Tuesday, August 02, 2005

It IS about Ideology

I can't say that I really agree with Kos here that there isn't a significant ideological gap between what is coming out of the DLC and what is represented by those of us from the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.

The DLC position is that ideology isn't important, or if it is, it's impact on policymaking and party building is harmful. This outlook had its origins in the post-McGovern-landslide-loss era of 1972 and in the 1976 Carter campaign that followed. It was reinforced 12 years later by the 1988 Dukakis campaign ("it's about competence, not ideology"). The most recent DLC incarnation as exemplified by Tom Vilsack's speech last week (see previous post) merely reiterates much of this past approach. According to the DLC, Democrats should just be about making good policy and reassuring middle class voters that we know their struggles, share their "values" and "feel their pain."

My own view is that this approach to party building and position taking is highly flawed

(1) it fails to recognize the pointed ideological aims of the conservative Republican Party and its supporters (and thus the need to vigorously oppose them); or
(2) it does recognize conservativism's strident ideology but believes it is either unimportant or can be held back by a party properly claiming the "center"; or worse
(3) it is in sympathy with much of the conservative movement and wishes only to co-opt it.

To some extent, the DLC operation may reflect a mix of all three perspectives on the radical right, but each view is detrimental to the Democratic Party's success and to the cause of good government. To the extent that the DLC's underlying reaction to the right is embodied by the third perspective, the greater the threat the DLC represents (however minimalized it has become of late).

But to start with, we should be clear about the distinction between conservatives and progressives.

For conservatives the aim of politics and society is Order. Embodied in Order are notions of conformity, uniformity, rank, hierarchy and unquestioning obedience to the establishment. Therefore, the threat to Order is individuals. This can be seen not just in the radical right's social conservatism (coerced school prayer, criminalizing abortion, anti-gay rights) but also in its economic policies. Consider for example the justifications for welfare "reform" and the most recent bankruptcy "reform" bills. Both bills were enacted as a response to the alleged "abuse" of the system by either welfare recipients or individuals/families filing for bankruptcy (yes, at least some Democrats followed this logic or recited it themselves--more about this in a minute). So the reason why welfare and bankrupty laws needed to be "reformed", we were told, was because of bad individuals "abusing the system".

For progressives the aim of politics is Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The threat to Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness is Power. In Federalist #10, James Madison called this power-threat Faction. A faction is a group which has an agenda and which has power. Factions threaten the ability of individuals to live their lives as they see fit (see the agenda of Focus on the Family, Family Research Council for examples) and also undermines the individual's economic opportunities by creating rules and distribution systems that favor groups over individuals.* For example, Faction inhibits the individual's opportunity to collectively organize. Faction also produces a political-economic system that unfairly distributes benefits and rights to some (health insurance tax subsidies) but not to others (no health insurance at all or "poor" programs like Medicaid where health coverage is treated as "welfare" and its annual budget subject to reductions).

Now this discussion is not to say that the division between the parties perfectly reflects this distinction. The issue of gun ownership, for example, would seem to cut across this categorization (which is why although I don't love guns and do favor some restrictions, I think Democrats should not make anti-NRAism a primary focus of campaigns).

However, the bigger problem is the opposite, as we saw with Democratic Party support for welfare and bankruptcy "reform". That is, many Democrats have, sadly, capitulated to conservative rhetoric, if not to their outright philosophy and policy prescriptions, and allowed their campaigns to take the hallmark of conservative anti-individualism. Furthermore, when Democrats fail to make elections about how the rules are set and who gets what and how, than Democrats essentially forfeit their political role as well as the rights of individuals who aren't represented in such a system.

The duty of the New Left, as I'll call it, is to re-establish the distinction the interests of conservatives and progressives. to make the case that the goal of a democratic society is not Order (any and all types of government aspire to do this and some do it all too well), but Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness and that the problem is not individuals, but Power. Like Madison of old, progressives need to re-acquaint the body politic with the reason we have government. The purpose of government is to help promote and ensure Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. It's purpose is NOT to usher in God's kingdom on earth or to promote and defend some religious creed.

Much of the blogs I frequent seem to recognize and advocate this, even if that isn't how every discussion is framed. But the DLC does not. Because it does not, The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party must continue to be "ideological" and to promote the values and raise the issues of concern to it and on behalf of the public good.

*For a classical and thorough analysis of politics as conflict, and the efforts of political elites to enact rules designed to prevent certain issues from being considered by the political system, please see E. E. Schattschneider's "The Semi-Sovereign People."

1 comment:

newugr said...

the DLC sickens me they dont need to surrender years before the election, how is progress to be made if no one tries?