Jump to content

Party In Search Of A Notion


Recommended Posts

Party in Search of a Notion

The opportunity before the Democrats is far bigger than a few House and Senate seats if they can recognize -- and seize -- this unique historical moment.

By Michael Tomasky

Issue Date: 05.03.06

Print Friendly | Email Article

The Democrats are feeling upbeat these days, and why not? The Republican president and vice president have lost the country’s confidence. The Republican-controlled Congress is a sump of corruption, sycophancy, and broken principle. Races in the midterm election that Democratic leaders wouldn’t have dreamed of a few months ago are in play (the Senate seat in Tennessee!). A recent poll showed Democrats with a gaping 16-point lead over Republicans this fall. Seizing on the issues of corruption and incompetence, the party might even take back the House or the Senate -- or both.

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.

But is that as true as it appears? 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.

I remember my moment of epiphany clearly. It was early 1981; Ronald Reagan had taken office. I was toying, at the time, with some conservative notions -- not because I believed them, but mostly to engage in that time-honored sport of 20-year-old men everywhere: to traduce the old man. Reagan had just fired the air-traffic controllers. Dad and I were in the car, our Ford Granada, driving somewhere; I said (I cringe to confess this in print) something about the strike being illegal -- Reagan’s line, then being aped on television by such TV loudmouths as existed in that distant age. “Michael,” he thundered (and he could thunder, all right!), “all strikes are illegal! That’s part of the point!” Hmmm. It hadn’t quite occurred to me that maybe there was more to the story than the television savants were letting on. He’d overstated the case a bit (all strikes aren’t illegal), but in doing so, my father had asked me to think, and his request led me to consider things in a light I hadn’t before -- about the PATCO workers, yes; but about history and money and power, about the mine workers so central to the place where I grew up (Morgantown, West Virginia) and to my father’s life (he was a United Mine Workers shop steward as a young man, before he got his law degree); about the precept that real thought and engagement on my part required looking beyond first assumptions, examining a problem from points of view other than my own, and considering any action’s impact on the whole society.

This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves.

In terms of political philosophy, this idea of citizens sacrificing for and participating in the creation of a common good has a name: civic republicanism. It’s the idea, which comes to us from sources such as Rousseau’s social contract and some of James Madison’s contributions to the Federalist Papers, that for a republic to thrive, leaders must create and nourish a civic sphere in which citizens are encouraged to think broadly about what will sustain that republic and to work together to achieve common goals. This is what Dad asked me to understand that day in our Granada.

* * *

This is what Democrats used to ask of people. Political philosophers argue about when they stopped; Michael Sandel believes that republicanism died with the New Deal. But for me, it’s clear that the great period of liberal hegemony in this country was, in fact, a period when citizens were asked to contribute to a project larger than their own well-being. And, crucially, it was a period when citizens (a majority of them, at least) reciprocally understood themselves to have a stake in this larger project. The New Deal, despite what conservative critics have maintained since the 1930s, did not consist of the state (the government) merely handing out benefices to the nation (the people), turning citizens into dependent wards; it engaged and ennobled people: Social Security and all the jobs programs and rural electrification plans and federal mortgage-insurance programs were examples of the state giving people the tools to improve their own lives while improving the collective life of the country (to say nothing of the way Franklin Roosevelt rallied Americans to common purpose in fighting through the Depression and the war). Harry Truman turned the idea of common purpose outward to the rest of the world, enacting the Marshall Plan, creating NATO and other regional alliances, exhorting Americans to understand that they belonged to a community larger than even their country. John Kennedy engaged Americans precisely at the level of asking them to sacrifice for a common good, through the things that are obvious to us -- the Peace Corps, and of course “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” -- and through things that history’s fog has made less obvious (his relentless insistence that victory in the Cold War could be truly achieved only through improvement at home, which would require sacrifice and civic engagement).

