Perrspectives - Bringing light to Darkness

Less Than the Sum of Our Parts

November 4, 2004

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.
Cold Comfort
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:

  • Worldview: Government bad, markets good, unilateral U.S. foreign policy, faith matters
  • Positive Program for Change: Regressive tax reform, Social Security privatization, medical savings accounts, vouchers
  • Key Messages: Unilateral foreign policy, "it's your money", "choice"
  • Branding: "School choice", abolish "Death Tax", "Partial Birth Abortion", "Clear Skies", "Healthy Forests"
  • 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:

  • "The Donkey Gets Its Ass Kicked: Five Lessons for Democrats in 2004"
  • "Identity Politics and the Threat from the Left"
  • "A New American Bargain: The Reciprocity Society"
  • "The Reciprocity Society in Action"
  • "Democratic Wartime Leadership"
  • One comment on “Less Than the Sum of Our Parts”

    1. My new favorite blog.
      Right now, among other Liberal blogs, I'm seeing a lot of argument, fractuousness, an utter rejection of the idea that we need civility.
      On civility;
      We still need to *know* - is it true? Is there REALLY a 'silent majority' like Rush Limbaugh and others have been telling us all these years? Maybe there isn't. Maybe we lost this election due to fraud. We need to know. I think there's no chance in hell of a successful installation of Kerry on that basis. This is tinfoil hat stuff. But we still MUST have that datapoint. If "we" truly are in the minority in this country, then it justifies "civility".
      If not, well, civility would be a nice thing anyway.
      On Wedge Issues;
      But the bottom line is - we're being manipulated by Rove. The "gay marriage thing" was designed to wedge the center away from the left. Among those who voted for Kerry, there are many who are now willing to dump civil rights, in favor of just protecting America from the kleptocrats. I don't think we should do that, because it betrays a core moral value of Democrats. Equal rights. The problem isn't the "gay agenda". The problem is that the Right's media machine successfully branded civil rights as "the gay agenda".
      Every time THEY slide to the right, they force the center further to the right. The center needs to stay ideologically in the center. And the Dems need to remain true to their core values, and communicate that they're not "poll driven" or beholden to special interest dollars.
      We've known that the problem has been communication for a couple of years now. We've known that the problem has been the massive right-wing media machine for quite some time. Our "answer" was Air America. Rap Stars, Lesbians, Movie Stars? This drove them running and screaming away. Air America was a huge fucking mistake. I think it's needed, but it's for the people who are already on our side. It does NOTHING to convince those who aren't to support us. It convinces them that the Bill O'Rileys of the world are right, that there really is a big evil liberal hollywood conspiracy.
      The answer is the blogosphere.
      Not the discussion board flamewars, where offensive namecalling is a fact of life that nobody can do anything to stop. There will always be squeaky wheels on the far left who will make us look bad.
      What we need to do is add a few simple features to every liberal blogger who will listen:
      1. For every "story" - copious LINKS to FACTS. Not speculation. (ThisIsRumorControl.com already does this by rating stories 1-10 in terms of veracity). Tinfoil hattery should be absolutely discouraged, until there's hard proof. Like the 380 tons of HMX. The Bush TANG story never had hard proof. That doesn't mean we don't pursue it. We just all have to agree to not waste time using it in arguments, because it damages ALL of our credibility.
      2. Permanent Links to HOWTO sites, FAQs, on how to evaluate sources. We'll give them FACTS in #1. Then we'll give them a way to evaluate for themselves whether the source of the fact is believable. We MUST deny them the ability to instantly slime a fact with "Left Wing Bias" or "Tinfoil Hat" labels.
      3. Permanent Links to sites on CRITICAL THINKING, Logical Fallacies. If we taught these things to our children in grade school, this wouldn't be a problem. Basic logic skills are a politically neutral thing. They don't support one agenda over the other. But they do one very crucial thing. They teach people how to recognize when their being lied to. They help to persuade and convince. When Rush Limbaugh lies, he should not get away with it. When he makes broad generalizations, he should not get away with it. When he sets up straw men, he should not get away with it. The internet is FULL of liberals who don't know the first thing about making arguments. The biggest and best principle of Enlightenment is that when everyone has all the facts, and can reason with them, then truth and goodness ALWAYS prevail. Better still, the most odious of topics should always be openly discussed, thereby letting bad ideas be openly discredited and destroyed. The left has done a TERRIBLE job of arguing for Progressive Taxation within the framework of constitutional powers. The left has done a TERRIBLE job of explaining why freedom of speech is more important than security.
      4. Permanent Links to important documents; The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. The Federalist Papers. The Bible, or at least important verses and passages.
      These need to be convenient, highly available tools that folks can refer to on a moment's notice to shoot down trolls and lies. I'm afraid this will also work against us, somewhat - because there are leftist causes out there that, no matter how you frame them, they're just plain unconstitutional. My feeling is, those ideas need to be rejected anyway. Those are what's killing us. I do not support them.
      We've got to make it easy for the Progressive Cause to be sold to middle America.
      Air America isn't a good enough answer to the Right Wing Slime Machine. We dont' have enough money, and those with money are rich because of their self-interest. There are too few George Soros' in the world. The Right has spent billions of dollars creating the Heritage Foundation, and other think tanks, they had to, to build up a library of lies that their mouthpieces use each and every day. And it will all come crashing down on them if we can just destroy their credibility, by getting out the TRUTH. And only the TRUTH that can be easily proven. This is the Information Age. We have tools that the underground newspapers of the 1960's can only dream of. The pajama brigade has arrived.
      How will they try to stop us?
      1. Links to information that can prove and disprove arguments, can be copyrighted, and bloggers can be sued for disseminating stuff. People trying to discredit the Church of Scientology have already been vicimized by this tactic. We need to be careful.
      2. Same way they took over Newspapers, TV, and Radio. They don't control those the way they control the Internet. But it's possible that a series of mergers among ISPs, or a growing awareness of a threat, could bring about action that cuts us off. One of the great pioneers of the Internet (whose name I can't remember now, is it Stallins?) said; "The internet sees censorship as damage, and routes around it." If they attack our ISPs, we find other ISPs. We're not so much of a minority that there won't be demand for free expression on the internet. Nobody will be able to make the case that pandering to leftwing bloggers isn't profitable. But we may be punished with high access fees.


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    Jon Perr
    Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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