The Shrillification of the Moderates

I’m fascinated by the outpouring of moderates’ conversion narratives, from balanced and temperate to, um, shrill. JMM started it:

As Americans I think we need to grapple with what’s happened.  And it goes beyond President Bush.  He did after all win reelection.He marginally expanded his congressional majorities. In the rough andtumble of the political moment, the fight needs to be taken to thepresident and his party. But we also need a more probing considerationof the forces that have made all this possible.

In any case, this is all a way of saying that in this all-or-nothingcrisis the country has been passing through, I think it’s made sense toline up with those who say, No. I guess I’m one of those partisanizedmoderates Kevin Drum has spoken of (not sure that’s precisely thephrase he used.) That leads to a certain loss of nuance sometimes incommentary and a loss in the variegation of our politics generally. Asa writer, often it’s less satisfying.

But I cannot see looking back on all this, the threat the country is under, and saying, I stood aloof. 

  1. Anonymous says:

    As you say, it’s not that an inherently-angry gang of pre-existing bloggers suddenly got politically organized for kicks. It’s that a lot of people, like you, like me, many non-political, saw their country being ruined and got angry about it, got talking to each other through blogs, and now are getting organized.

    Not a bit too soon, either.

  2. AmIDreaming says:

    An outspoken pacifist in WWI, Bertrand Russell had no reservations in supporting the war against the Axis in WWII.

    His summary observation was that Mahatma Gandhi would have had no success in Germany. He believed that non-violent resistance rested on the assumption that the opposition retained *some* vestiges of compassion and human empathy, and that in WWII this assumption was without foundation.

  3. Sally says:

    Two phrases I especially identify with:
    â€â€¦looking for the catch in rightwing policies, not the hope….â€
    â€â€¦the sense of patriotic urgency….â€

  4. Mimikatz says:

    Some of us haven’t trusted the Republicans since Richard Nixon was President.

    Ronald Reagan put a genial face on the same authoritarian impulses, and that disarmed a lot of people. But the astute could see it coming with the ascendance of Gingrich and his memo on language as a key method of control.

    I think that Ezra is right–basically nice people didn’t want to believe that Gingrich was the true face of the GOP, or just how bad it would be when Cheney and the others got total control. Until the Clinton Impeachment they could pretend that it was all fringe and not really the true colors of the GOP. Some of this is age and lack of personal experience with Nixon (to say nothing of McCarthy), but that doesn’t account for Kerry, who by any reckoning should have known better and sooner, and Gore.

    And some people just wanted to relax in the Clinton years and can to some extent be forgiven for not wanting to have to spend their entire adult lives fighting these scum.

    But now that more and more people are seeing it, is it too late to make a difference?

    I raise again the question I raised on Kagro’s thread yesterday. If these guys are really as bad as we are saying, why should we believe they will give up power willingly, despite what the people say in an election?

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think the founding bad act may have been ousting Gingrich/Armey in the ’98 House GOP leadership reshuffle. Gingrich and Armey saw partisanship through the prism of government. DeLay and Hastert saw government through the prism of partisanship. Every aspect of government was a tool for partisan gain. Armey worked along with Pat Leahey to get some of the worst aspects out of the original Patriot Act. DeLay and Hastert saw the entire debate as a means of painting Democrats as weak – before even fighting terrorism.…..110698.htm

  6. marjo says:

    I remember my father saying he needed a sign, â€Ronald Reagan made a Democrat out of me.†Believe it or not, I felt sorry for Nixon (hey, I was in high school, ill-informed from a Republican family, for cripes’ sake) but have been moving left left left since college. Yes, Reagan, Iran-contra and Gingrich put chills in me. But when the sharks went after Clinton, I got seriously shaken. And after Bush v. Gore, it was clear, all my idealism about bipartisanship and middle-of-the-road was not going to save this country. Never in my life have I been so informed, so motivated, so committed to getting these people out of power and, with any luck, into jail. This is some serious shrill-making shit.

  7. clbrune says:

    This is an excellent post. Between 2001 and 2003 I went from slightly annoyed to dumbfounded to outraged. Ever the optimist, I had hope for common sense to prevail, and the survival of comity amongst sincere moderates. But no.

    In hindsight, I first noticed this toxic Republican identity in Newt Gingrich and the Ken Starr antics. But their noise machine was up and running by then–I just wasn’t aware.

