Cool-Democrats via Truthout.org (flickr)When Mike Stark commented on “the implosion” looming for Democrats as evidenced by the Massachusetts Senate special election next week by suggesting he wouldn’t phonebank for Martha Coakley, there were a number of replies taking issue with his assessment, accusing him of undermining progressives and empowering the far-right.

It’s just one example of a much larger debate taking place within the progressive movement, online and offline, about the special election, why Democrats and progressives are in this mess, and what progressives should do about it. Unfortunately, most of that discussion is taking place in a decontextualized vacuum, as if 2010 exists outside of history.

The fact is that we’ve seen this movie before. The Massachusetts special election is a textbook example of the phenomenon I’ve described here at FDL – where Democratic embrace of corporate neoliberalism leads to one and only one outcome: right-wing victory. We saw it play out in 1980 and 1994, every election from 2000 to 2004, and in other Anglo democracies such as Canada (2006) and Britain (sometime between now and June). And we’re watching it again in Massachusetts.

So what’s our response? We need to start by rejecting the notion that progressives have the ability to empower the far right wing by not falling in line behind weak, ineffectual, corporate Democrats. Everything we have seen in American politics since 1978 indicates that it is the “centrists” – those espousing and implementing a corporate neoliberalism – who achieve that empowerment, by depressing the base and alienating the swing voters. By all accounts, that’s exactly how Martha Coakley has run her campaign – and Scott Brown is responding exactly as a generation of right-wingers have, by seizing the opening to pass himself off as a charismatic populist, grabbing the alienated swing voters and taking advantage of a depressed Democratic base.

The MA Senate race is also a textbook example of how the corporatist party establishment tends to respond to these situations. Instead of wising up and making a play for the progressives by offering policy goodies, and a play for the swing voters by ditching consultant-speak and addressing them with more authentic language, they use scare tactics to try and motivate activists to work hard to avoid disaster. That works only to some degree, and we’ll find out on Tuesday whether it’s enough to stave off the right-wing in this case.

We also saw that reaction to the 2000 Nader phenomenon, which Mike Stark also brought up in his posts. Although I now hold several elected positions within my local and state Democratic Party here in California, I was a volunteer for the Nader campaign that fateful fall. The most common reaction among folks in Berkeley and Oakland when I canvassed them was that they were considering Nader only because Gore-Lieberman wasn’t offering them anything, hadn’t reached out to them. At any moment between August and October had Gore made a strategic outreach to alienated progressives, even in dogwhistle form, it would have brought a lot of those Nader voters home. I was surprised that no such outreach ever occurred, and that fear was the only argument used to try and win them back.

As we know, that argument didn’t bring back enough of them, at least not in Florida. There were many reasons why the 2000 election turned out as it did, but it too was at root a classic example of what happens when Democrats embrace corporate policies at the expense of the progressive populism that got them elected. Nader was a symptom of that, and even if he hadn’t run, Gore was having extreme difficulty holding together the coalition that Clinton had assembled twice before, watching swing voters who had given Clinton his victories in 1992 and 1996 get seduced by George W. Bush’s siren song of compassionate conservatism.

Although I later recognized the flaws of the third party approach, it took progressive activists – some of whom were, like me, former Naderites – to force the party to start paying attention to and caring about progressive voters. The Dean campaign was in some part about making that happen, as was the influx of progressive activists into party institutions that Dean initiated.

The party establishment’s reaction to things like voting for Nader, or staying home at a key election, is to treat it as a deviant act. Those who engage in it are seen as somehow flawed, stupid, demented, or otherwise showing signs of a lack of logical thought. In fact, actions like supporting a third party candidate or abstaining from an election are entirely predictable and commonplace reactions to a political coalition that has decided to ignore and at times belittle your needs and values. Most parties that have held power have faced a split within that party after at least 8 years in office since 1900 – Roosevelt’s Republicans in 1912, Truman’s Democrats in 1948, LBJ’s Democrats in 1968, Reagan-Bush’s Republicans in 1992, and Clinton-Gore’s Democrats in 2000.

In each case the cause was the same: coalitions wear themselves out eventually after the dominant partners inside it come to believe their position is secure and that they no longer need to make deals with those they view as junior members, that those junior members’ support of the coalition is either firm or unnecessary.

That’s why Obama’s decision to operate his administration as Clinton’s third term was so disastrous. It immediately recreated the political conditions of the 1990s, where progressives were unhappy and shut out from policymaking, and Democrats were so in hock to corporations that they lost touch with the people who put them in office and were beaten out by an insane right-wing that has a better message and a more common touch.

In that sense it’s good that Obama is going to Massachusetts tomorrow – he needs to start cleaning up his own mess. We know how this movie ends. It remains to be seen whether the White House is satisfied with it or wants to order a reshoot.

“Cool Democrats” via truthought.org’s at flickr