“Party in Search of a Notion,” the essay by Prospect editor Michael Tomasky, provoked a tremendous response from readers, other writers, and political leaders. Press attention included a front-page article in The New York Times on May 9.
To keep the conversation going, we invited five people to write responses. The ideologically diverse group includes William A. Galston, Jedediah Purdy, Fred Seigel, Amy Sullivan, and Ron Walters. We publish them here.
We want our print readers to be aware of an important essay we published on our Web site, “The Politics of Definition,” by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira. This essay, also much-discussed, is available at www.prospect.org.
William A. Galston: After a generation of conservative ascendancy, the astonishing crack-up of the Bush administration has created a real opportunity for progressives. The question is how best to seize it. Michael Tomasky is surely right to argue that tactics and policies alone cannot create a sustainable progressive majority. As he puts it, “Voters respond to ideas, and Democrats can stand for an idea: the idea that we're all in this -- post-industrial America, the globalized world, and especially the post-9-11 world in which free peoples have to unite to fight new threats -- together, and that we have to pull together, make some sacrifices, and, just sometimes, look beyond our own interests to solve our problems and create the future.”
Although Tomasky's idea of the common good operates at a high level of abstraction, we can begin to understand what it means by observing what it criticizes -- namely, a progressive politics dominated by the concern for diversity and rights, by a congeries of self-absorbed identity groups, by indifference to the values and interests of working-class families, and by reliance on litigation strategies rather than the mobilization of democratic majorities. A party roused to passion only by conservative judicial nominees is not ready, or fit, to govern.
So far, so good. But Tomasky offers two different formulations of the politics of the common good. On the one hand, it consists in policies that would be “good for every American” by linking the interests of citizens with the public interest, as New Deal jobs programs and rural electrification and mortgage insurance did. On the other hand, it creates a politically effective moral basis for sacrifice of individual interests, exemplified by John F. Kennedy's “Ask not …” call to civic service. The problem is that these formulations don't always cohere. For example, Tomasky criticizes advocates of court-ordered busing in the 1970s for focusing on the rights of African Americans rather than on the interests of all Americans, as Lyndon Johnson had done a decade earlier. But narratives of racial conflict in works such as Anthony Lukas's Common Ground and Jonathan Rieder's Carnarsie make it hard to believe that the white working class would ever have accepted busing as consistent with their interests.
Tomasky asks us to believe that we can attribute the successes of the 1930s and the failures of the 1970s to differences in strategies of justification, to the fact that post–Great Society liberals “lost the language” of the common good. This is to endow public rhetoric with almost mystical power. The real difference is simpler: New Deal programs advanced the interests of the majority, while programs such as busing and the Office of Equal Opportunity attempted the harder task of challenging the majority in the name of justice for a long-oppressed minority. To be sure, it was possible to argue that in the long run we would all be better off. But in the time available to real-world politicians, not even the most adept appeal to the common good could have dampened white working-class resistance, which was the inevitable consequence of the policy itself.
My broader conclusion is that the Democratic Party has done much better with a politics of the common good understood as promoting the concrete interests of the majority than as requiring widely shared sacrifice. The language of sacrifice finds its natural home in circumstances of war. Ever since the time of William James a century ago, this fact has led the devotees of civic republicanism to seek the “moral equivalent of war.” They search in vain; there is no moral equivalent of war.
There is another practical difficulty with the bare idea of the common good. Very few candidates and elected officials overtly justify their programs as serving special interests. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush argued that tax cuts for the well-off would promote the common good by spurring economic growth; Bill Clinton argued just the reverse, that tax increases on upper-income families would better serve the common good by reducing the budget deficit, which would increase investment and accelerate economic growth. The appeal to the common good will not ordinarily differentiate the two major parties. The real work is done the next level down, when a political party commits itself to a specific conception of governance that it believes will best promote the common good.
