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Thursday, May 01, 2003

Democratic Unity

During my little hiatus I received a lot of great e-mail, many of them asking why I made the assertion that the Democrats (and a majority of the country) are unified in support the democratic agenda, and wanting me to provide some back-up for that claim. I base some of my belief on this analysis and some on my own observations of the nature of the internecine warfare within each Party.

I never said that the Democratic Party is one big happy family. I said that we have a remarkably coherent philosophy and agreement on policy for such a large coalition of interests and that this is a great strength. Our disagreements, and they are significant, are about strategy.

First, let me reiterate that the unified support within and outside the party does not apply to national security. Americans (including many Democrats) have consistently said that the Democratic Party is weaker than the Republicans on national security for more than 30 years. It is why Democratic politicians twist themselves into pretzels on the issue, trying to be sane and tough at the same time while fighting off the charges of cowardice and fecklessness by the manly GOP. It is a huge problem for us.

But, the fact that George W. Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” with a program of “affirmative access” and “saving social security,” and even the red, white and blue mid-term campaign featured Republicans across the board pushing their phony prescription drug program is evidence that they know that they cannot win elections on their program of tax cuts, Jesus and the flag alone.

Poll after poll suggests that support for individual policies as well as measures of trust on bread and butter issues accrue to the Democrats. Even on the hot button issue of crime, the Democrats managed to pull even in the last decade. People expect service and support from the government and consistently seek more as the need arises. This is certainly true of Democrats and a large percentage of the independents required to gain a majority as well.

So, to the extent that disagreement within the Party exists, it is strategic not substantive – pragmatism vs principle, accommodate the middle or lead from the left. Certain politicians from red states often accede to their brainwashed constituencies on taxes and some other right wing issues, but with the exception of Zell Miller who seems to really believe in a Republican agenda all of a sudden, I believe this almost always in the context of a sausage making deal or other practical considerations. The basic philosophy of the party is not really in contention. Democrats of all stripes share the same goals of ensuring a stable society through a reasonable redistribution of wealth, equality of opportunity, respect for civil rights and civil liberties, a social safety net, and environmental and consumer regulations to protect the health and welfare of the citizenry.

Certainly, there are those who would like to see more done in certain areas but if one has a philosophical disagreement with those principles, one is highly unlikely to be a Democrat. Our internal battles on policy are almost always a matter of intensity and focus, not policy goals themselves.

Granted, welfare reform was a very divisive issue as was NAFTA. Clinton tried to realign the party and neutralize the image of Democrats as being big-spending protectionists. I believe those issues have largely been settled, unhappily in some cases. There are continuing sharp disagreements on guns as well as this ongoing Wurlitzer induced skittishness at being labeled a “liberal” or “feminist” or “politically correct,” or “outside the mainstream.”

In my opinion, trade is an issue that continues to require attention. Democrats have an affirmative responsibility to workers here and elsewhere and we must fashion a coherent policy on this issue. It is moral as well as practical. If Democrats don’t stand for unions, we have lost our souls (and our best organizers.)

Guns, I’m afraid, should be viewed in the context of civil liberties. In the era of John Ashcroft and terrorism, it is probably a mistake to advocate fooling with the bill of rights in any way, even if the interpretation of the 2nd amendment is contentious. In my view it’s not worth it.

These are issues that I agree still cause some serious disagreement within the party.

As to the third, the discomfort some people feel with being labeled “kooky” or “deviant,” I would suggest that this is the ultimate strategic issue. It’s a result of the silly culture war that has been used to great effect by the other side; it has no basis in reality. Democrats are Americans just like Republicans. We share the same culture, we eat the same food, we watch the same television, we shop in the same endlessly boring mall stores. None of us are exotic foreign creatures who don’t belong, not even the crazy kids on campus and the so-called extremists of the National Education Association or Greenpeace. We should reject this labeling outright. Besides, everybody’s got their weirdoes and the GOP glass house is crawling with them. It’s time to shine the spotlight in their direction.

And finally, the left end of the spectrum is extremely distressed (the centrist faction being typically only somewhat distressed) at the extent to which the party is dependent upon big business donors and the resultant necessity to pay heed to their requests. However, I would suggest that this also is a strategic issue, not a substantive one. Unlike the Republicans, whose governing philosophy is inherently plutocratic, the Democrats have competing constituencies such as unions, consumer advocates, lawyers and civil rights groups which balance their obligation to business donors. Like most other contentious issues within the party, this seems to me to be one of emotional intensity rather than a serious philosophical difference. Our political system has become quite obviously corrupt in a perfectly legal way which is outrageous and unacceptable to some Democrats and regretfully necessary to defend against a very frightening and dangerous GOP to others. The Republicans, on the other hand, comfortably see it as the natural and correct order of things.

Nobody really has the answer to how to stop the ungodly flow of corporate money into politics. It seems to be like water --- if you plug up one route, it finds another. It’s doubtful that even public financing or free TV time could do much more than temporarily plug the dyke. Until a politically possible answer can be found, there are those who believe that the Democrats should just say no to corporate money and people would reward them with their votes. Others call that unilateral disarmament. But the vast majority of Democrats, even DLCers, agree that massive corporate donations taint the system.

