April 19, 2006


Party in Search of a Notion: The opportunity before the Democrats is far bigger than a few House and Senate seats if they can recognize -- and seize -- this unique historical moment. (Michael Tomasky, 04.18.06, American Prospect)

What the Democrats still don’t have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society. Indeed, the party and the constellation of interests around it don’t even think in philosophical terms and haven’t for quite some time. There’s a reason for this: They’ve all been trained to believe -- by the media, by their pollsters -- that their philosophy is an electoral loser. Like the dogs in the famous “learned helplessness” psychological experiments of the 1960s -- the dogs were administered electrical shocks from which they could escape, but from which, after a while, they didn’t even try to, instead crouching in the corner in resignation and fear -- the Democrats have given up attempting big ideas. Any effort at doing so, they’re convinced, will result in electrical (and electoral) shock. [...]

In terms of political philosophy, this idea of citizens sacrificing for and participating in the creation of a common good has a name: civic republicanism. It’s the idea, which comes to us from sources such as Rousseau’s social contract and some of James Madison’s contributions to the Federalist Papers, that for a republic to thrive, leaders must create and nourish a civic sphere in which citizens are encouraged to think broadly about what will sustain that republic and to work together to achieve common goals. This is what Dad asked me to understand that day in our Granada.

This is what Democrats used to ask of people. Political philosophers argue about when they stopped; Michael Sandel believes that republicanism died with the New Deal. But for me, it’s clear that the great period of liberal hegemony in this country was, in fact, a period when citizens were asked to contribute to a project larger than their own well-being. And, crucially, it was a period when citizens (a majority of them, at least) reciprocally understood themselves to have a stake in this larger project. The New Deal, despite what conservative critics have maintained since the 1930s, did not consist of the state (the government) merely handing out benefices to the nation (the people), turning citizens into dependent wards; it engaged and ennobled people: Social Security and all the jobs programs and rural electrification plans and federal mortgage-insurance programs were examples of the state giving people the tools to improve their own lives while improving the collective life of the country (to say nothing of the way Franklin Roosevelt rallied Americans to common purpose in fighting through the Depression and the war). Harry Truman turned the idea of common purpose outward to the rest of the world, enacting the Marshall Plan, creating NATO and other regional alliances, exhorting Americans to understand that they belonged to a community larger than even their country. John Kennedy engaged Americans precisely at the level of asking them to sacrifice for a common good, through the things that are obvious to us -- the Peace Corps, and of course “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” -- and through things that history’s fog has made less obvious (his relentless insistence that victory in the Cold War could be truly achieved only through improvement at home, which would require sacrifice and civic engagement).

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, until it washed up on the bone-strewn beaches of Vietnam and New Left–driven atomization, fit the paradigm, too. Consider just the first two sentences of Johnson’s remarks upon signing the Civil Rights Act: “I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American.” Not black people. Not Southerners. Not even “our nation.” Every American -- the words gave citizens agency and a stake in seeing that this unprecedented social experiment would succeed. In March 1965, Johnson again emphasized every American’s stake in the fight for equal rights: “should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. ... Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

What Johnson and his advisers knew, just as Hubert Humphrey down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Senate knew, was that desegregation would fail if the matter were put to the American people only in terms of the rights of those directly affected; it had to be presented as advancing the common good. This was a core belief for these Democrats (besides which, they knew -- and their testimony on this point is amply demonstrated in books and memoirs and the like -- that their programs would never get through Congress if they lacked this element).

Today’s Democratic Party has completely lost connection with this principle. How and when did this happen? Against this small-r republican tradition that posits sacrifice for larger, universalist purposes is another tradition that has propelled American liberalism, that indeed is what the philosophers call liberalism proper: from Locke and Mill up to John Rawls in our time, a greater emphasis on the individual (and, later, the group), on tolerance, on rights, and on social justice. In theory, it is not inevitable that these two traditions must clash. But in the 1960s, it was inevitable that they did. And it is clear which side has won the argument within the Democratic Party.

The problem is that irrespective of the rhetoric with which its leaders sold the New Deal and Great Society to the white middle class they were in practice about things like entitlements, racial quotas, and the like all funded by rising taxes. What Mr. Tomasky is groping for here is not just small-r republicanism but the Republicanism of George W. Bush, the Third Way policies that the Democrats couldn't wait to ditch along with Bill Clinton, who was too conservative for the party, and that is proving politically popular in Britain--where Tony Blair is likewise too far Right for his Party, Canada, Australia, Japan, etc. Democrats could, indeed, return to the philosophy that won them two presidential elections in the '90s, but just imagine what would happen if they issued a Third Way/New Democrat agenda...the GOP would just pass it all and thank them for ending their obstructionism. Hardly a winning electoral strategy...

Mr. Tomasky runs up against the central dilemma that plagues the Decent Left today, they're unwilling disciples of President Bush.

The Strange Death That No One Cares About (Orrin C. Judd, 1/27/05, Tech Central Station)
-Vision Problems: INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS V. THE COMMON GOOD (Noam Scheiber, 04.28.06, New Republic)

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2006 2:34 PM

I'm beginning to wonder if the elections this November are a lose-lose situation for the Dems, and that maybe the worst thing that could happen to the Left would be for them to narrowly take the House this November. Say a one or two seat majority which can be endangered by a Jeffords-style party switch or a Dem dying or being forced to resign and the GOP winning the by-election.

The Dems would have to deliver to all those screaming on their side, and be in a bad position to do so. They'd spend their time in getting revenge and in trying to get the President. All their witch hunts and getting their pork passed would leave little time for any constructive activities. They'd overplay a weak hand by showing us why they can't be trusted with power.

It also would be an ideal opportunity for Sen. Keating-McCain to show his leadership by leading the GOP in blocking all the stupidity coming from the House and keeping his Gang of Squishes from caving in to their natural instincts. (On the other hand, I expect he will revert to form and so he and the squishes will enjoy being power brokers and the stupidty that will end up passing will be because of him.)

But the best part is that they will drag down (shout down?) the Decent Left, completely discrediting any attempt to save the party from itself is such obvious ways that can't be ignored. This guy tries to paint himself as one, but he still cites Kos approvingly. What will he do once Kos' program fails?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 19, 2006 3:33 PM

The dems do have a philosophy, a big idea, it's just they can't get elected on it.

Socialism doesn't work.

Posted by: Sandy P at April 19, 2006 5:24 PM

Sandy, Teddy Kennedy must have read your comment above because he apparently said on Kkkkkkatie's show this morning that voters need only look back to how they did when they were in power to see what they will do when they're back in power again. Wink, wink, socialism isn't selling well right now, but you all know what I mean.

How reassuring is that?

Posted by: erp at April 20, 2006 4:49 PM