Shakespeare's Sister asks the question: "Why the hell are we sticking with the Dems?" This isn't a new question, but it is an important one. Others are asking the same question, too (Ms. Julien, Freiheit und Wissen, The Green Knight, Simianbrain, Dave Lindorff) and liberals from the far left have been asking this for years.
Many who are asking this question aren't going to like my answer, but I ask you to read the whole thing and not freak out and abandon it after I give my first response, which is one you've all heard before.
First off, the primary reason we should stick with the Democrats is that we have no other choice. Not at the national level we don't. A viable third party will not arise on the left in our lifetimes. It won't happen because it can't happen. Why not? A few reasons.
- The Law: The law is overwhelmingly in the favor of the two-party system. Every state has strong laws protecting Democrats and Republicans and keeping out any other groups. These laws are close to set in stone. Why? Because they are created or destroyed by Democrats and Republicans, who have a vested interest in keeping them. And this is one of the few times you'll see the two parties working together on anything. The reality of attempting to change these laws in 50 states against strong opposition is negligible. And before you ask, the support of such laws is a reason to be upset with the Democrats, but the only chance of changing any of these laws is to convince Democrats it's the right thing to do.
- The people: The people agree with us on most of the issues, but they don't know it. One thing they do know, though, is that they think the two-party system works just fine. Any study of attitudes of the public on the two-party system gives overwhelming results that people support it, think it's the best way to do things and would find more choices confusing, which would give them even less reason to vote.
- The media: We have little to no influence in the mainstream media and the media has little interest in fairly covering third parties. Sure, they gave Ralph Nader and Ross Perot some room to move, but in the end, on both stories, it was as little more than a curiosity and both candidates became punchlines -- as have all third party candidates in modern times.
- The electorate: The overwhelming majority of people who vote in this country place themselves in the middle and few would be willing to vote for a third party simply because they wouldn't want to be seen as extreme, regardless of wether or not the party is extreme or wether or not they agree or disagree with the party.
- The geography: Liberals are dispersed throughout the country. There are few places where the concentrations of liberals are high enough to win elections. Without winning elections, third parties are devoid of any power to change things.
Now I'm not saying that third parties are completely useless. I certainly advocate voting for third parties in local elections where they can win. I also advocate voting for third parties when the outcome of an election is obvious, in order to send a message to the Democrats. But I think the alternative party option isn't the one that will save the world or promote our values and agenda.
Cernig at NewsHog (in some of the better analysis on the issue), suggests a coalition approach. Examples of where this is successful include foreign countries. The major difference, of course, is that those countries have proportional elections, something we don't have and won't have. We have winner-take-all elections that defuse power for anyone outside of the two major parties. Another example is of the Republican coalition. This one, however, was something done inside the Republican Party and not outside it. Despite these caveats, I like the idea, but I think this coalition should be moving to take control of the Democratic Party, not working outside of it. Cernig suggests that non-Democratic leftists don't have any problem getting elected, but only provides anecdotal evidence (Bernie Sanders) to support this. The problem with this example is that it is probably a unique example. How many other non-Democratic leftists are elected officials at the national level now? How about in our lifetimes? How about in the last 100 years? Again, I support such candidates where they can win, I'm just not convinced that more than a handful of such places exist.
Second, and to me more importantly, the Republicans are evil. Yes, I know I'm giving you the same old lines, but I'll have new arguments below. I start with these arguments because they are important. Any look at the Republican party's agenda shows that what they want to do is inconsistent with morality, ethics, logic, reason, science, religion, American values and pretty much anything else you can think of and give value to. Are the Democrats saints? No. Are the better than the Republicans? In most cases, yes (more on this below).
Rana of Frogs and Ravens (and a guest at Shakespeare's Sister) says this isn't enough. I agree. There is more below. I think Rana is right, though, that one of the weaknesses the Dems have had is an inability to articulate a vision. I would say that the problem isn't really that such a vision doesn't exist (again, see below), but rather that the party has little of the message discipline that the Republicans seem to have, the media won't cover it and it isn't a simple and simplistic message like the Republican message is. And I think the idea that the Dems should earn the votes of lefties is a valid one, although what "earning" those votes means is something that is ill-defined and is often the subject of unrealistic expectations.
