Own Worst Enemies
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
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,
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
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
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.