Anyone who pays attention to politics can see that when Democrats attack, they speak from the same text, and when they vote, they march in lockstep. If one Democrat says the wealthy must pay their “fair share,” all Democrats do — regardless of the merits of the charge. If their leaders say Republicans want to shut down the government in order to deny Americans affordable care, the rest of the party will follow their lead — whether the claim is true or not. When a key program like Obamacare is the issue, not only do Democrats back it with one voice, but every player on the political left — journalists, professors, talk-show hosts, union heads, MoveOn radicals, and Occupy anarchists — falls into line and promotes it with virtually identical words. They act in “solidarity” in fair political weather and foul, and they do it even for a program like Obamacare, which (as some of them must surely see) is ill-conceived, falsely presented, incompetently executed, and fiscally unsustainable.
When the voices of the Left all come together, the amplification is stupefying. The result is that a morally bankrupt, politically tyrannical, economically destructive party is able to set the course of an entire nation and put it on the road to disaster.
Republicans, in contrast, speak with multiple voices, and in words that often have no relation to each other. If one Republican says “defund Obamacare,” another says, “fund the government,” even if that might mean funding Obamacare. The argument and the dissension are over tactics, not substance, since all Republicans oppose Obamacare. If one Republican says “don’t intervene in Syria,” another says “don’t hesitate”; if one says “Obama-supported immigration reform is a dagger aimed at American sovereignty,” another says “opposition to immigration reform is a death-knell for our party.” This, again, is a tactical division, since all Republicans support enforceable borders.
These contending party voices are multiplied by conservative talking heads in the nation’s media who march to their own political drums. The result is a cacophony of talking points, which in the end point nowhere. Because Republicans speak with many voices, their message is often difficult, if not impossible, to make out.
Internal dissension not only blunts the Republican attack; it hands Democrats a convenient stick with which to beat them. No one on the right, whether conservative or Republican, thinks this is a healthy situation. Why, then, is it the case? What is it that unites Democrats that Republicans lack?
It’s not a party whip to enforce discipline, since both parties have them. Moreover, there are no whips to rein in factions like the grassroots, or media voices that command larger audiences than members of Congress. That goes for both sides. Democrats also lack a formal means to bring their media sympathizers and grassroots allies into line. So how do they do it? What unites them as they go to battle?
It is the power of a unifying idea. A unifying idea is not a consensus over policy or an agreement on tactics; unanimity in these matters is difficult to achieve and impossible to sustain. Instead, their unity is inspired — forged actually — by a missionary idea. On the eve of his election in 2008, Barack Obama said to his followers: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” That idea of transformation is what unites the Left. Unity in embracing a future goal — the fundamental transformation of society — is what motivates them to march together. It is what makes them “progressives” in the first place. It is their identity in the same way “Christian” and “Jew” are identities of people with a religious faith.
“Progressive,” “socialist,” and “liberal” are interchangeable terms that describe members of a moral crusade. The goal of the crusade is “social justice,” or its equivalent: equality. The quest for this utopia of social and economic equality is what forges their alliances, defines their allegiances, and justifies the means they use to get there. They may differ on particular policies and tactics to advance the cause, but if they are Democrats or supporters of the Democrats, they see the party as the practical vehicle for making the idea a reality.
To transform society, you need the power of the state; it is the only way their future can be achieved. That is why they are willing to follow the marching orders of a party that can control the state, and that is why they want to advance its fortunes. The Democrats’ perennial campaign message — Republicans are conducting a war on minorities, women, working Americans, and the poor — rests on the central idea that unites progressives behind the party: We are for equality, they are against it.
The reasoning behind such behavior was revealed by Leon Trotsky when he explained why he would not leave the Bolshevik party even after Stalin — who would eventually murder him — became its absolute leader: “We can only be right with and by the Party,” Trotsky said, “for history has provided no other way of being in the right.” “If the Party adopts a decision which one or other of us thinks unjust, he will say, just or unjust, it is my party, and I shall support the consequences of the decision to the end.”
Non-Bolsheviks may not share Trotsky’s metaphysical certitude, but they will recognize the principle. If the cause is about changing the world and there is only one party that can acquire the means to do it, then even though it may be wrong on this or that matter, its fortunes must be advanced and its power defended. This commitment is magnified when the opposition party is viewed as the enemy of the noble cause. If Republicans are seen as the party of privilege at war with minorities, women, and the poor, then their ideas are not only wrong but evil. As President Obama’s political mentor, Saul Alinsky, put it in Rules for Radicals: “One acts decisively only in the conviction that all of the angels are on one side and the devils are on the other.”