For Reagan-era conservatives that conception was clear and simple: limited government, strong defense, and traditional values. Reagan's acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican convention was a classic of the genre. But so were Bill Clinton's speeches in 1991, beginning in Cleveland and ending at Georgetown. Those speeches attempted a break with both interest-group liberalism and with the portion of New Deal liberalism that had been overtaken by events. Clinton's proposed third way was not a mushy compromise between liberalism and conservatism. It represented a new conception of how progressive governance could promote broad-based improvements in the lives of citizens across the income spectrum, along with specific policies designed to translate that conception into practice. It was, in short, a politics of the common good, as was most of what the Clinton administration tried to do during its first two frantic years. Yes, the administration paid an early price for its ill-conceived gays-in-the-military initiative. But the budget, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the crime bill, and health-care proposal were all designed to serve, and defended as promoting, the common good. They proved divisive, not only between the political parties, but also among Democrats. But it is hard to make the case that they pandered to special interests. On the contrary: The administration got into trouble because it said no to many groups that expected concrete benefits from the new Democratic administration. Critics can raise legitimate questions about Bill Clinton's conception of the common good. They cannot fairly claim that he lacked such a conception, or that he failed to pursue it. The political vicissitudes of his administration suggest that a politics of the common good will not by itself solve the Democratic Party's problems.
We should begin, rather, by defining the new challenges our country faces, not only in national security (the focus of so much anxious commentary since 9-11) but also in the economy. The stark fact is that the World War II–era social contract is unraveling at an accelerating rate. Not only is the public sector facing promises it will be hard to keep; the private sector is retreating from its central role in the provision of health insurance and guaranteed pensions, and the personal savings rate has plunged below zero for the first time since the Great Depression. The common good requires a new social contract that will provide the level of security needed to promote risk-taking and mobility, the keys to individual opportunity and economic growth in the new economy. Defining the terms of that contract will give progressives what they need -- a conception of the common good that serves the interests of the overwhelming majority of the American people. It is only within that framework that progressives can effectively confront the forces FDR gleefully dubbed “economic royalists,” or summon the people to face the wrenching changes that lie ahead.
--William A. Galston is the Saul I. Stern Professor of Civic Engagement and interim dean at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy.
Jedediah Purdy: One of my favorite pieces from the Onion, the satirical newspaper and Web site, appeared just after September 11, 2001. It opened, “Feeling helpless in the wake of the horrible September 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands, Christine Pearson baked a cake and decorated it like an American flag Monday.” True to form, the article is lightly ironic as it traces the fictional Topeka legal secretary's rummage through her kitchen cabinets in a frenzy of distress and media exhaustion. It ends, though, with a middle-American version of the “Yes” at the end of Ulysses as Pearson presents the confection to her neighbors:
“I baked a cake,” said Pearson, shrugging her shoulders and forcing a smile as she unveiled the dessert in the Overstreet household later that evening. “I made it into a flag.”
Pearson and the Overstreets stared at the cake in silence for nearly a minute, until Cassie hugged Pearson.
“It's beautiful,” Cassie said. “The cake is beautiful.”
I've been thinking about Michael Tomasky's essay since I first read it two months ago. I think it's insightful and important. And every time I think of it, my mind runs to the Onion piece, which felt emotionally truer to me in those weeks than all the soaring and (justifiably) belligerent responses of politicians.
When Tomasky writes about the common good, he means an idea about America that people identify with, that they feel is part of who they are. Tomasky isn't interested in just any community -- the Catholic Church, black people, northern Californians -- but in an idea of the national community. He wants that idea of America to have the power to make demands on us: to reveal duties and make us proud of fulfilling them or ashamed of failing them. And he wants Democratic politicians to call this idea of the common good into being.
He points to the mid-1960s as the last time Democrats talked convincingly about the common good, and points especially to President Johnson. LBJ is a good choice: less obvious than the Kennedys, and arrestingly eloquent in his best speeches.
Two strands of common-good language were strong in American politics in this period. One, which LBJ shared with the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., is the one Tomasky wants the Democrats to re-take. It invited Americans to identify with the country as an unfinished project, full of promise but also burdened by moral failures and in danger of never becoming the nation it ought to be. This language was full of intense images of brotherhood, insisting, in the phrase now relegated to lefty bumper stickers, that no one was free while others were oppressed. King in his “I have a dream” speech praised whites who “have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” Johnson, in the same civil-rights address that Tomasky aptly quotes, asked, “How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we wasted energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?” The impulse in this language was moral connection to the national community: If America is unjust, every American is diminished. If America rights itself, every American is greater for that.
