Progressives Don’t Have a Double Standard—But Partisan Democratic Talking Heads Do

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Michael Lind is a columnist for Salon and author of Up From Conservatism:  Why the Right is Wrong for America.

HNN Roundtable: Do Democrats Have a Double Standard for Obama?

Do progressives have a double standard, defending or downplaying actions by the Obama administration, like waging war without authorization by Congress or prosecuting accused terrorists in military tribunals, that they would denounce if the same actions were undertaken by a Republican presidency?  It depends on what you mean by “progressives”—and for that matter, “conservatives.”

The mainstream media apparently have decided that Americans are too stupid to keep four categories distinct in their minds—Democrats, Republicans, progressives, and conservatives.  To simplify things, television producers and bookers treat “progressive” as a synonym for “Democrat” and “conservative” as a synonym for “Republican,” even though there are a great number of Democrats who are not very progressive and a great number of Republicans who are moderately conservative, at best.

As a result, the “progressives” found on television tend to be chosen by the corporate media bureaucracies to play the role of representatives and defenders of the Democratic Party.  Providing a forum for a progressive who criticizes the Republican House and a Democratic president, would violate the convention of political television, that there are only two sides to every debate:  Democrat/progressive and Republican/conservative.  The mass viewing audience would be confused.  Conservatives who criticize the Republicans as well as the Democrats violate the same unspoken convention of political television and are unlikely to be invited back to the show, or invited to host a show.

It follows that the TV progressives, even if they begin as principled reformers, can only succeed in a TV career by embracing their assigned roles as loyal, predictable partisan spin doctors.  This is reinforced by another convention of political TV—the avoidance of actual philosophical debates, in favor of horse-race handicapping.  The question is not—is a particular policy true to progressive or conservative principle, or good for the nation?—but rather—who is winning and who is losing this week? 

The combination of these factors explain why progressive (read:  Democratic) TV talking heads tend to pull their punches, when they do not avoid criticizing a Democratic president.

While careerist propagandists for the two parties play the Left and the Right on TV, principled progressives and conservatives and libertarians frequently criticize the party they tend to favor.  Progressives in particular are ever harsher in their criticisms of Obama for abandoning liberal positions in favor of conservative policies, many of which he earlier criticized.  In the past, the debate among principled movement activists of all kinds took place in the pages of political weeklies and quarterlies.  Increasingly, it takes place online and, to some degree, on talk radio.

There are plenty of progressive intellectuals and activists who denounce the Obama administration for violating progressive principles, just as there are many on the right who denounce the Republican Party for violating conservative principles.  They will not be offered slots as regular guests on TV political chat shows, much less opportunities to host TV shows, unless they agree to cease being intellectuals or activists and agree to be mindlessly loyal Democratic or Republican “spokesmen” or—an even lower form of political life—Democratic or Republican party “strategists.”

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