Thursday, December 28, 2006

Democrats and Conflict

I think Tom is exactly right here. The need to think in terms of coalition-building and avoiding unnecessary conflict is important for creating electable and governing majorities. And it's particularly important for presidential candidates, who, unlike any other office, generally need, and try to, campaign nation-wide, where differences are most visible and in need of reconciling. Even the Decider attempted to run such a campaign (remember Compassionate Conservatism?) as a way of merging conservative and liberal sympathies. Bush II also successfully spoke in the code Republicans have relied on for many years, generally choosing to critique the Clinton Administration by saying things like "restoring the dignity of the White House" rather than point to specific Clinton scandals or criticizing Clinton personally or directly (although he may have, and probably did, get more down and dirty with the locals). The 2004 GOP convention and campaign was something else alltogether. But point being, parties and candidates need to be mindful of picking their battles with an eye towards assembling as broad and durable a coalition as possible (the exception being, again, the 51% strategery employed by Karl Rove and implemented by the Bush White House after they were elected, and especially after 911).

That being said, my particular concern, which may be slightly different than Matt Stoller's (who I referenced in my earlier post), is that Democrats have conceded a substantial portion of the issue space to conservatives, allowing right-wing memes about the ACLU, the Right to Privacy, "activist judges", "strict constructivist" interpretations of the Constitution, the Separation of Church and State, and ultimately, Liberalism itself, to go unchallenged. And from the talk of many Democratic Party spokesmen and elected officials, there either doesn't seem to be a recognition of this problem or if there is, there is largely a concerted effort to avoid talking or doing anything about it.

The result--as has been widely noted by blogs like this one--is that conservatives have by and large succeeded in pushing the issue space and what it means to be "centrist" further and further to the right. Liberal as an identification has gone out of style, with dire consequences for our discourse. If conservatives succeed at forcing Democrats to fight the issues on their--the conservative's--terrain, than Democrats are, and will be, in very troubling circumstances, to build sustainable majorities, or even to survive.

The results of last month's elections have gone a long way to soothing some of my most fears about the immediate future. But I still fear Democrats may fail to capitalize on the opportunities now available for countering the right-ward drift in our politics, leaving the angst over Iraq and Republican scandals to fade over time, and in two, four or eight years, be left again without a meaningful agenda or identity to present to voters.

And I don't believe it will be enough to campaign on education, jobs and healthcare. These issues all sort of lend themselves to a genial politics that Democrats would prefer to practice. But Republicans have spent years building an array of institutions and arguments challenging some of the most basic assumptions of our system, which Democrats are only now starting to counter (the establishment of the American Constitution Society and the Center for American Progress, for example).

In short, the growth of conservative dominance over the past several decades is owed in no small part to a dedicated, long-term, ideological, and confrontational effort to affect Americans' thinking on a wide array of subjects. On the confrontational end of this effort, Republicans have generally not shied away from saying offensive things and challenging conventional thinking. Much of this confrontational style has been racially opportunistic (welfare queens) and regressive (card-carrying ACLU member). But they have been able to forge an identity and mission for themselves that is designed to carryover from election to another and to survive periodic setbacks (like the 2006 elections).

In short, I fear Democrats have shied away from ideological combat. And this has hamstrung the Party as it seeks to reconfigure a new majority coalition and take advantage of Republican mis-steps and over-reaching.

Democrats need to again think and talk in ideological terms to people in way they can understand and relate to. Shortly after the election, David Brooks lamented the Republican Party's over-reliance on philosophy at the expense of problem solving policy solutions. Democrats have somewhat the opposite problem. They have many practical ideas about addressing traffic congestion, the environment, health care coverage, and making college education more accessible. But at the bottom of this lies the lack of a coherent, philosophical rationale that also embraces Constitutional issues, which unfortunately for battle-weary Democrats, tend to be more divisive.

And while the Separation of Church and State had a somewhat different meaning in JFK's 1960 than it does today (where such displays of public devotion like coerced school prayer have been decreated un-Constitutional), the principle is still, in my mind, a non-negotiable. Democrats need to try to assure religious folks that as Steven Benen argued so eloquently, the Separation of Church and State is as much for the benefit of believers as for non-believers, many of whom are minorites in their own right (Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Roman Catholics). But in any event, Constitutional and minority rights have been under attack for the past quarter of a century, and Democrats will need to be more assertive about protecting them then they have been.

On a final note, faux-Democrat Mickey Kaus recently complained that the aspiring field of
Democratic presidential candidates were insufficiently dedicated to saying offensive things to other Democrats and to our cadre of special interest groups. I agree with Mickey about the need for Democrats to begin being more offensive. But I would argue they need to start being offensive to conservatives (like Mickey Kaus), not for the sake of arguing, as Tom wisely cautions against, but out of necessity and principle.

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