This strand also called on government to help make life richer and more meaningful. With the pen of speechwriter Robert Goodwin, the rough Texan LBJ spun images that far outdid poor Hillary Clinton's “politics of meaning.” Defining the aims of the Great Society, he spoke of the need to move past “soulless wealth” to “enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” He defined the Great Society as a humanist paradise, “where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. … Where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce, but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” He evoked a country without poverty or racial injustice, but also one “where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”
The second strand found its voice in Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Even before the New Left and the national meltdown over Vietnam, leaders of the New Right were calling on citizens to identify with their version of national greatness. The difference was that they treated American greatness as something already achieved, threatened only by the self-doubt of wussy liberals. Goldwater announced confidently, “Now, we Americans understand freedom. We have earned it.” For Reagan, the defect in American society was liberal reluctance to fight communism: “Should Christ have refused the cross?” he asked a national television audience in 1964, insisting that the country's freedom must be worth dying to defend. Both men invoked foreign peoples' struggle for freedom abroad, particularly in communist countries. But at home they found no room for what Johnson called, in praising the struggle for civil rights, “man's unending search for freedom.” The language of Reagan and Goldwater offered national greatness as a source of personal dignity and a cause for self-sacrifice, just as King's and Johnson's did; but you can boil down its essence to Toby Keith's post–9-11 boast, “We'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way.”
What's remarkable today is that both strands are more alive in the language of the right than in progressive rhetoric. I doubt I need to persuade anyone that, even with his job-approval rating hovering in the batting-average range, George W. Bush does a better Toby Keith than anyone in the Democratic Party. But he also does a better LBJ than any Democrat but, maybe, Barack Obama in one of his now-and-again soaring moments. Accepting the Republican nomination in 2000, Bush sounded like LBJ tilting at “soulless wealth”: “Prosperity can be a tool in our hands used to build and better our country, or it can be a drug in our system dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty.” He accused the Clinton administration of squandering the wealth and peace of the 1990s, and used President Clinton himself as an emblem of a feckless culture: “Our current president embodied the potential of a generation -- so many talents, so much charm, such great skill. But in the end, to what end? So much promise to no great purpose.”
Like LBJ and King, Bush is able to define national greatness in cultural, moral, and spiritual terms -- the terms in which so many people understand their own lives as either rich or poor. Unlike them, he gives this call to greatness an entirely apolitical turn. “We discovered,” he declared in his 2000 acceptance speech, “that who we are is more than important than what we have. And we know we must renew our values to restore our country. This is the vision of America's founders. They never saw our nation's greatness in rising wealth or in advancing armies, but in small, unnumbered acts of caring and courage and self-denial.” LBJ named the same goals, although he did not write government out of the story: The Great Society was to be a place “where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” This is the everyday language of the good life. Bush may be inarticulate when left to his own words, but he can deliver his speechwriters' renderings of that language with conviction and credibility. I am waiting for the progressive politician who can do the same, and tell the country what government has to do with the good life.
Let me give a few thoughts about why that is so hard to do, and what it might look like if it happened. First, appeals for progressive versions of economic fairness are harder to fit into the familiar story of American moral greatness than appeals for racial justice. There is a deep-seated and widespread belief that the American market economy is basically a natural and fair system, and that interference with it deserves suspicion. The famous statistic from the estate-tax debate, that almost 40 percent of Americans believe they are or soon will be among the wealthiest 1 percent of the country, is a testament not to bad actuarial skills but to the power of that belief: This economy will give me what I deserve. Princeton political scientist Jennifer Hochschild reports that an overwhelming majority of the country has agreed with the statement that people get their just desserts in American economic life. Hostility to taxes and open redistribution reflects a moral belief about what makes the country great, one that may fit awkwardly with Bush's language of compassion and opportunity, but which is openly hostile to a progressive picture of shared economic sacrifice.
Second, part of the reason progressive common-good language is so hard to find is that the last 40 years of progress in diversity and personal autonomy didn't just distract progressives from solidarity, they eroded our ability to invoke it convincingly. The inconvenient fact is that Americans are more willing to spend money to support people they see as like themselves than to support strangers -- or worse. As Tomasky points out, the New Deal worked its wonders for a national community with white-supremacist struts. The part of the Great Society that we remember -- the War on Poverty -- had its genuine flaws, but it was broken in good part on racial resentment. Decades of real progress in tolerance and openness have made the country a much better one, but have also made us more nearly a country of strangers. I will take that combination in a heartbeat over a country of racial oppression, sexual inequality, and cultural conformity. But taking it means taking its costs. The equality of tolerance is not that far from indifference, and very far from the equality of opportunity that LBJ envisioned. Whether we can have both is, at the very best, an open question.
