Matt Bai has written a new book, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, which looks at the movers and shakers who are working hard to remake the Democratic party. It sounds like an interesting, well-written book, and one that anyone interested in American politics should read.
I learned about the book through Dan DiSalvo’s review in Commentary. DiSalvo commented on one facet of the new Democrats that struck me with particular force:
According to Bai, the new progressive coalition is primarily united by what it is against. Its opposition to the Iraq war is ferocious. The person of George W. Bush, who has been described by one activist as a “chicken hawk” bent on instituting a “dictatorship,” elicits emotions of universal fear and loathing. Bush aside, almost any policy initiative associated with the Republican party is regarded as stupid, malicious, or both.
But the new progressives have great difficulty in saying what they are for. Although Bai reports that intellectual circles on the Left have put forth many technocratic policy prescriptions, mostly aimed at extending the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society, the movement lacks any sort of larger vision. A typical statement from the Democracy Alliance proclaimed support for such vagaries as “the highest quality education, affordable health care, retirement security, and the opportunity to earn a living wage.” Similarly, MoveOn.org was able to distill only three goals from a series of tightly scripted “meet-ups” held across the country: “health care for all, energy independence, and democracy restored.”
Despite this paltry output, the new progressives are convinced not only of their intellectual superiority but of their political acumen. They see only two possible explanations for the errant behavior of Americans in the “fly-over” states who remain stubbornly in the Republican column. One is that red-state residents tend to be Christian evangelicals who do not know any better than to “vote against their own economic self-interest.” The other is that they have been manipulated by Republican operatives who, however dim-witted their policies, are cunning masters of electioneering. Some bloggers also complain that establishment Democrats, as the Daily Kos has explained, “don’t care [enough] about winning” to engage in the sort of campaign skullduggery that is routine for the GOP.
With such convictions as the backdrop, debate inside the Democratic party’s “Democratic wing,” Bai shows, is less about policy than about tactics and strategy.
That’s an interesting concept, and I think one that contains within it the seeds for the new Democrats’ eventual destruction. Americans are an essentially optimistic people, and while the angry fringe may be an “against” vote, I wonder how well that plays to the average voter who is simply trying to vote in a way that will most optimize his own life and belief systems. The fact is, though, that the destruction is not imminent and Republicans are so bogged down in a “we’re failures” mentality that they’re not coming up with any affirmative principles to which the average, optimistic voter can cling.
I’ve therefore come up with a few of my own rock bottom principles that I think unite most conservatives, as long as we don’t look too closely at details. What I’d like is for you to chip in which principles, beliefs, values, etc., that you believe are common to the greatest majority of conservatives. And just to give an idea of what I mean — which is that I’m looking for huge, binding issues that transcend Congressional details — I’m starting with the issue that is getting press as the one that most severely damaged the Republican party in the last go round.
Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Conservatives believe that America is weakening itself by allowing illegal immigrants to stream into the country.
Apparent Democratic belief: It’s racist to challenge the numbers of illegal immigrants and to place barriers in their path.
The Supreme Court
Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Conservatives believe that the role of the Supreme Court is to examine state and federal laws and lower court decisions to determine whether they comport with the written Constitution.
Apparent Democratic belief: The Supreme Court is to decide what is right and what is wrong — and it can get help for this by looking to its own private standards of morality, to dominant cultural trends, and to foreign systems — and it should then direct policy consistent with its findings.
(I was going to do an “abortion” heading here, and then I decided not to. I’m looking for a lowest common denominator strand of beliefs and, while the Republicans are more closely connected with the pro-Life movement, there are pro-Choice Republicans. It’s therefore not a lowest common denominator. However, it is affected by the binding conservative view of the Supreme Court, since we all know — as Clarence Thomas articulated — that a strict constructionist Supreme Court will jettison Roe v. Wade and return the matter to the states, where it belongs. Then, the chips will fall where they may, regardless of political platforms.)
The Iraq War
Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Conservatives believe that, whether or not we made the right decision in 2003 to invade Iraq, that is a done deal, and our only responsibility now is to fight wholeheartedly and to win.
Apparent Democratic belief: President Bush got us into the War to satisfy his oil buddies in Texas and, to punish him, we must leave immediately, regardless of the consequences to America, to Iraq, or to world security.
Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Islamic terrorism is real, it is the product of a totalitarian religious ideology that has as its ultimate goal the destruction of non-Muslim Western culture, there is no middle ground given its goal, and we must fight it.
Apparent Democratic belief: Islamic terrorism is the work of a few people angry at the US (and especially at George Bush), and the best thing we can do to placate these people is to (a) leave Iraq; (b) abandon Israel; (c) dump George Bush; and (d) engage in dialogue with the Islamic leaders.
Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Government is a bad money manager. People make money grow, and lower taxes allow for a livelier, growing economy, with the inevitable result that the government, despite lower taxes, brings in more money.
Apparent Democratic belief: People cannot be trusted to make the right decisions with their money. It’s better if the government takes and redistributes wealth, notwithstanding the fact that doing so slows the economy.
And that’s it for my ideas and my time right now. I’d love it if you guys could take a crack at this in the comments, either editing what I wrote or adding your own. Please keep in mind that I’m looking for big ideas that appeal to the greatest number of people. Gay marriage might be another area to add. I think the vast majority of Americans are tolerant of gays, who are their friends, family and colleagues. They don’t want gays to suffer from violence, public humiliation or discrimination. But they’re pretty sure that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that the rights extended to gays should be limited to civil and legal rights, by statute or contract, provided they fall short of marriage. The question, though, is how to say that pithily, in a way that states the lowest common denominator belief (no gay marriage) while at the same time not playing into the hands of those who would accuse conservatives of being violent homophobes.
So, go to it. Come up with something better than I did, and perhaps we can work this into a real “platform” of affirmative ideas that are unifying, rather than getting bogged down in picayune details that muddy the message and pass the power to the haters.