Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Finding Their Morality

We are living through one of the most corrupt times in American politics. Corruption in turn breeds incompetence, and the two breed, among voters, cynicism. In response, the Democrats, to everyone's astonishment, don't seem to be able to find their voice. They waffle, equivocate, and fall back on politicalese. Last week's spat between Obama and Hillary about foreign diplomacy was the most recent case in point. Why this has happened seems clear, but first, it's relevant to deconstruct recent Republican rule to see how we got here.

The process by which the GOP managed to consolidate power included a strong moral argument: government as an institution is corrupt and malign--witness the travesties of Roe and welfare. Morality is a potent weapon; it allows you to distinguish your position from the mire of politics as usual while simultaneously identifying your opponents as that mire. The Democrats did the same thing in the 30s and carried it through the civil rights movement. With social issues and "small government" on their side, Republicans turned the tables in the 80s.

The power of this identification (GOP=morality) becomes the standard position. In any debate, voters and--to a far larger degree (quite bizarrely)--the media assume the GOP are right. So even though Bush lied his way through a war, bogus tax cuts, a phony social security debate, ad infinitum, the assumption has been that this is still the moral position. Even over the weekend, as I listened to the debate about Alberto Gonzales play out on the talk shows, there was an instinctive mistrust of the Democratic position despite overwhelming evidence that Gonzales is a toady, a liar, and a bum. (Media position: "yes, Gonzales appears to have lied, but aren't the Democrats still only interested because it gives them partisan advantage?")

Corruption, of course, resulted from the connections to K Street, the motivation of most of the GOP to rule, not govern, and a sense that reality didn't matter--there was no catastrophe that couldn't be spun to implicate the Democrats. Voters, who by nature have only a dim understanding of politics, don't know how to sort all of it out. The party of morality seems to be corrupt, and the other party--the chumps--don't know their asses from a hole in the ground. So cynicism prevails.

So why are Democrats so lame? I think they have a kind of Stockholm syndrome. It's not only the media and voters who genuflect to the moral authority of the GOP; in a certain sense, the Dems to it reflexively, too. (Unlike Republicans, who turned "liberal" into a profane description, Democrats regularly refer to "solid conservatives" as those with principles, as distinct from the cancerous Abramoff/Bush wing.) They naturally mistrust the politics of spin, and being the wonkier party, default to policy discussions rather than emotional appeals. What results is a timid, equivocating party that almost never speaks about policy in the language of morality. And, even when they do, they take a very mildly heterodox position that seems to undermine the very moral point they're making.

The "third way" politics of the DLC contain a deeply structural fault. While it may have been a successful wedge politics for the middle of the GOP era, it is by design without morality: it splits the difference. To a certain extent, all Democrats currently labor in Clinton's shadow, and his damnable DLC politics.

At some point, an overarching politics of morality is going to have to emerge that buoys and animates all their arguments--and which abandons the third way. Liberals actually believe government is good: it regulates to keep markets healthy and competitive, it redistributes to give all Americans a chance, it offers justice so that no citizen is greater or lesser before the law, and it offers security through competent foreign policy. The GOP has so profoundly dominated the politics of morality, that even to suggest that government is an agent for change seems not only unutterable, but wrong. But in fact, in every liberal democracy besides the United States, that is the default view and the unquestioned morality of politics.

If the Democrats find the courage to express this morality, 2025 might feel a lot like 1945, when those values went unquestioned. If they don't, we may be in for years more of political gridlock, polarization, and cynicism.

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