September 1, 2007


Democratic Vistas: THE ARGUMENT: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics By Matt Bai (NICK GILLESPIE, 9/02/07, NY Times Book Review)

There are longer-lived trends that should worry the Democrats. In 1970, according to the Harris Poll, 49 percent of Americans considered themselves Democrats (31 percent considered themselves Republicans). In 2006, the last year for which full data are available, affiliation with the Democrats stood at 36 percent (the silver lining is that the Republicans pulled just 27 percent). If the Democrats are in fact the party of Great Society liberals, the problems run even deeper. The percentage of Americans who define their political philosophy as “liberal” has been consistently stuck around 18 percent since the 1970s, and the Democratic presidential candidate has failed to crack 50 percent of the popular vote in each of the past seven elections.

“The Argument” provides plenty of reasons to think that the Democrats, owing to an off-putting mix of elitism toward the little people and glibness toward actual policy ideas, are unlikely to go over the top anytime soon. Or, almost the same thing, to make the most of any majority they hold. The book describes Soros, after Bush’s victory in 2004, coming to the realization that (in Bai’s words) “it was the American people, and not their figurehead, who were misguided. ... Decadence ... had led to a society that seemed incapable of conjuring up any outrage at deceptive policies that made the rich richer and the world less safe.” Rob Reiner, the Hollywood heavyweight who has contributed significantly to progressive causes and who pushed a hugely expensive universal preschool ballot initiative in California that lost by a resounding 3-to-2 ratio, interrupts a discussion by announcing: “I’ve got to take a leak. Talk amongst yourselves.” Bai never stints on such telling and unattractive details, whether describing a poorly attended and heavily scripted house party or a celebrity-soaked soiree in which the host, the billionaire Lynda Resnick, declared from the top of her Sunset Boulevard mansion’s spiral staircase, “We are so tired of being disenfranchised!”

Moulitsas, the Prince Hal of the left-liberal blogosphere, comes off as an intellectual lightweight, boasting to Bai that his next book will be called “The Libertarian Democrat” but admitting that he has never read Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and social theorist, who is arguably most responsible for the contemporary libertarian movement. Moulitsas’ co-author (of “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics”), Jerome Armstrong, talks a grand game about revolutionary change, but signed on as a paid consultant to former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, an archetypal centrist Democrat whose vapid presidential campaign ended almost as quickly as it began. When MoveOn — the Web-based “colossus” whose e-mail appeals, Bai says, have always centered on the same message: “Republicans were evil, arrogant and corrupt” — devised its member-generated agenda, it came up with a low-calorie three-point plan: “health care for all”; “energy independence through clean, renewable sources”; and “democracy restored.”

Recalling a meeting of leading progressives — including Armstrong, Representative Adam Smith of Washington and Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network — just after the 2006 midterm elections, Bai writes: “Seventy years ago ... visionary Democrats had distinguished their party with the force of their intellect. Now the inheritors of that party stood on the threshold of a new economic moment, when the nation seemed likely to rise or fall on the strength of its intellectual capital, and the only thing that seemed to interest them was the machinery of politics.”

In 1980, after fifty years of liberalism regnant, America had been bequeathed a world where the USSR and communist allies controlled half the globe, where the economy was stagnating and prices were rising, and where there was such spiritual malaise that a president took to the airwaves to whine about it.

Ronald Reagan, in turn, called for a return to the values, principles and policies of earlier days and ushered in a period that has seen an unprecedented quarter century of uninterrupted economic growth, the obliteration of communism/socialism, and a resurgence of faith and faith-based policy in America. So dispositive is the victory of democracy/capitalism/protestantism that Francis Fukuyama coined the term End of History to describe it. Essentially, after two hundred years of miserable failure by a variety of isms, there simply is no challenger to the Anglo-American model any longer.

The Left is understandably upset about the abject failure of everything it believed in and a good portion of the movement has been unable to process the fact. While folks like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Rahm Emmanuel had sense enough to throw in the towel and move their parties to the Right, many activists and intellectuals have instead become nothing more than reactionaries. This leaves them in the obviously futile position of insisting that the past three decades are a mistake and that we should return to the recipe that brought us the godawful 1970s.

