The Democratic Party of my dreams

I’m still waiting for a breakout Democrat to cast the party along new lines. I’m tired of the old Democratic party, which still plays identity politics, makes bad bargains with public resources, and is generally very loose with money. I’m tired of big government that’s inefficient and behind the times.  I want a small powerful government that does things well.

I’m waiting for a new Democratic party to come along, that’s resolutely focused not on unions but on all who work.  Most workers are not, and may never be, organized.  For their sake, the party needs to demand corporate responsibility and corporate investment in our citizens and our native economy.  I’m waiting for a new party that cares about industry and sustainability, that’s ardent and uncompromising about making high-quality, next-generation goods here in the States, and that believes in the collective capacities of the citizenry to take the US economy higher.

I’m waiting for a party that’s proud of universal health coverage, that insists on quality public education, and favors everything local and green.  I want a party that’s candid about globalism’s dark side.  That wants to curtail immigration sharply for a while, in order to take into account all who are here, strengthen our civic fabric, and restore American citizenship’s prestige.

I’m waiting for Democrats who will demand peace: who will foreswear the siren song, the illusory notion that we can ever really “protect American interests abroad.”  I’m waiting for a party that will respect the sovereignty of other nations and that’s clear-eyed enough to refrain from unending militarism abroad.

I’m waiting, and I’m sure that a large population waits with me.

Democracy on the ground

Click on the image to view the New York Times interactive map of House election results.

Click on the image to view the New York Times interactive map of House election results.

This map of House election results from the New York Times dramatically conveys the state of democracy on the ground.  Because the entire House stands for election every two years, the results express the state of local sentiment better than Senate elections can.

The map does not correct for population density, so one must bear in mind that some of the vast red areas represent relatively few people.  Still, it’s sobering to contemplate the restricted appeal of a Democratic ethos.  Just think of all the Americans, living in all the varied settings pictured on this map, to whom Democratic party principles no longer appeal.  Democratic strength is extremely limited geographically, whereas, as David Brooks points out, it’s hard to deny that Republican conservatism represents the mainstream.  It’s ironic, because red regions contain many people who use and benefit from the sorts of programs and services that Democrats perennially champion and defend.  Well-being is not all that drives people to the polls.

The Democratic Party’s ethos no longer resonates with such voters culturally.  Instead, the party has become identified mainly with the coastal and urban regions where more educated people tend to gather.  Looking at this map, it’s easy to understand why ‘mainstream’ Americans resent the undue influence that urban elites exercise through the media.

Many Democrats I know, convinced of the morality and truth of their views, do not see a need to proselytize.  I once asked a liberal friend why she didn’t volunteer to canvas in Democratic campaigns, and she said, “I guess it’s because I’m right—and I think that, if other people can’t see that, there’s nothing I can do.”  It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is becoming irrelevant to a huge natural constituency of small-town and working-class Americans who are just getting by.  In those broad regions where Democratic leaders are giving up, an important strain of political culture may one day die.

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The Enduring Republican Grip on the House (NYT)

After the Red Wave: What Democrats Should Do

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Republican gains in Tuesday’s elections delivered a stunning rebuke to Democrats and their party.  The GOP is resurgent, despite having teetered after the 2012 election on the verge of disintegration and decline.

The Republicans achieved this gain primarily by telling voters that, under President Obama and the Democrats, the nation has fared badly.  Republican candidates attacked both the style and substance of the administration.  They assailed a government that they styled as autocratic, expensive, and ineffective.  They railed against government intrusion, and (in the case of illegal immigration) against governmental laxness, too.  They chafed against laws and constraints they don’t believe in.  Most of all, Republicans succeeded by denigrating what will surely be regarded as this era’s most significant achievements, such as the government’s success at bringing the nation back from the brink of all-out economic collapse and at passing a radical yet tenable and comprehensive health-care reform bill.

Strategically, the GOP also took care to marginalize some of the worst kooks seeking to work their way up in the party’s ranks.  The Republican National Committee under Reince Priebus encouraged and supported more electable candidates whose messages would still resonate with conservatives.  The policy also served the goal of producing a Republican Congress that is more homogeneous and governable.  Anyway, as campaign strategy, it worked.  Even weak candidates like Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas won.

Sadly, the Democrats were afraid to be identified with their party’s strengths.  They also failed to deliver a vision of government, that, if consonant with their recent achievements, was fresh and forward-looking.  As the president’s time in office wanes, Democrats should be thinking about how to catch the next wave.  What should the Democratic Party be about, once heavyweights like Obama and the Clintons are gone?  The Dems are notably short on galvanizing up-and-comers who could breathe new life into what has become a too-staid and centrist political party.

Chiefly, though, the Democrats have failed to accommodate and adapt to legitimate criticisms of Democratic governance and ideology.  In particular, they do not seem attuned to the people’s desire for a government that, if powerful, is deft and efficient.  They have not cared enough about the national mood to break with the president and demand Congressional debate on issues like our open-ended bombing campaign against the Islamic State.*  Nor have Democrats cared enough about the middle and lower classes to attack the glaring issue of corporate responsibility, favoring a rise in the minimum wage, yes, but remaining silent on a host of policies that work against working-class prosperity while benefiting corporations and the interests of global capital unduly.