First off, when was it that liberals in America developed a successful grassroots movement that strongly influenced Democrats and the electoral process? When was it that we got together, worked hard and made sure our voice was heard? As far as I can tell, it was way back in 2004. Prior to that, I'm not sure that one could talk about a "oranized" liberal movement in any realistic way. If I'm correct in saying that, then why does it shock us that Democrats haven't fully come on board with our agenda in only a year since we've gotten our shit together? That is too short a time period, particularly when you are the minority party. We have to give it some time and we have to prove that we aren't fairweather friends. I think that it is clear that if we help the Democrats take control of Congress in 2006, you will see a major change in the party and the strength of their opposition. If I'm wrong, which is certainly possible, then we have to start asking these questions a whole lot louder. But, I think that we have to be patient, or at least show some patience.
Shakespeare's Sister says this: "I don't know about you, but I invested time, energy, and money into the Democratic Party during the last election, and I'm not getting much of a return on my investment." But I wonder how many true liberals can really say this. Sure, we all wrote a lot online and went to anti-war rallies and the like, but how many liberals got involved in actual Democratic campaigns? I'm sure the number is significant, but is it significant enough that Dems should take notice?
Too much of the criticism and complaints focus on the party as a whole, yet in this country that isn't how we vote and isn't how these people get into office. People's focus is too broad, instead you should be focusing on your own elected officials, they are the only people that represent you. The rest of the party members represent others -- some of who may not be liberals. A party in the U.S. doesn't represent only one ideology and it can't without totally killing itself electorally. So we have to cut candidates some slack, since they don't only represent liberals, but moderates and conservatives, too. If we complain that they don't agree with us 100% of the time, then we will never have any level of happiness with a candidate, since such a thing is impossible.
Some claim that Democrats have abandoned liberal values, but I don't think that's true. Most Democrats have never had liberal values, this is something we need to lead them to for the first time, not lead them back to.
I think often our focus is too narrow, we pick a few issues or one issue on one particular vote and condemn all Democrats based on that one thing. This is that vacuum thing again, very few votes can be analyzed clearly on face value, there are always other considerations and we need to take that into account. Also, we need to keep in mind that we will never agree with anyone 100%, we have to go with who is the best candidate or party, not who is perfect.
And I'm not suggesting that we abandon our core values, but the overwhelming majority of Democrats actually share those core values. But core values are the big things and little details on a particular issue don't mean that someone is rejecting a core principle. You can't say that someone is anti-abortion just because they disagree with partial-birth abortion. Sure, we may think they are wrong on that detail, but they still share the core value. We have to allow room for some disagreement with those who are on our side or we will reject everyone, which will doom our agenda completely.
I think that some of this is ego-driven. If the politician doesn't do things exactly the way we think they should, we get upset. Particularly if they fail at some point. But few of us are political scientists or electoral experts and we place too much emphasis on our judgment over theirs, when I'm not sure that there is any logic to such an argument. Like the fact that many people are upset that the Dems aren't completely jumping all over the corruption scandals right now. I think this is wrong for two reasons: 1). fewer people will think of the scandals as just partisan attacks if we let the media handle them, 2). voters suffer scandal fatigue and if we push this stuff too much now, voters will be tired of it by November 2006. We have to pace ourselves.
A number of the criticisms of Democrats that are being made aren't even valid criticisms:
- Some suggest that claims the Democrats are electable are belied by the fact that they've lost in recent elections. This is, of course, not entirely true. In 2000, Gore got quite a few more votes than Bush. In 2004, Democrats outgained Republicans in state legislatures, more Americans voted for Democrats for Senate than voted for Republicans and the only gains made by Republicans in Congress last time around came from what was probably illegal redistricting in Texas or the continued transition of the South from Southern racist Democrats to racist Republicans. The biggest argument made here is against John Kerry, who most commonly received the lable "electible." The problem is that the argument that Kerry wasn't electible because he lost is that such analysis takes place in a vacuum. But we don't live in a vacuum. Admittedly, Kerry (like Gore), didn't run the best campaign in history, but historically, sitting presidents during time of war or national crisis usually get re-elected by overwhelming margins because of the rally-round-the-flag effect. During the 2004 election, we were involved in not just one war, but two, for a double rally-round-the-flag effect. Add to that the fact that 9/11 was still heavily in the people's minds and no attacks had taken place on American soil since then, and you have to marvel at how good Kerry did, since overwhelming historical precedent was against him.
