Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

February 17, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I am puzzled by the Democratic Party's seeming inability to avoid fratricide. Will Rogers was right when he gave the following answer to a question about his political affiliation: "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat." Is there hope?

Lynne
Dolan Springs, AZ


Dear Lynne,

Auntie Pinko certainly thinks there is hope! But perhaps my expectations are a bit less stringent than those of many others. The Democratic Party has never in my memory been unanimous about anything - not even things we like to remember as "unanimous," like civil rights and labor issues.

Interestingly, the time we came closest to real unity (at least in my own memory) was in calling for the ouster of Mr. Richard Nixon and his band of thugs from the White House. And even then, there was a substantial element of the Party that wanted to deal with the issues in a less dramatic way.

Some worried that measures taken in the heat of indignation and the strength it generated, like the special prosecutor rules, might come back to haunt our own Party in the future. And, in spite of the gloomy observations of many Democrats, the very same thing is true of the Republican Party, although perhaps to a lesser extent.

Certainly, the Republican Party leadership does a better job of glossing over intra-party dissent. Nevertheless, the Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, has a spectrum of views and sub-groups within its ranks, and they do not always agree.

While intra-party dissent has a very obvious down side, I think that in the last twenty years or so we have lost sight of its value and the benefits it can provide, as well. The advantage to a rigidly-enforced orthodoxy on all the major issues of current public concern is, as it were, "signal strength," in getting the Party's message across. Unambiguous positions are often perceived as a sign of strength, as well, especially in times when Americans are worried about safety and security.

But there are two sides to every coin. Adherence to a strictly-defined orthodox position can provide clarity and look like strength from one angle. But from another angle, it has serious disadvantages. It can sap a Party of the benefits of creative thinking, which frequently originates with a small, unorthodox minority. It can make a Party too rigid to maneuver when external conditions undergo cataclysmic change. And it can become a real weakness, when it keeps the Party inflexible at times when flexibility can better serve the greater public interest.

As far as I can tell, Lynne, what damages the Party's effectiveness is not so much the constant internal dissent, as the attempts to quell such dissent and enforce orthodoxy by demonizing, marginalizing, and vilifying those with differing views than our own. Not one of us - not Auntie Pinko, not Mr. Kerry, not even Dr. Dean - holds "the" perfect, superior, and unequivocal Democratic agenda. That being the case, our failure to cut each other a little slack on the areas where we differ not only damages the Party's ability to achieve broader goals, but smacks of a nasty disagreeable hypocrisy, as well.

Argue passionately for our viewpoints? Certainly. Point out what we perceive as the weaknesses or disadvantages of others' viewpoints? Yes, indeed. Assume that because they differ from us they are not "real" Democrats, or should be made to change their views by subjecting them to public ridicule, castigation, and personal attacks? Absolutely not. Auntie has no patience at all with that kind of behavior.

We have a Party organization. By participating in that Party organization, each and every one of us has a chance to make a powerful impact on the directions and policies of the Party. But those who confine their "participation" to an occasional donation to someone they agree with, plus loud, rude, and quarrelsome criticism of those with whom they disagree, are hindering rather than helping the Democratic cause.

The Party is run by those who show up for meetings, staff phone banks, distribute posters, draft resolutions, study their state and local Party's bylaws/Constitution, run for Party office, hold block parties, and do other constructive, active things to advance their views of the best direction for the Party to take. Even (especially!) in "off" years, when there is no election scheduled.

Auntie has been to more than a few local Party meetings where things have gotten pretty noisy, sweaty, loud, and contentious. That's one of the functions of local Party organizations: to allow that kind of ferment. And as long as the disagreements are kept on a policy, rather than a personal level, and we are all willing to tolerate a diversity of views for the greater benefit of strength, there is little potential for harm. Each local and state Party has a process for moving views and opinions from the block or precinct level up through districts, counties, regions, and so on, right to the state Party Committee.

We also have the wonderful new tools of the information age - the Internet, e-mail, etc., - to help us communicate directly with one another across geographical boundaries. We can organize effectively by interest, and make our viewpoints broadly known throughout the Party.

But the effectiveness of these tools will be diminished if we do not follow up that organization by real, live participation, using the processes that the Party already has in place. And if the processes don't work? There's a process for dealing with that issue, too! It can be handled within the Party by votes on state and local constitutions and bylaws - but only if you attend the meetings to propose changes, argue for or against them, and vote. That's less glamorous than electing candidates, but it is the core of really influencing the Party's direction. Dr. Dean has already pledged to make the National Committee both more supportive of, and more responsive to, the state committees.

Auntie has no problems with the cheerful chaos that is the Democratic Party in its good times. We will never be without our differences and dissent (at least I hope not!) But when we borrow character assassination, ad hominem attacks, whispering campaigns, and other negative tactics that our opponents use against us, to use amongst ourselves, we have no benefits from unity or diversity, and we lose altogether.

I hope this gives you some insight on how to work constructively with diversity in the Party, Lynne, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!


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