is an extremely important article by Michael Tomasky. As much as Democrats and progressives think that they can convince the public on the sheer force of their ideas, that day has, sadly, long passed. In an age when television is still the main source of news and information, you simply cannot distill complex issues into 30-second soundbites, and anyone who tries ends up getting misinterpreted and opening themselves up to criticism (looking at you, Mr. Kerry, although his long-windedness was overblown).
What is needed is a founding philosophy, a call to inspiration, someone to ask Americans to be a part of something greater than themselves, someone to speak to our hopes and not our fears. This would allow the Democratic brand to have meaning and resonance. I read a bunch of Kos and Jerome Armstrong's Crashing the Gate yesterday, and one part that stuck out for me is when they asked Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer what he'd like to hear people on the street say about Democrats. He quickly replied "they're the party on our side." We need to be that snappy.
Tomasky starts by describing the Democratic Party's biggest problem:
The prevailing conventional wisdom in Washington -- that the Democrats have no idea what they stand for -- has recently been put to the test in persuasive ways. In an important piece in the May issue of The Washington Monthly, Amy Sullivan demonstrates that the Democrats have in fact become a disciplined and effective opposition party. From their Social Security victory to George W. Bush’s backing down on his post-Katrina changes to the Davis-Bacon law to the Dubai ports deal, the Democrats have dealt the administration a series of defeats -- each of which took a reflexive media, still accustomed to hitting F9 to spit out the words “Democrats in disarray,” by complete surprise. More than that, the Democrats do have ideas; it’s just that no one bothers to cover them.
The party has discipline, a tactical strategy as the opposition, and a more than respectable roster of policy proposals waiting to be considered should Democrats become the majority again. It’s quite different from, say, three years ago. But let’s not get carried away. There remains a missing ingredient -- the crucial ingredient of politics, the factor that helps unite a party (always a coalition of warring interests), create majorities, and force the sort of paradigm shifts that happened in 1932 and 1980. It’s the factor they need to think about if their goal is not merely to win elections but to govern decisively after winning them.
What the Democrats still don’t have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society. Indeed, the party and the constellation of interests around it don’t even think in philosophical terms and haven’t for quite some time. There’s a reason for this: They’ve all been trained to believe -- by the media, by their pollsters -- that their philosophy is an electoral loser. Like the dogs in the famous “learned helplessness” psychological experiments of the 1960s -- the dogs were administered electrical shocks from which they could escape, but from which, after a while, they didn’t even try to, instead crouching in the corner in resignation and fear -- the Democrats have given up attempting big ideas. Any effort at doing so, they’re convinced, will result in electrical (and electoral) shock.
I've never seen it put so succinctly and so brilliantly. Too many elected Democrats act like they're ashamed of the D in front of their name, ashamed of their constituency, and ashamed of their own values. They'e completely bought the spin that they must hide their values in order to win. This, of course, is what keeps enabling loss after loss after loss; if you're taught to hide your values and principles, of course the public won't think you have any! We're starting to get Democrats who realize this: I can think of several in the '08 Presidential mix with this pride of ownership (Feingold and Warner and Edwards jump out), and Schweitzer, Jon Tester, Ned Lamont, Eliot Spitzer and plenty of others at the state level espouse this philosophy as well. But Tomasky is absolutely right. It's about foregrounding the principles.
Certainly, today’s Democrats can’t simply return to the philosophy that was defeated in the late 1970s. But at the same time, let’s recognize a new historical moment when we see one: Today, for the first time since 1980, it is conservative philosophy that is being discredited (or rather, is discrediting itself) on a scale liberals wouldn’t have dared imagine a few years ago. An opening now exists, as it hasn’t in a very long time, for the Democrats to be the visionaries. To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently -- to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era.
For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today’s. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.
This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest. Any rank-and-file liberal is a liberal because she or he somehow or another, through reading or experience or both, came to believe in this principle. And every leading Democrat became a Democrat because on some level, she or he believes this, too.
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." That is as powerful today as it was in 1961. We believe in the rights of all citizens; we believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere; we believe that the strongest in a society cannot forget the weakest.
What Tomasky does need to realize is that this is a case where the messenger matters. It's no accident that Kennedy uttered those famous words; could you see anybody else doing it? In order to properly sell a message that we should all pitch in for the common good, and that everyone will benefit from such a broad-based concern for the rights and possibilities of all Americans, you need that voice of authority. You need someone who can actually make that case, without sounding like a socialist or a scold. Anytime anyone even dares try to make this case, they're going to be demonized by the opponent and turned into a caricature. We of course know this. It's still crucial to have authenticity to deliver this kind of message.
But if we don't start doing this, we have no reason to remain as a party. We won't be a party as much as a loose coalition of single-issue groups who generally come together under some vague, undefined umbrella every four years. Digby
makes a good point about the special interest groups being unfairly targeted, but I really think this is about messaging and framing. There's no reason why every single issue group we have could not agree to this paragraph, and tie it completely to their particular cause:
I believe in the common good and I agree that it expresses the essence of the liberal philosophy. But the heart and soul of the Democratic party lies in its committment to freedom and equality for all Americans. I think we need to find a way to convince a majority of Americans that the common good is best served by not compromising those principles.
It's just a matter, as Digby says, of how you say it. I would add "who's saying it" as well. In the end, this comes down to convincing people that government matters. You're not going to be able to do that unless the fount from which this philosophy springs is, well, convincing.
Tomasky's article is a really great read, which takes us from the New Deal through the conservative backlash and explains how the notion of a common good can reverse the swing in the pendulum. Just that Democrats are understanding the need to come up with something like this is terribly important.
The second thing that has to happen is that Democrats must lead -- the interest groups and the rest of us -- toward this new paradigm. Someone in the party has to decide to bust the mold. I dream of the Democratic presidential candidate who, in his -- or her -- announcement speech in August 2007 says something like the following: “To the single-issue groups arrayed around my party, I say this. I respect the work you do and support your causes. But I won’t seek and don’t want your endorsement. My staff and I won’t be filling out any questionnaires. You know my track record; decide from it whether I’ll be a good president. But I am running to communicate to Americans that I put the common interest over particular interests.” Okay, I said it was a dream. But there it is -- in one bold stroke, a candidate occupies the highest moral ground available to politicians: to be unbought and unbossed.
I'm holding out for that hero.