Third, the search for a richer life that LBJ identified with the Great Society is under way everywhere but in government: in yoga and Pilates studios, churches and living rooms, pharmaceutical labs and psychotherapy clinics, Rick Warren's church and the editorial offices of Saveur, and all sorts of consumer technology labs -- the hundreds of thousands of places where billions of dollars and hours go into the unending search for meaning and satisfaction. In the last decade, parts of my social, professional, and emotional life have been changed by yoga, my laptop, the iPod shuffle function, and the American discovery of good food, to name only the less personal instances. I'd imagine I'm typical of Prospect readers, and lots of other Americans, in this experience. (Except for listing yoga instead of church, I'm not even sure I've distinguished myself from suburban conservatives.) Around the middle of April, as usual, I recalled Oliver Wendell Holmes' remark that he liked paying taxes because it felt like purchasing civilization. This year, it summoned nothing warmer than bitter irony as I thought about Iraq, Halliburton, earmarking, and cuts in Medicaid and student loans.
These are some of the reasons that I like to think about Michael Tomasky's essay and the Onion's cake story at the same time. The Onion is written for people who sometimes feel the way I sometimes feel: cynical, a little too easily disappointed, attuned to the private satisfactions of self-cultivation, institutions and publications and neighborhoods that suit us, and, above all -- if sometimes a little warily -- friendship and love. The American Prospect also is written for people who sometimes feel the way I sometimes feel: partisan, hopeful, civic-minded, looking for a way to shape those feelings into commitments more definite than a “Kerry sucks less” sticker.
A progressive language of the common good will have to speak to people where they live. My guess is that will have less to do with historical wrong and destiny than lbj and King's rhetoric, more to do with finding ways to make the workplace more compatible with family life, mobility more compatible with security, and the (literal, not figurative) places where we live more compatible with living well. My guess is that, like the progressivism that helped shape the New Deal, it will involve not just rhetoric, but also appeals to institutional imagination and innovation, a search for new ways that education and public spending can make equality of opportunity a goal rather than a slogan. A Democratic Party that did this would reclaim for politics some of what we now instinctively ascribe to technology and private institutions: not so much the power to ennoble as the knack of improving our lives. But if we created a government that turned improving people's lives back into a credible political aim, that would ennoble us enough.
And it would help if the language were funny -- funnier than this essay. Lincoln was funny. Reagan was funny, although with creepy flashes of sadism. Barack Obama seems to be funny. (“They say Democrats don't stand for anything. That's patently untrue. We do stand for anything!”) Wit doesn't muddy his gift for evoking the common good. I look forward to a progressive language that skewers right-wing pieties and lies with the withering, wry, plaintive exasperation of Jon Stewart, then gets down to explaining why we need a government that works if we're going to have the best lives we -- all of us -- can have. That will be a confection I can salute.
--Jedediah Purdy is a senior correspondent for the Prospect and an assistant professor of law at Duke University.
Fred Siegel: When Michael Tomasky says that Democrats don't have a philosophy that unites their “hodgepodge” of interest groups, I can only nod in agreement. And when he notes that the Democrats have been frozen in a rights-based antimajoritarian posture for nearly 40 years, I can only remember that he was, when writing about the David Dinkins mayoralty in New York 15 years ago, one of the few left-liberals to see how much this would hurt Democrats nationally. And finally, when he argues that “immigration policy can't be chiefly about the rights of undocumented immigrants; it needs to be about what's good for the country,” I can only say amen. In fact there is so much to agree with that it seems almost churlish to have to point to the weaknesses, some severe, some specific, that undermine the argument.
First, the specifics: In Michael's account corporate leaders support affirmative action as a way of advancing the common good. This is a generous reading of corporate motives, large companies have found affirmative action to be a competitive advantage. They are already burdened with large “human resources” bureaucracies; affirmative action law imposes some of those same costs on smaller and more nimble competitors. Interest groups will always game the rules.
He then goes on to confuse Lockean notions of tolerance with contemporary multicultural versions of diversity. But the first regards individuals and requires no positive affirmation of those with whom you disagree; the second easily shades over into the illiberalism of group rights and compulsory thinking. Rather than being continuous with each other, as he suggests, they are fundamentally at odds.