Contrast that with the Republicans who, for all of their Stalinist group think have some serious fissures in their coalition that are only held together by a phony and incoherent fealty to tax cuts as the answer to every problem. Their problem is not strategic, it is deeply philosophical and it is a train wreck waiting to happen.

The Republican coalition primarily consists of business and wealthy interests, social conservatives, libertarian individualists, movement ideologues and moderates. Very few of them are truly “conservative” in the traditional sense of the word. (And if conservatism isn’t traditional, it isn’t conservative at all.)

Most business interests and wealthy individuals see government as either a hindrance to their goals or a facilitator of their goals or simply as their goal. They all want to pay as few taxes as they can get away with and are more than willing to pay the chump change that amounts to contributions and lobbying expenses in order to use the government to their advantage in whatever way they need to. They are morally agnostic. Their job as businesses is to maximize profits and most wealthy individuals live in a world that doesn’t show any evidence of a need for government.

The social conservatives like Rick Santorum are in favor of a government that promotes and enforces their set of personal religious values for the common good. They believe in an activist government, but rather than providing a safety net they rely on coercion and police power to “guide” people into making the “right” decisions in the first place. They see government as a tool for radical social change. (I’m including the significant numbers of neo-confederates in this group, although it is an imperfect fit.)

The libertarians are the real small government "leave us alone”“coalition. This is the image of Republicanism that is sold to the public as being what the party is all about --- the cowboy American, a rugged individualist who is self-sufficient and wants the least intrusive government possible. A Republican is strong, manly, confident, competent. Men want to be him and women want to pleasure him. In reality, they encompass the anti-UN black helicopter weirdoes and the intellectual utopians to be sure, but more importantly they also capture the regular Joe American who really just wants to be left alone to live his life unbothered by authority. But that includes religious zealots as much as do-gooders and the IRS.

The movement ideologues are the influential cosmopolitans like Peggy Noonan, Dinesh D’Souza and William Bennett, all of whom are really opportunists who have managed to make careers for themselves by working for the right wing message infrastructure. It also consists of the neocon faction who has transformed US foreign policy into an Imperialist wet dream.

The moderates are people who still believe that the Republican Party is prudent, fiscally responsible and traditional. They are not paying attention.

So, now that they are consolidating their power, how will the GOP reconcile the desire of social conservatives, who have an influence within the party that far outstrips its actual population in the country, with the “leave us alone” coalition? Rick Santorum was just given a big sloppy kiss by the Republican hierarchy after saying that he does not believe in a right to privacy and in fact believes that the government should outlaw any sexual behavior that he believes is harmful to the family values that he believes everyone should have. And the “leave us alone” faction should be repulsed by the idea that the government is seeking to inflict religious values on anybody against their will. If that is libertarian then I’m a John Bircher.

How do the movement ideologues and the social conservatives expect to pay for their enormous police state at home and Empire abroad if the corporations and people with money do not pay taxes? Supply side economics is a scam and they know it. If they remain in power they will have to find a way to raise taxes on the middle class and the poor, probably through a regressive consumption tax.

And at that point, the libertarians, who may have convinced themselves that the GOP will never be able to implement their police state and Empire as long as they are keeping taxes too low to pay for them, will see that they have been played for fools. The modern GOP does not believe in small government or rugged individualism. They simply use the imagery to sell their product.

As the social conservatives begin to flex their muscles, how are the cosmopolitans (who actually live in urban areas) going to feel when confronted with the mean bigotry of the anti-gay rights movement and the ugly intolerance of the still significant racist contingent of the GOP. They scurried like rabbits when Trent Lott embarrassed them. It is only a matter of time before the same thing happens with the gay rights movement. City girls like Peggy Noonan and Jonah Goldberg are embarrassed by the bigotry in their party.

In order to be coherent at all, the GOP must really believe in a huge, intrusive government that enforces religious values. One of their main targets for “reform” is the media. But, the media is big, big business, which has no interest in anything but profits. (Rupert Murdoch, after all, is the guy who publishes topless photos every day in the British tabloids.) If the social conservatives continue to gain real clout, how long before this confrontation happens?

In fact, how long can the Republican Party juggle the Big Government social conservatives and neocons with the valuable libertarian “leave us alone” brand and the big business moral agnostics?

And, how long will the Republican moderates stay in their nether world refusing to acknowledge that their party has become alarmingly radical and incoherent?

We Democrats have a lot of problems to be sure, not the least of which is that we are paralyzed by fear and indecision about how to fight the opposition. But, they have serious problems, too, and they are problems that the Democrats should exploit to the hilt. It’s called divide and conquer and it shouldn’t be too difficult to bring these conflicts into the open. Unlike the bogus wedge issues the GOP employed against the Democrats by demonizing straw men, these wedge issues are real.

Powell vs Rumsfeld is just the beginning. The GOP is on a collision course with itself.