The New Left 2.0

In his new TNR essay on the netroots, Jon Chait compares them to both the Christian Right and the conservative movement more generally. I think Chait's analysis of the "movement" quality of the netroots is spot-on, but he glides over what seems like a significant distinction between "movement" conservatism and netroots liberalism - namely, the extent to which the latter is tied less to any specific set of issues than to a hatred of the present Administration and all its works. I'm not saying that such passion isn't a good catalyst for organizational and electoral success, but I'm less sure that it's the kind of thing that sustains a movement in the long term, the way the conservative movement was sustained by a series of major policy goals - from reversing Roe v. Wade to shrinking the size of government to defeating Communism - over the course of its decades-long rise. The gang at National Review weren't involved in political journalism just because they hated JFK and the liberal establishment; the ideas drove the politics, not the other way around.

Obviously netroots liberals do have policy goals - as Chait says, they tend to hail from the leftward flank of the Democratic Party, which means they'd like to see the usual round of universal health care, stricter regulations to combat global warming, increased spending on anti-poverty programs, and so forth. But none of these issues seem to inspire nearly the same kind of passion that, say, rolling back marginal tax rates or ramping up military spending inspired in the New Rightists of the '60s and '70s. Netroots liberals may cheer when the Democratic Congress exhumes the ERA, say, or "comparable worth," but that's not why they're in politics - they're in politics to end the Iraq War and beat the Republican Noise Machine at its own game. And the consequence, for liberalism and the country, may be that once the war is over and Bush has exited stage right, we'll be left with a new movement liberalism that imitates the worst qualities of the contemporary conservative movement - the team-player mentality, the obsession with keeping "our guys" in power and "their guys" out - without having bothered to acquire any more substantive reason for being in politics. Markos Moulitsas says he wants to imitate Grover Norquist; the danger is that he's starting out where Norquist has finished up.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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