- Some claim the Dems aren't out there fighting or that they aren't trying to capitalize on the corruption scandals on the right. Some even claim that Dems are completely silent on this issue in the media. I find this wholly unconvincing, considering that I rarely watch national television news and I just happened to be watching the day the DeLay idictment came down and who else is on the national news except Howard Dean, hammering the Hammer and the Republicans for a pattern of corruption. Part of this complaint comes from ego. "I didn't see it, so it must not have happened." That is a false assumption to make and it's sad to see liberals relying on false assumptions like this one. We're smarter than that.
- Some claim the Dems have offered no effective opposition. Considering the fact that the Dems have control of nothing at the federal level, they've had some significant successes this year, most notably in stopping the Social Security privatization fiasco. No, the Dems haven't won a whole lot, but the system is set up so that a minority party doesn't have much ability to win. Some argue that it would be better to still stand up in these Quixotic battles, but I'm not of that school of thought, I think that it is better to move toward winning elections, which I'm not sure that all these battles would've helped. And if the Dems are so ineffective, why is it that the Republicans can't stop claiming that liberals are getting their way all the time. Check out Pam's "Actual Freeper Quotes" posts and you'll see that those on the far right are extremely pissed off that the Republicans seem to be giving in all the time to the Dems. Sure, some of these complaints are overplayed, but if the right wing is so pissed off, there has to be something to it.
- Some claim the Dems don't have a concise message, but that isn't accurate (see below), it's just that as a minority party, the message doesn't carry much weight with the media and it can't get any coverage.
- Some claim the Dems sell out liberal interests in a heartbeat, but I don't think that every vote that doesn't follow the liberal agenda to a tee is a sellout. In many cases, there are legitimate disagreements. In other cases, there are electoral concerns. And if you can't stay in office, you certainly can't push the liberal agenda, much less any other agenda. One example of this is the war in Iraq. There are a lot of people complaining about the fact that Democrats aren't universally calling for an immediate withdrawal of our troops and that somehow this is a betrayal of liberal values. But liberals don't even necessarily agree with this idea. Some do, some don't. This is an issue I'm truly torn on. If we withdraw the troops now, the only people guaranteed to benefit from that are our troops, who will stop getting killed. In all likelihood, things in Iraq will get worse, and many more Iraqis will die. It will also make al-Qaeda think they were successful at repelling us and embolden them to attack us elsewhere. On the other hand, staying in Iraq makes no sense, either. I don't know what the right answer is and I think that anyone who claims to know the 100% correct answer on this issue is fooling themselves. It was a betrayal of liberal values to go into Iraq in the first place, but what we should do now is not such a simple thing.
One criticism I do see that makes sense is the idea that when Democrats move to the center or right, they are more likely to get elected. Cernig points out where E.J. Dionne makes this comment:
the party's problems are structural and can be explained by three numbers: 21, 34 and 45. According to the network exit polls, 21 percent of the voters who cast ballots in 2004 called themselves liberal, 34 percent said they were conservative and 45 percent called themselves moderate.
But this is bad analysis, particularly coming from someone as intelligent as Dionne. The party certainly has structural problems, but the numbers game is a false one. Yes, more people do self-identify as conservative and moderate than liberal. But this self-identification is a false one. Research shows that only about 12% of the public understands the difference between liberal and conservative. If one identifies themselves as something and they don't know what that term even means, how valid is it? The primary reason that so few people identify themselves as liberals is that so few people know what the word actually means and have heard so much in the media about how bad and evil liberals are. I can verify this ignorance of these terms anecdotally in noting that almost none of my students, even the good ones, are good at recognizing these differences. They always do poorly on it when I test them. I can also personally verify the reluctance to label onesself a liberal because I used to have that very reluctance. The first time someone called me a liberal, back in 1995, I took it as an insult, despite the fact that it turned out, when I examined it, to be 100% accurate. I didn't know what the term meant and I had heard so many negative things about liberals in the media that I didn't want to admit what I truly was. This is a widespread phenomenon too, it seems, because if you look at public opinion on most issues, it is clear that most Americans lean to the left.
