Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Where's my lunch pail?

There's a recent post over at Pandagon that basically readdresses the issue of how Republicans have exploited cultural or "heuristic" issues, as Ezra says, in wooing rural and low income white voters to their party while pursuing economic policies that are adverse to the working class needs of these constituents.

The other day, or yesterday, I posted something about how I hope our next presidential candidate embraces more liberal rhetoric and policies and avoids the same mad, futal dash to the "center" that the punditry constantly urges us to do, which I think is counterproductive to building a long term progressive movement, whatever the temporal results of particular elections or public opinion polls would indicate. At the same time I suggested there was evidence to support my view that liberal ideas were more popular than the word "liberal" would indicate, given the general basis of support for universal health care coverage, a fairer, more progressive tax structure, increased aid for disadvantaged groups, etc.

But the counter to that view is that while many voters may in general support liberal policies, they are either not very passionate about them or may hold different conclusions about how these policy goals should be attained or may not understand even in an elementary way what our current policies are and how the party platforms would affect them.

All of this is to say that I think the notion of bringing about a successful realignment in American politics (and I think that's what we're really talking about now, given Republican dominance in all three branches of government as well as in most states) will likely depend on more than a more charasmatic candidate speaking liberally.

While I'm optimistic in some ways about how changing demographics and economics potentially favors Democrats (see Ruy Texeira's book "The Emerging Democratic Majority"), I also have to concede that the Republican message of exclusion and punishment, be it in the form of patriotic rhetoric and symbols, wars and rumors of wars, "less government", affirmative action or whatever the latest gimick is, has a certain appeal, too, that we would be negligent in doubting. Singling out an appropriate "out" group or the "other" in politics has always had its share of adherents. I doubt this strategy will backfire on Republicans until the mess they're making begins to come more to fruition.

So as to the state of the party, if I can insert a football analogy, a comment attributed to Dallas Cowboy coach Bill Parcels is that "you are what you're record says you are". So, if for instance your record is 7-9, there's little basis for qualifying it by claiming such things as "well, we lost four games by five points or less", or "we didn't have our second receiver for three games" or "we won three of our last five". So while I think Kerry performed reasonably well given the circumstances, unfortunately the circumstances are that the party is in bad shape in many places, both geographically and rhetorically. We remain defensive about our policy preferences and are reluctant to play a challenging role when events seem against us. So, we are down a bunch of seats in the House, are approaching dire conditions in the Senate, and have no real spokesperson or message seemingly waiting around to be used to orchestrate our revival.

I've also been thinking about the party's past. It probably would be an exaggeration to say that the progressive movement really didn't start or achieve anything until the Great Depression, given the establishment of some regulatory agencies and the income tax early in the 20th century and the popularity of such figures as Theodore Roosevelt (aka, the Bull Moose). So it probably would be an exaggeration to claim that liberals didn't achieve success until 1932.

But I'll say it anyway. Progressives really didn't get their start until the New Deal, after the conservatives (Republicans in the north, Democrats in the south) had basically run the ship of state into the ground. The economic structure built during the New Deal and later years served to provide a considerable ground of support for the emerging middle class, and consequently, in due time, has been gradually removing the earlier inhibitions of growing centralized private power in the form of corporations and the preferences granted to them, and the dismantling of the welfare state in its broadest form (including direct government assistance as well as more "hidden" forms of welfare through the tax code).

If it took the Great Depression to give progressive policies a platform--and that even with considerable opposition in the south and from Wall Street--there may not be a whole lot of mileage in trying to convince people that the Republicans are screwing them if they don't actually experience it directly in the form of tragedy, which can be linked to the policies their supposed conservative benefactors have been working on behind their backs. Hopefully things won't get to the crisis point, [uh, oh, I'm using a Bush word] before more rational people can be elected and more rational policies implemented. But it's hard to see how the Republican policy of tax cuts forever anywhere and everywhere can continue before we're basically running the government on credit and history, sadly, repeats itself to those who won't remember it. As the private welfare state of subsidized employer health care and retirement pensions declines, people may actually start fretting about the status of the visible welfare state.

So what does all this mean? Should we be willing to embrace a Democratic Party that moves more and more to the right (that's where moving to the "center" will lead) anyway, with the thought that at a minimum moderate, centrist Democrats can at least prevent the passing of the worst stuff from the other side until such time as real changes can be made? Or can we or should we be more bold in our attempts to change the dynamics, despite the disadvantages of doing so?

I'd like to say we should keep up the good fight if for no other reason than to be able to say later that "we tried to tell you so", but that seems a bit hollow. For what its worth, I still hope a leader or set of leaders emerges to challenge the reigning orthodoxy. There's an illuminating passage from the movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis "Thirteen Days" where Kevin Costner's character says to JFK and RFK after a meeting with the military and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, all pressing for immediate air strikes and an invasion of the island: "everybody thinks there's some wise old men out there who know what to do in these situations. Well, there is no wise man, there's just us." Maybe that's our situation as well, that there isn't and won't be any leader or leaders that will emerge. Maybe there's just us. We of the web. Hubris? Maybe. But there isn't right now.


The Rogue Progressive said...

I have to deduct some points about the progressives only winning in 1932. The progressives began to hit their stride in the 1860s with abolition, land grant colleges, transcontinental railroad, etc. resurfaced in the 1880s and 90s with public education and urban sanitation. Let's not forget the progressive era of the 1900s-1916 with T. Roosevelt creating the FDA, child labor laws, trust busting and creating national parks and then direct election of senators, women's suffrage, etc.

And stop caving to Faux News liberal/conservative labels. That's regressives' code words for "anything goes" versus "sensible." Oh, no one listens...

Otherwise a very worthy post, very on-target. Unfortunately, I think most Dems are still looking at cue cards to figure out what they believe in and the rest are too meek to say it. Has anyone else thought that John Kerry was Gray Davis redux? Just a thought.

greatwhitebear said...

I really like the Gray Davis/John Kerry comparison!