He says that LBJ's insistence that civil rights was good for whole country -- something that is now obvious to virtually all -- was an example of the kind of common good liberalism he hopes for. But then he says that in the 1960s a new generation exposed this “common good” as “nothing more than a lie to keep power.” Was it? Johnson knew full well that civil-rights legislation might cost the Democrats the South, but went ahead anyway. Worse yet, Tomasky invokes the old fraud Herbert Marcuse to claim that the New Left got it right when it insisted that the United States was an essentially totalitarian society trapped in a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom.” This, at the very moment when the civil-rights and anti-war movements are coming to life, is a self-refuting assertion. But why invoke Marcuse, a man who was opposed to extending full suffrage to blacks on the grounds it would only trap them in the prison of America's false hopes? Marcuse never saw either Hitler or Stalin coming but he was always sure, like all too many liberal Democrats, that fascism had taken hold in America.
Marcuse's ideal, and the ideal of all too many liberals today, is based on European ideas of the good life. But Europe, beset by unsustainable welfare costs and an angry population of Islamic immigrants, is in serious decline. Somehow, no matter how badly things go there, American left-liberals imagine in the words of 1920s Greenwich Villagers that “they do things better there.” But as Europe's high unemployment and low growth and birth rates suggest, they don't. If they're to have a future, we will be the model for them and not the other way around.
Finally, he insists, “in theory, it is not inevitable that” the rights-based Millian and egalitarian Social Democratic strands of liberalism “must clash.” But when and where, other perhaps than under inspired leadership during a brief moment of New Deal glory, have they not clashed? The first is embraced, as it always has been, by upper-middle-class liberals, who don't want the politicians interfering with their idea of the good life that now includes the multicultural right to employ a low-cost Latino service/servant class; the second worries, quite correctly, that massive immigration will both depress their wages and displace them socially.
It's heartening to see Tomasky and others like Todd Gitlin and Paul Berman attempt to pull liberalism out of its morass. But their job is more difficult than they imagine. About two-thirds of Americans agreed that the United States is a fair and decent country, but only about half of all liberals agree. That half, still faithful to the rights-based liberalism of the 1960s, will not be easily moved.
--Fred Siegel is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.
Amy Sullivan: The Lyndon Johnson speech that Michael Tomasky quotes in his call for a return to common-good liberalism is quite remarkable. It was given in 1965, when Johnson was making the case for civil rights to the country. It wasn't an appeal simply to blacks to shore up his political support among that constituency. Nor was it an attempt to imply that other groups who might feel threatened by civil-rights legislation would benefit materially from it as well. It was, instead, an argument that by protecting the rights of some of us and bringing them into the fold as equal members, civil rights served all of us -- was a common good.
“Should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation,” Johnson said. “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”
It's hard to imagine a president giving that speech today. Indeed, for the past 25 years, we have rarely been spoken to as a nation, reminded of our responsibilities to each other. And that goes for Republicans and Democrats. Reagan used the language of common good, but it was his administration that sped up the slicing and dicing of the population into haves and have-nots. Clinton -- perhaps, as Tomasky suggest, trying to shrug off some of the burdens of individualistic liberalism -- emphasized the responsibility of certain groups (like welfare recipients) for themselves, or appealed to our sense of sympathy, not solidarity.
When liberals jettisoned common-good liberalism for the language of group and individual rights, they still retained the ideals of economic communitarianism. But their ability to articulate this principle was undercut by their embrace of social libertarianism. It's hard to insist that how I behave in the economic sphere has implications for others, but when it comes to the social sphere, I can behave however I want and no one else should care.
The idea of social communitarianism seems to tie liberals up in knots. We're afraid of sounding judgmental. We don't want to tell other people what to do. We don't think it's any of our business. If you want to market violent or exploitative entertainment that feeds our materialistic urges, it's a free world -- go ahead.
But we don't have any of those same problems when it comes to economics. We're quite willing to judge CEOs who hoard enormous profits for themselves but leave their workers' pensions unprotected. We are happy to tell our fellow citizens that they need to pay taxes so that our common government can provide services to everyone. We think it's every bit our business when corporations dump the nasty byproducts of their production into our environment, polluting our air and water.
The good news is that this tradition of economic solidarity just may be our bridge to return to a fully realized vision of the common good -- one that embraces our economic and social responsibilities to each other.
As Tomasky explains the history of modern liberalism, the common-good tradition was jettisoned because it was seen to have failed significant groups in society -- whether Asian Americans, blacks, or women. It was suspect and had to be replaced by an individualistic tradition that would either protect these groups or give them the justification to look out for themselves. Today, however, is it that second tradition that has become suspect, turning the left into a conglomeration of interest groups that have a hard time articulating shared purposes and causes.
