Democrats: Shake It Up

CAN THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY change from within?  Probably not, because most very active Democrats see no need to.  The party has its entrenched blocs of support, just as the Republican Party does.  The Democratic Party’s need to retain its base, which it counts on to win in national elections, enforces its own tendency to be conservative.  Sadly, the party is unlikely to give up or disregard interests already in its column, even if doing so would bring it a base of support that’s broader, stronger, and more fervent.

It’s an unfortunate situation for several reasons.  1.) The Democratic Party is at risk of losing control of the Senate to an observably weaker party that’s on the verge of disintegrating.  Yet rather than boost its popularity by advancing a constellation of smart new ideas, the Democratic Party is coasting along defensively, its identity defined by its historical positions and the reactive posture it habitually assumes vis-à-vis the Republican Party.  What the Republicans attack, the Democrats defend.

2.) The Democrats’ patchy ideological vision leaves the country vulnerable to a rightward lurch: the staleness that might seem a parochial problem is a problem for the country, too.  The party’s failure to take up feasible positions on matters like fiscal reform or entitlements, for instance, leaves us with a defeated, going-nowhere feeling.  (Did you know that many Democrats, including my own representative Jan Schakowsky, voted against the bill to increase the debt ceiling?  Their numbers equaled the number of Republicans who voted no.)  Democrats’ inability to change with the times is creating an ideological vacuum that other ideas—other candidates—other factions are filling.

3.) In the meantime, large blocs of disaffected or simply bored voters have been left without partisan representation.  Such voters now comprise a plurality of the electorate, as the percentage of Americans affiliated with either party has continued to decline.  If the Democrats wish to remain relevant, they as a group must fashion an ideology that appeals to a greater number of these voters, and that’s compelling enough to induce them to identify with the party.

It’s not enough for a few leading Democrats (e.g., the President) to espouse new ideas.  The Democrats collectively must shift to new ground.  It’s not enough for a few Democrats reach out to young voters, or to green voters, say, because, in themselves, such gestures have no efficacy.  Without the power of a whole party behind them, the proposals of a few men or women mean nothing.

Until the Party modifies its identity, its would-be adherents will know the party is not really about them.  They won’t be able to rely on it as a vehicle of their values and concerns.  This is why enthusiasm for voting and the parties is waning.  This is why so many Americans are dissatisfied with the work their political leaders are doing.  The parties do not faithfully mirror modern Americans and their world; the mirrors they hold up are cloudy with the treacly cliches of decades.  They’re distorted with age.

Democrats must give up their comfortable mantras and embrace efficiency.  They must become champions of small, smart government, because this is the only kind that we can sustain.  There’s no reason why Democrats can’t continue to champion a constructive federalism (that’s only sensible), but they must work to rid government of its bloated, statist qualities.  Democrats must work toward a sort of state that maximizes individual freedom, which paradoxically might include becoming more protective of our economy, our skills & labor, and our resources and environment.

Democrats should identify themselves with the project of restoring civic integrity to the country, whether through increased emphasis on civics education in schools, through clearer paths to citizenship, or through the embrace of a party-wide pledge to renounce things like super-PAC money.  Democrats should acknowledge that entitlements must be reformed and take the lead in proposing changes that are practical and humane.

There are glimmers of hope within the Democratic Party.  I find it hopeful that the president and the Clintons are working together more closely.  Though none are ideologues, each has personified a pragmatic liberalism that could help catalyze a new outlook party-wide.  If aided by an echelon of leading Democrats, their inclinations could form the nucleus of an all-out movement.

Meanwhile, closer to home, a progressive version of Democracy is very much on display, with Illinoisans like Rahm Emanuel, Toni Preckwinkle, and now even Governor Quinn pushing against the party’s traditional constituencies in a quest for more efficient government that reins in spending.

Can the Democrats shake it up and become a new party?  Though it seems up to them, perhaps the answer’s with you.

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New Democrats

One of the strange things about the Democratic Party is that it’s only had two major ideological phases in its very long life.  In the first phase of its life—from 1828 to 1932—it was the party of less government, states’ rights, and laissez-faire.  In the second phase—dating from 1932 to the present—it’s been the party of big government, activist government, and more dedicated than the Republicans to the rights of the people.

Even though the Democratic Party is full of good people who believe they have right on their side, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Republican Party is more vinegary, more organized and interesting.  Perhaps because long ago the Democratic Party believed in “letting everyone be,” its members (and I’m talking now about its ordinary members, not about leading Democrats) tend to let the Republicans hog the spotlight and get away with all kinds of outrageous things.  The Democratic Party plays defense, but as a whole its members are not organized and energized to PREVAIL in defining the character of our political life.  This is why we are always focused on the Republican Party, with its weird leaders, its mama grizzlys, its Bible thumpers, its dark strategists like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.

This is a shame, because it’s obvious that there is a lot of work the Democratic party, root and branch, could be doing.  If Democrats thought like Republicans, they would be out there in the vast “red” districts of the South and West, working to strengthen their base by reminding voters of the true civic traditions of this country.  They would be active in school districts, where the Republicans are rewriting history with misleading textbooks and charter schools.  If Democrats thought like Republicans, they would be busy trying to capitalize on Obama’s considerable star-power by tossing out their old ideas and fashioning a new ideological message, around which a vast army of moderates and independents could rally.

Instead, despite the palpably weak condition of the Republican Party, most Democrats are sitting on the sidelines, just laying bets on whether or not Obama will manage to squeak through and resigned to the prospect of losing more seats in Congress.  Yet this is a time when the Democrats (given a more can-do mentality) could have been on the offense, mobilizing to make substantial gains in both Congress and state governments.

It’s funny, because you can see Obama trying to articulate some of the elements of a New Democratic ideology.  But, as I’ve written elsewhere, this is a task that “takes a village”: reshaping a party’s message is too big a job for any one person.  You can see big Bill off on the side, like the party’s guardian angel, doing his “smart government” thing.  It may be a little more retro than I’d like, but he, too, is trying to get the Dems to move to new ground.

The Democrats may be approaching a tipping point, where they flip a switch—choose to leap into the present—and articulate a crystal-clear “New Democrat” ideology.  If I had my way, that ideology would embrace not just the green, but the local.  It would emphasize smart, rather than big.  It would pioneer a decentralization of the federal government.  And it would tout an economy based not on continued global expansion, but on the shrewd husbandry of our own great national and human capital.  It would be far more protective, more civic, and more inward looking.

This is just one vision, and there’ve gotta be many.  So, to all you New Democrats out there, I say: Get talking.