How can the Democratic Party move from feckless to forceful?
It's time for a course correction
So, I don’t consider myself a partisan – that is to say, not a Democrat or a Republican. It’s true – I vote overwhelmingly Democratic. I mean, come on – in a democracy, you’ve got to vote for somebody*. But I’ve never been much of a joiner. And while passion for any issue makes you vulnerable to motivated reasoning, political party partisanship seems to make a person especially stupid. The in-group pull is so strong that you’ll accept almost anything. It’s best to be suspicious of partisanship.
Why do I say all of this? Because this post is about how the Democratic Party can improve. If I don’t see myself as a partisan, why would that matter? Because of where the Republican Party has gone in recent years.** I’m actually quite sympathetic to many parts of what has traditionally been considered the Republican Party program. Broadly speaking, I’m pro-free enterprise and think entrepreneurship is vastly underrated on the left. I hold a variety of what are usually described as conservative values and positions. I believe in self-restraint and hard work. I believe in family. I believe, on net, that the US has been a force for good in the world. Despite the many failures, the US always strives to do better.
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What isn’t the Republican Party committed to anymore? Well, most clearly, any sense of the truth. The way the party has rallied around the 2020 election Big Lie and pretty much excused the January 6th attack and its plotters – up to and including Trump – is just stupefying. If Republicans do not come out forcefully against what happened that day, how it came to be, and the people who plotted the attack, then I truly think the republic is done for. Along the same line, there appears to be a commitment to using every means at their disposal to undermine the functioning of our democratic republic in order to preserve and expand their power. Most concerning to me are these bills that empower state legislatures to overturn presidential election results. To finish fleshing this out, I strongly oppose the party’s adherence to the gun extremists. And I want action on climate change, with a transition to renewable and sustainable energy, which the GOP actively opposes.
At the same time, there are those issues that pull me toward the Democratic Party. Mostly this has to do with creating an economy free of desperate people. Republicans often seem content with how precarious economic life is for many Americans. As long as the wealthy and big businesses are okay, then there’s nothing left to do. The working class and poor are often left behind. Because of the success of Donald Trump in attracting working class voters to the Republican Party, this attitude might be shifting in Republican circles. But the Democratic Party has clearly been more attuned to these issues since the days of FDR. Given how beholden the modern Democratic Party is to the very same wealthy and economically powerful interests as the Republican Party, it’s fair to question the Dems commitment. But there’s no way around the fact that, historically, it’s been Democratic programs that have worked to ensure the economic security of many Americans, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, the Affordable Care Act, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, etc. And just to be clear, economic security means economic freedom. More on that later.
So, safe to say, I think Democrats winning elections matters for the well-being of Americans, the future of our republic, and the environmental future of the world.
How do they get better at elections then? This is where I start sharing what I think they should focus on. I’ll admit – none of them are particularly original to me. But I definitely see these areas getting short shrift in Democratic circles currently. It leaves me shaking my head at what appears to be the utter political incompetence of the Democratic Party. I don’t really have a handle on how it got so bad within the party. But here are things I’d like to see improve.
I think it’s safe to say that Republicans own the concept of freedom in American politics. The party’s messaging never misses an opportunity to link its program and policies back to the idea of liberty.
This is a huge problem for Democrats.
There is no more central concept to American identity and the American project than freedom and liberty. There’s just no way around it. Sure, equality is a close second – especially if we include some idea of equality as fairness. But equality/fairness is most certainly not number one, and culturally, Americans are mostly willing to pitch equality overboard in pursuit of some concept of liberty. Hell, even the high point moment of our national anthem lands on the word “free”.
The thing is, for most of our political history, liberals/progressives – and by extension, the modern Democratic Party – have fought most strenuously for freedom – abolition, women’s right to vote and achieve other rights denied to them, labor rights and safe workplaces, the ending of Jim Crow, the right to marry whom you choose (whether it’s someone of a different race or of the same sex), Social Security, Medicare, etc. Even the founding of the republic itself was a progressive movement for freedom, made in the face of monarchism, which was just accepted fare at the time.