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, until it washed up on the bone-strewn beaches of Vietnam and New Left–driven atomization, fit the paradigm, too. Consider just the first two sentences of Johnson’s remarks upon signing the Civil Rights Act: “I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American.” Not black people. Not Southerners. Not even “our nation.” Every American -- the words gave citizens agency and a stake in seeing that this unprecedented social experiment would succeed. In March 1965, Johnson again emphasized every American’s stake in the fight for equal rights: “should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. … Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

What Johnson and his advisers knew, just as Hubert Humphrey down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Senate knew, was that desegregation would fail if the matter were put to the American people only in terms of the rights of those directly affected; it had to be presented as advancing the common good. This was a core belief for these Democrats (besides which, they knew -- and their testimony on this point is amply demonstrated in books and memoirs and the like -- that their programs would never get through Congress if they lacked this element).

Today’s Democratic Party has completely lost connection with this principle. How and when did this happen? Against this small-r republican tradition that posits sacrifice for larger, universalist purposes is another tradition that has propelled American liberalism, that indeed is what the philosophers call liberalism proper: from Locke and Mill up to John Rawls in our time, a greater emphasis on the individual (and, later, the group), on tolerance, on rights, and on social justice. In theory, it is not inevitable that these two traditions must clash. But in the 1960s, it was inevitable that they did. And it is clear which side has won the argument within the Democratic Party.

* * *

The old liberalism got America out of depression, won the war against fascism, built the middle class, created global alliances, and made education and health care far closer to universal than they had ever been. But there were things it did not do; its conception of the common good was narrow -- completely unacceptable, in fact, to us today. Japanese Americans during World War II and African Americans pretty much ever were not part of that common good; women were only partially included. Because of lack of leadership and political expediency (Roosevelt needing the South, for example), this liberalism had betrayed liberal principle and failed millions of Americans. Something had to give.

At first, some Democrats -- Johnson and Humphrey, for example, and even some Republicans back then -- tried to expand the American community to include those who had been left behind. But the political process takes time, and compromise; young people and black people and poor people were impatient, and who could blame them? By 1965, ’66, ’67, the old liberalism’s failures, both domestically and in Vietnam, were so apparent as to be crushing. A new generation exposed this “common good” as nothing more than a lie to keep power functioning, so as not to disturb the “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” that Herbert Marcuse described in 1964 in one of the more memorable phrases of the day. Activists at the time were convinced -- and they were not particularly wrong -- that the old liberalism, far from nurturing a civic sphere in which all could deliberate and whose bounty all could enjoy, had created this unfreedom. The only response was to shatter it.

That was the work, of course, of New Left groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the (post-1965) Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and a host of others. Other activists opposed the shattering -- to the contrary, their goal was to make the Democratic Party more inclusive. But even this more salutary impulse could be excessive, as with the famous example of the Cook County delegation to the 1972 Democratic Convention, in which, of the 59 delegates, only three were Poles. Many in the Democratic Party of that era opposed these attempts at inclusion and new social-justice efforts vehemently. But in time, the party rid itself of those elements, and some of the ’60s activists became Democratic operatives and even politicians. The stance of radical oppositionism dissipated as the ’60s flamed out; but the belief system, which devalued the idea of the commons, held fast and became institutionalized within the Democratic Party. The impact on the party was that the liberal impulse that privileged social justice and expansion of rights was now, for the first time, separated entirely from the civic-republican impulse of the common good. By the 1970s, some social programs -- busing being the most obvious example -- were pursued not because they would be good for every American, but because they would expand the rights of some Americans. The old Johnsonian formulation was gone. Liberalism, and the Democratic Party, lost the language of advancing the notion that a citizen’s own interest, even if that citizen did not directly benefit from such-and-such a program, was bound up in the common interest. Democrats were now asking many people to sacrifice for a greater good of which they were not always a part.