    EW said this:
    â€A big part of me wants to ask, â€what took you so long?†But, acknowledging the same sense of urgency as these gentleman, mostly I say, â€welcome.â€â€

    Well said. Thanks.

  8. margaret says:

    â€The founding Bad Act(s)†were Nixon’s Watergate, Reagan’s Iran-Contragate, Bush’s (senior), â€New World Order†concrete barriers around the Capitol and â€illegal†searches of purses and briefcases at Washington Museums (late 1980’s), Newt Gringrich’s the â€Republican Revolution,†The Clinton Impeachement, Katherine Harris’s unconscionable election decisions, the Supreme Court’s Gift to Bush, the P.a.t.r.i.o.t. Act, John Yoo’s Memo, und so weiter.

    I’ve been mad as hell since 1980, when the Iranians made a gift to Reagan of the release of the American Embassy hostages immediately after the Inauguration. But, maybe, it’s because I’m older: I have experienced more history with these jerks.

  9. William Ockham says:

    I don’t know how many people here (as a not quite irrelevant aside, the meaning of the word â€here†in this sentence is crucial to what is happening today) are old enough to remember 1968, but I am. I was a sickly 8 year old who started reading the local newspaper. By 1972, I was radicalized enough to almost get kicked out of school for wearing an anti-war black armband. Pretty bizarre for a Baptist preacher’s kid in Texas. Back then, we had a armed political groups opposing government policy. We also had the local police in big cities carrying out extrajudicial killings. I think we were a lot closer to real chaos then than anybody today realizes.

    Nearly 40 years later, the authoritarian threat is much the same, but the opposition is completely different. That’s what Marshall, Klein, and Drum are realizing. Then, the â€silent majority†was at least up until the very end of the Nixon presidency solidly behind the authoritarians. Now, most people turned against the Iraq war long before the media. Perhaps as important, the institutional professionals are largely against the forces of evil. Lawyers at the FBI and in the military have been the most effective opposition to the most extreme human rights abuses perpetrated in our name. The rightists may have taken over the media, but liberals have successfully infiltrated the â€systemâ€.

    For me, what really brought home the difference between then and now was when I went out and bought Richard Clarke’s book. I used to think people like him represented the biggest threat to peace in the world (for their willingness to put their skills to use in pursuit of an amoral foreign policy). It wasn’t until the advent of this truly corrupt criminal enterprise that is the Bush administration that I realized that even the Richard Clarke’s of the world have lines they will not cross.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Just wanted to thank everyone for the enlightening comments, particularly the â€What took you so long†from Mimikatz, margaret, and William.

  11. Jeff says:

    1. I think the issue of thinking the best of the Republicans v. thinking the worst is a red herring, and probably incoherent. This is politics; of course it’s rough and tumble, and ideas cannot be debated as though power didn’t exist, wasn’t be exercised, and wasn’t being sought. It’s a game of strategy all the way down. The Republicans think they’ve got the best vision for the country – they really believe it – and they want to win. They’re wrong, and part, but only part, of the effort of defeating them and winning is showing how their ideas are wrong, and why. Some people can be convinced, some can’t. The idea that we could really arrive at what Klein calls comity if we just talk long enough is, sorry to say, ridiculously naive; and so is disappointment that it’s not the case.

    2. I think some of what has happened (which I would call a clarification of differences much more than a shrillification of moderates) is that a good part of what energized so-called moderate Democrats for a long time – the satisfactions of bashing the bad old left-liberal Democrats and occasionally siding with the Republicans against them – is just no fun and not really viable anymore. This administration, and the modern Republican party, really are beyond the pale and indefensible, and deliberately polarizing to boot. Iraq was both the best example and, I suspect, a major cause of the shift you’re talking about: part of what was so frustrating about opposing the war was that reminding people that it made a real substantive difference that this was going to be George W. Bush’s war, and not Kenneth Pollack’s, or Tom Friedman’s, or that pseudo-Orwellian schmuck Christopher Hitchens’, was met with dismissal from the moderate Democrats who reflexively saw such a reminder as reflexive anti-Bush partisanship. They saw it as an opportunity to once again prove not just their national security credentials (what a terrible motive for supporting a war!) but their comity-loving ways. (To be clear, that it was the Bush administration doing it was only one of several reasons for opposing the war.) Well, guess what? To paraphrase emptywheel’s favorite reporter, we were proved fucking right, and it’s undeniable. And whatever the inability of most liberal hawks to acknowledge their mistakes, they know this, and it has chastened them.