You might be wondering why I would include Social Security and Medicare on this list. These are economic programs, not civil rights, right? Sure, but economic liberty has for too long been defined by conservatives as simply being the right to form and transact business. Economic liberty is much bigger than that. If you are not economically secure, then you are not very free. If you are starving, then you are not free. If you cannot get needed medical care, you are not free. Back to FDR for a moment, he understood this when he formulated his Four Freedoms in 1941, not only in the face of fascism, but also after the calamity of the Great Depression. He included “freedom from want”.
Democrats must begin to reference freedom and liberty in connection with everything they propose. Period. Even if it feels unnatural or shoehorned in at first. To be successful in American politics, there is no other choice. It also has the added benefit of being true.
[I’d encourage reading these essays out of a “Freedom Forum” held by The Democratic Strategist in 2010. In particular, I’d recommend the one by John E. Schwarz, but it appears to be a dead link. (I have a printed out version.) However, others refer back to the essay. (Kind of like how we only know of certain ancient Greek philosophers from the people who commented on them, I guess…) Also, I’d strongly recommend the book “Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism” by Paul Starr from 2007. That will give you a comprehensive treatment.]
Incidentally, I’m not sure I think much of Gavin Newsom, but at least he leaned *heavily* into freedom for this recent message to Floridians. We need more of this.
Stay in Touch with the Working Class
Second on my list would be for Democrats to lean away from college educated voters and toward working class voters. This used to be a core constituency of Democrats – I mean, nominally it’s supposed to be exactly who the Democrats serve in the first place – but instead working class voters became a key to Trump’s success. I grew up in the Midwest in the 70s and 80s, and many times Trump sounded to me like the old-fashioned Rust Belt Democrats of that era. Democrats have slowly turned away from those voters – most especially through how they negotiated international trade deals throughout the 90s and 00s and increasingly through cultural issues. It’s a mistake.
There’s a running debate as to whether Democrats can win simply by turning out their existing voters better or whether they need to change in order to pull in independent or former voters. I side with the latter. It’s well known that Democrats face a variety of structural problems in state and federal elections thanks to people sorting themselves geographically. (Broadly speaking, Democrats have concentrated in a few states and cities.) Republicans control many state legislatures and have gerrymandered many legislative and congressional districts. The Senate favors Republican states, and the Electoral College does, as well. However, this could be a blessing in disguise.
In an interview last year, Barack Obama and Ezra Klein talk extensively about this. Let’s recall that Obama won twice as the first black president, and part of why Clinton lost in 2016 (among many) is that there were voters that flipped from Obama to Trump (which seems as unlikely as a political journey as one could picture). In that interview, Klein says:
So you have this real difference now between the parties, where Democrats need to win right-of-center voters to win national power, and Republicans do not need to win left-of-center voters to win national power. And that really changes the strategic picture for the two of them.
Obama responds with what I think is a clear-headed and dare I say hopeful message:
That does mean Democratic politics is going to be different than Republican politics. Now the good news is, I also think that has made the Democratic Party more empathetic, more thoughtful, wiser by necessity. We have to think about a broader array of interests and people. And that’s my vision for how America ultimately works best and perfects its union. We don’t have the luxury of just consigning a group of people to say you’re not real Americans. We can’t do that. But it does make our job harder when it comes to just trying to get a bill passed, or trying to win an election.
So, in fact, these challenges could make the Democrats the true national party – if they can see past their noses.
For more on this, I’d absolutely encourage people to read The Liberal Patriot and The Democratic Strategist.
Enough with Woke
“Wokeness” – for the lack of a better term – is a real thing, and it should be opposed. I define it as an excessive obsession with race, diversity, and inclusion that: one, often tips over into an intolerance and bigotry of its own; two, is ahistorical; and three, unproductively pushes the boundaries of what most Americans are willing to accept.