Toss in inflation, galloping under a new Democratic president; a public, especially a white urban public, tiring of liberal failures on the matters of crime and decline; the emergence of these new things, social issues, which hadn’t been very central to politics before but became a permanent fixture of the landscape now; the Iranian hostage crisis; and the funding on a huge scale, unprecedented in our history, of a conservative intellectual class and polemical apparatus. Toss in also the rise of interest-group pluralism: the proliferation of single-issue advocacy organizations. All supported good causes, but their dominance intensified the stratification. They presented Democrats with questionnaires to fill out, endorsements to battle for, sentences to be inserted into speeches, and favors to be promised -- and not just at election time; but even more importantly, when it came time to govern.

* * *

By 1980, Reagan had seized the idea of the common good. To be sure, it was a harshly conservative variant that quite actively depended on white middle-class resentment. But to its intended audience, his narrative was powerful, a clean punch landed squarely on the Democratic glass jaw. The liberals had come to ask too much of regular people: You, he said to the middle-class (and probably white) American, have to work hard and pay high taxes while welfare cheats lie around the house all day, getting the checks liberal politicians make sure they get; you follow the rules while the criminals go on their sprees and then get sprung by shifty liberal lawyers. For a lot of (white) people, it was powerful. And, let’s face it, manipulative as it was, it wasn’t entirely untrue, either!

Bill Clinton took several important steps to address this, and to recapture the notion of the common good. He was quite attuned to the sometimes heated academic debates of the 1980s that pitted liberalism against republicanism and the then-new school of thought called communitarianism. With some programs, Clinton strove toward a kind of civic-republican liberalism: notably AmeriCorps, his program of national and community service that has been a noble attempt to create a sense of civic obligation among young people, even if it has never quite penetrated the national consciousness.

But, after the health-care fiasco, he didn’t really use political capital (he would argue that he didn’t have any, and he’d have a point) to try to build a liberalism of the common good. Here, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) enters the story. The DLC did have its own conception of the common good; indeed, the DLC, along with the communitarians, introduced the vocabulary of “rights and responsibilities” as a way to restore a civic-republican impulse to Democratic politics. Adding that word “responsibilities” was seen by many liberals as racial code, but, to be fair, the DLC also proposed, for example, an aggressive corporate-welfare program in the 1990s (that is, responsibility for the corporate body, too).

On balance, adding “responsibilities” was a useful rhetorical corrective. But in the real world, it ended up applying chiefly to poor black women (i.e., welfare reform); the corporate-welfare plans went nowhere. Why? Because what the DLC gave up on, by and large, was government -- a belief in public-sector answers to large and pressing problems. If the rights-based activists of the 1960s were guilty of defenestrating the idea of the common good, then the centrists of the 1980s and early 1990s were guilty of pushing too far in the other direction -- the direction of a too-extreme reticence about state interventionism, and of trying to make the rights crowd just shut up. Also -- of dressing up small and innocuous proposals in the garb of world-historical significance. The common good was said to be waiting to be rekindled not in the idea that capital should be taxed just as highly as wages, or in large-scale investments in public infrastructure, but in the form of the V-chip.

For all his important successes, Clinton’s broadest appeal was to people’s self-interest; “I feel your pain.” (Let’s stop and appreciate that this was quite an achievement at the time, to make voters identify their self-interest with a Democrat!) Meanwhile, even though the party controlled the presidency, it lost the Senate, the House, many statehouses, and several state legislatures. In philosophical terms, the 1990s was really a decade of conservative advancement -- checked and meliorated by the presence of a reasonably progressive president, but an age when the attacks on liberal governance that started in the late 1970s really took root, well below the level of the presidency, creating this thing “Red America,” making the Gingrich revolution possible, and laying the groundwork for the second Bush era. Then came September 11, and Iraq, and a bulldozing Congress. Democrats were lost in the woods, completely disconnected from their mission and history.

* * *

So where does this leave today’s Democrats? A more precise way to ask the question is this: What principle or principles unites them all, from Max Baucus to Maxine Waters and everyone in between, and what do they demand that citizens believe?

