July 31, 2005

Democratic Self-Identification

The center-left of US politics continues to be broiled in confusion, misdirection, unfocused aggression and hilariously overstated confidence amid a sea of bland messages and mindless themes. The Democrats don't stand for anything, yet theu're proud to be Democrats; they have no idea what their message should be, but are convinced that if you elect them everything will be right with the world.

The fact that the Democrats continue their confusion about who they are and what they stand for should of course beg the obvious question: "why don't they know who they are?" The reason is simple. They suffer from the long-building, deep-rooted philosophical dearth of the American center-left over the last century-plus.

Historically, the progressives started a lot of the things the modern left loves and a lot that it hates. The progressives, more Republican than Democratic, were very focused on reform of all types - political reform, social reform, economic reform, journalistic reform, etc. They had a surprising unity of vision and purpose; they could reform various practices in society to help the good and eliminate the bad. They were the ones who lobbied to ban prostitution on the logic that it was an immorality that damaged women and broke up families. They also worked for fire code and business regulations in order to make modern living and working safer. And when they passed minimum wage laws and work-hour laws it was supposed to help people live safer and more moral lives, including providing single women with sufficient income to avoid resorting to prostitution.

In other words, the progressives had a unified political agenda undergirded with moral purpose and direction. They did not have an especially developed political philosophy, however. This meant that the progressives ranged in partisan affiliation, political pet causes, and in their orientation toward some issues. For example, they approached segregation and Eugenics with the same reform-minded enthusiasm, with many progressives pushing positions that would today disgust most of those style themselves 'progressive.' But the larger impact of a philosophical dearth would be felt later on.

As the center-left continued on it has become a hodge-podge of Jacksonian populism, progressive interventionism, FDR bureaucratization and 60s radicalism, in addition to the other various influences on it). It is not a political or social philosophy, and now it is not even a unified political agenda. It has even deteriorated beyond the point where it could represent identity politics for particular social groups (like race, religion or economic stratum). The center-left in the Democratic party, as I've said before, is little more than a shopping list. Jim Carville called it a 'litany' but that's being optimistic. It's not just that the Democrats lack a good theme to tie everything together, it's that they're drawn by fulfilling the budgetary requests of different interests instead of any unified political agenda.

So when it comes to selling a shopping list of budget earmarks to the voters, it's both a tough sell (except for the people who want to protect their spot on the list) and a difficult place to regroup from. Sure, political socialization will make sure there are Democrats around with no budgetary compulsion to stay loyal to the party, but it's hard to pull swing voters and independents when you don't stand for positive things. All you have to is being not as bad as the opposition.

The Democrats need to connect with a political philosophy, or at least a coherent agenda. Why bother trying to reform the Democrats if you're not trying to resurrect any message? Right now, everything is on the table. Some have suggested loosening the party's abortion stand, which would no doubt improve its gains with some groups like unions, the South, Hispanics and the religious. Others have talked about guns, gay marriage, social issues in general and tried to ramp up Democratic efforts to ban violent or sexual video games. If they're trying appeal to more socially conservative voters, then it must be to save their foreign policy or economic agenda. But they very successfully revamped the economic agenda under Clinton and the DLC to strongly embrace free trade, liberalization and take a much more centrist line (at least post 1994). Others suggested that Kerry should embrace a stronger line against terror and for the Iraq war in order to win the presidency.

Why would a political group entertain the idea of deemphasizing or dumping certain aspects of the platform except to save the others? If you had to cut your monthly spending to balance your budget, you'd cut frivolities in order to save the basics like food, shelter and health. If a military commander made a decision to sacrifice men or equipment it would only be to save the mission or to save others. A politician should only remove agenda items in order to save the core agenda; Democrats have all suggested dumping different parts of the agenda, and the only overarching goal seems to be victory at election instead of legislation.

A further analysis from a libertarian point of view could really help explain the problem. Committed Democrats can give impassioned overviews of their agenda, with one point related to personal liberties and the following point related to economic security. Especially humorous and contradictory is when a Democrat will oppose the Patriot Act with Franklin's line about those trading liberty for security deserving neither but then turn around and discuss the dangers of the marketplace and explain why government control over retirement will protect us from an uncertain world.

The Republicans have their own problems with message and unity, but the Democrats are more fragmented and far less driven by political philosophy. The Democrats have been going on momentum from the New Deal, from the Great Society and from Bill Clinton, and haven't been working on future agendas. The Republicans have been working in think tanks for decades turning instincts into ideas and turning solutions into legislation. The Democrats have been caught not doing their homework but in the aftermath they can't even figure out which subject they're supposed to be studying.

Until and unless the Democrats can come up with something like a unity of purpose and a reason to exist, they're going to struggle in efforts to sell themselves or to redefine themselves.


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