« In The News...Or Not | Main | Response to Glenn Greenwald »

June 27, 2006

Desperately Seeking ... Well, Something

In the LA Times, Jonathan Chait takes aim at the Democrat Party's retreat from intellectual bankruptcy:

Democracy's editors believe that the central purpose of this journal-led restoration is to Think Big. No policy papers, please. The problem, writes Baer, is that "voters know our issues or issue positions but not what our worldview is." Their role is to formulate sweeping principles.

Alas, this is inherently a losing game for liberals. Here is the problem: Conservatism and liberalism are not really mirror images of each other.

Let the HVES be the first to admit that the irony of watching a progressive admit what conservatives have been saying for decades - that the Democrat Party has no principles - is almost too delicious for words. But we can only tolerate so much obscene wallowing, and at any rate Chait is about to tell us why his Party has no principles:

Conservatives venerate the free market and see smaller government as an end in itself. Liberals do not venerate government in the same way, and we do not see larger government as an end in and of itself. For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody's education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody's blue jeans? No. And so on.

...nobody knows what Democrats stand for because you cannot, and should not, formulate sweeping dogmas when you're operating on a case-by-case basis.

Some liberals see this problem and conclude that Democrats got too wishy-washy under President Clinton. If we'd just held firm to strong liberal, pro-government principles, they say, the public would know where we're coming from.

Well, that's probably true. But it wouldn't win any elections. Why not? Because, as social psychologists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril concluded in 1964, Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals. Everybody's for less spending and regulation in the abstract. When you try to translate that into specifics — say, lower Medicare benefits or looser standards on pollution — voters run screaming in the other direction.

How refreshingly honest. In other words, everybody wants a reserved spot at the public trough, but no one wants to pay the bill. Or perhaps more accurately Democrats would prefer that someone else pay the bill. The Democrat Party, which in the bad old days of rigid class distinctions was formerly known as the party of the common man, has a problem these days. How many Americans, these days, self-identify as The Common Man? It's so... common.

Bereft of uniting principles, modern progressives are left to wander in a post-ideological funk down the boulevard of broken dreams, savoring one last drag on their unfiltered Gauloises as they contemplate the essential meaninglessness of a life without God, Individual Responsibility, or Really Big Ideas. But wait! Is that a recycled ideology glistening on the rain-soaked pavement?

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.

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.

So, the new Democratic calculus will do away with abstract notions like justice, opportunity, equality and strive for the common good... whatever that is. We don't know, really, because we mustn't allow ourselves to be confined by the kind of arbitrary principles which might lend shape and meaning to words like "good". Better to make a virtue of necessity and subscribe wholeheartedly to that Holiest of Grails, the Pelosian Unified Theory Of Disunity, which holds that the only idea which properly should unite Democrats is their utter refusal to agree on anything.

We must say, that's an election-winning proposal. But perhaps we're being too hasty here:

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.

Ah! It becomes clearer. Americans must be urged to support a, b, or c because they're Big. Grand. Bigger than all of us! Broad-based! So, of course, are bringing Democracy to the Middle East and catching terrorists. But perhaps it is not fair, as our Democratic Brethren-in-Christ daily remind us, to force a wholly volunteer military to bear costs not shared by every American. That sort of nonsense is reserved for rich capitalists who rake in over $200K a year.

Let us, therefore, subscribe to the New Realisme and define the common good as being limited to actual American citizens (the pool of productive, wage earning adults who, of necessity, foot the bill for services provided to illegal aliens) and simply set our sights on controlling illegal immigration.

Oh, but what about the illegal immigrants...err...undocumented workers? Aren't they part of the common good? Don't they have rights under the American Constitution? Just who gets to define this "Common Good", anyway?

... 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.

Wow. Even the New York Times?

In the Gospel According to Nancy Pelosi, the strength of the Democrat Party is that it's a Big Tent - it contains multitudes. Some, like Chait, maintain voters are all for grand ideas until they discover the Devil is lurking in the details.

And he has an itemized bill in his hand.

Some, like Tomasky, seek a Big Idea to unite them: something really grand , perhaps with a dollop of lofty rhetoric. But please - no pesky abstractions that might force them to make real-world choices between one thing and another. That way, madness lies.

Still others maintain the human heart is a cynical one. In the end, it's far less work to run against the other guy than to have to formulate your own policy:

What about Bill Clinton in 1992? That's a more interesting case. Clinton ran against George H. W. Bush's economic failings ("It's the economy, stupid"), and his principal proposal for a middle class tax cut was largely (and as it turned out, entirely) symbolic. What Clinton also did was to inoculate the Democrats against charges they were primarily the party of ghetto blacks. That's what Clinton's promise to end welfare as we know it and his denunciation of Sister Souljah were about. These were very important to winning the battle of the common good and the common man. And some kind of inoculation will certainly be necessary for the presidential candidate in 2008.

Halpin and Teixeira say that Democrats need to go beyond "inoculation" and "mobilization" of the Democratic base to "define" the common good. Of course, Democrats need to present their proposals as being in the public interest, but I think the main point is that besides mobilizing and inoculating, the Democrats are going to have to think about demonizing. The point of introducing proposals in a campaign is not to commit the electorate to some far-reaching scheme, but to dramatize the failings of the opposition. That, ironically, is how the Democrats may once again become the party of the common man and the common good.

