Let me start by saying that, on an instinctual almost primordial level, I enjoy partisan red meat as much as the next lefty. But at the same time, it makes me nauseous.
This was my first time attending the annual progressive blogger convention that is Netroots Nation. And I was largely impressed — very thoughtful panels on a variety of important issues and tactics, and some exceptionally fun parties. But two prominent moments left a sour taste in my mouth — and left me wondering if our animosity toward those who don’t perfectly agree with us is, albeit cathartic, ultimately self-defeating.
First, in appearance dubbed as going into “the lion’s den”, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer appeared before the Netroots audience to field hostile questions and, at times, endure booing. Now, should the “professional left” aggressively and passionately push the Obama administration to do more for working families and marginalized communities? Hell yeah! Such critical friendship is the essential balancing act that progressive activists must play when their imperfect allies are in power. Yet for an audience that, according to the Netroots Nation straw poll, is 80% supportive of President Obama and his Administration, the tone of the questioning and the audience response was infinitely more critical than friendly. Writing for the Washington Post, Rachel Weiner described the reception Pfeiffer received as “chilly”. Frankly, I think that’s being generous.
Yet the treatment of Pfeifer may have seemed downright warm and fuzzy compared with the other interesting incident at Netroots Nation — the moment when Andrew Breitbart tried to enter the Netroots exhibit hall. Breitbart, with a throng of supporters and a camera crew and reporters in tow, was confronted by at least one Netroots attendee who proceeded to yell at Breitbart and ask attacking questions. You can watch the video here. Now, are progressives right to be upset that Breitbart has systematically attacked and undermined a number of progressive organizations and leaders? Hell yeah! But does getting in Breitbart’s face and screaming, creating the kind of circus-like atmosphere on which he thrives — and gains further attention — help us or him? Again, it might have felt cathartic. But was it constructive? The fact that one of the leading media stories coming out of Netroots Nation was the left’s hostile response to Breitbart suggests that we didn’t do ourselves any favors.
But what’s more, the juxtaposition of these two events is deeply revealing — suggesting that we on the left often have a hard time respectfully, even cheerfully disagreeing not only with our enemies but even our allies. Which may seem like a naïve point if your goal is to rattle the President’s communications chief or Breitbart. But if your goal is to win over the everyday Americans who watch incidents like these unfold — and who are judging progressives not just on their ideas but their character — like it or not, when we think we may be getting in a cathartic shot or two at others, we’re more likely shooting ourselves in the foot.