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The Cynic's Approach to Democratic Victory
July 3, 2001
by birdman

The Cynic's Approach to Democratic Victory

The author of A Blueprint for Taking Back the Democratic Party, TygrBright, does a good job analyzing the present situation and expresses quite well the frustrations of those of us who long for a party that shares our political principles. Unfortunately I think she is dead wrong in her solutions. When Bright asks why the Democrats refused to block Ashcroft or have not spoken out more aggressively against the more appalling aspects of the Bush agenda she's missing the point. There are much bigger battles to be fought than Ashcroft (the Bushies weren't going to smile and nominate Lawrence Tribe if Ashcroft had been stopped). And it would be decidedly counter-productive to appear committed to an ideological agenda at the expense of the efficient functioning of government. If you doubt that just consult with Newt Gingrich about the government shutdown of 1995. I like Bright's vision of a new Democratic Party. I like it in the abstract, but in the real political world it looks a lot like the Green Party.

The Green Party is aesthetically pleasing to activists because it is a party with an ideological purpose. In fact it has no other purpose other than to promote its ideology. Nobody is a Green because their parents were, or because they got a city job through the local Green organization. They're Green solely because they're activist. They're also a very small group because they're activist.

To play in the political big leagues these days requires a party with name recognition, a large population base, and unfortunately a hefty pile of money. You need donors, you need activists, you need less ideologically loyal party workers and you need a very broad base of voters who feel comfortable with your ideas and the people who are on TV presenting them. The more narrowly you define your political vision the more you risk turning people off. The most successful parties are broad coalitions. It's entirely a numbers game. Fifty-one million wasn't quite enough last November. We need to get to fifty-five or sixty million and we're not going to get there by recruiting outside the Birkenstock store.

Dominant parties are broad coalitions (the Republicans between 1860 and 1912; the Democrats between 1932 and 1964). It's easy to look back at FDR and Truman and Kennedy and Johnson and say "look what we can do if we rebuild the party around our progressive principles," but if you look at that era more closely you realize that most of the South was still dominated by Democrats. Conservative Democrats. Segregationist Democrats. On top of that, of those four Presidents only Johnson ran on a largely progressive platform.

The Republicans are actually a good deal more fratricidal than the Democrats. Every time I hear some right-wing Republican saying that they are better off without Mc Cain or Jeffords or any body in the Northeast or anybody whose knuckles don't drag sufficiently on the ground when he walks, I feel like celebrating. They're making their party narrower, more regional, and an anathema to mainstream America. The Democrats can put them into permanent minority status if they don't join them in the pursuit of political purity. As repugnant as Tom Delay and Bob Barr are to watch on TV the Democrats should pay the networks to put them on.

What The Party Should Do

Expand the base - don't cleanse it

The future of the party is in the growing minority community and the educated suburban population that's started to feel that the Republicans are controlled by fetus-freaks and gun nuts. Add this to the aging population (older citizens tend to need more services than young ones) and decreasing rural populations, and it's clear that the party is on the growth side of American demographics. The Democrats need to organize heavily in the exploding Hispanic community which is going to change the political dynamic in states like Arizona, Nevada and maybe even Texas (someday). Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana (Southern states with large urban areas) are going to be in play from now on. They should be able to hold their own with the rich and the upper-middle class suburbanites because many of them are not culturally comfortable with the religious right. The aging baby-boomers and the growing number of Americans with graduate degrees should provide all the numbers the party needs as long as they don't seek political purity. You have to hold on to what you have and build from there.

But none of those groups are going to take the party seriously if the perception is that it's a party of clowns who demonstrate in Seattle dressed in turtle suits or fanatics who drive spikes into trees to injure loggers. Recognize that Americans by and large are not ideologues and consequently they will consult their own interest on any political issue.

Take what you can get when you can get it

As painful as it may be to confront, liberals have to realize that they will never again be able to sell anything more than the most limited use of affirmative action. Likewise you won't convince the parents of a teenage girl that they shouldn't have any say in whether the girl can have a abortion. The Freedom of Choice Act failed in Congress in 1993 because ideologues refused to vote for a bill that allowed "parental notification". So the bill died and they got nothing. Do you think they wish they had passed that bill now? Sometimes you have to settle for half the loaf.

Stridency alienates swing voters; it always will. And without the non-activist swing voter you're the Greens, the Constitutionals, the Libertarians. You're losers.

Politicians are a means to an end - they will sell you out - always

Most politicians start out wanting to do good things but you have to remember that a politician is a salesman whose product is himself. It's easy to convince yourself of your own indispensability even as you push the things you wanted to accomplish further and further down the list of priorities.

Bill Clinton by all accounts was an idealistic young man when he came of age in the late 60's, but after he carried the Democratic party's banner into the White House he turned his back on the party's decades long commitment to the poor and set back the cause of national health care 20 years. This was because Clinton's priority by that time was himself. He existed by then to ride in Air Force One, hobnob with the rich and powerful and plug Panatelas into star-struck valley girls. He had become more important than any policy and he wasn't going to take any risks (except those involving thong underwear) that endangered his position of power. Clinton is not alone; any politician will do this and the only way to prevent them from doing it is to have a large enough base to give them a spine.

Stand for principle - when you can. Be practical in the close ones

To briefly revisit the Greens: Ralph Nader. He's the father of the consumer movement, a thorn in the side the corporations that pay low wages, make unsafe products and poison the atmosphere. He's a great American. You could never say that about Al Gore, but if you voted for Nader last November and don't wish now that you had that vote back, then there's no hope for you. It's time to get fitted for the turtle suit. I voted for Nader in 1996 because I was angered by Clinton's shallow disregard for the issues of those who elected him. At the same time I knew that Clinton would win. If I thought Dole had a shot I almost certainly would have suppressed my anger and voted for Clinton.

Winning parties achieve success by making the largest number of people feel politically and culturally comfortable. We may not always like it but "big tents" win. Small ones lose.


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