Obviously this is a complex issue, and I’m going to be brief here. But put simply, wokeness has gone too far – especially and critically for many voters. To give a flavor of where I’m coming from, let me offer some brief examples.
First, the fact is that the vast majority of whites are right to be offended when they’re called racists, and it doesn’t mean they are “fragile“.
Second, I’ve read Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist”, and I found it to be an interesting and at times touching story. I feel genuine empathy for Kendi. However, oddly, one sentence threatens to tank the whole project:
The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. (p. 19)
Honestly, leaning into racial discrimination will not be a winner – let alone that it’s morally suspect. Firmly put me in the camp of people who still hope for a colorblind society someday.
Third, this belief system of wokeism can lead to some ghoulish moments. From the book “The War on the West” by Douglas Murray, I learned of an incident on the Tonight Show:
As part of his opening bit, host Jimmy Fallon mentions that, for the first time in US history, the number of white people declined. It’s supposed to be a set up to a joke about white people’s tastes (fair game for comedy) and Fox News (sure, why not), but get this – the audience actually cheers! It’s hard to imagine this being acceptable of any other race. It’s disgusting. And it’s self-defeating for anything woke proponents might hope to achieve.
Honestly, it struck me as reminiscent of a moment when libertarian Republican Ron Paul, the father of current libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul, was running for president. He was asked at a CNN debate whether society should just let someone die because that person chose not to buy health insurance when healthy, but later got sick. His supporters cheered the idea of letting the person just die:
Bottom line, much of wokeism smacks of racial essentialism – that we should be judged and treated according to unchosen, inborn traits, rather than who we are as people – and who we are as a common humanity. We’re much better off embracing the concept of universalism – that we are all equal humans sharing similar goals and aspirations – and de-emphasizing racial differences.
Why not just emphasize economics, no matter what your color? Let’s take affirmative action as an example. The policy of race-based college admissions clearly invites a backlash. And in fact, it could be made unconstitutional by the Supreme Court next term. Why not re-focus now on expanding economic opportunity by making college admissions contingent in some way on income? Sadly, in a way, that would accomplish the same result, given the way wealth, income, and race play out in our country.
Now, I want to say that I think wokeism comes from genuine concerns that America is failing to address. First, why is that minorities, especially blacks, and women continue to lag in economic terms? And second, why does it seem that policing is especially harsh for blacks? There is absolutely no reason to back off on seeking answers to these problems. Also, pushing boundaries is essential for progress. History shows us that.
But we can do that without resorting to cheering death, essentializing race and gender, and pushing a cultural revolution. Press for answers and for change, but don’t be stupid about it – especially when we’re trying to win elections against the odds.
No More Climate Catastrophism
Let me mention two more issues quickly. First, regarding the climate – enough with catastrophism. Climate change is bad and getting worse. Understood. But even in the face of that, we need a positive vision. We’ve been trying “the world is burning” memes for a while now, and it just isn’t working. That’s not to say to just ignore the danger. Those message need to be out there, too. But look for promising answers to the problem and promote them. Look into new technologies and engineering solutions. Talk them up as stop gap measures. Talk about the switch to renewables as the commonsense advice to stop digging when you’re already in a hole, while also allowing opportunities for entrepreneurial development to build us a ladder out of the hole. As a matter of political-economic power, create new industries that take on the fossil fuel industries.
By the way, people currently working in the fossil fuel industries naturally and justifiably worry about their economic futures with any transition to clean energy. Unlike those Midwestern workers who were promised a just transition with the expansion of global trade in the 90s and early 00s, we need to make sure this is real. Except for the climate deniers and BS artists, these aren’t evil people. We should treat them as such. Instead, we should work to make these people whole – similar, in a way, that we do with veterans. The new climate law in Illinois, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA), passed last year, focused in part on this – creating a just transition for these workers. Not only is that morally right, it’s also good politics.
