Democratic Party: Which Direction?
The Midterms are just 13 months away, and yet amid the catastrophe of Bush's second term, local and national Dems seem totally at sea about which direction to turn. Two factions have emerged: the base, who want a return to liberal politics, with firm stands on economic and social justice, and the moderates, who believe victory can only come by seizing swing voters who have become increasingly conservative in past decades.
The question about the direction the Democratic Party is timely. This weekend, the Oregon Dems (my home-state party) will gather to discuss the question (characterized as Winning the West). As if on cue, a group closely aligned with the Democratic Leadership Council yesterday released a report that offers a defense of the moderate position.The problem, as I see it, is that both camps have approached strategy in reaction to the success of the GOP machine. The liberal base thinks it's adequate to brush off the old mid-century ideas (from our three-letter champions, FDR, JFK, and LBJ) and re-sell them to a duped population. Moderates think we can borrow the most popular planks from the GOP platform--those that don't make a mockery of our own platform--and repackage them as Democratic ideas. That's a slightly overstated case, but the point is that neither group is asking the relevant question: what are the challenges of the 21st Century, and why are liberal politics better able to address them? It's not a question of packaging--as Party thinkers seem to imagine--it's a question of core values and solutions.
Modern American politics address problems defined by the Republican Party. This wasn't always the case. From the 1920s to the 1970s, Democrats argued for a politics based on one of America's twin founding beliefs: equality. The gains made in social and economic justice throughout the era reflected that abiding belief. It was the period of the "great compression," when the rich got poorer (but stayed rich) and the poor got middle class. Liberals used this belief to address inequities in race, class, and even, as the Nazis mounted their campaign of genocide, foreign policy (though we needed a little shove on that one from Japan).
In their ascent to political dominance following the election of Reagan in 1980, Republicans crafted a politics on the other founding belief--liberty--and have used it to redefine politics. The wealthy (and their political surrogates, the GOP) took a look at what America had become, and felt their liberty imperiled. They addressed this by dispatching with the thought of equality and emphasized liberty. Not of course, in those terms. Instead, the virtues they promoted were of “personal responsibility;” the immorality they eschewed, those that supported “welfare queens.” Down the line, Republicans refashioned their pro-rich agenda as a pro-individual agenda. They clothed social Darwinism in the rhetoric of American freedom. Finally, they turned the "equality" argument on its head by claiming victimhood at the hands of a secular society. Again, another's equality meant their liberty was threatened. And so was added the Christian conservative dimension, which fuels the right's fear over gay rights, abortion, and Hollywood.
So we need to redifine politics again--not by reacting to the definitions set by the Republicans. There are two challenges confronting the country in the 21st Century, and both are new. The first is the collapse of the environment. Far from an abstract problem, as we've seen with Rita and Katrina, its effect can be to kill hundreds and sack an economy--all within a matter of days. The second is the threat of terrorism, which the GOP has been uniquely incompetent to address. There are other important issues as well--the economy central among them. Democratic views on the economy, however, have not substantially changed over the course of 50 years. The Party still depends on labor and will always side with the interests of the middle-class and poor over the wealthy and corporate. Whatever waffling we've seen is mostly political maneuvering. Social justice issues, likewise, are not up for discussion. We will never abandon a woman's right to choose nor equal rights nor civil liberties.
In addressing all of these issues, we must return to the language of equality and connectivity, but transform it to 21st Century realities. The environment and the war on terror are problems whose solutions can't be solved by cowboy politics. They cross regional and national boundaries, and they tie us together--through the air, water, and through our increasingly mobile society. We the Bush administration to thank for at least one thing: they've shown the cowboy politics frame--that we can shoot our way to peace and buy our way to climate stability--is an undeniable failure.
So: which direction do we head--moderatism or old-school liberalism? It's the wrong question. We must fundamentally re-think politics.
[Originally posted at BlueOregon.]