The Debate We Need to Have
How do progressives use the moment to pose a far broader challenge to the right? Democrats suffer badly from the fact that no one has any clear sense of what they stand for. In response, progressives have begun to argue that Democrats need to embrace a big idea--not simply a parcel of issue proposals--to define their public philosophy.
In an elegant essay, Michael Tomasky, editor of The American Prospect, urges Democrats to return to their tradition of "civic republicanism," of arguing for the common good, for a sense that we're all in this together and that together we can build a more perfect union. In Being Right Is Not Enough, Paul Waldman of Media Matters details how this contrasts clearly with the right's "we're all on our own" hyper-individualism. In All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy, Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute lays out an economic argument along the same lines. All agree that a common-good politics is best expressed in universal rather than small-bore programs--Medicare for all, for example--that contrast clearly with the conservative vision, with its scorn for any collective enterprise beyond the military.
The scope of the challenges facing the country sets the stage for this politics. And the widespread understanding that conservatives in power have championed the interests of the few rather than the many provides a compelling backdrop. But what keeps Democrats from putting forth a clear governing philosophy--and laying out an agenda to give it substance? Tomasky suggests that the problem is grounded in the success of the movements of the 1960s, which shattered the hypocrisies and racism of cold war liberalism but left in their wake an interest-group pluralism focused on rights rather than common enterprise. With less venom, he echoes the arguments of the Democratic Leadership Council and Newt Gingrich that Democrats lost their way in the 1960s, as the antiwar, women's and civil rights movements produced, to use Richard Nixon's venomous formulation, a party of "acid, amnesty and abortion." (Reagan added the "welfare queen" and the politics of racial division.)
Tomasky is silent about the failure of military Keynesianism to deal with stagflation in the 1970s, and the corporate offensive that declared open warfare on liberal economics, unions and consumer and environmental groups. Corporations built not only the ideological arsenal of the right but also the money wing of the Democratic Party. Democrats found that, as the majority in Congress, they could fill their campaign coffers with corporate contributions. Liberal Atari Democrats and conservative New Democrats learned to scorn unions as a special interest, and to champion much of the corporate agenda--balanced budgets, free trade, deregulation, privatization, capital-gains tax cuts, opposition to the minimum wage, even the short-term stock options that gave CEOs a multimillion-dollar personal incentive to cook the books. Democrats stopped speaking to the common good less because they were mugged by women's or civil rights groups than because they found it literally paid to stop fighting for working people in the economy.
The misdiagnosis leads to the wrong prescriptions. Tomasky fantasizes about a Democratic presidential candidate announcing to the "single-issue groups arrayed around my party" that "I don't seek your endorsement, won't fill out your questionnaires" in order to convince Americans that he or she would put the "common interest over the particular interest." This might be called the Democrats' Sister Souljah temptation--after Clinton's staged insult to Jesse Jackson in 1992: the calculated, if symbolic, straight-arming of your own base to demonstrate independence.
The problem with this "politics of inoculation," as Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin call it in their essay "Politics of Definition," is that it not only demoralizes the most passionate activists at the base of the party but also contributes to the sense that Democrats won't even defend their own. And of course, pushing away the base has been generally used by Democrats to move to a more cautious corporate politics--as when President Clinton gained praise for his "courage" in standing with the Fortune 500, the bulk of editorialists and all of Wall Street to champion NAFTA against trade union opposition.
In fact, it is far less the supposed dominance of the movements in the Democratic Party than the influence of Wall Street and corporate money that impedes building a bold new governing strategy. It is not women, civil rights or union movements that lead Democrats to embrace a bipartisan corporate trade strategy serving multinationals but not the nation; or that cause Democrats to help pass top-end tax cuts, that make them vote to keep CEO stock options off the books or that make them wary about backing national healthcare. To revive a true politics of the public interest, Democrats will have to challenge the grip that corporate money and conservative economic ideology have on the party.