One of the biggest false criticisms, to my eyes, is the argument that Democrats are prone, weak and not fighting for anything. I see evidence of Democrats fighting and standing up for our values all the time: Barbara Boxer (examples), Barack Obama (example), Harry Reid (example), Louise Slaughter (example), Robert Byrd (example), Ed Markey (example), Jan Schakowsky (example), Jim McDermott (example), the Congressional Black Caucus (example), Mark Dayton (example), John Conyers (example), etc.
I love what Howard Dean is doing. I love the fact that he's out there telling the truth about Republicans and pissing off the right people. I love the fact that he's working on a 50-state strategy. I don't agree with Dean on 100% of the issues, but he's fighting for the same things, in most cases, that I am fighting for.
I also think Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have done a good job as the minority leaders. They have shown signs of strength that their predecessors rarely, if ever, did. They have clearly and concisely stated their agenda for the party, made it publicly available and made it logically and morally correct (Read it here). And considering their lack of power, I think they have pushed it quite well, even if they haven't pushed it all that successfully. They can't be successful without the votes to get it done. And I don't agree with them 100% either, but I do think they are fighting the good fight.
Dems are also moving toward our community with blogs, podcasts, diaries at Kos and more. And some even have a deep commitment to the blogosphere.
And despite what some say, there truly are differences in the way that Democrats and Republicans vote and the Dems vote much closer to the way we would vote on almost every issue than do Republicans. It's a simple fact. Check out the scorecards: ACLU, League of Conservation Voters, Christian Coalition, Americans for Better Immigration and Public Citizen for starters. There is no question which side are the good guys and which side are the bad guys on any of these scorecards.
None of this is to suggest that Democrats don't have problems and room for much improvement, or to suggest that we shouldn't criticize them. Of course we should. The Dems certainly do have room to improve, as any look at the make-up of the federal government would show, and we should certainly criticize anyone and everyone, but such criticism should be constructive, not destructive, and it should be based on reality, not just idealism. I am idealistic and desire much greater things for us as a country and as a planet. But I'm also pragmatic and want those things to happen, I don't just want to sit back and feel superior because I voted in an idealistic way, even though the world crumbles around me. I think this should be an open and on-going discussion, but lets look to creative real-world solutions that involve more than just complaining about why the Dems suck. In many cases they do, but the majority of any group sucks in some way or another, so that doesn't tell me anything. Quality is rare in this world in anything, so why don't we recognize that and act like that is the case?
I'll leave you with the words of a Democratic elected official most of use were quite fond of in 2004, despite the fact that we don't agree with him on every issue: Barack Obama (Regular readers have already seen this).
There is one way, over the long haul, to guarantee the appointment of judges that are sensitive to issues of social justice, and that is to win the right to appoint them by recapturing the presidency and the Senate. And I don't believe we get there by vilifying good allies, with a lifetime record of battling for progressive causes, over one vote or position. I am convinced that, our mutual frustrations and strongly-held beliefs notwithstanding, the strategy driving much of Democratic advocacy, and the tone of much of our rhetoric, is an impediment to creating a workable progressive majority in this country.
According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists - a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog - we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party. They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda. In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda. The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.
I think this perspective misreads the American people. From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon. They don't think George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent. They don't think that corporations are inherently evil (a lot of them work in corporations), but they recognize that big business, unchecked, can fix the game to the detriment of working people and small entrepreneurs. They don't think America is an imperialist brute, but are angry that the case to invade Iraq was exaggerated, are worried that we have unnecessarily alienated existing and potential allies around the world, and are ashamed by events like those at Abu Ghraib which violate our ideals as a country.
It's this non-ideological lens through which much of the country viewed Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings. A majority of folks, including a number of Democrats and Independents, don't think that John Roberts is an ideologue bent on overturning every vestige of civil rights and civil liberties protections in our possession. Instead, they have good reason to believe he is a conservative judge who is (like it or not) within the mainstream of American jurisprudence, a judge appointed by a conservative president who could have done much worse (and probably, I fear, may do worse with the next nominee). While they hope Roberts doesn't swing the court too sharply to the right, a majority of Americans think that the President should probably get the benefit of the doubt on a clearly qualified nominee.