The "Argument" then boils down to this: should Democrats seek to vindicate their ideals and crash and burn in McGovern/Carter/Dukakis/Gore/Kerry fashion, or should they accept the Western consensus and run as a kind of chick-friendly version of conservatism, a la Bill Clinton and George W. Bush?

Such is the nature of ideology and the eternality of the tension between Security and Freedom that just because the latter obviously have the stronger case does not mean they will prevail. When they do, we'll get stuff like the current Congress, which is indistinguishable from the Republican-dominated one that preceded it. When the former prevail, we'll get actual Republicans. Either way, it's mostly win-win for the country.

Political Inspiration: A historian considers the relationships among Christianity, Nazism and communism. : a review of SACRED CAUSES: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror By Michael Burleigh (Mark Mazower, September 2, 2007, Washington Post)

Perhaps in the United States, with its high rate of churchgoing, the importance of religion is obvious. But in Europe, the impact of faith on public life was, until recently, widely assumed to be in decline. Of course, episodes such as the Roman Catholic Church's alliance with Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1980s highlighted the oddity of thinking that religion was a medieval phenomenon, not a modern one. Yet for decades, theorists of progress predicted that the more societies modernized, the weaker the grip of religion would become: What lay at the end of the road was the inevitable triumph of secularism.

Quite rightly, Michael Burleigh wants none of this. His Sacred Causes-- a sprawling, uneven and irascible book -- argues that religion never went away. Not only did churches play a role in the resistance (and accommodation) to 20th-century totalitarianism of the Right and Left, but, in Burleigh's view, those ideologies were in fact political religions that borrowed their trappings, rhetoric, dogmatism and fervor from the church.

There was, however, a key difference between religious leaders engaging in politics and political leaders demanding religion-like devotion. Christianity, Burleigh says, contributed to Europe's political culture by carving out a space beyond the power of the state. Stalin and Hitler, on the other hand, extended state power into previously private realms. Lethal, fake religions triumphed -- for a time -- over real, humane ones.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 1, 2007 7:57 AM

So-called, self-proclaimed "progressives," surely.

Look, all that "Third-way" talk is all well and good. There are two caveats, however.

In the first place, Clinton had never been a practicioner of the "Third-way" Clinton I was a sleaze, period. Clinton II is the same kind of sleaze, heavily implicated in the crimes of Clinton I.

Furthermore, the Democrat party is deeply in the thrall of folk-enemies and cultural traitors. Racial separatists, homosexuals, peace-creep draftdodgers, schoolteachers--they are all there, and the Democrats cannot get rid of them.

You are correct in holding that the Democrats really wouldn't change very much in foreign policy. They can't because of the geopolitical realities, which are no more amenable to political manipulation than the anatomical realities which cause queers to die of Aids.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 1, 2007 8:56 AM

Reagan saved SS. Clinton transformed Welfare.

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2007 12:11 PM

For the umpteenth time - Clinton transformed nothing. He signed a bill because he wanted to be re-elected. He had vetoed it twice previously. His wife's closest advisor broke with them when he signed it. So did many of his lefty academic friends.

It wasn't hard work - he signed a piece of paper. He didn't sponsor it, didn't write it, didn't fight for it, and didn't really negotiate that much on it. It was a good thing - he made the right decision. But he didn't own it.

Had welfare reform caused an upheaval in the Democratic party, with the CBC leading a rebellion from the left, to the point of a third party jelling together, Clinton wouldn't be viewed the same way. But such risks weren't for him.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 2, 2007 12:55 AM

He ran on ending welfare as we knew it and did.

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2007 7:10 AM

He ran on a middle-class tax cut and a tougher line with the Chinese. What happened there?

He signed a Republican bill. Good for him and the nation. But he didn't own it - he could have done that in 1995, but he passed.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 2, 2007 11:22 AM

Absent a GOP Congress, would welfare reform have even been brought to the floor of the House and Senate? 'Nuff said.

Posted by: ratbert at September 2, 2007 1:22 PM


Bingo! Bill Clinton was a Republican and needed a GOP congress to get what he ran on, including the tax cuts they passed together.

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2007 1:32 PM