Keith Olberman vs. Ideological Groupthink

There is something interesting happening on the liberal side of the street in American politics. Something that I would wager you are going to start hearing more and more about.

This “something” is typified in Keith Olberman's decision to leave the popular progressive website Daily Kos over criticism about his skewering of President Obama's speech regarding the Gulf oil spill and BP.

Wrote Olberman:

“If I can understand people's frustration with seeing a speech by a Democratic president criticized in a venue such as mine, why is it impossible for some people here to accept my frustration about the speech? You don't agree with me, fine. You don't want to watch because you don't agree with me, fine. But to accuse me, after five years of risking what I have to present the truth as I see it, of staging something for effect, is deeply offensive to me and is an indication of what has happened here.

You want Cheerleaders? Hire the Buffalo Jills. You want diaries with conspiracy theories, go nuts. If you want this site the way it was even a year ago, let me know and I'll be back.”

Via Twitter, Glenn Greenwald notes, “I'm not saying this isn't thin-skinned — it is — but what he's reacting to is very common.” I'm not wholly convinced that Olberman's response was a matter of being thin-skinned.

In and of itself, Olberman's decision to leave Daily Kos is unremarkable. I mean, who cares what celebrity/pundit is writing diaries at Daily Kos? It would be like causing frooferaw over.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner leaving Red State. It just doesn't really matter.

But what Olberman left Daily Kos over is worth scads and scads of debate and it is an increasingly volatile issue for liberals: cheer leading. Specifically, the issue of presidential cheer leading.

As time wears on, there seem to be more and more instances where liberals who are critical of the actions of President Obama are subject to castigation by their fellow travelers. Just ask Jane Hamsher in regards to her vocal opposition to Obama and Democrats' chosen path on health care. Or ask Greenwald himself when it comes to pointing out the flaws in the President's approach to civil liberties. Or ask organized labor in regards to its efforts in the recent Arkansas Senate primary race between Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter.

The suggestion from many liberal corners is that criticizing the President and Democrats is the job of Republicans and conservatives. Liberals are supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder, united in the common goal of rebuffing those criticisms for the greater good.

But what happens when someone else's shoulder rubs you the wrong way? What if you fundamentally disagree with one of the planks you are engaged in defending? Well whatever you do, you don't talk about that disagreement publicly. Doing so only gives ammo to the enemy in time of war.

To be fair, this isn't exclusively a Democratic or liberal phenomenon. At least part of the frustration that gave rise to the Tea Party movement came out of the inability for Republicans to break free of the kind of pack mentality that so dominantly characterized the tail end of the Bush presidency.

The idea that the ideological leanings of a president that align with your own make he or she, “my President,” in a way that is different from fellow citizens who might not share your beliefs is a dangerous and corrosive inclination to American democracy. Such a tendency towards blind — or even willfully ignorant — faith stands to undermine the very fabric of modern political discourse.

Politics is supposed to be vicious, no matter what side you happen to be on. It is the ferocity of American politics that make it such a standard bearer. Ideas and courses of action are exposed to an unrelenting torrent of critical analysis. And sometimes the most challenging criticism is that which comes forth from one's own camp.

American politics is a full-contact sport and, granted, sometimes people get hurt. But on the whole, the consistent pursuit of testing ideas in the public square winds up being a boon to the country. Indeed, such activity underwrites the very heritage and history of the country.

But when those deliberations become merely a matter of one side versus another, something vital is lost. The whole process becomes a wholly predictable pantomime, a daily parade of sound and fury. The substance behind what is being done gives way to simple theatrics, smoke and mirrors, and a burgeoning sense that none of it really matters much anymore.

Such is the situation in which a record number of Americans currently find themselves.

The political parties on each side of the ideological spectrum are engaged in this blunting. It is, in many regards, a natural outcome of a desire to generate and maintain power. The maintenance of power requires fealty and obedience, values that remain anathema to the core of the American experiment. In short, to be truly patriotic is to fight this phenomenon with everything one has, whether you are liberal or conservative.

And so while it doesn't much matter that Keith Olberman chose to leave the Daily Kos, why and how he chose to leave couldn't be of more importance to the country. And if his name and manner of departure draw even a modicum of increased scrutiny to this issue, then we are indebted to Mr. Olberman for his actions, whether we agree with him or not.

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