Democratic Underground  

Our Own Worst Enemies
February 21, 2002
by TygrBright

There used to be a joke going around in my old home state of Minnesota, a staunchly liberal Democratic stronghold in spite of its lapses into the surreal. Anyway, it referred to the amount of "thou shalt not/thou shalt" legislation that absorbed the time of the Minnesota Legislature, and it was very simple: "Minnesota: The Land Where That Which is Not Compulsory is Forbidden."

It's an overstatement, of course. But it serves to illuminate a real problem the Democratic Party faces in its efforts to build support broad enough to effectively dump the wingnut-and-fruitbat-dominated GOPpies into a political coffin and nail it solidly shut. The problem? Our willingness to allow a small group of vocal, active, well-intentioned and decent human beings I call the "For-your-own-goodniks" to absorb so much of the Party's energy and set so many of the priorities on its agenda.

You know who they are. They want to ban music with violent, obscene lyrics, drive tobacco off the face of the earth, keep all guns in triple-strength, time-locked vaults in an underground fortress accessible only to a select few certified sane, sober, properly-intentioned adults who have undergone a rigid screening protocol, etc., etc., etc. All in the very admirable cause of making our country safer, cleaner, healthier, less violent, and other good, desirable goals.

And it's all for our own good. Or for the good of children too young to know any better. Or for the good of vulnerable people, poorly-educated people, disadvantaged people. How can we possibly disagree with them and still be good, leftist, progressive, liberals?

Before you start shrieking "Libertarian scum!" at me, let me assure you that I do indeed believe in laws and regulations in the name of public health and safety. And I have, in the past, supported platform planks and legislation that required restricting tobacco use in public areas, banning people from operating vehicles with intoxicants in their bloodstream, etc. But before we start another self-righteous crusade in the name of the Way Things Ought To Be, let's ask some questions.

First Question: When used as directed, according to the maker's instructions, is this item harmful? How clearly and incontrovertibly established is that harm?

Second Question: How harmful, and to whom? The user? Or to people other than the user?

And finally, the question I think is most important of all: Are the gains from this crusade sufficient to offset the harm it may do to our ability to build a broad, powerful base on the common ground of classic, progressive liberal issues of economic and political justice?

What are the core, classic, progressive liberal issues, and how are they harmed by the For-your-own-goodnik mentality?

I would suggest that historically the Democratic Party has been most powerful and most influential when they have managed to frame the political dialogue around either or both of these two basic issues pertaining to the very structure of American society:

1. Access to, or truly meaningful participation in, the public political process for some large group of legally or structurally disenfranchised citizens; and

2. Bringing greater economic security to the three or four lowest income quintiles of American households.

The reason the GOPpies have been so stunningly successful in the last fifty years rests on their ability to sidetrack the attention of the public from these core issues. It is vital to them to draw the political dialogue into other channels, because as soon as the public pays attention to these core issues, the GOP is Dead On Arrival at the polls.

That's why it's so important to them to put Family Values and Gun Control and Pornography and the seductive-sounding Free Trade and, yes, even the "War on Tera" at the forefront of public consciousness.

And that's why For-your-own-goodnik crusades and causes, even the most nobly-intentioned, long-term influential ones, should be most carefully examined before someone with a "Democrat" label proposes or endorses or agitates for them.

I'm not saying that we should give up on efforts to improve public health, preserve breathable air and drinkable water, or protect the vulnerable. But we must pick our fights.

In the last fifty years Democrats have learned the skills of compromise and concession very well indeed. Maybe we need to be more willing to compromise the priorities of the For-your-own-goodnicks, and less willing to compromise our core Democratic principles of economic and political justice. In their well-intentioned efforts to make this country cleaner, healthier, and safer, they are also making it more Libertarian, more Republican, and more reactionary.

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article
Democratic Underground Homepage