Less Than the Sum of Our Parts
As Democrats wallow in the mire of Tuesday's electoral devastation, many are looking for silver linings in the clouds of the Republican trouncing. From record turnout, new voter registration, impressive fundraising, and the proliferation of liberal 527's, many progressives are finding solace.
Comforting as that might be during this time of mourning for progressives, this search for palliatives misses the real point of Tuesday's disaster and obscures the hard work we have to do. That is, Democrats fundamentally have neither a clear, coherent public philosophy nor simple, hard-hitting messages that the 21st century "infotainment" media require. Simply put, a fractured Democratic Party doesn't know its message or even its audience.
A brief survey of the blogosphere highlights the problem in our search for remedies. Katrina vanden Heuvel at The Nation praises a new "progressive infrastructure" and the need for "resistance" by finding "choke points" that could block at least some of the Bush administration's legislative agenda. Over at Another Liberal Blog and MyDD, several feisty entrees belittle the notion of a Bush mandate, question W's popularity and find serenity in Democratic performance at the margins. And in his Guardian column, Kos writes optimistically about the money, energy, and activism of a resurgent progessive opposition.
All of the above are valid and soothing for Democrats, but also largely beside the point. That's because behind the electoral fiasco in 2004, as in 2000, is the reality that we Democrats have degenerated into the "party of no." Democrats must become more than a "No" to the Republicans "Yes." As noted elsewhere, Democrats must say what they stand for and articulate a positive policy program for change, all in a way that is easily communicated.
The Real Challenge
Progressives need to take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and ask what we believe in and what are our priorities. For all of the energy, outrage and intellectual horsepower being expended, what is the "meta-story", the unifying theme for groups like MoveOn and America Coming Together (ACT) on the left and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the New Democrat Network (NDN) in the center? When John Kerry lost every income group over $50,000 a year, was mauled both among white men (62-37%) and white women (55%-44%), and saw George Bush gets 42% of the Hispanic vote, who are we speaking to? Suburban voters (like "Office Park Dads", "Soccer Moms", or "Security Moms") or the mythical "ideopolis" of "creative class" professionals and urban minority voters? Have we created accidentally a de facto left-wing cacophony that obscures issues and confuses Americans as much as the right-wing noise machine we loathe?
With an admittedly easier task, the GOP consistently outperforms us in these most basic of political tasks. In the time of George W. Bush, Republicans and their infrastructure of conservative media, think tanks, non-profits, 527's (and churches), are united behing a single (though awful) formula:
Some Ways Forward for Democrats
Given the party's diversity, Democrats no doubt have a far more difficult mountain to climb in answering the fundamental question, "What do we stand for?" It can be done, but not without questioning some Democratic orthodoxies and sacred cows.
Consider a 21st century Democratic mission statement along the following lines:
Empower Americans of all backgrounds, races, classes and faiths to enjoy and sustain growing prosperity, increased safety and personal autonomy at home, while helping to ensure our security abroad through wise stewardship of the global community.
Elsewhere, Perrspectives has written about a New American Bargain from Democrats, with a theme of "unity at home, unity abroad." It would emphasize Democratic leadership in managing the transition to a 21st century skills economy. It would stress national service for homeland security and national energy independence for strategic, not environmental, reasons. And this Bargain would tackle head critical family issues of health and day.
To break out of their geographic and cultural straightjacket, Democrats must once again be the party of universal values, creating opportunity, protecting ights and requiring sacrifices from all Americans citizens regardless of background. And that is why Democrats must move away from multi-culturalism and identity politics to a post-affirmative action philosophy of "Open Opportunity."
For more background on a new Democratic public philosophy and policy program, see: