The Left And The Future Of The Democratic Party

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.

5 thoughts on “The Left And The Future Of The Democratic Party

  1. Please inform of me what the “Arnold Schwarzenegger wing of the Republican party” is? From what I’ve seen, it must mean evading debates and doling out platitude after platitude on how to deal with complex issues. If this “Schwarzenegger wing of the party” extends beyond one person, I can promise you the days of Republicans winning elections will be over since Republicans need that religious right wing for both financing and votes. You confuse the current GOP advantage with a public reverence for plutocracy, when the advantage exists primarily because of shrewd coalition-building among groups that don’t really have that much in common.

    Your assessment of the role of private enterprise is one of infallibility. You correctly acknowledge the benefits of the marketplace to improving the quality of life, but you conveniently look over recent abuses by Enron, WorldCom and Monsanto (and today’s Wal-Mart scandal) that are guaranteed to surface if too much trust is put into the free market….as you constantly advocate. And that doesn’t even address the fundamental inadequacy of the market-based economy to effectively distribute wealth to its people that inevitably leaves government action of some capacity to do what the market cannot do.

    And pendulums always swing back and forth in terms of ideology. America will always be the most wrongheadedly conservative nation of the Western world, but decades of conservative-leaning policy look to be tearing this country apart at the seams at just about every level…health care, defense, employment, civil liberties and retirement entitlements. In many ways, the magnitude of the financial disaster the GOP is willing to their children and grandchildren will keep liberalism from being able to fully spread its wings again (much to the REpublicans’ knowledge), but it’s foolish to project that people will be able to perpetually overlook the state of ruin they’ve created by electing modern conservatives time and time again. For this reason, it would be a huge mistake for the Democrats to become the party of Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller. You put a Republican versus a Republican, and a Republican will win every time.

  2. “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.”

    Wait a second- you just contradicted yourself there. You said that the American population isn’t liberal, and then you said they were- since, last I checked, those three beliefs were all important tenents of classical liberalism. What you’re talking about strikes me more as “leftism”- and yeah, I’d agree with you there. Unless you count the Green party, there’s no real organized left in this country- thank heavens.

    Of course, Right and Left seem like useless descriptors to me. After all, what am I? I’m generally in favor of deregulation and against welfare and pension programs- yet I favor regulations for purposes of safety and environmental protection, and I don’t frown on big public works programs. (Even though most of our signifcant consumer applications come from the private sector, much of it comes as an aftershock from major tech spending by the DOD and other government agencies, as well as pure research in our universities. In fact, the computer and communications revolution was largely kicked off by the developments made tooling up for the Apollo missions.) I support tax cuts, but I think that we need to eliminate the debt and come up with a solution to the coming Social Security bomb before we can really lower our taxes- Bush has jumped the gun considerably. I’m relatively neutral on millitary spending- I think Bush is pushing it in excessive directions, but I don’t want to gut it either. I’m extremely pro-free trade and pro-globalization, so I certainly don’t fit in with the anti-WTO left… generally, my international positions are pretty close to those of Thomas Friedman. I’m against school vouchers and the No Child Left Behind act seems like a mess in the making, but I think we need to seriously gouge the teacher’s unions and engage in a massive restructuring of the education system in this country. On social issues, I’m pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, pro-drug legalization, pro-stem cell research, pro-cryonics, pro-human genetic modification, anti-gun control, anti-school prayer, anti-death penalty, pro-prison reform… generally extremely liberal-libertarian. I opposed the war in Iraq, and I even attended a few protests, but I felt there were also strong reasons in the war’s favor- I considered myself about 40/60 on the issue, and still do. We’re there, we’ve gotta keep our troops there.

    I consider myself an environmentalist, but I generally think a lot of people in the movement are nutzo, and I think more tech is the solution to our problems, not less. Of course, as I discovered in the 2002 campaign, there’s a lot more dialogue on this issue within environmental organizations than most people outside the movement think. We frequently had discussions back at the office which would pit the pro-tech “viridians” against the anti-tech “gaians”.

    I generally vote Democrat… I’ve only voted for one independent and three Republicans, and never for an office higher than US Congress (and that was the independent, Tom Foley, in 2000 when I lived in St. Paul) I’ve worked as a Democratic activist and volunteer for campaigns, yet my opinions generally vary quite a bit from those of the candidates I vote for… just, given my options in South Dakota, I don’t have much choice.

    On the “political spectrum” test, I came out about a -0.5 on the Economic Left/Right scale, and a -8 on the Libertarian/Authoritarian axis… almost dead center economically, while extremely libertarian socially.

    No wonder I feel so alone. 🙂

    On other stuff you mentioned- the Twin Cities are badly in need of a mass transit system, but light rail is too expensive to be a practical solution. Now, a new express bus system which could take people from nicely maintained depots in the suburbs to the downtown cities, with their own highway lanes, cruising by the congested traffic at 70 mph, would probably be the most practical solution, especially given the huge estimates for highway construction that the Sunday ‘strib said would be necessary to ease the current congestion. The current bus system is a huge mess, and impractical for people trying to hurry long distances in the morning. An express system would be cheaper than building a rail grid or turning the whole city into a bigger mess of concrete spaghetti than it already is.

    Also, taking a “states rights” approach does seem like a good idea for Dems- especially given the way it contrasts with the current bureaucratic centralization that the Repubs are engaged in…

  3. “No government committee planned lifesaving medical advances like MRI or CAT scanning – private companies took risks and developed these technologies.”

    Actually, it was not private companies that developed the technologies behind MRI and CT scans. It was actually pioneered mostly by academics at heavily subsidized labs at Harvard, Stamford and in Europe. Many of these developments came about because the governments of several states took an active interest in aiding their development, allocating funds to help and arranging work visas and interaction among researchers.

    But it’s real cute how you try to give private companies credit for discovering atomic energy, jet propulsion and the internet without any help from governments. Oh, wait…you didn’t metion those things. I wonder why not?

  4. Actually, all three of those things were developed by the military – and yet I rarely hear liberals saying that we should increase the budget for the DoD or ARPA.

  5. Jay, you have lied. They weren’t military, and it’s easily verifiable that they weren’t. You are a liar. Flat out liar. Lying, lying liar. There are so many valid, military-based claims you could make (ignoring that the military is STILL GOVERNMENT, you moron), but instead you chose to lie. Why are you so bad at this? Why must you always be lying? Why? Why?

    Oh, because you’re wrong and desperate.

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