As I’ve said, they no longer ask them to believe in the moral basis of liberal governance, in demanding that citizens look beyond their own self-interest. They, or many of them, don’t really ask citizens to believe in government anymore. Or taxes, or regulation -- oh, sort of on regulation, but only some of them, and only occasionally, when something happens like the mining disasters in my home state earlier this year. They do ask Americans to believe that middle-income people should get a fair shake, but they lack the courage to take that demand to the places it should logically go, like universal health coverage. And, of course, on many issues the party is ideologically all over the place; if you were asked to paint the party’s belief system, the result would resemble a Pollock.

At bottom, today’s Democrats from Baucus to Waters are united in only two beliefs, and they demand that American citizens believe in only two things: diversity and rights.

Sometime last fall, after John Roberts’ Senate Judiciary Committee nomination hearings but before the full vote, I was on a conference call set up by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid with a few reporters and bloggers. The Nation’s Eric Alterman wanted to know whether Reid would make the Roberts nomination a party-line vote. No, he said; but he himself would be opposing Roberts. His stated reason: Roberts’ refusal to apologize to Chuck Schumer during the hearings for his use of the phrase “illegal amigos” in a 1983 White House memo. Let’s agree that Roberts should have apologized, said it was a poor attempt at humor. Let’s even say that it does demonstrate a certain attitude that is inappropriate to this day and age. But honestly -- of all the many reasons to oppose Roberts’ elevation to the Chief Justice’s chair, this is the main one cited by the top-ranking Democrat in the country? Like a bungling politician in a Milan Kundera novel, here is brave Reid, ready to defend the polity, not against reactionary interpretations of the establishment clause or executive power, but against a 20-year-old politically incorrect joke!

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s one of the transcendent victories of contemporary liberalism, in an era when victories have been few, to consecrate diversity as a societal end, a legitimate measure of a good and complete society. Far from having been an invention of ’60s radicals, it is in fact rooted deep in the liberal tradition, in that Lockean tradition of tolerance. It’s a marvelous thing that this is one historical battle we seem (for now at least, as we brace for the Roberts-Alito era) to have won. Here I think back to 1995, when the Gingrich revolutionaries, and Bob Dole, wanted to pass legislation banning or curtailing affirmative action. Sharpening their knives, they went to their friends in corporate America: The time is right, they said; let’s scuttle these racial preferences. To their consternation, they didn’t have many takers. Corporate leaders said, well, we’ve spent a lot of time (and money) developing diversity policies, and they’re working rather nicely. Imagine! The principle of diversity supported by a mostly Republican group to such an extent that Congress was taken aback. The revolutionaries dropped it, left it to the courts. These corporations were in fact making a common-good argument to the revolutionaries: Diversity has served us well as a whole, enriched us. And it’s not just corporate America: All over the country, white attitudes on race, straight peoples’ attitudes toward gay people, have changed dramatically for the better. These attitudes have changed because liberals and (most) Democrats decided that diversity was a principle worth defending on its own terms. Put another way, they decided to demand of citizens that they come to terms with diversity. So it can work, this demanding.

On the question of rights, the story is more mixed. Liberals were chagrined, after 9-11, to see the percentages of Americans who told pollsters they were willing to sacrifice some liberties for security, and more recently that only a very slim majority thought warrantless spying was a bad idea. But even this narrative isn’t all bad. Majorities support all manner of rights, if with asterisks -- to an abortion under many conditions, to privacy unless you’re a terrorist, to a fair trial even if you are a terrorist, to free speech unless you’re inciting to riot. Americans are actually better about this than the French or the British, or just about anyone, really. Again, liberals (with an assist from the Founders) placed this demand on citizens, and a majority of citizens responded.

But diversity and rights cannot be the only goods that Democrats demand citizens accept. For liberalism to succeed, they have to exist alongside an idea of a common good. When they don’t, things are out of balance, corrupted; and liberalism is open to the sort of attack made by Stanley Fish on The New York Times op-ed page back in February. Liberalism, he wrote, is “the religion of letting it all hang out”; its “first tenet” is that “everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously.”

