Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Gore and the Common Good

In my last post, I outlined some reasons why I don't think Michael Tomasky's Common Good theme is good for progressive Democrats.

Since then, there have been two developments that have caused me to qualify those objections, at least a little. The first is rapidly rising (again) gas prices. The second are the reviews of Al Gore's soon to be released movie on global warming and the environment: An Inconvenient Truth. Obviously I think these two developments are convergent, and that both have implications for a Democratic vision based on notions of the Common Good.

First, the issue of gas prices. While, like Atrios, we may shake our heads at how the mainstream media is so quick to run "news stories" showing upset consumers at gas stations, David Niewert and Billmon explain why the issue of gas prices is more than just gas.

Meanwhile, at the same time as issues of energy policy are getting more attention, along comes Al Gore, who's climate-change, Powerpoint demonstration is being adapted to the big screen. Republicans had a lot of fun recalling Gore's Earth in the Balance writings during the 2000 campaign, using it as yet another link in a chain supposedly indicating how geeky and out of touch Gore was. But now, conservative critics of global warming, and of environmental causes generally, are in retreat.

For those of us uninspired by the thought of a Hilary candidacy, and hoping someone else, anyone else, with greater stature, credibility, or electability may yet enter the 2008 race, we can wonder whether Gore's moment might be arriving.

For amazing as it might sound, of all the prospective 2008 candidates, Al Gore, Al Gore! may be the visionary one. He's raked the administration over the coals on NSA wire-tapping and lambasted the attempt by Justice Sunday-Christian Reconstructionists to bulldoze the wall separating church and state. But it's his signature issue--the environment--that may give Gore his (and our) best chance to shift the national debate. Environmental protection, natural resource conservation and development, and climate change projections are issues Gore is knowledgeable and passionate about, and as it happens, also issues currently and extremely relevant to our nation's, and world's, economic futures. It seems to be that this set of issues also could prove to be the best test for a campaign and governance strategy oriented around the concept of the Common Good. It avoids the narrow-minded, leave-no-corporation-behind, Tax Cut agenda of the conservatives, as well as the standard "pocket-book", special interest driven, redistribute-the-economic-pie-type politics that many Democrats, like Tomasky, seem to find so bankrupt from our own party. Gore campaigning on the environment in 2008 would finally give the Democrats the kind of unifying, visionary, nation-wide, identity-shaping agenda that so many seem to think the Democrats have been lacking in recent elections.

Sound good? If not, why not?

Well, after feeling like I had had an epiphany, I began to have some doubts.

First, the price of gas could quickly head back down, particularly if the bomb-Iran rhetoric coming from the administration and its neocon media hawks starts to subside, negating the potential appeal to the Common Good that high gas prices may have made viable. And even if gas prices stay high, the public could very well adapt to them, making energy and environmental issues less salient generally, and Gore a less appealing candidate. If the gas issue is kaput, so is the Democrat's unifying, global vision, at least one driven by this issue.

But second, even if gas prices remain high and the public remains concerned, that doesn't mean it will be attracted to the type of belt-tightening measures an environmentally-focused, non-self-interest-based political campaign would be making. This seems especially true if Democrats hope to ride a new environmentalism from the primaries through to November.

Which brings me to what I think is another problem with the Common Good campaign model: trying to get people to look beyond their self interest could easily come across as hectoring, lecturing, or finger-pointing. And people don't take to that very well, even if they're more than happy to have a candidate hector, lecture and finger-point at someone else.

Since 1968, and particularly in 1980 and George Bush II, Republicans have been very good at two things: one, making a virtue out of ignorant, numbskullness; and two, making church-goers, construction workers, and insurance sales-persons think it's the other people who need to be personally responsible. If there's been a campaign by either party before that has centered on suggesting that its voters or the majority of Americans need to change, and that has succeeded, I am personally unaware of it.

So I'm not necessarily optimistic that high gas prices, theories of peak oil, and rising global temperatures can be the new centerpiece of a victorious Democratic governing vision or campaign strategy. I'm not sure how ready the middle-class is to restrain its consuming and spending patterns, to admit that sacrifice and responsibility may need to be exercised by all of us, and not just the "deviants". I'm not sure how politically viable it would be.

But it just might be the right thing to do.

And that would be an identity worth having.

No comments: