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.

Why Democrats Should Embrace Simpson-Bowles

After writing about the federal budget the other day, I experienced what can only be called “a tea-party moment.”  By which I mean, a momentary but passionate longing for an end to deficit spending.  It doesn’t have to happen tomorrow, and it couldn’t have happened yesterday, but we have to have a plan for getting the federal budget back on a sustainable footing.  Democrats—all Democrats, as a party—need to embrace this goal.  If they can lead on this issue and bring the electorate to see how deficit reduction can be accomplished responsibly, they’ll find themselves enjoying renewed dominance nationally.  Endorsing the widely respected bipartisan recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission is the best way.

What’s clear from the budget graphic I wrote about last week is that the entitlements—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—, are growing at annual rates that will continue to put the squeeze on the discretionary spending that Congress determines.  That’s why deficit spending will continue, and probably at a rate much higher than the $900 billion that President Obama has been proposing.  As the mandated portions of federal spending increase, there will be less and less scope for spending that addresses topical but often urgent contemporary needs.

To the extent that Democrats in the House and Senate have cast themselves as defenders of the status quo when it comes to entitlements, they have taken up an untenable, self-immolating position that will weaken them as a party.  Most Americans understand that the structure of entitlements will have to change, and, if they don’t already, they can be made to.  Today’s entitlements are simply too good to be true.  Originally intended to aid the ill and elderly who would otherwise be destitute or cut off from care, entitlements must be preserved to fulfill their original function of assisting the most needy.  But these programs must be modified in light of experience and changing social and economic conditions.  Social welfare is an important principle that we can best honor by re-tailoring these programs to fit the 21st century.  Simpson-Bowles, which calls for substantial but gradual changes to these programs, shows us the way.  It may not be the perfect plan, but you know what?  Its huge merit is that it was arrived at, and has already been vetted in, a bipartisan way.  With its provisions for thorough-going tax reform and modifications to the sacred cow of Social Security, it represents the deep sort of compromise that can be liberating.

The approach of the Democratic convention and the November election provide Democrats with a golden opportunity.  Look at the Republican primary contest and ask yourself, what’s holding together the Republican Party?  The alarming strength of candidates like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and before them Rick Perry attests to the party’s troubling divisions.  Were I a moderate Republican, I would be desperately seeking an alternative to a party whose constituents are proving themselves to be so provincial, chauvinistic, and bigoted.  Now is the time for Democrats to take the lead.  Democrats need to become champions of efficient, compassionate government—not the backward-looking defenders of a lost society that they often seem.  Making deficit reduction and tax reform their rallying cries would leave Republicans without productive ground to occupy.  The Democrats would win many converts among disaffected Republicans and the unaligned.  Democrats cannot continue to defend government spending simply because that’s what they’re comfortable doing.

The Times this week published an amazingly convoluted analysis arguing that it has been politically necessary for President Obama to avoid acknowledging any allegiance to the deficit-reduction plan that Bowles-Simpson produced—even though his current ideas about deficit reduction mirror theirs.  The fact is: the burden of deficit reduction isn’t the President’s.  The deficit problem belongs to Congress, and Congress alone.  That’s why it’s so important that the Democratic Party as a whole take responsibility.  Take the lead.  Admit that recent economic trends give us the breathing room to tackle the deficit issue, and take up a position in the center field.  It’s not just good politics.  At bottom, it’s what’s prudent and responsible: a balanced budget—or a nearly balanced one—is what the country needs.

2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II)

This is the conclusion of a two-part article.  For Part One, click here.

Looking back on it, what’s striking about the 2008 election is the shallowness of Obama’s victory.  It was a great victory for a man and a race, but not a great victory–a transforming event–for the Democratic Party or the party system more generally.  This lackluster outcome surprised me, because, going into it, I had expected that a lot more would happen.  The departure of George W. Bush from the presidency without any obvious successor had thrown the door wide open to real newness.  I had firmly expected to see, not just new candidates, but real ideological innovation on one or both sides.

Bush’s departure not only created an opportunity for a new cadre of leaders to rise; it also invited the introduction of new political paradigms that would reinvigorate or replace the tired ideas on which both parties have been coasting.  The country hasn’t had a critical election since Reagan’s in 1980.  Yet, since then, our circumstances have greatly changed.  Issues that have since become important include the rise of China, disturbing changes in finance and American industrialism, growing commodity scarcity, green issues, immigration, the diminishing power of nation states in the face of globalism, and changes in the quality and character of life for American citizens.

For Republicans, the challenge is to refashion the worn-out elements of Reaganism on which the party still relies.  As the election cycle of 2008 made plain, the Republicans face two central difficulties.  The first is that of continuing to integrate the various blocs of voters that have sustained Republican party power since Reagan’s ascendancy.  The religious and socially conservative bloc of the party tends to pull the party in a different direction than the purely economic one, and that direction is not in accordance with the American mainstream.  Now that the party has become so thoroughly associated with conservatism, its second difficulty is articulating an ideology palatable to an America that is increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan.

The triumph of McCain over competitors like the evangelist Mike Huckabee demonstrated that the power of the Republicans continues to rest principally with the more moderate elements of the party.  But the phenomenal popularity of his running mate, the provincial and anti-modern Alaskan Sarah Palin, and her polarizing effect on the electorate point up how problematic the more extreme yet energized elements within the Republican Party can be.  How can it move itself away from reliance on this base in order to maximize its appeal to the mainstream?  No one emerged in 2008 who was capable of weaving together the right combination of themes.

As for the Democrats, let’s face it: the old ideas that have galvanized the Democratic Party are frightfully tired; they’re used up, exhausted, and have been for decades.  The Democratic Party has not had a redefining era since the late 1930s, and by now we’ve gotten all the mileage we can out of New Deal Democracy and Keynesianism.  Forgive me, Paul Krugman.

Bill Clinton realized this back in the eighties when he began moving the Democratic Party toward the center.  His campaign and presidency marked a departure from the kind of ideological high-mindedness that the ineffectual Jimmy Carter had embodied.  Clinton, though not chiefly an ideologue,  recognized that the traditional New Deal beliefs of the Democratic party boxed him in.  So he practiced a kind of pragmatism that enabled him to capture the votes of more people in the center of the political spectrum.  No wonder old-style liberals hated him: in many ways, he was indifferent to their core beliefs.

Tone-deaf as an ideologue, Clinton was an outstandingly effective problem-solver.  His great political skills and grasp of presidential power enabled him to accomplish a great deal even in a fractious political environment.  Because Clinton was pragmatic, he was comfortable following through on and appropriating several landmark initiatives–including NAFTA and welfare reform–that his Republican predecessors had initiated.  He likewise eagerly backed legislation to liberalize the banking industry, making it easier for more Americans to qualify for mortgages and buy homes.  These measures helped lay the groundwork for the 2008 financial crisis, but at the time they were popular and contributed to the great economic boom associated with Clinton’s presidency.

Clinton supplied his party with a winning style of leadership that continues to influence Democrats today.  Within the party, a general stance of moderation, coupled with a benign, can-do mentality, is more important than any principle or ideal.  This was evident in 2008, in the narrow contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential nomination.  Both were highly educated, attractive, moderate candidates who are good problem-solvers.

In the end, the contest hinged on tactics and personality, not ideas.  Shrewd tactics on the part of the Obama camp enabled him to win a few crucial primaries, and he beat the Clintons at their own game by winning former Clinton supporters, notably Caroline Kennedy, to his side.  In the debates, Obama excelled at hewing closely to Hillary’s positions while qualifying them.  His style in the debates was responsive and has remained so ever afterward.  In the end, Obama’s nimble campaigning captivated voters, swaying them with vague slogans like “Yes We Can” and “Change You Can Believe In.”  Sadly, this contest never amounted to a struggle for the soul of the party.

Isn’t it strange to look at a political scene full of people constantly opinionating and editorializing, that reels with up-to-the minute coverage, “political action,” and political advertising, where voters are constantly being appealed to dramatically–only to realize that nothing’s happening?  Particularly in the Democratic Party, ideological work that needs to be done simply isn’t getting done for some reason.  In the meantime, popular movements like the Tea Party and Occupy express the discontent and frustration that many citizens feel.