Renew themselves: in short, this is what the Democrats must do.  Dare to be a more interesting, local, peaceful, green, and economical party.  Dare to think small, and find new ways to promote prosperity that rely less on government spending and more on shrewd uses of information and technology.  Scour the countryside for young, charismatic, ardent, and innovative political thinkers.  Restore pride in American citizenship and civic culture.  And move beyond the paradigm of the social-welfare state in trying to figure out how to give a stagnant, suffering America what it wants and needs.

* The president has since called on Congress to debate and authorize the bombing campaign.

A talent gap that favors the GOP

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY, no matter how retrograde its ideas, has long outshone Democrats in its ability to attract galvanizing up-and-comers.  Eric Cantor’s startling fall is just the latest instance of a conservative “star” self-destructing, but one that underscores the Party’s uncanny ability to spot and exploit a long string of controversial media darlings: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan . . . the length of the list is downright alarming.

Cantor, though departing the House under a cloud, had become a nationally known leader at an impressively young age.  Figures like Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul have few Democratic counterparts.  Rising Democrats like Kristen Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren have yet to be given leading roles that would signal their stature within their party, and Warren, a latecomer to politics, is only now beginning to hit her stride.  Only the GOP has a cadre of young iconoclastic lieutenants with big responsibilities and long resumes.

The GOP’s leadership advantage derives not just from personality but from the very ideological conflict that has threatened to weaken it as a party.  In the last presidential election, outsized but deeply flawed figures like Palin or Herman Cain held our attention because they stood for something, because they were staking their claim to the soul of their party, and because something dramatically different was going to happen if they gained enough popularity.  Even as we despised them, they contributed paradoxically to the political system’s health, energizing the opposition and re-establishing the voting public’s unwillingness to tolerate meanness, character flaws, or dangerous ideas.

Only when President Obama leaves office will it be clear how decrepit the Democratic Party has become.  His youth and charisma have tended to compensate for the Democrats’ bland leadership and ideology, concealing how staid and, well, conservative, its major figures are.  Figures like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden are wonderful public servants, but they can hardly be said to represent a vanguard.

Disarray in the Republican Party has given the Democrats an opportunity to dominate and prevail.  Instead, the Democratic Party is languishing.  Democratic leaders have grown unaccustomed to risk-taking, and they have lacked the energy required to consolidate their power in the states, win back the South, or expand the breadth and fervor of their support among voters nationally.  Meanwhile, their inability to cultivate young talent leaves them poorly positioned to weather the generational change at hand.

The GOP’s marriage of convenience turns sour

Back in the spring of 2012, I wrote a post, Is the Republican Party Dying?, in which I surmised that the GOP, despite its already apparent fissures, was unlikely to collapse any time soon, because of the broad popularity it continued to enjoy at the state level in many parts of the country.  Now, in the wake of last week’s House vote on a bill to reopen the government, we have fresh evidence with which to assess the current condition of the party.

The GOP’s troubles appear to be growing, for, with the House vote that ended the government shutdown, the relative strength of the GOP’s intransigent right wing is clear to see.

Here is the vote count and its geographic distribution as depicted in a New York Times interactive graphic on October 17.  The yes vote (totaling 235 votes) was composed of 198 Democrats and 87 Republicans.  The no vote (totaling 144 votes) was composed entirely of Republicans unwilling to compromise, or to adhere to the advice of the moderate leadership of the party, as embodied in the House Speaker, John Boehner.

The size of the “no vote” is significant and startling, establishing that the more radical “Tea Party” element in the GOP, far from being a minority tendency as often depicted, comprises a MAJORITY of all House Republicans.  Far from being a “tail” that is “wagging the dog,” the Tea Partiers have morphed into the dog itself.  The only wonder is that they have not yet used their power to depose John Boehner–a miracle that has probably astonished the Speaker himself.

Regarding the “upcountry” character of these more radical Republican characters, the NYT map illuminates how difficult it will be to dislodge them, and why this faction so consistently overestimates its prospects for influencing the mass of the American population.  In many states where the suicide caucus lives, it enjoys a virtual monopoly.  In 12 states—including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, and Arizona—all the Republican representatives are of the intransigent kind.

These blinkered souls believe, despite the mounting evidence of public opinion polls, that their views command the assent of the American mainstream, and they are confidently planning to extend their geographical sweep into more moderate Republican territory.  In the meantime, moderates, alarmed at the immoderation of their right wing, have begun planning to challenge them in the primaries.  The battle for control of the GOP will be hard-fought.

But for now, the rest of us have seen how dangerous and desperate political actors can be when trying to hold together a party that’s imploding.  Should we condemn John Boehner for accommodating the radicals, or be relieved that no more radical obstructionist is replacing him?  The GOP truly is a grand old party, and should its literally elephantine organization collapse, the attendant damage would be catastrophic, not just for the party, but, as we have seen, for the nation too.

Looking back on this period, historians will puzzle over the decision of the GOP to welcome this radical fringe into their party.  Even now, the traditional Republicans could recover their dominance by unceremoniously cutting the Tea Party loose.  Without the GOP’s support and legitimation, the radicals’ spell would be broken, and their national influence would evaporate overnight.

Moderate Republicans who believe that such destructive zealots are necessary to their party have forgotten about the massive bloc of disaffected voters in the center of the political spectrum, waiting for forward-looking parties and personalities to appeal to them.