Following conservative rhetoric for the better part of 17 years or so leads me to conclude, perhaps not with any originality, that for conservatives, the essential problem of politics is individual morality. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and anti-war, anti-empire protesting. The problem is the individual and the "immoral" masses. They must be controlled. Conservative authorities must be obeyed (this leads to a strange kind of moral relativism when it comes to war and American interests, but that's a post for another day).
For conservatives, individuals are the problem. Conservatism is not individualistic in a positive sense. It is anti-individual. Even its screeds against the "gestapo" Environmental Protection Agency and other governmental bureacracies are really cries on the behalf of collective interests in the form of business groups (there's another bizarre twist for you--conservatives as collectivists--but again, a post for another day). Conservativism's anti-governmental posture is not anti-government in general, its just anti-governmental control of business groups.
Whether its calls for greater "moral clarity", "personal responsibility", "family values", "moral absolutes", "strict constructivism" in interpreting the Constitution, the need for an "academic bill of rights", or railings against "activist judges", "the liberal media", "Hollywood", "academic elites", the problem and the call to arms is the same--individual thought and behavior is out of control. People must be strictly controlled and conformity to conservative aspirations and authority enforced, brutally if necessary.
Notice the steam and drool of anger and fear that eminate from televangelists such as Rod Parsley and Focus on the Family head James Dobson when they call for fire from heaven on "courts" that are "out of control". In what sense are the courts "out of control"? Because they will not allow religious worship to be imposed in public schools. Because they can find no Constitutional basis for denying equality to gay people. Because they cannot find a Constitional basis for requiring religious or Christian affiliation for America's officials and citizens. Because the courts have ruled in favor of a Right to Privacy, the right for individuals to live as they please provided they do not directly harm others. In these and other judicial findings, conservative totalitarianism has had the door slammed on its demands and vision for control.
But this conservative paradigm of anti-individual, punative totalitarianism is, I would submit to you, my illustrious readers, the dominate paradigm in American politics today. Even many Democrats, sadly, embrace much of this paradigm, albeit often in softer, more nuanced forms. Consider Democratic appraisals of the "The 1994 Crime Bill", the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, "abortion should be legal but rare" talk, support for civil unions but opposition to "gay marriage", bipartisan bills to regulate video games and set movie ratings, calls for Democratics to "talk in the language of faith and values" and on and on. However squeemishly or reluctantly, Democrats have too often embraced much of what the conservative right has set out to do over the last 40 years, if not in deed, often in rhetoric.
My view is that not only does this paradigm hold alarming implications for individual freedom, but as an indictment of society it is just plain wrong. It just isn't the case that laws enforcing "school prayer", religious devotion, and "patriotism" and laws against marijuana, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and other perceived social ills or irregularities will make a better, more just society. Now do I think you and I would better off individually if we were monogamous, avoided drugs and alcohol, worshipped God and read the Bible? Yes. But on a broader scale, this is not the worst problem facing our society.
The social problem isn't individual morality, the social problem is power. This is the second paradigm I would invite for your consideration. The Fascist Nazi and Stalin Communist regimes were the most ruthless and dispectable of our time, but the problem presented by these societies was not their individual morality, the threat they posed to their citizens and the world around them was that of their brutal power. Each ruthlessly sought to break first their own citizens, and secondly, any and all enemies to their world view.
It is my view that Democrats should and need to begin to articulate the basis for this paradigm as an alternative to that posed by conservatives. Democratic opposition is more than just filibusters. It is a recognition of the necessity of, and the courage to challenge totalitarian conservativism at every point. If we express opposition to conservatism's course of action, but accept its paradigm, we will ultimately fail to strengthen our party and preserve our free society. We must not accept conservatism's framing of issues, its rhetoric, or its definition of the problem. Democrats must resurrect and rehabilitate the principles and language of liberalism, and call the conservatism on display at last night's "Justice Sunday" and in the halls of Congress and the West Wing by its right name--totalitarianism.