    3. The thing that is most interesting to me about the other part of the dual movement, the engagement of people in politics out of a sense of urgency (for me it was Wellstone’s death and the disastrous performance of the Democrats in the 2002 elections, along with the utter lack of an echo in the official Democratic party, before old what’s-his-name came along, of what the overwhelming majority of the left part of the country was saying about Iraq), is this:

    The same sense of urgency that got Josh and Ezra and Kevin to shrillify brought a lot of people who had had been disengaged into the party.

    I totally agree, but it is really remarkable and worth highlighting that the form that engagement has taken is into the party. My sense – at once apprehsive and hopeful – is that the urgency has cut through a lot of the silly handwringing on the left about the Democratic party. Obviously, there is a lot to wring hands about about the Democratic party (as such, and not just the DLC wing of it). But I think there is a widespread recognition that, for better or worse, the only vehicle for responding appropriately to the threat to most of what is good about our country from the modern Republican party and for burying the Bush administration (which is going to take quite a while after 2008) is a national party, and we’ve only got two of ’em and it’s likely to stay that way. (This is something Mark Schmitt has written smartly about.) Not just local action, not social movements, not interest groups, not resistance, not a third party, not only non-electoral politics. All those things are important, and clearly part of what is happening is that progressives are being Democrats while still being progressives (much as conservatives think of themselves that way ostensibly before thinking of themselves as Republicans). But the Democratic party as such is something to adhere to now, relatively autonomous of those other groupings (and obviously completely exclusive of a third party). I think that is something pretty new; at least I hope it is. Otherwise, I suspect, we’re screwed.

    And I fully expect that when the Democrats get back into power, a lot of the old divisions and debates will be resurrected in new form, both on the left and from the self-styled moderates. But so what.

  12. Powerpuff says:

    I would like to point out one disconcerting problem about the moderates and their new found ’shrillness.’ Attacking Iran. Most moderates seriously consider the attacking of Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons technology. These are the same moderates who seriously considered attacking Iraq for the same alleged reasons. Moderates are enablers to radicals, willing to entertain the ravings of madmen as long as those ravings fit well accepted platitudes rationalizing US hegemony.

  13. Anonymous says:


    I had to go to a meeting and therefore didn’t fully develop my â€dual movement†idea. Thank you for doing it for me. From my vantage in the People’s Republic, there still are a great deal of progressives outside of the party. But we’re working on bringing them in, we’re working on it.

  14. Jeff says:

    From my vantage in the People’s Republic, there still are a great deal of progressives outside of the party.

    But how many of them are boring leftists, Old or New, who have been around the block many many times, and how many of them are young progressives involved in politics for the first time, choosing the Democratic party as the venue of their progressive activity, whatever else they do? It’s the latter phenomenon that is really interesting and encouraging to me. The idea that you can be a real, grassroots progressive and be a committed and active Democrat per se is, I think, fresh again.

    Then there’s also the fact that a lot of people who don’t believe that – let’s just call them Dennis Kucinich supporters – are also participating in Democratic politics.

    I can’t resist tossing in one piece of Plameology. I finally got around to reading the Wilsons’ complaint. Did anyone notice that the Wilsons assert (at the bottom of p. 15) their belief that Cheney spoke with reporters about Plame’s employment, either before or after July 14? I wonder whether that is just to keep Cheney relevantly involved in the complaint, or they have some real basis for that belief – did Cheney talk with Mitchell at the Ford party? or Pincus on July 12? or what?

  15. Kagro X says:

    Well, I’ll tell you what I told Anonymous Liberal when he posted his take on this:

    A lot of bloggers like Josh Marshall still cling to one last vestige of moderation, refusing to acknowledge that last remedy available for extinguishing this insane executive power grab.

    And any time they feel awkward about the stances Bush has pushed them to take, and how close it seems to put them to the â€left†they used to look down their noses at, they pronounce that remedy to be â€a bad idea.â€

    Now, that’s a lot more â€what took you so long†than â€welcome.†But then, I had a front row seat on the Hill (and at George Mason Law) for the bloodless coup against Bob Michel and the Gingrich Revolution, which was a pretty good perch from which to take a look back at Iran-Contra and the toppling of Jim Wright, too.

