Monday, September 18, 2006

The Foundering Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is frequently criticized, often from within, about its inability to forge a clear agenda, or to articulate a platform which resonates with voters. But the problem is a bit more complicated than that. It's apparent that the Republican Party has managed to secure itself some (for now) solid voting blocks among social conservatives, whereas comparable leftist groups do not share the same level of loyalty to the Democratic Party. In the London Guardian it is argued that the difference is that the Republican Party delivers on its agenda. In my opinion, more accurately, as described at Eunomia the Republican Party delivers as little as necessary to keep the social and religious conservatives on board.
Forget questions of growing wage inequality for a moment; forget all of the “bread and butter” issues on which Democrats are (in their own quaintly deluded minds) “better.” What Edsall claims is what some traditional conservative already know: the GOP is diffident, if not sometimes outrightly subversive, in its support for precisely the things that cultural conservatives take seriously. Then, having successfully conned these people out of their support in exchange for no substantive policy changes, they throw them bones in the form of obviously over-the-top, zany crusades, such as federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.
The sentiment of self-delusion is shared by the author of the Guardian editorial:
Unlike the Republicans, who openly lobby for the class interests of their supporters and deliver on them, Democrats do not promise substantial changes to the lives of ordinary working people in America and rarely deliver even on the symbolic ones.
I think both pieces understate this: even if the Democratic Party offers little more to the voting public than four more years of treading water, that's still better than electing the guy who will try to push you under. But no matter how you look at it, it's hard to get enthused.

I recently read an MP's argument, responding to some critics of Tony Blair as having "sold out" the party's traditional labor agenda, that it makes no sense to be true to your ideals if you become a perpetual opposition party, powerless to advance that agenda. It's a cynical view, similar to that expressed by "Jack Stanton" in Primary Colors, that if you have to take two steps backward to take three steps forward, at least you're moving in the right direction. But that's the nature of western democracy. If a political party remains paralyzed between the opposite extremes of trying to appeal to everybody, and catering to its traditional constituency despite its demanding an agenda which will be rejected by a majority of voters, it will be lucky to win control of your nation's government. Really, it will not win. There's a lot of pain and even danger in reshaping and focusing a party's political agenda, and in telling a traditional group of supporters, "Sorry, but we can no longer adopt your desired position on your pet issue."

On this front, the Democratic Party has a larger problem than the Republican Party as, despite some efforts, it's hard to convince the single issue voters on the left that token or incremental measures are sufficient. This is not because those political factions are smarter than those on the right, or that the groups on the right are more patient than those on the left. Take abortion rights, for example. For the "pro-life" political right, each step toward reversing the effects of Roe v Wade is a tangible victory, even if small, and they can correctly perceive a trend toward their desired outcome. A political candidate won't satisfy pro-choice voters by trying to convince them that it's okay to cede that ground to their opponents, or by trying to fool them into believing that the law is trending their way. Similarly, and against weaker opposition, even with small measures and some which seem like tokenism, the religous right can see an increased role of religion in government. The environmentalists have the problem that while many agree with their goals, leaving aside the influence of corporate America, the majority of Americans are not willing to pay any significant price to achieve those goals, and they are far from satisfied by the small measures which could get passed. Recall that this is a faction which did not see any significant difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore on environmental issues.

Part of the problem is how the issues are framed, and the Democratic Party needs to take responsibility for its clumsy framing of the issues. If the Republican Party can convince the majority religion in the U.S., that it's under constant threat and persecution, how hard can it really be to frame some traditional Democratic issues as those of an underdog against the system - such that the small advances likely to occur in our political system can be seen as political victories? Part of the problem is a refusal to commit, resulting in a mushy message which isn't particularly appealing to anyone - "We're the party of reproductive freedom, unless you disagree with reproductive freedom in which case you're still welcome, because we have a 'big tent'". Part of the problem is professing one set of ideals, such as support for the working family, but failing to come through - or voting the wrong way - on issues which affect workers. Part of the problem is being unwilling or unable to distance the party from issues which have been rejected by the majority of Americans, but which continue to resonate with voters, such as federal gun control legislation and welfare. And a big part of the problem is the consistent failure to point to the inadequacies or failures of the Republican Party, so as to poke holes in conventional wisdom. You don't have to be as Machiavellan as Karl Rove to figure out what the Republican Party advances as its strengths, and to find ways to point out their weakness on those issues. (Although, unless you're sticking with ad hominem, swift-boating type attacks, it helps if you can enunciate how your proposed way is better.)

So... there's a lot of work to be done. On this front I disagree with those who argue that prominent Democrats like Senator Obama should keep their mouth shut and not talk about what the party needs to do; but I do agree with those who argue that he needs to do more than talk. It's long past time to start serious discussion of serious proposals.

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