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Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Democrats, and My (Social) Hopes

The argument over the destiny of the Democratic party, hardly a new debate, isn't going to end anytime soon. Along the way, there are bound to be interesting bedfellows and surprising overlaps. For example, I've noticed Democrats as liberal as Kevin Drum, and Republicans as conservative as Joe Carter, both talking about how the Democrats ought to rediscover "states' rights" and federalism, and be content with the existing division over various moral/religious/cultural issues in the country--a concept that Timothy Burke, among many others, proposed out of frustration, and which we both subsequently explored at length. Maybe something will come of it, maybe not. But I'm exhausted by it already, at least for the moment. It's been quite an intense week.

There's one point that I feel deserves an additional bit of emphasis though: given my particular (socially conservative, economically progressive) views, why fight for the soul of the Democratic party? Belle Waring's call for libertarians to join the Democratic party strikes me as a little too neat to be workable, but I can't deny that, at least if the enormous traffic among libertarians her post has elicited in any guide, there's a persuasive case to be made there. Moreover, intellectual consistency forces me to acknowledge that, somewhere in the midst of Bush's mostly incoherent (if marvelously effective in partisan terms) "big government conservatism", there is a set of principles which I, presumably, should want to align myself with. Compassionate conservatism, national identity, community values, etc., etc. So why not turn to the Republicans, and try to make them see that cultural conservatism is compatible with social democracy? (After all, the socialist spending habits are already there, right?)

It's not entirely implausible. But frankly, I fear that the ethos of laissez-faire, however inconsistently practiced, has wormed it's way too deeply into the Republican intellectual infrastructure to be extricated, certainly not at least while current Republican strategies have lead them to political dominance. Despite all the ways in which some might, in good faith, try to present Bush's vision of an "ownership society" as the fulfillment of the communitarian Third Way, the conceptual roadblocks in the way are immense; as I wrote once before on this topic, Bush's reading of American society is fundamentally "dismissive of the group; in its defensible effort to focus on the individual, it drops the necessarily social, even collective, aspect of welfare, justice, virtue, and even (yes) liberty." Even Bush's absolutely admirable commitment to faith-based groups has always had more to do with delivering services to individuals (cheaply as well as faithfully), than with bonding people together in a society where faith-based associations play a central (or even a significant) role.

When Laura McKenna touched on the issue of religion and politics following the election, she mentioned that her father "once wrote that pro-lifers should be more at home with the Democratic party." She's referring to George McKenna's article, "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position," one of the very best things I've ever read on the politics of abortion in America. (It was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1995; you can find it now here.) His argument was basically an attempt to adapt to the abortion debate Lincoln's approach to slavery: strong moral condemnation contained with pragmatic restrictions, or in other words, don't try to eliminate it, but don't let it expand, and let your judgment of it be known. It's an approach which required a belief that "the nation had to do more than formulate procedural rules [which McKenna's associated with Stephen Douglas's plans to put slavery to a state-by-state vote]; it had to make moral judgments and act on them." Then, after making his recommendation, he asked which of the two main parties was most likely to be willing to adopt a morally authoritative, communally judgmental role? His answer was:

"[T]he proper philosophical home for pro-lifers right now is the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. To test this...substitute the word 'racism' for 'abortion.'...Democrats know that racism, like abortion, cannot be abolished by government fiat. But they also know that it is wrong to subsidize racist teachings publicly or to tolerate racist speech in public institutions or to permit racist practices in large-scale "private" enterprises. Democrats also insist that government has a duty to take the lead in condemning racism and educating our youth about its dangers. In other words, the same formula--grudgingly tolerate, restrict, discourage--that I have applied to abortion is what liberal Democrats have been using to combat racism over the past generation....With abortion, as with racism, we are conceding the practical impossibility of outlawing the evil itself but pledging the government's best efforts to make it 'rare' (Bill Clinton et al). When it comes to philosophical coherence, therefore, nothing prevents Democrats from adopting my abortion position. Indeed, there is very good reason to adopt it."

Of course, he recognizes the power of the abortion lobby, which may finally be weakened after this latest election--but then again, maybe not. And it's possible Professor McKenna has changed his mind; in the article he also acknowledged that Lincoln's "noble tradition" of providing "moral leadership" for the nation, a "synthesis of humanitarianism and institutional responsibility," still flourished in the Republican party as late as era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives, and he said he suspected it would someday be rediscovered. Well, maybe that describes today's GOP. But somehow, I think not. As Josh Marshall put it, most erstwhile "national greatness" Republicans dropped that rhetoric once it became clear that "Texas-style conservatism" could win elections and govern on the cheap, and the torch-carriers for TR's moralistic legacy have mostly affiliated themselves with the Democratic party (not that Kerry offered us much by way of national civic renewal, but it was better than what the GOP was offering).

