Sunday, August 21, 2005

What I'm Reading

The Stock Ticker and the SuperJumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America's Dominant Political Party by Rick Perlstein and Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer.

The Perlstein book, which is actually a short and edited booklet, contains, in addition to Perlstein's own argument, those of William Galston, Ruy Teixeira, and Robert Reich, among others, as well.

I picked each of the books up separately, without any preconceived idea that they fit together. But since I enjoy reading history and am interested in the future of the Democratic Party, both suit my eclectical tastes. And as I have started the Lincoln book, it strikes me that the two works may actually have a lot in common.

The Lincoln book is concerned with an address the future president delivered in February of 1860 in New York City that is credited with being instrumental in giving Lincoln positive exposure in the east and in helping him gain the new Republican Party nomination for president later that year. In the speech, Lincoln set out a historical, factual, and legal argument against the extension of slavery in the territories.

The book highlights the fact that Lincoln was in essence campaigning as the "moderate" candidate--more conservative than New York Senator William Seward, whose "irrepressible conflict" speech had alienated many "mainstream" Free Labor proponents, and more progressive than his Illinois rival, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, who argued for the principle of "popular sovereignty", which on the basis of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowed territories to vote on whether to allow slavery or not. Although earlier in 1858 he pronounced that "a house divided against itself cannot stand", Lincoln moderated his appeal in NYC two years later, trying to assure the South that he did not intend, and did not believe that any of that region's "peculiar institutions" would need to be disturbed. At the same time, he set out a distinct course from Douglas, arguing strenously against the idea of popular sovereignty and at the same time, warning the South about any future intrangience.

That Lincoln's was the "moderate" voice in the debate that seemed to be if anything, one revolving moral absolutes, is something I believe Democrats might do well to remember.

Democrats would do well to also remember the basis for Lincoln's approach and argument that night in NYC: that the nation's history as well as the ideas and votes of the founding generation, backed up Lincoln's argument that the federal government had the authority over slavery in the territories, a point of contention that Douglas earlier had denied. It is true that I have criticized historical romanticism from this space. However, it is also true that in moving away from the conservatism and injustice of America's past Democrats have allowed Republicans to hijack history, casting themselves as the true legacy holders of the American tradition. Democrats would do well to begin the process of reversing this image by laying claim to the most progressive instincts and examples of our heritage to support the need for a more free, and more progressive and modern future.

It is no secret what Democrats have lacked in past elections and most need to make up for in future ones in a rhetorical and demographic sense: the support of religious and rural voters. Naturally, there are a variety of ways for Democrats to begin making inroads to these constituencies.

What the Lincoln experience also helps confirm is that Democrats should not be embarrased to recognize and assert that they need a midwestern or southern candidate at the top of the ticket. Part of Lincoln's appeal to the nascent Republican Party was exactly that--his geography, both literally as well as figuratively. Not only did he sectionally represent a growing "battleground" area, but he spoke its language as well.

Lincoln's appeal to history and faith provide additional models for Democrats to follow. While, again, the exact methods of doing this are varied, and as Robert Kennedy once said in managing his brother's campaign for the White House, campaigns are not well oiled and methodic processes, but rather, consist of a multitude of efforts, keeping those that work, discarding those that don't, and trying new ones. Democrats will fail, as they must, in trying to recapture the country's allegiance. But try they must.

As I continue with the Lincoln and Perlstein books, I hope to continue this discussion and perhaps arrive at some more satisfactory suggestions.

For the moment, I'll reiterate that Democrats do need to appeal to religious and rural voters, and that I believe they can do that without sacrificing the vital issues of civil liberties and political pluralism I believe progresssives value. On the religious question, Democrats can authentically claim the positive dimensions of our country's religious history while at the same time warning against the dangers of religious extremism.

As Lincoln remarked regarding slavery in NYC the evening of February 27, 1860: Our fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, understood the question just as well, and even better, than we do now.

As with religion as with the extension of slavery. "Our fathers" did understand this question as well if not better than we do today. That is why they acknowleged the right to its free expression while prohibiting the coercision of religious worship and the requiring of religious oaths of affiliations as a mark of government service or citizenship. Democrats can and need to reaffirm our history on this point, authenticating our tradition of religious freedom while protecting the rights of religious and non religious minorities.

1 comment:

The Rogue Progressive said...

I have to disagree on this errant folly of Democrats needing to scoop up "religious and rural voters." This might have been attainable back in 92 and 96 for Clinton, but things have changed. The era of Republican Lite is over.

The rightward lurch of the media, the evangelicization of rural voters has made their connection to the GOP as unbreakable as the Democrat-African-American link.

At this point, for better or worse, the Dem party would be incapable of appealing to these voters. These two groups have been radicalized by their fear of what modern society and culture is becoming.

They have a fundamentalist religious litmus test that a born-again and a Catholic have failed. You can't just have a conservative religious faith, you need to be dedicated to prosleytizing via government policy.

They have a hatred litmus test that no Democrat can come close to meeting (pro-death penalty, anti-immigration, anti-gay, anti-civil rights, anti-evolution, anti-environment, anti-education).

Any national Dem that tries to coopt these voters by selling their political souls on these issues will do more to depress Dem turnout than any Kenneth Blackwell black-on-black voting crime.

The Dems are still paying for their pro-civil rights and pro-liberty stands. LBJ knew this, and knew it was the right thing to do. He was right.

It would be more productive for the Dems to focus on appealing to all voters on national security and economics grounds. As far as addressing values issues, the Dems should leave all that alone until they figure out how to turn them into wedge issues that work for Dems and hurt Republicans.