Party in Search of a Notion

The Democrats are feeling upbeat these days, and why not? The Republican president and vice president have lost the country's confidence. The Republican-controlled Congress is a sump of corruption, sycophancy, and broken principle. Races in the midterm election that Democratic leaders wouldn't have dreamed of a few months ago are in play (the Senate seat in Tennessee!). A recent poll showed Democrats with a gaping 16-point lead over Republicans this fall. Seizing on the issues of corruption and incompetence, the party might even take back the House or the Senate -- or both.

The prevailing conventional wisdom in Washington -- that the Democrats have no idea what they stand for -- has recently been put to the test in persuasive ways. In an important piece in the May issue of The Washington Monthly, Amy Sullivan demonstrates that the Democrats have in fact become a disciplined and effective opposition party. From their Social Security victory to George W. Bush's backing down on his post-Katrina changes to the Davis-Bacon law to the Dubai ports deal, the Democrats have dealt the administration a series of defeats -- each of which took a reflexive media, still accustomed to hitting F9 to spit out the words "Democrats in disarray," by complete surprise. More than that, the Democrats do have ideas; it's just that no one bothers to cover them.

The party has discipline, a tactical strategy as the opposition, and a more than respectable roster of policy proposals waiting to be considered should Democrats become the majority again. It's quite different from, say, three years ago. But let's not get carried away. There remains a missing ingredient -- the crucial ingredient of politics, the factor that helps unite a party (always a coalition of warring interests), create majorities, and force the sort of paradigm shifts that happened in 1932 and 1980. It's the factor they need to think about if their goal is not merely to win elections but to govern decisively after winning them.

What the Democrats still don't have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society. Indeed, the party and the constellation of interests around it don't even think in philosophical terms and haven't for quite some time. There's a reason for this: They've all been trained to believe -- by the media, by their pollsters -- that their philosophy is an electoral loser. Like the dogs in the famous "learned helplessness" psychological experiments of the 1960s -- the dogs were administered electrical shocks from which they could escape, but from which, after a while, they didn't even try to, instead crouching in the corner in resignation and fear -- the Democrats have given up attempting big ideas. Any effort at doing so, they're convinced, will result in electrical (and electoral) shock.

But is that as true as it appears? Certainly, today's Democrats can't simply return to the philosophy that was defeated in the late 1970s. But at the same time, let's recognize a new historical moment when we see one: Today, for the first time since 1980, it is conservative philosophy that is being discredited (or rather, is discrediting itself) on a scale liberals wouldn't have dared imagine a few years ago. An opening now exists, as it hasn't in a very long time, for the Democrats to be the visionaries. To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently -- to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era.

* * *

For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today's. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest. Any rank-and-file liberal is a liberal because she or he somehow or another, through reading or experience or both, came to believe in this principle. And every leading Democrat became a Democrat because on some level, she or he believes this, too.

I remember my moment of epiphany clearly. It was early 1981; Ronald Reagan had taken office. I was toying, at the time, with some conservative notions -- not because I believed them, but mostly to engage in that time-honored sport of 20-year-old men everywhere: to traduce the old man. Reagan had just fired the air-traffic controllers. Dad and I were in the car, our Ford Granada, driving somewhere; I said (I cringe to confess this in print) something about the strike being illegal -- Reagan's line, then being aped on television by such TV loudmouths as existed in that distant age. "Michael," he thundered (and he could thunder, all right!), "all strikes are illegal! That's part of the point!" Hmmm. It hadn't quite occurred to me that maybe there was more to the story than the television savants were letting on. He'd overstated the case a bit (all strikes aren't illegal), but in doing so, my father had asked me to think, and his request led me to consider things in a light I hadn't before -- about the PATCO workers, yes; but about history and money and power, about the mine workers so central to the place where I grew up (Morgantown, West Virginia) and to my father's life (he was a United Mine Workers shop steward as a young man, before he got his law degree); about the precept that real thought and engagement on my part required looking beyond first assumptions, examining a problem from points of view other than my own, and considering any action's impact on the whole society.

This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves.

In terms of political philosophy, this idea of citizens sacrificing for and participating in the creation of a common good has a name: civic republicanism. It's the idea, which comes to us from sources such as Rousseau's social contract and some of James Madison's contributions to the Federalist Papers, that for a republic to thrive, leaders must create and nourish a civic sphere in which citizens are encouraged to think broadly about what will sustain that republic and to work together to achieve common goals. This is what Dad asked me to understand that day in our Granada.

* * *

This is what Democrats used to ask of people. Political philosophers argue about when they stopped; Michael Sandel believes that republicanism died with the New Deal. But for me, it's clear that the great period of liberal hegemony in this country was, in fact, a period when citizens were asked to contribute to a project larger than their own well-being. And, crucially, it was a period when citizens (a majority of them, at least) reciprocally understood themselves to have a stake in this larger project. The New Deal, despite what conservative critics have maintained since the 1930s, did not consist of the state (the government) merely handing out benefices to the nation (the people), turning citizens into dependent wards; it engaged and ennobled people: Social Security and all the jobs programs and rural electrification plans and federal mortgage-insurance programs were examples of the state giving people the tools to improve their own lives while improving the collective life of the country (to say nothing of the way Franklin Roosevelt rallied Americans to common purpose in fighting through the Depression and the war). Harry Truman turned the idea of common purpose outward to the rest of the world, enacting the Marshall Plan, creating NATO and other regional alliances, exhorting Americans to understand that they belonged to a community larger than even their country. John Kennedy engaged Americans precisely at the level of asking them to sacrifice for a common good, through the things that are obvious to us -- the Peace Corps, and of course

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