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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Wading Back In

Thanks for all the comments.  I don’t think anyone crossed the line of civility.  If the left can’t abide debate this mild—while passionate—it’s in more trouble than I thought.

For starters, I don’t disagree on substance with any of the respondents.  We’re all in the left wing of the Democratic Party.  The much harder thing to recognize and accept—and even embrace if possible—is that the Party has to be able to contain members with fairly significant substantive disagreements.  A smaller, but more unified, party would guarantee itself minority status for a long, long time to come.  I think the Republicans might well be headed in that direction; I’d hate to see the Democrats ape them in that regard.  We need to be bringing people in, not drumming them out.  I’m a big tent Democrat.

On one level, the disagreement registered in the comments is about interpreting the political landscape.  Some people believe that the Republicans are not headed to disaster, but have strengthened themselves and gained their current ascendancy through sharper self-definition.  The Democrats, this position avers, should take strong leftist positions, thereby garnering the respect of centrist voters and the passionate energy of partisan activists.  It will gain more votes by this strategy.  Gains among the apathetic, the disenfranchised, and the committed will outweigh any loss among wishy-washy centrists. 

I disagree, but the evidence for either position is hardly overwhelming.  I point to the Democrats’ having won when they ran to the center in 1960, 1976, 1992, and 1994.  Each of these victories was a squeaker, so we can’t afford to alienate swing voters.  The other side says “look at 1964.” That was the only Democratic landslide since 1944, and it was based on unapologetic liberalism.  The Democrats need to have the courage of their convictions. (I will pursue this debate in a subsequent post because it interests me for a host of reasons.)

But there is not just an interpretive disagreement here. The responses to my post about Democratic campaign strategies are a version of a debate that rages within both of the major political parties—and, no doubt, within every smaller political group as well.  Let’s call it the debate between the “people of principle” and the “rhetoricians.” I’m firmly in the rhetorician camp.  Here’s why.

I do not think a party that wishes to win an election in a democracy can do so without considering the opinions, prejudices, values, and commitments of the electorate.  But, even more crucially (should I say, “as a matter of principle”?), I think that’s a crucial part of what democracy means.  Democracy is a two-way street.  The party can’t just lead (that’s Leninism); the party should also (probably more than less) be shaped by the people.  Democracy is, to a large extent, the reining in of leaders, of the elite, and of the government by the led.  And that’s the way it should be.

Take the Republicans as a first instance.  W. won because he sold the “compassionate conservative” image and then won the second time because he sold the idea that the Democrats couldn’t be trusted to provide security and would allow gays to marry.  He never took the Iraq war or Social Security reform to the people in his own presidential elections.  He did, to a certain extent, take the war to the people in the 2002 Congressional elections, and he has taken Social Security reform to the people in a non-electoral campaign, after denying outright that he had any designs on Social Security during the presidential campaign. 

He got the Iraq war because the president’s war-making powers have been just about absolute since Congress abdicated on its constitutional obligation to declare wars.  (How quaint!  Who declares war anymore?) He isn’t going to get the kind of Social Security reform he desires because the people have no desire to be led in that direction.  That’s democracy in action. 

We need more democracy, not less.  I can’t choose the most dastardly among the many outrageous things the Republicans have done, but their assault on democracy ranks high on the list.  Democracy is messy, inefficient, and full of compromises because it spreads power around, thus encouraging endless wrangling.  The Republicans hate the democratic process; their agenda is all-in-all to them.  The hope (that word again) is that the people will see what the Republicans are doing—and vote them out of office. (More on the Republican assault on democracy in a subsequent post.)

The Democrats, of course, have the pedagogical task of dramatizing this assault upon democracy.  Just as they have the rhetorical task of moving the voters toward grasping the moral and practical disaster that is the Republican disregard for civil liberties and prisoner abuse.

But I’m with Madison and Arendt in believing that absolute truths—moral or otherwise—have no place in politics.  Liberalism is about trying to limit the damage that such truths do in the public realm.  The Republicans are split between their self-righteous religious right and their pro-business wing.  They have never nominated an outright Christian right candidate; they haven’t gone that far yet.  Our very democracy would be at stake if such a candidate won, because politicians who act from moral certainty, from the sense that any and all opponents are beyond the pale because morally reprobate, have no patience for and no commitment to democracy’s limitations to power, its provisions for compromise by its inclusion of different viewpoints at the table, and its commitment to the legitimate right of all contending political factions to be in the majority in some instances.  (I will take up this crucial point more fully in a subsequent post.)

So I would hate to see the Democrats assume a morality-based politics of their own.  Yes, politics cannot avoid moral questions; but it must submit such questions to the same messy democratic processes as every other kind of question.  Yes, there are times when the individual should say: “Here’s something I will not be part of.” Times when I have to say the majority is wrong.  At such times, I—and those who agree with me—undertake the rhetorical task of convincing that majority that they are wrong.  And, if I am part of the institution that is doing wrong, I should resign.  Unfortunately, we do not have the British tradition of resignation in this country. 

In order to resign, however, you first have to hold office.  W. E. B. DuBois says somewhere that a teacher must begin from where his students are.  Certainly, my experiences in the classroom confirm that simple observation.  The Democrats have been terrible teachers.  They have become as out of touch with the experience of working Americans as the Republicans claim.  They need to start their pedagogical campaign (their rhetorical campaign) where their constituency is: in the everyday struggle to make ends meet in a society where job and pension security is a thing of the past and where education and medical care and housing get more and more expensive even as the government claims that inflation is running at 2% a year.  If we can get Americans to realize how completely Republican policies hold them in contempt, think of them as dispensable and disposable, we then have a chance of moving on to showing that there is a continuum between this disregard of working people’s lives and the treatment of prisoners. 

If you don’t start where your audience is, but come to them from an utterly alien perspective, you quickly descend into the schoolyard mode of swapping fervent assertions of “I’m right,” “No, I’m right”—or the teacherly mode of hectoring a sullen captive audience. Such encounters may do wonders for convincing each of us of our personal rectitude, but they do nothing to enable the two-way, transformative possibility of democratic dialogue.  Certainty on the left or the right leads pretty inevitably into name-calling and excommunication.  Passion, yes.  Conviction too.  But fallibilism, always. 

In sum, watching the polls and being influenced by them is an essential part of democracy. There are other lines of communication between the populace and its elected officials (elections, for one—and direct address for another), but the polls are a legitimate and important source of feedback in a nation with a population as large as ours.  (Recall that all the traditional political theorists believed democracy could never be sustained in a country much larger than a city-state.) In fact, thank god for the polls and their influence on politicians at a time when well-financed interest groups (through professional lobbyists) have such a disproportionate (in terms of the percentages of the population they represent) influence. Politicians who don’t take public opinion into account are not participating in democracy’s two-way street as well as very unlikely to win many elections.  As they shouldn’t.

Posted by John McGowan on 05/28 at 12:56 PM
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