped into this void, and has only begun to really penetrate the internal networks of Congress. The Alito hearings were a wake-up call, a horrifying show of just how bad the Democratic caucus operated. But it foreshadowed the collapse of the Democrats on war funding and FISA in 2007-2008, and the move to the right by Obama immediately after winning the primary. Without a clear ability to move staff, information, legislation, money, and ideas across the progressive movement quickly and efficiently, we lose to a tightly integrated 40,000 person strong conservative trade association network. Even today, Democratic leaders are whining that the conservative K Street oriented networks that Republicans use aren't willing to work for a new agenda. But why should they? The only alternative is groups like J Street, the blogs, and Moveon.
It's hard to overstate just how powerful those networks are, or how immense is the reaction. The Politico launched about a year ago, and has become one of the most important information sources on politics in the country, because it sits in the middle of those older networks. The Huffington Post is something of a counterweight, but it does not carry the same influence in policy circles.
And so that's a long way of saying what many of us in DC know in our bones but have never been able to articulate with any detail. The density of the networks of the other side spawn the conventional wisdom, the funding channels, and the candidates who carry out a conservative agenda on their side, or on our side, create a culture of middle manager types that vote well on checklists but make sure to ruffle no feathers. When thinking through the Better Democrats page, we implicitly began to gravitate towards candidates that network with each other around anti-conservative proposals, not just checklist liberalism. It is the first product of this new way of thinking about Congress, but not the last.