Instead of repeating the mistakes of the past, though, and replacing one tradition with another, why not create a balance between the two? It's a false choice to assume that we can either pursue a common good or our own individual goals. The common good should not automatically include a lack of interest in protecting individual rights -- and if it does, then we have the wrong conception of the common good.
--Amy Sullivan is an editor at The Washington Monthly.
Ron Walters: I do not believe that the Democrats' central problem lay in the lack of a “big idea” or a philosophy that can unite its constituencies. Rather, I believe that their problem lay in the emotional arena, and the politics, which flows from that sentiment, of fear and intimidation, created by the overwhelming revival of white racial privilege and militant capitalism organized into an aggressive movement that has skewed the electorate in a rightward direction. What has kept the Roosevelt-Johnson Democratic legacy from advancing is not the lack of a powerful organizing idea, but the force of the conservative movement and the retrenchment of Democratic leadership in its wake.
Al Gore won the election of 2000 without any changes in basic Democratic philosophy. The mystery, however, is that some of his party's leaders act as though he actually lost. The success of the conservative movement has intimidated Democrats into a behavioral mode that attempts to mimic conservative successes by co-opting aspects of its policy agenda. That is why the Republican victory in the 2004 election has seduced some to adopt a moral politics (like the common good) as the civic equivalent of religious values in the public sphere. In any case, a closely related formulation of the common good was presented with limited success by the communitarian movement, which briefly caught the attention of some activists in the Clinton administration.
Communitarianism, like the common good, attempts to split the philosophical difference between the old Democratic tradition of rights empowerment and the new conservatism of rugged individualism, by proposing a “rights and responsibilities” formulation. However, flaws in both communitarianism and the common good fail to acknowledge the strengthened impact in recent U.S. history of the racial hierarchy that has fostered a negligent distribution of social resources. Moreover, both schemes have weakened the legitimacy of group-centered notions of social justice.
Even with regard to affirmative action, they foster notions of individualism contained in the rights and responsibilities language that constructs an alienating prism for the less advantaged groups that are attracted to the Democratic Party. Individuals emerge most commonly from strong groups, and it has been the hope of blacks, Hispanics, and other disadvantaged groups that the Democratic Party would be a vehicle to empower those groups, their communities, and neighborhoods to produce strong individuals.
The perception is palpable that the Democrats are shrinking from the unfinished business of poverty and problems such as employment, criminal justice, education, housing, and other social services. Such behavior is causing a youthful generation to question the party's commitment to their interests. They saw that in the 1990s, Democrats led the charge to adopt regressive policies such as the 1994 crime bill and welfare reform of 1996. Thus, the critical failure of Democratic leadership lay in neither acknowledging nor fighting for its own legacy, part of which has long suggested that by privileging the politics of those who need government most, one helps to achieve the common good.
So the mission of Democratic leadership should be to confront the core assumptions and actions of the Gingrich revolutionaries and expose them to the American people as an anathema to the common good, admittedly a key aspect of the Democratic regime to which we all aspire. The political coalition that opposes those assumptions will be formed on the plane of the historical realism, the territory out of which liberalism originally proved its mettle -- under girding policies that, as Tomasky points out, have substantially improved the status of blacks and other disadvantaged people. But it should be well understood that the conservative movement did not merely capture the American electorate by crafting persuasive ideas; it also forged a political leadership dedicated to their aggressive, militant implementation. By comparison Democratic leadership has appeared timid and ineffective, not for want of ideas, but in confrontation with its adversaries.
Today there also appears to be a class problem in the Democratic Party, where some activists, often little different in class from their Republican counterparts, pursue a tactical politics of winning, utilizing a “split-the-difference” ideology in addressing elections, while large sections of an increasingly diverse rank and file continue to need a party that will fight for the interests of those not yet fully empowered as American citizens. Their central value appears to be to obtain and manage the power of the White House at any cost, even the cost of their party's legacy. As Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, poverty, racism, and militarism continue to pose serious obstacles to achieving a peoples' democracy. A party that devalues either its legacy or the interests of key constituencies will not help to remove these barriers to democracy. At each stage of the success of the liberal era in Democratic politics in overcoming such demagoguery, visionary leadership was crucial, but aggressive leadership was decisive. It is more necessary now.
--Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His latest book is Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics (Rowan and Littlefield).