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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Point Break

Atrios points today to this article in the Village Voice by Rick Perlstein which I encourage you to read. It's short and to the point. I think Perlstein has really gotten to the heart of why the Democratic party is having such a difficult problem getting through to people; we're not staying true true to our long term vision.

However, I'd like to draw your attention to an interview this week with Perlstein in this week's In These Times in which he discusses his book "the Stockticker and the SuperJumbo" which is only 8 bucks and is filled with interesting insights not just from him but other writers and thinkers in response to his ideas. You get a very real sense of the outlines of the debate within the party.

I'd like to discuss one thing in particular that Perlstein notes in the book and the interview and which I touched upon in my post earlier this week about Will Marshall and the DLC. I took issue with Marshall's point that liberals had been traumatized by the "protest politics" of the 60's to such an extent that they could not rationally deal with national security --- particularly the military. He characterized this as a feature of the grassroots liberal activists which I disagreed with because the "Move-On" left is quite a diverse group and it's certainly intergenerational. I do not believe that the grassroots were traumatized by the protest politics of the 60's --- although I'm sure there are some among us who were. We are a large group.

However, there is one group of Democrats who most certainly were traumatized by the protest politics of the 60's. Unfortunately, contrary to what Marshall set forth in his piece, the Democrats who are still carrying around that baggage are now the leaders of the Democratic party --- and particularly the leaders of the DLC. Indeed, their entire political careers have been forged in response to their early radicalism and subsequent political losses in 1972 and beyond.

The rest of us have indeed "moved on," going with the flow of changing political tides and reassessing our priorities as most people do as they go through life. But the people who came of age as political leaders in 1972 through the Reagan losses have been forever chastened by their youthful enthusiasm and as a result have an emotional aversion to bold, confrontational politics. Perlstein says:

The trauma of the generation of people who are running the Democratic Party was being blindsided by the political failures of left-of-center boldness. If you look at a lot of the most resonant and stalwart centrists and Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Democrats, for a lot of them, their political coming-of-age was being blindsided by conservatism. For Bill Clinton, it was losing the governorship in 1980. For Joe Lieberman, it was losing a congressional race in 1980. For Evan Bayh, the chair of the DLC, it was seeing his dad lose his Senate seat to Dan Quayle in 1980. But the formative traumas of my generation of Democrats—and I’m 35—have been the failures of left-of-center timidity. So there really is a structural generational battle among Democrats. People of a certain age are terrified that the electorate is going to associate them with the excesses of the ’60s, but most voters are too young to remember that stuff. The Republicans keep trying to paint the Democrats as the party of the hippies and punks who burn the flag.

I'm a baby boomer myself, although I'm 10 years younger than the vanguard leaders of the 60's, and I certainly understood the tremendous frustration that we felt as Reaganism exploded across the 80's. I was deeply demoralized for a long time and I supported the DLC's attempt to reposition the party away from sectarian social issues to a more mainstream middle class economic focus. What I didn't count on was that while we settled into our grown-up middle aged persona, the right wing was going to have a doozy of a mid-life crisis and hurl themselves into true radicalism. It was a failure of imagination of epic proportions on my part.

But when they impeached the president on trumped up charges, I learned. And I realized that as you fight the political battles of the day, all you have to hang on to are the core beliefs that brought you into the arena in the first place.

As Perlstein demonstrates in his book, the key to long term political success is to have big things you stand for over the long haul. People understand different political realitites. Life happens. But they want to know what you care deeply about and what you want to accomplish even when you haven't a chance in hell of actually accomplishing it any time soon. Perlstein calls it laying down "markers:"

It’s a gambling term. A marker basically is a commitment to pay. In Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit would say, “that guy holds my marker.” It’s something you can’t back out of, on pain of getting your knees broken. The marker that Republicans have is that everyone who runs for office has to sign a pledge—it’s enforced by their own knee-breaker, Grover Norquist—that on pain of political death they’re not going to raise taxes.

My thesis is that a commitment that doesn’t waver adds value by the very fact of the commitment. The evidence is that even though the individual initiatives that make up the conservative project poll quite poorly, they’ve managed to succeed simply because everyone knows what the Republicans stand for. And the most profound exit poll finding in the last election had nothing to do with moral values, it was all the people who said that they disagreed with the Republicans on individual issues, but they voted for George W. Bush anyway because they knew what he stood for.

I think this is spot on. And it applies particularly to times in which we have the strange political freedom in which to operate without the responsibility of governance. We do not have to appease the pork barrel needs of legislators. We don't have to massage corporate donors. We can, instead, use the opportunity to advance ideas that have no particular hope of passage but that illustrate what we stand for.

And we don't have to do it merely by submitting ten point plans and stirring manifestos, although that's certainly legitimate. What we should do is promote big ideas and attach those ideas to the Democratic party across the spectrum of political activity.

Perlstein sugggests that every Democrat put on his or her website that they support "guaranteed health insurance for all Americans." Simple and sweet. Do we all agree that every American should have guaranteed health care? I think so. Should we say it out loud, so that the American people know that we support guaranteed health insurance for all Americans? Uh, yes.

I would also say that there are other ways to express our long term committments to more abstract ideals, like a right to privacy. When we question Judge Roberts we should make it clear what the stakes are in that battle. We shouldn't just talk about Roe, although that's important, we should put Roe in the context of all the other intrusions people will suffer both by the government and corporations if we don't acknowledge this as settled law and fundamental to our liberties. We are going to lose this nomination battle, but it is a good forum for staking out a long term position on privacy rights vis a vis everything from the Patriot Act to birth control. The libertarian strain that guys like Paul Hackett represents needs to be woven into our agenda for the long haul so that we can continue to fight for the freedom to be left alone by religious extremists and zealous police agencies alike.

I agree with Matt Yglesias that this is also a good opportunity for the Democrats to stand together and just say no. We don't have to trash the guy, if that's something that's unpalatable, but we certainly don't have to allow any free votes for a very right wing ideologue either. Unlike social security, we will not win the battle, but we stake out a position much more strongly if we hold together as a caucus instead of allowing free "gimmes" to Senators who want to appear above the fray. Nobody should be above the fray.

Tactics and strategies are, by necessity, subject to changing circumstances. Our goals and aspirations shouldn't be. Thinking big is what progressives do, and we pay a price for that at times when people adjust to progress. But we cannot survive if people don't know what we stand for. We need to take every opportunity to make that known and then stick to it even when it's impossible to achieve in the next election cycle or two.

The Democratic party apparatus for a variety of reasons have become risk averse. We in the grassroots have to help them see that this is not wise. It means that we are going to be perceived by some as intemperate and unpleasant at times. But that's ok. As Perlstein says:

We do have a timid bunch of folks in the Democratic Party, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. Timid and cautious people can often express their timidity and cautiousness by being swept up in a tide. We’ve got to provide the tide and let them surf it.

Update: Publius at legal Fiction makes a similar point about the "60's trauma" in this excellent post.