The Center Fetish
Glenn Greenwald takes on the beltway conventional wisdom which says that Democrats must move to the center on national security or risk being painted as weak. He summons all the evidence from the 2006 election which shows that "the center," that political nirvana, isn't where the pundits say it is. Moreover, he points out that poll after poll shows that voters are less concerned with how closely a candidate hews to the conventional line on these issues, than whether the candidate has strong convictions.
Back in 2005, I wrote:
As much as I appreciate all these Republicans offering us advice about how we are endangering our political prospects by not supporting illegal NSA spying, I have to wonder if they really have our best interests at heart. I just get a teensy bit suspicious that it might not be sincere.
The truth is that I have no idea where the NSA spying scandal is going and neither do they. The Republicans would like it to go nowhere for obvious reasons and so they are trying to psych out timid Dems. What I do know is that the most important problem Democrats have is not national security; it's that nobody can figure out what we stand for. And when we waffle and whimper about things like this we validate that impression.
In Rick Perlstein's book, "The Stock Ticker and The Super Jumbo" he notes that many Democrats are still reeling from the repudiation of the party by the Reagan Democrats. And while they continue to worry about being too close to African Americans or being too rigid on abortion or too soft on national security, they don't realize that the most vivid impression people have of the Democrats is this:
"I think they lost their focus"
"I think they are a little disorganized right now"
"They need leadership"
"On the sidelines"
The reason people think this is because we are constantly calculating whether our principles are politically sellable (and we do it in front of God and everybody.) We've been having this little public encounter session for well over 20 years now and it's added up to a conclusion that we don't actually believe in anything at all.
Democrats are no longer the party that needs leadership or the party that is disorganized or on the sidelines. The Republicans are imploding and the country has turned its desperate eyes their way. So why are we still hearing so much about how the Democrats have to "move to the center?" It seems as though the country's center has moved to the Democrats.
Glenn marshals all the facts that prove the country isn't really moved by national security scare mongering. It's there for anyone to see, and one must assume that it's there for all the best minds in Democratic politics as well. And yet High Broderism still reigns even at the risk of perpetuating that toxic notion that Democrats have no values or principles. Why is that?
I think there are two things at work and I think they have nothing to do with the issues themselves. The first has to do with the well known propensity for Democrats to pay far too much attention to the gasbags. Neal Gabler has an op-ed in today's LA Times that will warm the heart of all blogging liberal media critics. Quoting from Nixonland (about Joseph Kraft and this phenomenon), he also discusses the way the press became self-conscious and adopted entertainment values --- turning itself into "the media," a celebrity business. He homes in on something important about that:
So what does this have to do with an illiberal streak in liberal journalists? Just this: One of the surest paths to stardom in movies, television and politics has always been the guise of Everyman -- the person who purports to be one of us and with whom we can readily identify. That guise became even more effective once Nixon had successfully rebranded the Democratic Party from one that protected the working class to one that seemed increasingly elitist and divorced from American mainstream values. Combine the two and the result seems almost inevitable: the Everyman journalist for whom career advancement trumps political loyalty.
The sainted Tim Russert, the Everyman from Buffalo, owned a seven million dollar vacation home on Nantucket. Chris Matthews makes five million dollars a year. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But they are hardly the voices of average Americans and I fear that an awful lot of powerful Democrats, similarly situated, turn to such "salt of the earth" millionaire celebrities as their touchstones to the "regular" people.
And that raises an important question: if these rich, pampered celebrities are spokesmen for the Everyman, then who are the elites? Well, they're us, the liberal base of the Democratic party. And that's what this "run to the center" is really all about --- putting as much distance between the politicians and us as they can. It's not about being "serious" on national security or crime or family values. It's not even about appealing to swing voters. It's about repudiating liberalism. You can have a right wing zealot on the team who is so out to lunch that he writes books recommending you beat your children like he beats his dog. But associations with anything remotely culturally liberal or politically progressive are considered poisonous if you care to be taken seriously by the likes of Target shopper Brian "Everyman"Williams or the policeman's daughter Maureen "Everywoman" Dowd.
Repudiating liberalism is a symbolic gesture required of Democrats by the political establishment to prove that they are not elitists. And it goes beyond mere posturing on gay marriage or abortion. The national security challenge is always not to appear to be "an appeaser." The way you prove that is by refusing to appease the Democratic base. The economic challenge is to walk very carefully on taxes because it "costs jobs" for the hard working man and the struggling businessman alike who are in this thing together against the liberal elites. The cultural challenge is to not appear to be too friendly to blacks or too unfriendly to socially conservative religion in order to prove that that you are not beholden to the "extremists." The entire construct is based upon Democrats distancing themselves from their most ardent supporters (which is quite convenient for Republicans.)
That being the case, I'm not sure it's ever been realistic to expect Barack Obama to be the guy to challenge all this. He carries with him the strongest cultural signifiers a Democrat can carry to make the political establishment freak out: he's young, he's from big city politics, he's elite educated and, of course, he's black. As much as the "Everymen" like to think of themselves as beyond something silly like race, unless a black person is a Republican like Powell or Rice, he is automatically suspect. As a Democrat whom they've already successfully, and erroneously, labeled as super liberal (and closet terrorist, which amounts to the same thing) Obama must work twice as hard as an older white male would have to do to prove to the gasbag elites that he can "connect" with Real Americans.
Under the system as it exists today, you can hardly be surprised that the first black Democratic nominee would be reluctant to break much more new ground than he already has. (The same would be true of the first woman president, by the way, so there would have been no advantage for Clinton --- indeed, less of one, since she inherited president Clinton's baggage as well.) Indeed, I always assumed that the first black or female presidents would have to be Republican for just that reason --- only a Republican can go to China and all that rot.
As the Republicans fall back and regroup, Democrats have decided to use some of their political advantage of the moment to advance something important: the full equality of African Americans. In America, with our history, the symbolism of that means something quite real. But there is a trade off involved. He has less freedom of movement than someone like a John Edwards might have had.
I wish that he would use some of his rhetorical gifts to challenge conservative assumptions more and I'm hopeful that he will, as president, work to redefine the conventional wisdom. I'm also hopeful that his approach on the big issues will not be reflexively compromising. But as of right now, there remains a strong belief among all the Democratic players that liberals are losers --- and they want to win. I don't think we're going to change that in the next four months.
We chose serious symbolic change that has deep cultural meaning over serious ideological change that has deep political meaning. There's nothing inherently wrong with that --- the effects of such things are far reaching and incredibly important for the advancement of our society. You can't forget that Barack himself was born at a time when Jim Crow was still enshrined in the south. This is huge. But nothing comes free and having a politically moderate president at a time when a more explicit progressivism might have gotten a boost is the price we pay. The Village will only tolerate so much change at one time. If we want real political change, it's time to change the Village.