The key to understanding American politics these days is recognizing that it's easier to oppose a candidate or policy than it is to promote one of your own.
This has been the case, more often than not, for nearly 250 years. From the Boston Tea Party to Occupy, political leaders maximize success when they can demonize someone.
As a corollary, blank slates — candidates with little or no public-office history — often prove to be more effective agents for change than seasoned professionals who carry a lot of ideological or pragmatic baggage. Think Deval Patrick in 2006. Witness Barack Obama in 2008.
It seemed to me that these truths ran through the past week of political activity, from the Massachusetts Democratic State Convention in Springfield to Netroots Nation in Providence, with the Wisconsin recall election and presidential parrying in between.
Activists on both sides of the political divide are uniting mostly around their perceived enemies, rather than their own platforms and policies.
That's not too surprising — especially in times of trouble like these, when pretty much nobody is likely to have a track record of success.
Still, it seems to pose the question of what, in the end, anyone is for. Can purely oppositional activists actually expect anything from their new leaders — whether that might be Tom Barrett in Wisconsin, Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, or Mitt Romney in the White House?
At its purest, you see these tendencies at work in Warren's US Senate campaign. Opposition to Kennedy-seat usurper Scott Brown is a given — and is deep and heartfelt. But so is the utter, unabashed enthusiasm for Warren, who secured the nearly unanimous backing of the state party at the Democratic state convention, and was the clear superstar at Netroots.
It's hard to put a finger on exactly why Warren is so much more compelling to liberal activists, in and outside the state, than other Democratic candidates — and, as I discovered, so hard for those activists to explain themselves.
Legendary environmental activist Bill McKibben told me he supports Warren enthusiastically, even though he conceded that she has said little, if anything, about environmental issues.
"Elizabeth Warren is in 2012 the marquee progressive that is fueled by everyday people, who are responding to her message," says Adam Green of Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) — which (like several other groups) began raising money for Warren last year, before she even became a candidate. Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos Web site, told me that Warren is far and away the favorite candidate of the Netroots in this election cycle.
What Warren seems to have is a combination of résumé, symbolism, and rhetorical skill that makes her a great foil against the progressives' common enemy — which is not just Brown but, as McKibben suggests, the national Republican Party and the wealthy interests behind it.
Warren herself made that theme very clear in her convention speech — the first major public address of her political career, one could argue — by concentrating almost entirely on the evils of Brown. There was very little self-introduction, but plenty about the guy she is against. He is, in her words, "a Wall Street Republican; a big-oil Republican; a Mitt Romney Republican."