While AlterNet is generally a hotbed of raving idiotarianism, this article presents an interesting argument of the future of the Democratic Party from a leftist perspective. As the author puts it:
Recent elections and the California Democratic Party’s voter registration advantage have led many, Democratic Party leaders especially, to conclude that California is and will continue to be a solidly Democratic state. But the Democrats’ voter registration advantage is not nearly what it seems when turnout and party loyalty are factored in. Democratic success in the last three elections has been more a function of Republican weakness than Democratic strength.
Indeed, the GOP is getting it through their heads that the Trent Lott wing of the party tends to lose elections and the Arnold Schwarzenegger wing tends to win them. Social conservatives and the religious right have been losing power within the party since the the early 1990s and when the Republicans were smacked down by Clinton in 1996. Since then Bush campaigned on a platform of “compassionate conservatism” that started engaging the Democrats ideology on key issues. Whether this is a dilution of conservatism is a debate for another time, but it clearly was an effective political strategy. For Bush to be neck-and-neck with Gore in the popular vote and narrowly win the Electoral College was a major milestone. By conventional electoral analysis, Gore should have won by landslide, but his troubled campaign and divisive message failed him.
The Democrats haven’t changed their playbook since then. The Republicans are playing offense, and the Democrats have so far failed to articulate any kind of cohesive alternative. As the author of the AlterNet piece puts it:
Faced with a credible candidate and a bad economy, Democrats lost the recall because they failed to articulate – while governing and while campaigning – their central political belief that government is a social good, that investments in schools, infrastructure, health care, and social services are worth making, and that everyone should pay their fair share
Now, the author has a point here. The Democrats did fail to win on a substantive issues. However, I don’t believe that the Democrats can win with the issue stances that the author elucidates here. The fact is that while government can be viewed as positive social good, and only an anarchist would argue otherwise, government is not the only social good. In fact, government is often the worst agency for social change precisely because it is large, impersonal, inefficient, and institutionally ossified. Furthermore, when a liberal speaks of government, it’s almost never local government, but federal government. As the old adage goes, there are three phrases that are almost always lies: “the check is in the mail,” “I’ll still respect you in the morning,” and “we’re from the government and we’re here to help.” There is a justified cynicism about government in this country because the whole nation was founded on the simple principle than when the government tells you they know best that’s usually a sign that they know best how to take your money and spend it foolishly. The author then argues:
To their peril, most high-profile Democrats continue to tout Clinton-era policies such as middle-class tax cuts and reinventing government. These initiatives, while on occasion effective tactically, end up reinforcing the core Republican message that government is corrupt and ineffectual, that taxes are immoral, and that private enterprise – not collective endeavor and shared investment – is responsible for our quality of life.
Except that private enterprise is responsible for our quality of life. No government committee planned lifesaving medical advances like MRI or CAT scanning – private companies took risks and developed these technologies. The computer revolution wasn’t a government project – it was created by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as well as others in dorm rooms and garages. In fact, the entire dichotomy between private enterprise and shared investment is a misnomer. We have an excellent system of shared investment and collective advancement in this country – it’s called capitalism.
The author then lays down his vision of what the Democrats should do:
Now, in defeat, Democrats have the chance to put forward new and compelling ideas about the role of government and how it can better our lives. Some Democrats are beginning to talk about a major state investment in clean energy jobs to make California the hydrogen and solar capital of the world through a “New Apollo Project.” Others are discussing the idea of a universal K-14 education in California, to prepare our workforce for the 21st century and a “Smart Highways” infrastructure bond to fund a statewide network of Express Lanes to increase carpooling and mass transit services.
Exciting and visionary, isn’t it?
None of these projects are terrifically sound. Solar energy is far too inefficient for widespread use and can’t be stored. Hydrogen is far more promising, but it’s going to take significant advances in material sciences before it’s viable. (Give it 10-15 years and it will be, thanks to the free enterprise system). K-12 education is failing, so what is the liberal solution? K-14! Never mind that a poor family often can’t afford to keep children for another 2 years as a dependent and we’re already having problems keeping kids in school as it is. Two more years of a bad education is a ridiculous solution to the problems with our educational system. The real solution involves reform and accountability, concepts which are in tension with a view of government as an absolute social good. Carpooling and mass transit make sense, but usually end up being boondoggles (see Boston’s Big Dig, and Minneapolis’s Hiawatha light-rail system).
At least these are policies and not empty criticisms. They may be fairly vapid policies, but at least it’s a start.
Playing devil’s advocate, I’d take the Democratic Party in a new direction. I would make the Democratic Party the party of local government. I’d have the new standard-bearers of the party by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Gov. Phil Bredesen, two fiscally responsible Democrats who have taken their states from budgetary disasters to fiscal success in a down economy. I’d start talking about devolving power from Washington, but adding accountability on the local level. I’d abandon the idea that the Democratic Party has to constantly play the race card and start promoting a message of racial reconcilliation and seriously work to fix the problems in America’s inner cities through something more than handouts.
True liberals might see those ideas as little more than “conservatism light” – however, the American population isn’t liberal. Americans believe in free enterprise, individual liberty, and limited government. As Mr. Nordhaus points out:
Democratic leaders should explore these big ideas and others in the coming months to better define their governing vision, because without a compelling and distinguishing vision of their own, Democrats will continue to find themselves on the wrong end of “throw the bums out” upheavals like those that cost the Democrats control of Congress in 1994 and 2002, and the Governor’s office this year.
On this I would agree. However, that governing vision cannot be a liberal vision that is radically out of step with American values. The Democrats can be a party of substance in the vein of great American statesmen like John F. Kennedy, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but only if they’re willing to grow up and start competing with ideas rather than accusations first.