    My act of welcome, though, has been a year in the making. There is a theoretical groundwork already laid out for those who lingered on the fence a little too long.

  16. Sara says:

    I would put the problem much much earlier — 1948. At that time the domestic matters were quite independent of the Foreign Policy ones, but they do knit together. By all reason, 1948 was time for a Republican President. FDR was dead and Truman just didn’t match up in Charisma terms to FDR. The country was flush with money, saved during the years of war rationing, and it seemed time for less regulation, less experimentation and all. Running as a moderate Progressive Republican, Dewey didn’t win. And that stunned the Republican Hierarchy. Once they found the reasons, they were even more stunned.

    1948 was the first election decided by Black Voters. The Big Industrial States the GOP anticipated they would win, went to Truman, precisely because Labor and many other organizations represented the real possibility of economic equity for the millions of black workers who had migrated out of the south into the mass production industries during World War II — and Labor did not hesitate to get them registered and voting. They went solidly for Truman simply because he talked the same talk about economic matters to Blacks as he did to Whites. The Republicans waved the flag of Lincoln, but the question really was, What have you done for me lately? The congressional alliance that had always joined agricultural states interests with the segregationist interests of the deep south, got somewhat wounded in that election. A new power center was in the process of emerging.

    That 48 election led to the Republicans adopting the shrill radicalism of what we now term the McCarthy era — though it should be named for a few more of them. The tactic of shouting out â€Who Lost China†(a speciality of Senator William Knowland of California) and later the absurd claim that Five Star General George Marshall was some sort of pinko commie traitor, ginned up the fear factor among US voters, and along with McCarthy’s show, it proved politically workable, the Republicans did take the Senate by a small margin, and while Eisenhower did not use the tactics himself, it certainly contributed to his win in 1952. For Americans, it meant that Truman’s FEPC (and Civil Rights), National Health Care, support for the Labor Movement, and much else went off the table, not to return till the Kennedy Johnson years. For Republicans, the point was made — the tactics adopted in the wake of Dewey’s loss actually worked. What we have now is a new and much improved version. And in many respects these tactics are far more dangerous in the hands of some of the contemporary practioners.

    For Republicans, the Cold War always provided a â€cause†around which they could politically organize from the 1940’s right through to 1989. When the Berlin Wall and all the rest suddenly disappeared relatively peacefully, many of the supports under their system disappeared. The Democrats had no choice during all this time except to say â€me too†— I think one of the most critical little documents in history of these years is that little taped conversation between Johnson and Richard Russell just after LBJ became President. Talking about Vietnam both of them say that then little war is pretty pointless — but unless they want to go back to the Knowland Days of â€Who Lost China†they would have to support it. We need to fully understand how much true blackmail was confessed in that little conversation. We need to comprehend how these tactics still play in the Global War on Terrorism.

    Democrats do best countering these tactics when non-party mass movements support alternative policy, in a sense greasing the skids for new sorts of political conversations and resulting policy. Civil Rights, and follow on movements such as Womens Rights and Gay Rights — and I would even add aspects of Environmentalism — moved the political center on Citizen’s Rights, and Democrats benefited in the 60’s and much of the 70’s. It even forced Nixon to adopt public stances that vaguely seemed supportive. But it broke down when too many of these movements became DC centered bureaucracies, raising money and doing lobby work, or law suits — and the movements themselves lost touch with their populist base. (The Labor Movement, so central to FDR’s coalition did the same thing in the late 40’s and early 1950’s).

    While I doubt that blogging alone is a true political movement, it is by its nature totally decentralized. We pay for, and organize our own soap boxes, and there really is no way it can be easily co-opted, centralized and muted. But it really does not yet have much of a â€Cause†to it other than a fairly generalized â€We Want to be Heard†claim. But it is a good tool — potentially much more powerful than the â€Who Lost China†tactic, and we perhaps need to consider a range of causes to which it can be targeted. That would make movements.

  17. Kagro X says:

    Oh yeah? Well, I have it on good authority that neo-cons were known to have existed among the Australopithicus.

  18. Mimikatz says:

    Jeff’s comments are very interesting. I agree that the big, big difference now over, say, 1968 is the willingness to work within the Dem party and even try to influence it in a serious way. The young people (under 40) today seem much more serious in that respect than we were. That is a very welcome development. The bomb-throwing now is all from the other side, despite what the shrill voices on the Right would have people believe.