I’ve actually been happy to see that the Biden administration and Democrats have kept up a wary stance toward the People’s Republic of China. I had a brief concern that they would change course after the election simply because Trump was so confrontational. They need to keep up this pressure.
China is a fascinating country. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit three times. I have several close friends with ties to China. I’ve enjoyed learning about Chinese culture as a hobby. Heck, I even studied Mandarin (普通话 – the widespread, national form of the Chinese language) for a year. I earned a level 1 certificate, which means I’m functionally equivalent to a toddler, I figure (if that).
But the fact is that the Chinese Communist Party has a created an authoritarian system in China, and it’s only getting worse. And of course, China is on its way, barring some catastrophe, to being the most powerful nation on the planet – both economically and militarily. Some might say, fine, let China be. But that fact is that power spills over into the rest of the world and shapes it. It matters who the global hegemon is.
Asia provides some clear examples. Japan is democratic today because of US influence. So is South Korea. As is Singapore to a degree, though that started with British influence and is incomplete. And what’s especially interesting and telling is that even Chinese officials – right up to Pres. Xi – think they have to defend China’s system as democratic! They can’t simply be authoritarian – at least on the international stage – without laying claim to democratic validity somehow.
That’s a function of US hegemony, plain and simple. Despite all of its missteps and misdeeds, America does still stand for democracy, freedom, and human rights on the world stage. However, that cultural power likely would have been sharply reduced without its economic and military power.
And US power is diminishing, at least relatively. Geopolitically we really are in at the beginning of a confrontation that will determine if democratic values and human rights will win the day or if we’ll see a new birth of autocracy worldwide. This is a confrontation worth engaging in.
Let me be clear about something – I’d didn’t say “fight” or “war”. War would be catastrophic for the entire world. So, while we must have a strong defense, the warmongers should be dismissed out of hand. Just refer back to the Iraq War, one of the defining political events of my adult life, if you need a demonstrative example. (It grates that all of those war criminals still walk free and often get sweet media gigs and whatnot.)
On the left, it’s long been fashionable to condemn the US role in international affairs. Believe me, I get it. We’ve done some horrible things – again, the Iraq War, plus the War on Terrorism. (Pay a visit to the “American War” museum in Vietnam sometime, too, as I have.)
Plus, US policymakers blundered badly and pursued a flawed strategy for years with China – engage in trade, help build it up economically, sacrifice our manufacturing sector, so that China will turn democratic. Not so much on that last step. (This is a lesson Europe is learning painfully now with Russia, too.)
(As an aside, regarding the hollowing out of manufacturing sector with international trade, Trump was on to something politically. I grew up in the Rust Belt, and when he was campaigning, he sounded like an old-fashioned, pro-union Midwestern Democrat to me. No wonder so many flocked to him from the working class.)
At least Democrats seem to be holding firm on this issue, which seems to square to US public opinion, broadly, and is good policy.
The Democrats Are Just Really Bad at Politics. But Here’s to Hoping
I’ve long said that the easiest way to understand modern American politics is that the Republicans are ruthless and the Democrats are feckless. I’m afraid I don’t see many promising changes on the horizon for the Democrats. And I certainly don’t see the Republicans becoming any less ruthless in pursuing political power. I tend to be a pretty pessimistic guy most of the time, so naturally I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic for our political future – which is frightening, of course, given how much is at stake.
But that said, as with the climate, there really isn’t much time for pessimism or defeatism. Instead, it’s time for the Democrats to reform themselves, become capable at politics again, and win. Then, at least, we have a fighting shot.
* To all of those who say, nah, voting is a waste of time, I say, great! Please don’t! I wish no one voted but me. Then I’d be king of the US.
** I’m going to constrain my post to talking about the duopoly of the GOP and Dems, both of whom are utterly ruthless at using their power in office to suppress the ability of new parties to form and thrive.
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