I shared enough of these concerns that I voted against Roberts on the floor this morning. But short of mounting an all-out filibuster -- a quixotic fight I would not have supported; a fight I believe Democrats would have lost both in the Senate and in the court of public opinion; a fight that would have been difficult for Democratic senators defending seats in states like North Dakota and Nebraska that are essential for Democrats to hold if we hope to recapture the majority; and a fight that would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations -- blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.
In such circumstances, attacks on Pat Leahy, Russ Feingold and the other Democrats who, after careful consideration, voted for Roberts make no sense. Russ Feingold, the only Democrat to vote not only against war in Iraq but also against the Patriot Act, doesn't become complicit in the erosion of civil liberties simply because he chooses to abide by a deeply held and legitimate view that a President, having won a popular election, is entitled to some benefit of the doubt when it comes to judicial appointments. Like it or not, that view has pretty strong support in the Constitution's design.
The same principle holds with respect to issues other than judicial nominations. My colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, spoke out forcefully - and voted against - the Iraqi invasion. He isn't somehow transformed into a "war supporter" - as I've heard some anti-war activists suggest - just because he hasn't called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He may be simply trying to figure out, as I am, how to ensure that U.S. troop withdrawals occur in such a way that we avoid all-out Iraqi civil war, chaos in the Middle East, and much more costly and deadly interventions down the road. A pro-choice Democrat doesn't become anti-choice because he or she isn't absolutely convinced that a twelve-year-old girl should be able to get an operation without a parent being notified. A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn't become complicit in an anti-civil rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs. And a pro-union Democrat doesn't become anti-union if he or she makes a determination that on balance, CAFTA will help American workers more than it will harm them.
Or to make the point differently: How can we ask Republican senators to resist pressure from their right wing and vote against flawed appointees like John Bolton, if we engage in similar rhetoric against Democrats who dissent from our own party line? How can we expect Republican moderates who are concerned about the nation's fiscal meltdown to ignore Grover Norquist's threats if we make similar threats to those who buck our party orthodoxy?
I am not drawing a facile equivalence here between progressive advocacy groups and right-wing advocacy groups. The consequences of their ideas are vastly different. Fighting on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable is not the same as fighting for homophobia and Halliburton. But to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.
Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority. We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate. Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard. They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice. The Bush Administration and the Republican Congress may have made the problems worse, but they won't go away after President Bush is gone. Unless we are open to new ideas, and not just new packaging, we won't change enough hearts and minds to initiate a serious energy or fiscal policy that calls for serious sacrifice. We won't have the popular support to craft a foreign policy that meets the challenges of globalization or terrorism while avoiding isolationism and protecting civil liberties. We certainly won't have a mandate to overhaul a health care policy that overcomes all the entrenched interests that are the legacy of a jerry-rigged health care system. And we won't have the broad political support, or the effective strategies, required to lift large numbers of our fellow citizens out of numbing poverty.
The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job. After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart. It's easy to dismantle government safety nets; it's harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It's easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it's harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion. But that's our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that the Democrats should trim their sails and be more "centrist." In fact, I think the whole "centrist" versus "liberal" labels that continue to characterize the debate within the Democratic Party misses the mark. Too often, the "centrist" label seems to mean compromise for compromise sake, whereas on issues like health care, energy, education and tackling poverty, I don't think Democrats have been bold enough. But I do think that being bold involves more than just putting more money into existing programs and will instead require us to admit that some existing programs and policies don't work very well. And further, it will require us to innovate and experiment with whatever ideas hold promise (including market- or faith-based ideas that originate from Republicans).
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
Finally, I am not arguing that we "unilaterally disarm" in the face of Republican attacks, or bite our tongue when this Administration screws up. Whenever they are wrong, inept, or dishonest, we should say so clearly and repeatedly; and whenever they gear up their attack machine, we should respond quickly and forcefully. I am suggesting that the tone we take matters, and that truth, as best we know it, be the hallmark of our response.
This is a man we almost all respect, a man who knows what he is doing and a man who is dedicated to progressive values and a better America. Maybe he knows what he's doing and saying and maybe we should listen to him. Yes, we should listen critically, but we should listen.