  19. Dismayed says:

    I remember Ronnie. Thought he was a good president. I now know things I didn’t know then, and doubt I would have voted for him the second time. I also know how I looked at and thought about the world and people in it. I was more narrow minded, more self focused, and not really the kind of guy I would like now. Some people grow out of the kind of thought that makes you â€today’s Republicanâ€, some don’t. I remember the Contract with America, and I remember being stunned at how quick these guys started parsing the wording of their promises once they were elected into power. A year or two later I read Newt’s book, in it he said, â€we promised to bring the items on our contract with America to a vote, we didn’t promise to pass them.†I’m paraphrasing, but I remember thinking what a bunch of weasels. I haven’t trusted a thing they say since then. This Republican congress was brought to power on one of the greatest premeditated lies ever told. They are truly sociopaths, and finally I think America sees through the thin veneer.

  20. DeanOR says:

    I’ve had an old song running through my head lately that we heard a lot in the Civil Rights era. It’s â€Which Side Are You On?†There came a point when there was no middle of the road. I see on one side of the road peaceful demonstrators, perhaps singing â€Which Side Are You On?†and on the other side police thugs crossing the road to beat and hose the demonstrators on national television. Or maybe the middle disappeared when racists bombed a Black church killing the children inside. Something similar happened soon after in the Vietnam War when we dropped flaming napalm on peasant villages and someone photographed a burned naked girl running in terror (down the middle of a road). Of course those are just moments among many others. As in our Civil War, families were torn apart by disagreements over politics and morality. There was no sane middle ground. I think we’re reaching that point again, not quite there yet but almost. It’s the point of real and inevitable change. Would that we could get there without such suffering.

  21. prostratedragon says:


    We’re not ignoring your question. At least, I think I can speak for others here. When I think of something, I’ll let you know.

  22. prostratedragon says:

    I was just thinking back before the phony Clinton impeachment and the harassment that led up to it (the DC press right after his inauguration went after him as if someone had turned on a switch), before Iran-Contra and the cover-ups, and even before Watergate.

    You see, figuring out when I first went into shrill overdrive isn’t easy, since I grew up in a civil rights-aware household. But I’d have to say that the first event that stands out as having flooded my consciousness was the shooting of Oswald by Ruby. Not that grade-schooler me had anything like a conspiracy theory going, but (a) I thought there was something horrifying about the exploitation of tv in that shooting, and (b) without regard to any motive for the killing, it just seemed to me that never knowing would become like a tumor in the public mind and make it hard for too many people to trust the government again, just because it looked too much like a clean-up killing from a detective story. To that point I’d been holding up a lot better than other kids at school and church, but when I found out there was to be no trial, I really lost it for a moment, I felt as if the last chance at something were slipping by.

    I was a pretty strange kid, I guess. Of course since then, the use of spectacle to keep people frozen in place one way or another and the maintenance of secrecy have become hallmarks of much that is wrong with our country. What a relief then, to get the sense that many are actively trying to shake off that rapt dumbness—to become less enraptured rather than more so.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Very late to this, but I can’t resist.

    The discussion of â€when did I/you get it†reminds me of listening to old Communists discussing when they left the Party, before or after Hungary, Krushchev’s speech, etc. Whenever people get on board for action, gotta welcome them and work with them for as long as possible has always been my mantra.

    About the generation of the 60s not becoming Democrats: folks, for them, the Democrats were the guys who brought them the war on Vietnam. With a draft, even more of them got it than now get that the Reps will happily send them off to die for nothing. So they said, screw Democrats.

    And I think some here are too sanguine about the younger generations coming into the fight. I work in the odd niche of teaching community organizations how to engage with elections. I never let anyone forget that the present and future of the Democratic party is Black, immigrant, brown, women headed households, not educated middle class white guys. And these folks still aren’t really â€getting it.†In the organizations that actually work with this base (which is the base that matters to a Democratic resurgence), all that stuff about both parties being the same and voting making no difference is alive and well. And it will continue to be until the Dems prove they are different.

  24. Powerpuff says:

    Many Democrats voted for the credit card/no bankruptcy and energy bills. How can that be explained outside of serving corporate interests, just like Republicans would be expected to do?

  25. Dismayed says:

    We’ve gotta get Corporate money out of politics. It truly is the root of most of our problems. People are not running this country, corporations are.