I don't believe pragmatic, libertarian-inclined voters will stop leaning towards the GOP, not so long as it is their agenda to keep taxes low, and Bush certainly knows how to do that. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, and perhaps my preference is ultimately just an aesthetic one, but if anyone is likely to pick up the moralistic and populist thread in America today, and use it to weave a progressive political argument, I think and hope it'll be the Democrats. That's not to say I'm hitching my star to them; I sympathize with the comment made by Charlie ("I consider myself to be a liberal in the tradition of Al Smith, Bob Casey and Hilaire Belloc....George Bush is not my man....[but] it's just a damn shame that the Democratic Party abandoned me about the time I was born, because now I'm politically homeless"), and I've happily defended my, shall we say, "expressive" votes in the past. But still, I think that this is where I'll continue to focus my hopes, until and unless something better comes along.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Russell, for saying such nice things about my dad's scholarship. I would rather not put words in his mouth, so I won't comment on how his thought has evolved. He lurks around the blogosphere though, so maybe he'll pop in here.

You've made so many interesting comments in the past week, that it is difficult to decide which I should latch on to. In the future, I command you to make one smart thought per post. We internet readers have limited attention spans you know.

I do agree with you that the very entertaining Belle might be wooing the wrong element in the Republican party. I think we're unlikely to attract the libertarians without losing the social justice issues that are most important to me.

In the back of my mind, I have a future post riffing off of your discussion of communitarianism. I like elements of communitarianism, but the byproducts of it, like conformity, gives me the heebie-jeebies.  

Posted by Laura

Anonymous said...

I tend to think that libertarians could be real allies of Democrats in producing meaningful social justice, because smaller government would necessarily lead to people in need depending on social groups for services.

That said, I'm not particularly enamored of the idea of replacing coercived bureaucracy with coercived communitarianism, but then again I've always considered groups overrated. 

Posted by Chris Lawrence

Anonymous said...

Russell: I know that you are depressed, and it is probably unkind of me to try to push your farther over the edge, but I have to say that I think that your vision for the Democratic party is a pipe dream.

As you point out, laissez-faire economics has (in rhetoric if not reality) deeply penetrated the GOP and you seem to think that it is unlikely that the GOP will abandon this aspect of itself, particularlly in light of its electoral success. However, one could argue persuasively that the social liberationism that you find distasteful has an equally strong place in the fabric of the Democratic party. As I have said elsewhere, I think that this move began with the McGovern Commission, and it still persists despite thirty years of more or less constant electoral defeat at the Presidential level. Clinton is an exception, but he was successful largely by bucking his own party, and as Kerry suggests the Democrats largely retreated to pre-Clinton positions once he exited. (To say nothing of the way that the spectacular excesses of his sexual appetites dramatically undermined his ability to plausibly claim solidarity with lower and lower-middle class believers.)

The Democrats are, I think, institutionally incapable of moderating their position on abortion, civic religion, and the other sorts of issues that you would like to see the party change directions on. The chief reason is economic. The Democratic party survives on the cash of metropolitan elites, who while moderately friendly to progressive economics are desperate to keep the barbarian hordes from the heartland at bay. The party simply cannot afford to permenantly alienate this group and it never will. Period.

From my point of view, the only route to the sort of politics that you would like see is to transform the Religious Right into a more economically progressive movement and then to get the Religious Right to transform the GOP. In this sense the Religious Right is much like the metropolitian elites who play money bags to the Dems; it is a constituency that the party cannot afford to alienate.

Mind you, I don't think that this scenario is especially likely. I simply think that it is more likely that Arkansas bible-thumpers can be made to reconnect with economic populism than that Hollywood libertines can be made to meekly occupy the same tent with those that they so intensely hate.

As you know, my sympathies lie much more with classical liberalism than with the brand of religious communitarianism that you would like, so I offer this as a bit of outside analysis. Take it for what it is worth. 

Posted by Nate Oman

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Russell, a terrific post -- thank you for expounding at length and eloquently what I had just touched on. 

Posted by Hugo

Anonymous said...

Russell, don't let Nate get you down. I don't know how involved you are with the party, but if you are you know that the Hollywood libertines v. Arkansas bible thumpers is an exaggeration, and a frame on which the GOP relies very heavily to win votes among the poor and religious. Hollywood has never been much of a help to the Democrats, and Dems from Tipper Gore to Joe Lieberman to (gasp) John Kerry have had no problem jumping on the anti-Hollywood bandwagon.

As for the urban elite paymasters: it's true that there is a generally pro-choice element which has been very good to the Democrats financially, at least over the last 12 years (not that it's been doing us any good lately). But it is misleading to say they all would abandon us for any change on the abortion issue, much less that this is all 'pro-choice money'. Many of these urban elites (another convenient frame for conservatives, considering how powerless these "elites" are right now) are silicon valley millionaire-type progressives, and moderate Wall Street people like Robert Rubin. It would be strange to see these folks ditch the party over abortion when they gave scarcely a peep over Kerry's protectionist campaign rhetoric.

Further, the pro-choice stranglehold on the Democratic party accurately describes the national party, the party that gets on cable news. But on the local level and in the Congressional delegation it is at least as common to find a pro-life Democrat than a pro-choice Republican. This is accoprding to NARAL ratings. The stranglehold at the national level can only be explained by the fact that many of these leaders are themselves committed pro-choicers, and more importantly that they think this issue wins for the Democrats. I think that the are slowing being disabused of the latter notion, in which event the former will matter much less. 

Posted by Jeremiah J.