In other words, don't bother to articulate a compelling vision of the common good. Just feed voters a steady diet of discontent. The problem with this tactic is nowhere more in evidence that it is today:

Do we think wiretapping the enemy without warrants is dangerous? Then let's restrict it, fully understanding that it will make the war longer, allow threats to form undetected, even cost "innocent lives". Either that or embark upon some tradeoff with which society feels comfortable. But never, never is it possible to demand the free lunch. To say: bring the boys home but don't abandon Iraq; we support the troops, but don't allow them to shoot unless actually shot at; prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction but leave it to the United Nations. Each of these demands spoken simultaneously contains the seed of a contradiction. The intelligent thing is to recognize this and make intelligent choices about what we are prepared to give up and at what price. The alternative is to do what has been done up until now. Make impossible demands and insist that they all be fulfilled.

The sermon of last Sunday described the travails of one parish priest in the diocese, originally from Vietnam (though the homily was delivered by someone else), who managed to organize an escape for his entire family in 1981, minus his parents, who were too old to make the attempt. They were betrayed at the last minute, and as they were wading out the boat, the government troops arrived and opened fire on them. The future priest was struck glancingly in the head and temporarily lost his sight and struck out swimming for the boat which by fortune or providence he found. Once out of the sight of land, another menace appeared: pirates, men who habitually preyed on desperate families escaping the worker's paradise. And the story went that the entire boatload went down on their knees and prayed; and again, whether by fortune or providence a squall swept in and hid them from the brigands. And as I was listening to the account it struck me, that just as the Vietnamese priest's freedom was not free; neither were the "principles" of the antiwar movement who condemned him to that fate which he had such difficulty escaping. One can always march for Ho Chi Minh again; and march in the name in principle. But it should never be possible to march in ignorance. "Principle" has a price though you may never know who pays.

Tomasky may have a point after all. The Communists were quite good at articulating a vision of the common good and avoiding those bothersome specifics. And it worked. In their misery, few bothered to ask what the Common Good was. It was only when the guns came out that people realized the rule of law had been abolished in favor of the Common Good and, sadly, some folks rated more of that Good than others.

And in the end, this is the unifying principle which underlies all three proposals for saving liberalism: the devil is in the details. Chait doesn't want Democrats to put anything in writing, apparently preferring an ad hoc, soulless form of pragmatism that shifts and floats with every breeze. Tomasky wants us all to sacrifice for the "common good", whatever that happens to be today. The problem is that without a philosophical foundation, the "common good" can be made to serve any number of masters. In the end, this unarticulated common good feels good, until one notices that it sounds strangely like "I know what's best for you".

And as Chait rightly observes, in a free society all that lovely high-minded fellow-feeling tends to fracture when you get to the nuts and bolts of who pays for what and why can't we afford to do absolutely everything? The answer to that question, traditionally, lay in exactly the kind of overarching principles he and Tomasky reject.

Judis apparently thinks Americans know good and well what the Democrats stand for, but he'd just as soon they didn't run on the strength of their platform. Don't think too much. Just get mad at the other guy and vote me into office.

And so we're back to the Pelosi Doctrine:

Liberté! Fraternité! Disunité!

Le jour de gloire est arrivé.

Posted by Cassandra at June 27, 2006 01:01 PM


Don't tell Liberal Larry his Progressyve Party has no principles. He will just wallow in the bongwater
and hide under the sink, wishing for a return when
being progressyve meant that you got your hemp knickers in a twist about everything.

Posted by: Oppressyve Queen at June 27, 2006 05:48 PM

So everything should be decided on a case by case basis, huh?

But I thought Bush's problem in Iraq was because he didn't have a plan and hodgepodged it as it came.

Posted by: Masked Menace© at June 27, 2006 05:49 PM

There you go again, applying logic... It's a good thing I'm too tolerant and enlightened to hate you, you uneducated, brainwashed, knuckle-dragging, snake-handling, radical extremist warmongering baby-killing Jesus phreak.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 27, 2006 06:05 PM

...and maybe that was Kerry's problem. The damn man just couldn't *not* have a plan for everything.

and I can't help but think you've forgotten one for some reason.

Posted by: Masked Menace© at June 27, 2006 06:32 PM

Heh... if I weren't so brain-dead from working I'd come up with a clever comeback.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 27, 2006 06:57 PM

Cassandra, you are the best. I read blogs every day and every night, but, in the end, what I read on your site always seems to get at the heart of matters better than any of them. For that I thank you. And with that I'm off to bed.

Posted by: Glenn Sutherland at June 28, 2006 12:34 AM

Cassandra, this is one of your very, very best.

The elitism inherent in "voters don’t, and should not be expected to, respond to policies" is the equivalent of patting the little woman on the head and saying "There, there, little woman, just let the man take care of things." Women were right to reject that and the voters are right to reject the elitism of the Pelosian branch of the New Dems.

Posted by: MaxedOutMama at June 28, 2006 12:46 AM

Not letting the truth get in the way or anything, but I didn't come here just to get dissed by that hoser Sutherland!!!

(goes off to corner to sulk)

It *is* too all about me! (I'm trying to learn to think like a Kossack)

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at June 28, 2006 03:43 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)