BUT DO WE KNOW? My first thought was that I shouldn't comment on "The Politics of Definition" until it was, you know, fully published so that I could actually read the whole thing. But on second thought, this is a blog so who needs due diligence. I have concerns about the idea that the essay's soi disant straightforward thesis: "Progressives need to fight for what they believe in -- and put the common good at the center of a new progressive vision -- as an essential strategy for political growth and majority building," is actually all that straightforward. I wouldn't want to deny that progressives ought to fight for what they believe in, and the evidence that a failure to be perceived as driven by a strong core of basic beliefs is an electoral problem seems strong to me.

That said, the metaphysics of the claim seem off-base to me. There's an implicit assumption here that there's something ("what we believe in") that needs to be handled differently -- fought for, communicated clearly, etc. An alternative construal of the situation is that the voters don't know what we believe in because the phrase "what we believe in" lacks a reference. Conservatives have had an enormous amount of success in convincing voters that, for each progressive candidate, that candidate doesn't know what he believes in, is a flip-flopper, will "say anything to win," etc. That's largely a smear. But there's a difference between saying that progressive politics is a collection of people -- Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Russ Feingold, Mike Tomasky, Ruy Teixeira, you the gentle reader, etc. -- each of whom knows what each of us believes in and saying that progressive politics is a collection of people who, together, know what we all believe in.

Which is a long way of saying that progressives disagree. The formidable Atrios thinks that opposition to "network neutrality" legislation is an effort to kill off the Internet. Chris Bowers agrees with Atrios on the issue, and is not only upset to learn that Mike McCurry is working for the other side, but is absolutely sure that McCurry is acting in bad faith, selling out for telecom industry money. It seems to me, however, that there are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue, along with corporate cash on both sides. Or, to take a less obscure example, on the always-controversial trade issue, one faction of progressive politics is sure the other faction is selling the country down the river for corporate money, and the other faction is sure their opponents are peddling mumbo-jumbo for fear of trade union political power. My colleague Harold Meyerson has all kinds of beef with Bob Rubin and his new Hamilton initiative.

And then there's foreign policy! Nancy Pelosi's op-ed from yesterday on China is going into my "dangerous warmongering" file along with recent remarks I've heard from Joe Lieberman and Steve Israel about Iran. Someone looking around to see what progressives believe in, in other words, is likely to become uncertain. And this is a real problem for progressive politics. But it's not a failure to stand up for "what we believe in" or to communicate "what we believe in" or to define "what we believe in" -- rather it's a reflection of genuine disagreement along a variety of fronts. I have no solutions to offer about this. Or, rather, my ideal solution would be for everyone to agree to put our differences aside and adopt all the policy positions I think are correct, but I'm not optimistic about that one.

--Matthew Yglesias

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