This is preposterous, and the column drew many angry (and intelligent) letters. But unfortunately, I suspect that many Americans -- not just people on the right, many not-terribly-political people -- believe that Fish described liberalism precisely. Anything goes, man, because we don’t really think about how a given action affects the community; we just care about whether, in questioning that action, the community is trampling on the actor’s rights. We’re in an age today -- the age of Guantanamo, of withdrawal from the Geneva Conventions, and of illegal spying justified as executive necessity -- when rights must be guarded with special care. But to think of every mode of action in terms of whether it can be enshrined as a right is a habit of mind that can lead our fellow citizens not to take us as seriously as we want them to when we talk about these other very real infringements on rights.

Liberals and Democrats of the 1960s had to abandon common-good conceptions in favor of rights and social-justice ideas when they decided that the older liberalism had failed on too many fronts and they could no longer delay the work of securing the full rights of those Americans who hadn’t had them. Their decision was necessary and courageous, even if some of them and their followers did spin off into radical and profoundly anti-majoritarian directions.

But that decision is now 40 years old. And, yet, that mode of thought still governs much about the way the Democratic Party, its interest groups, and liberal activists think and act today. And many of those who don’t think and act this way, those Democrats who fight this brand of liberalism, have gone too far down the other road -- so chary of anything that smacks of the old-time liberal religion that they too readily embrace a new one so promiscuously ecumenical, so intent on proving that it carries none of that old baggage, that it makes room for things like voting for last year’s bankruptcy bill and supporting, still, the war in Iraq. Both roads are philosophical dead ends. They’re also political dead ends, the former potentially alienating moderates, the latter giving rise to indifference and disgust in the party’s base. It’s time for something new that stands a chance of reaching both of those groups.

* * *

The Democrats need to become the party of the common good. They need a simple organizing principle that is distinct from Republicans and that isn’t a reaction to the Republicans. They need to remember what made liberalism so successful from 1933 to 1966, that reciprocal arrangement of trust between state and nation. And they need to take the best parts of the rights tradition of liberalism and the best parts of the more recent responsibilities tradition and fuse them into a new philosophy that is both civic-republican and liberal -- that goes back to the kind of rhetoric Johnson used in 1964 and 1965, that attempts to enlist citizens in large projects to which everyone contributes and from which everyone benefits.

Arguing for it is the only way that Democrats can come to stand for something clear and authoritative again. It’s not enough in our age, after the modern conservative ascendancy, to stand for activist government, or necessary taxes and regulation, or gay marriage, or abortion rights, or evolution, or the primacy of science, or universal health care, or affirmative action, or paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants, or college education for all, or environmental protection, or more foreign aid, or a comprehensive plan to foster democracy in the Arab world, or any of the other particular and necessary things that Democrats do or should support; it isn’t enough to stand for any of those things per se. Some of them have been discredited to the broad public, while others are highly contentious and leave the Democrats open to the same old charges. And those that aren’t contentious or discredited suffer the far worse problem of being uninteresting: They’re just policies, and voters don’t, and should not be expected to, respond to policies. Voters respond to ideas, and Democrats can stand for an idea: the idea that we’re all in this -- post-industrial America, the globalized world, and especially the post–9-11 world in which free peoples have to unite to fight new threats -- together, and that we have to pull together, make some sacrifices, and, just sometimes, look beyond our own interests to solve our problems and create the future.

The common good is common sense, and the historical time is right for it, for two reasons. First, what I’m trying to describe here is post-ideological in the best sense, a sense that could have broader appeal than what we normally think of as liberal ideology, because what’s at the core of this worldview isn’t ideology. It’s something more innately human: faith. Not religious faith. Faith in America and its potential to do good; faith that we can build a civic sphere in which engagement and deliberation lead to good and rational outcomes; and faith that citizens might once again reciprocally recognize, as they did in the era of Democratic dominance, that they will gain from these outcomes. Maintaining such a faith is extraordinarily difficult in the face of the right-wing noise machine and a conservative movement that, to put it mildly, do not engage in good-faith civic debate. Conservatism can succeed on such a cynical basis; its darker view of human nature accepts discord as a fact of life and exploits it. But for liberalism, which is grounded in a more benign view of human nature, to succeed, the most persuasive answer to bad faith, as Martin Luther King showed, is more good faith. All Americans are not Bill O’Reilly fans or Wall Street Journal editorialists. While they may not call themselves liberals, many of them -- enough of them -- are intelligent people who want to be inspired by someone to help their country.

