No topic is as important to the Democrats’ future - and present - as the topic of backbone.
Democrats need to stand up for
- Their principles,or it looks like the don't believe them
- Their policies, or it looks like Republicans have a point about their weakness
- Their character, or the smears stick - and the taint of weakness gets added
But, as we all know, too many Democrats aren’t standing up.
On the positive side, in the last two weeks the topic of backbone has gotten a lot more air time. That’s good - and necessary. On the negative side, so far, most of what has been said has been focused on individuals. While we definitely should castigate spineless Democrats for their weakness, that does not get to the root of the problem.
When people talk about bold Democratic leadership, they almost always go back to FDR for their example, or sometimes to LBJ. But think about this: if we have to go back 50 or more years to find an good example of high-profile Democratic backbone, then the problem isn’t just with a few individual "invertebrates" – it’s much deeper than that.
Here are a few examples of both the increasing emphasis on backbone (emphasis added) and how the attention has been focused on individuals:
Does the President have the courage to do what's right?(source)
No party had faced so great a challenge -- or had so great an opportunity -- [as the Democrats did] in more then seventy years. There was quite literally nothing to fear but their own shadows and nothing in their way but their own egos.
Sadly, that proved more than sufficient....
We put you [Democrats] there to fight for our causes, dammit, and we expect results. (source)
After Massachusetts, Democrats were looking for leadership; they didn’t get it. ...It’s as if Obama checked out.
Look, Obama is a terrific speaker and a very smart guy. ...What’s now in question isn’t his ability to talk, it’s his ability to lead.(source)
Two questions remain from President Obama's first State of the Union address: Did he succeed in persuading nervous Democrats not to cut and run on his presidency; and will he succeed in making Republicans think twice about their united opposition to almost all things Obama?
[In Obama’s State of the Union address] He needed to stiffen the spines of Democrats.
But as I said earlier, if we have to go back 50 or more years to find an good example of high-profile Democratic backbone, then the problem isn’t just with individuals.
So let’s look at why it is that Democrats have such a backbone problem.
Fundamentally, there are three main reasons:
Reason 1: The way Democrats think.
For example, Democrats do less oversimplification: Democrats see more of the world’s true complexity and are less invested in a completely black-or-white worldview. Not oversimplifying is good, but one result is that Democrats are less absolutely certain that they have exactly the right answer, so they’re less committed to any one policy than they are to the goal of the policy. (For example, there are lots of different Democratic opinions about the best kind of health reform, though there is agreement on the goals of increased coverage and decreased cost growth.) Because of the fact that most of the public doesn’t pay intense attention to politics (outside of the few months before an election), they see shifting policy ideas as weak belief in the ends, not as part of the search for better means.
Reason 2: The issues Democrats tackle.
For example, Democrats are ahead of their time: Progressives try to tackle issues sooner than Republicans (or Independents) do – that is, instead of accepting the way things are, they try to create progress. When progressives began advocating for women to have the right to vote and for the end of discriminatory Jim Crow laws, the country wasn’t yet ready to agree. When they began to advocate for laws against child labor, the country wasn’t ready to agree. And when they began to say that the government shouldn’t prevent some people from getting married (interracial couples, gays and lesbians) but not others, the country wasn’t yet ready to agree.
All these are examples of where Democrats pushing progress were on the right side of history from the beginning , but they weren’t on the side of a majority of public opinion until much later (in fact, the country is still catching up on gay marriage). So Democrats weren’t able to pass laws righting the wrongs of discrimination and child labor until they had enough support to succeed
The result is that when Democrats get massive pushback, they are used to withdrawing and waiting until they build up more support, because usually extreme pushback means they’re too far ahead of the country to succeed. Unfortunately, Republicans have learned exploit this by pushing back with all the intensity (and insanity) they can muster – and this frequently works, because both Democrats and their audience (the media, pundits, people who follow politics) think this means it’s not time yet, when in fact it just means that Republicans are calculating that being the party of "No!" is good for them politically.
Reason 3: The Democrats’ norms of combat.
For example, Democrats are less ruthless: Witness a 2004 article in a popular right-wing publication, "But if there is one characteristic of Kerry's life that should disqualify him absolutely as a candidate for president, it is the fact that he has sought out millionaire wives to take care of him. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's a serial gigolo." No surprise, I imagine, that Limbaugh got in on the "Kerry is a gigolo" act. When McCain, who married a rich heiress (just as Kerry did) was the nominee, did the #1 Democratic media personality call him a gigolo? Were there articles are in major Democratic publications that did?
How about the South Carolina GOP primary between W and John McCain in 2000: McCain was campaigning with his daughter Bridget, who he adopted from Bangladesh, so GOP operatives called voters and asked them, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" Charlie Condon, the former South Carolina Attorney General told the New York Times that the primary’s descent into dirty tricks was not surprising: "Our primaries have a way of doing that," Condon said. "There is a tradition of it, it is accepted behavior, and frankly it works."
It’s not "accepted behavior" among Democrats, so they are not ready for things like this when they are in the crosshairs of ruthless Republicans. And they don’t know how to fight back, so they end up proving Condon’s point that, frankly, it works.
So what's next?
We need to pressure Democrats to have more backbone now. But we also need to lay the foundation for fixing the backbone problem long-term. Upcoming posts will examine in depth each of the three reasons for systemic lack of backbone, looking at why and how each contributes to the Democrats’ problem.
Importantly, the posts will also look at how all three topics – how Democrats think, the issues they tackle, and their rules of combat – also have beneficial aspects and are, in fact, part of what makes Democrats worth supporting over Republicans.
And finally, we’ll look at what we can do to change things – without losing the beneficial aspects of Democratic ways of thinking, issue selection, and rules of combat – so that have a system that leads to more Democrats with backbone.