Saturday, August 13, 2005

A Democratic Agenda

I offer for your consideration links to two posts on the Democratic Party's future, the first an interview conducted by PBS's Charlie Rose with new DLC-chair and Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack, the second, a series of posts at the TPM Cafe by Michael Lind. Each is rather long, as is this post by Steve Gilliard, which you should also read as I believe if provides a counterbalance to the other two and because I will return to its subject matter later.

First, Tom Vilsack.

It's hard to artculate just how god-awful Vilsack is here. Just brutal. His vast wordage here is so terrible at so many levels it frustrates the human mortal's ability to express it. Were he to win the 2008 Democratic nomination and talk like this on the stump, I'd be tempted to vote Republican. I surely would. But his two main problems are that, one, he says absolutely nothing about, and takes no stands on, anything, and two, he virtually ignores the two, ten-ton gorillas in the room--the war in Iraq, and the rise of religious fundamentalism in the U.S. I say "virtually ignores" because his comments do include references to "national security", "faith" and "values" but his responses either show no understanding of their effects and implications or that he favors permitting both to continue unchallenged to cause further havoc abroad and to ruin political and social pluralism at home.

Second, Michael Lind.

Lind has several posts at the Cafe, ranging from citizenship to national security to partisan realignment, but this one on "the only way Democrats can regain a majority" is probably the most relevant to the discussion at hand. Basically Lind contends that Democrats need to repress their image as a socially liberal party in order to showcase a more economically liberal platform, allowing the party to agree to disagree on matters of divisive social and moral matters while attracting more socially conservative but economically populist voters.

There's a lot to dig through here and Lind's articles could suggest multiple angles for revitalizing the party while confronting Republican excesses.

For one thing, Lind's focus on economic populism is very much in line with arguments put forward by Thomas Frank, and to a lesser extent by Rick Perlstein, two other writers who have thought about, and written extensively on Democratic Party politics. Lind is more hostile to social liberalism than either Frank or Perlstein, both all three emphasize economic issues in general, and Republican Party elite corporatism in particular. Were the Democrats to unite around an agenda of economic populism, it's possible that in time, the party could help restore its image and impact in areas of the country and among certain demographic groups in which it is now struggling, not to mention, help redirect public policy to offsetting the power corporate interests possess. And while the social liberals among us might worry about the effects of minimizing issues dear to our hearts, the ultimate effect could be to at least stimy the concerted efforts by religious and cultural conservatives to enforce a more restrictive regime of individual rights.

While articles such as Lind's are preferable to the mush of the DLC because Lind at least takes a stand--many stands--on something, I think there are a number of problems with his perspective. One is that economic populism is both hard to define and to the extent it can be defined, may not represent wise policy-making. For example, where would free trade fit in with this framework? If an economic populism strategy would determine to oppose free trade agreements, what would be the long term impacts for economic growth and technological improvements?

A second problem is that while an economically populist orientation could vaunt Democrats back into majority status, it would potentially carry with it the voices and votes of those who would unite with conservative Republicans on a socially regressive agenda that liberals believe is both subjectively unpalatable as well as objectively illogical and unnecessary.

Which brings us back to the two issues that both the DLC-Vilsack approach and the economic populism approach leave largely unattended to--the war in Iraq and rising U.S. religious fundamentalism.

And which is why I directed your attention to the post by Steve Gilliard on fascism.

I believe there is a great risk, not just for the Democratic Party's fortunes, but for the cause of American democracy and political and social pluralism to allow these matters to go unchallenged. The belligerent nationalism represented by the administration, many Republicans in Congress, and the Republican noise machine is a cause of concern not just to the nations around us, but to those of us at home who value a free society where dissent and opposition are guaranteed protection. For Democrats not to do respond to this threat is to invite the same kind of catastrophe that befell the peoples of Europe at mid-century, when tyrannical and totalitarian societies were allowed to emerge under the cover of nationalism, rascism, and values.

The same goes for the rising influence and increasingly radical demands of Christian dominionists. For those not affiliated with religious fundamentalism, the frequently used term "Christian Nation" is not simply a vague generalization or benign expression meant to depict a nation whose majority nominally identifies itself as Christian. Rather, the term "christian nation" is specific ideological and political word that carries with it the implication that civil society should be guided by Biblical law and culture, rather than the sovereignty of the people. That is, the term Christian Nation signifies a theocracy and not a Constitution democracy. Needless to say, there are inherent conflicts between a democratic pluralist republic and a theocracy. Christian leaders who use this term and the flock of laity that regurgitate it to pollsters aren't just suggesting that Christians should be allowed to worship, which they are already are, but that the laws of the nation, and the very basis of those laws, should reflect their own belief system. Dissenters be damned. I fail to understand why Democrats, and liberal and moderate pundits have not argued more forcefully that this trajectory is unConstitutional. And it's hard to believe that Lind isn't more aware or sensitive to this threat since he made it a considerable element of his anti-conservative Up From Conservativism.

To ignore the threats posed by the New American Militarism and radical religious fundamentalism is to put at risk the furthering of human freedom and human rights. If these are indeed the primary problems the country faces, as I believe they are, then Democrats should offer a response to them. Platforms designed to elevate economic values and issues at the expense of social and political process issues might have periodic success, but at the expense of broader, more elementary principles. Campaigns oriented to be "positive", to forgoe the possibility of offending any particular group of voters is partially what has created the Democratic Party's image problems in the first place. Democracy is messy, as Donald Rumsfeld might say. Campaigns that force Democratic candidates to walk on eggshells will not long attract a dedicated following of support. Democrats need to look long term and from a broad perspective, and yes, risk opposing seemingly popular attitudes and influential groups if they contribute to the destabilizing of American democracy and the imprisoning, both physically and figuratively of its people.

But despite the risks involved in confronting the conventional wisdom about American military overstretch abroad and Christian fundamentalism at home, I believe that the public may be more agreeable and open to such an agenda than many pundits think.

The war is already unpopular. As are most of the religious demands of the far-right wing. As religious as many of us are, I have a hard time believing most people want to model a 21st century society on the basis of ancient Biblical guidelines that are cryptic, theocratic, and frequently punitive. As a result, Democrats shouldn't be afraid to put the "focus" on groups like Focus on the Family. If they don't, there might not be much of a democracy to protect or for the DLC to govern.

As for offending the sensivities of religious folk, Republicans routinely bash teachers unions and unions of all kinds without seemingly being concerned about the potential reactions of the members of those unions to political assault. Republicans frequently attempt to draw the distinction between criticizing union leadership while supporting union members. Likewise, Democrats should be bold enough to call out radical Christian leadership while expressing solidarity with mainstream Christians. The followers of Focus on the Family and groups like it are not likely to vote Democratic anyway, regardless of how nice Democratic candidates play.

In conclusion, let's not "miss the forest for the trees". Yes, Democrats need to expand their constituency if they are to hope for the opportunity to win elections and shape policy. But a too tentative approach to party-building and campaigning that doesn't confront the darkest impulses of American leadership and the body politic won't long further its own interests or those of its country.

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