The second reason this could succeed is simple: the Bush years. By 2008, we will have lived through seven-plus years of an administration that has done almost nothing for the common good, that has unleashed the most rapacious social Darwinism we’ve seen in this country for at least 80 years, and that has catered to its interest groups far more, at once more obsequiously and more arrogantly, than even the Mondale-era Democrats did. Americans are, and will be, ready for something very different.

Here, I can even offer some proof. A March 2006 research project by the Center for American Progress (CAP) asked 900 Americans of all political stripes a series of questions about the role of faith and values in public life. The numbers, shared with me and about to be released publicly, support the contention that Americans recognize the absence of a common good in civic life and yearn for some leadership that will do something about it. The survey asked respondents whether they agreed with a series of 12 assertions about American life today; 68 percent strongly agreed with the assertion that “our government should be committed to the common good.” This placed second only to “Americans are becoming too materialistic” (71 percent); it tied with “our government should uphold basic decency and dignity,” which is a similar sentiment, and it came in well ahead of such conservative chestnuts as “religion is on the decline in America” (41 percent) and “not enough Americans know right from wrong anymore” (46 percent). Respondents were then given an opportunity to offer open-ended descriptions of what the phrase “‘the common good’ means to you personally.” As with any open-ended poll question, answers were all over the lot, but the two most frequently volunteered answers used language that could have been plucked from this essay: “Good for all concerned/involved/more than individual” (20 percent), and “Good for the majority/not just for the few” (15 percent). One poll isn’t conclusive, of course; but this one strongly suggests a nascent sentiment that Democrats can tap into.

* * *

Two things have to happen before the Democrats will be able to do this. First, the way interest-group politics are done in today’s Democratic Party just has to change. I’m not the first to observe this recently -- indeed, momentum is gathering behind this view, although it’s still a long way from being a consensus one. In their controversial 2004 paper, “The Death of Environmentalism,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger blasted the environmental movement’s tactical narrowness and outdated intellectual frameworks. In their perceptive and passionate new book Crashing the Gate, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong rebuke liberal interest groups for a variety of sins, notably of feeling the need to endorse a few moderate Republicans for Congress even though those Republicans, while they might have acceptable records on issue X, Y, or Z, will go on to make Bill Frist the majority leader and Dennis Hastert the speaker -- and with that single vote, more than cancel out whatever nice things they do when nothing’s on the line.

This kind of politics is shallow, it’s shortsighted, it’s anti-progressive, and it nullifies the idea that there might even be a common good. Interest groups need to start thinking in common-good terms. Much of the work done by these groups, and many of their goals, are laudable. But if they can’t justify that work and those goals in more universalist terms rather than particularist ones, then they just shouldn’t be taken seriously. Immigration policy can’t be chiefly about the rights of undocumented immigrants; it needs to be about what’s good for the country. Similarly with civil-rights policy -- affirmative action, say, which will surely be up for review one day again when a case reaches the Roberts court. As I noted above, when talking about Gingrich’s failure in 1995, there exist powerful common-good arguments for affirmative action. In addition to the idea that diversity enriches private-sector environments, affirmative action has been the most important single factor in the last 40 years in the broad expansion of the black middle class, which in turn (as more blacks and whites work and live together) has dramatically improved race relations in this county, which has been good, as LBJ would put it, for every American.

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.

It’s hard for groups to change, and they must be given a reason to do so -- a stake in a new paradigm and an assurance that their interests will not be tossed to the side. The answer is that, if Democrats are permitted to adopt a new philosophy and practice their politics differently -- and, if Democratic leaders rise to the occasion -- the prevailing situation in this country could change dramatically for the better, and that would benefit all their causes in the long run. I can’t sketch out the implications of the framework I propose for every policy issue -- those implications will be a matter of civic negotiation. But I can say that a new civic-republican liberalism can justify collective action far more powerfully and persuasively than anything the Democrats have done or said in a long time. Such arguments can be constructed on behalf of almost every single thing the party purports to stand for: health-care coverage for those without it, the need to protect the planet and take global warming seriously, energy independence, asset-building for African Americans and other disproportionately poor groups, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and more. Such rhetoric can surely be wedded effectively to core economic matters. Last month in these pages, my colleague Harold Meyerson wrote brilliantly about the crisis of the American economy [see “Not Your Father’s Detroit,” The American Prospect, April 2006] -- about the need for an industrial policy that addresses the flight of jobs, the health-care and pension crises, and the rest. If the Democrats, when addressing these concerns, sound like they’re offering one more sop to big labor, they will inaugurate the same old round of embittered cat-calling; if their proposals are rooted in notions of communal sacrifice toward a greater good in which all citizens will have a stake and a share, the terms of the debate are changed.

There are potential dangers here and they should be noted. A too-aggressive common-good framework can discard liberty and rights; after all, Bush uses a conservative kind of common-good rhetoric to defend his spying program (he’s protecting us from attack). Democrats have to guard against this; a common good that isn’t balanced by concern for liberty can be quasi-authoritarian (“coercive,” as the political philosophers call it). Common-good rhetoric and action must be tethered to progressive ends and must operate within the constitutional framework of individual liberty against state encroachment.

But there’s an awful lot of maneuvering room between where the Democratic Party is today and coercion; it’s the territory of civic deliberation toward a larger common interest, and there are positive signs that some are exploring it. In South Dakota, where legislators recently passed the country’s most draconian abortion ban, pro-choice advocates have done something very interesting. They decided not to sue. Instead they’re circulating petitions to hold a referendum on the law. The Los Angeles Times reports that “even in the most conservative corners of this conservative state, both Republicans and Democrats -- including a few who say they oppose abortion -- are eagerly signing the petition.” We don’t know that their effort will prevail. But we already know that using the political process in this way is a huge improvement over running yet again to the courts. In the long run, showing faith in this kind of democratically negotiated outcome is far better for liberalism.

Some will say that asking Americans to look beyond their own self-interest and participate in a common good will fail, either because it failed before (the 1960s) or because such a request can succeed only in rare moments -- a time of war or of deep domestic crisis. But that isn’t what failed in the ’60s. The first half of the ’60s, the civic-republican liberal half, succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The second half, the half that ditched the common good, is what failed, and it failed for precisely the reason that it did so. And yes, it may be that the times when such appeals can work are comparatively rare in American history.

But what if, as the CAP poll suggests, this is one of those moments? We are not in a Depression-like crisis, perhaps; but thanks to the efforts of the Bush administration we are on the precipice of several crises, and it’s not just liberals who recognize this. Many of our fellow citizens, bitterly disappointed by a leadership in which they had placed an extraordinary amount of trust back in September 2001, recognize it, too.

The Democrats must grasp this, kick some old habits, and realize that we are on the verge of a turning point. The Democratic left wants it to be 1968 in perpetuity; the Democratic center wishes for 1992 to repeat itself over and over again. History, however, doesn’t oblige such wishes -- it rewards those who recognize new moments as they arise. It might just be that the Bush years, these years of civic destruction and counterfeit morality, have provided the Democrats the opening to argue on behalf of civic reconstruction and genuine public morality. If they do it the right way, they can build a politics that will do a lot more than squeak by in this fall’s (or any) elections based on the usual unsatisfying admixture of compromises. It can smash today’s paradigm to pieces. The country needs nothing less. The task before today’s Democratic Party isn’t just to eke out electoral victories; it’s to govern, and to change our course in profound ways. I’d like to think they can do it. But the Democrats must become republicans first.


Link to comment


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...