Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Democratic "Party"?

Eric Alterman's column, usually dedicated to excoriating the media's inability to do its job, covered a different agenda on 5/10. Alterman asked his readers/writers to put together some definitions on what (presumably American) "liberals" actually believe in. This is quite naturally a response to the perceived drift of the Democratic party away from any rich ideological moorings as they have been hammered in election after election over the last quarter century by the politically astute arch-ideological Republicans. The Democrats have begun to fall into the trap that the Whig Party never escaped in the early-mid 19th century: playing the part of the abused minority party reacting to the harsh dictates of its stronger and better organized foe, in their case. The Whigs never found a unified voice of principles or ideas, which made them less able to withstand the natural political doldrums between campaigns that most of the electorate feels; the Whigs existed mainly as a party during campaign seasons, latching onto whatever promising candidate would have them, regardless of what he believed. (While this is somewhat of an exaggeration, any party that could have contained the likes of Henry Clay [probably the most ideologically pure Whig, Clay stood most of his life for a strong federal government that would promote internal improvements and unity], John Tyler [a nakedly opportunistic schemer who attempted to destroy the party once he gained the Presidency, and returned shortly to the Democratic Party whence he came], and Zachary Taylor [who, while an honest and fairly skilled politician, made no bones about being a man "above party"] can scarcely be seen as having a strong identity.)
While the current Democratic Party has its share of characters, I think Alterman is correct in asserting its lack of a unifying vision. Much like the Whigs back then, the Democrats since the days of LBJ are successful on the national level only in the face of a severe opposition meltdown. Watergate, the most egregious and public political scandal between the 1920s and 2000, "destroyed" the Republicans for all of 4 years. Smirky's dad's total and wildly ignorant inability to recognize how out-of-touch he was with anyone not in government (ours or the Saudis) or making a zillion bucks a year as the economy tanked gave rise to Clinton's initial win. Clinton was the most successful centrist of our times, who, although nominally a Democrat, could hardly be seen as someone with a liberal vision. While Gingrich and his allies in Congress had yet to alienate the populace by 1996, Bob Dole was hardly an inspiring candidate to go up against a youthful, energetic, and a so far Monica-free incumbent. If a Democrat wins in 2008, that pattern will definitely have continued, given Smirky and the gang's dramatic and deadly incompetence and arrogant, elitist disdain for anything resembling the truth or concern for the well being of our country.
The Whig Party finally dissolved when the unifying policy of slavery expansion became the overriding issue of the day after 1854. Essentially, those people in favor of expansion remained in (or returned to) the Democratic Party, while those against combined to form the Republican Party. Will something similar happen now to reconstruct our party alignments? Until Smirky's ascendancy, both parties since Watergate have tried to publicly position themselves in the "middle" against extremists on both sides, although Reagan and Bush showed their true right-wing colors once in office. Clinton (and to a much lesser extent, Carter) showed that a Democrat can accomplish that task and be a successful candidate for President; no Republican has honestly succeeded similarly--although if Nixon's beliefs and policies could be divorced from his loathsome character, most people would be able to see that he had been fairly centrist as well. (I think that if Nixon were to run today on his platform, he would be ridiculed and probably punished by the current Republican party heads as being too "liberal"!) Is capturing the center really what the Democrats hope to achieve? Almost by definition, the center of the political spectrum is an ideological desert--a chaotic wasteland of constantly shifting pluralities and temporary attitudes. Who would have thought, just 30 years ago, that evangelical Christians would become the dominant political force driving our current Republican party farther and farther to the right, when those same people had been relatively politically inert, "residing" much closer to the center for decades? How can anyone know what issues will radicalize those of the center in the future, causing new disruptions to the body politic? Inhabiting the center is a pipe dream for any political party. It's time for the Democrats to revisit the land of FDR and LBJ, update their voter lists, reclaim the good name of "liberalism", and come to a quick definition of what it means to want social and economic justice in our society and the world. The time is ripe, people . . .


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