What if the Democrats acted like Democrats?

Over the past 60 years only two Democratic presidential candidates have gotten over 50% of the vote: LBJ in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. For nearly a quarter of a century, beginning with the election of Reagan, the Democratic Party has tried to reinvent itself as a party of the modified right. The effort has been a disaster; all its candidates have gotten less than half of the popular vote.

What if the Democrats had instead decided to have remained Democrats? Writing in the DC Gazette in 1982 Sam Smith argued that they should and two decades later the suggestion still seems applicable.

Sam Smith, 1982 – The only way to deal with the new right – and it’s alive in both parties, is to have some new Democrats as well. These new Democrats can’t be rehashed liberals – the word ought to be banished from the Democratic vocabulary for at least two presidential terms. They can’t be socialists; the Democrats have thoroughly discredited socialism by introducing over the past few decades every one of its worst aspects while providing few of its benefits. They can be radical, in the sense of returning to the roots, but those roots are not in European socialism nor are they as convenient chronologically as the New Deal. They are to be found further back and on this side of the Atlantic – in a judicious blend of Jeffersonianism, populism, progressvism, libertarianism and what Norman Mailer calls “radical conservatism.” Liberalism and socialism suffer from many of the same defects. They both tend to favor order at the expense of freedom. They both tend towards centralism, while the historical roots of American thought are decentralist and anti-authoritarian. And in their effort to produce economic salvation, they both tend to create psychological deprivation. The American dream is not to make the right choice between economic and personal justice, it’s not to choose between independence and equality but to have it all. Both the right and the left in this country tend to promote only a part of the dream; a new Democratic politics, I would submit, should try to put the parts together again. Here, for starters, are, some random notes on how it might be done:

o A new Democratic politics requires the reestablishment of a base among the people rather than, as has been increasingly the case, among those who “represent them.” If the party has to make a choice it should go for the union members rather than for the unions. It worked for Reagan and it would work for the Democrats. The Democratic Party has failed to understand the depth of institutional alienation in this country. Although the Republicans are as institutionally bound as the Democrats, they have been far more effective in feigning interest in the American as an individual. The Democratic rhetoric is constantly shoving institutions on top of people – HUD, the UAW, the city machines – and people are mad at all of them.

o A new Democratic politics requires affirmative action in government decentralization. The Republicans have gotten away with simply calling for less government because the Democrats have promoted the absurd premise that only the central government can solve our problems. In fact, much of the Republican effort is not aimed at doing away with government but with doing away with programs, but because the Democrats have resisted decentralizing these programs this distinction has been obscured. The Democrats should forget that Richard Nixon started revenue sharing and make bigger and better revenue sharing a major part of its program. The Republicans have played a symbolic game with revenue sharing; let the Democrats make it real. That there are risks in decentralization is obvious. That there are important federal functions that must remain centralized – such as the guarantee of constitutional rights – is also obvious. But because Washington must protect the rights of minorities does not mean that Washington must also decide when, how and with what surface material a village in Nebraska shall build its federally-funded playground.

Part of the peculiar mythology of the Democratic Party is that decentralization is un-Democratic. This, no doubt, stems from the abuse of states’ rights as a tool for discrimination. But at some point one has to distinguish between inherent evil and wrongful application; the Democrats have failed to do so. If you go back to the earliest days of the republic, you find a different story about states rights. Within a relatively few years of the revolution, the United States had ended most property standards for suffrage, eliminated the legal status of women as chattel, ended slavery outside the south, and rejected primogeniture, all as the result of state rather than federal action. Even in today’s conflicts, the effect of decentralized power is not as dangerous as we sometimes think. True, the Burger court decentralized the definition of pornography – but would you really prefer that every community have to accept the Burger court’s own definition? Where would homosexuals be if their only legal recourse was a federal human rights law? Would they prefer that San Francisco and Washington be governed by Congress’s current inclinations on the subject? Would women prefer to rely solely on passage of the ERA? Even in human rights, the federal government is not inherently superior to the sum of its parts.

o A new Democratic politics requires that the party get out of bed with banks, multinational corporations, monopolies, oligarchies, conglomerates, Washington legal hit men and economic hustlers of all stripes. The Republican Party may be married to big business but the Democratic Party is its mistress. It has never confessed this to its constituents but they figured it out anyway. It has to stop fooling around if there is to be any hope of revival. It can not go on talking economic justice on the one hand while, on the other, trying to beat the Republicans to the deal.

o A new Democratic politics requires that the party make clear the difference between free enterprise and an economic orgy. Until politicians make the distinction the American voters won’t. Voters need to know what has happened to their classic economic model. They need to know that the corporations that now claim rights equal to that of an individual once had to convince the state government that their purposes were in the public interest and necessity before even receiving a charter. They need to understand the hypocrisy involved in mega-corporations assuming the mantle of a primitive and virtually extinct form of capitalism. They should be told about the significantly greater job-producing capacity of small rather than large business. They should be taught the diseconomies of scale. They should learn about the inflationary potential of monopolized business, the job-destroying potential of high tech multi-national industry and the environmental indifference – all factors with which Adam Smith didn’t contend.

The Democratic Party, which has been grievously silent about such matters, should take the position that it wants to free enterprise rather than subsidize monopolies. The Democratic Party’s new politics also requires alternatives to the growing monopolization of the economy. One such alternative would be an emphasis on the cooperatives as options to traditional economic units. Cooperatives are an attractive alternative to_ capitalistic failure since they can accomplish many of socialism’s goals without its liabilities. Further, they have a healthy red-blooded American provenance that makes them more politically tasteful. Along with cooperativism, we need to put an end to the acceptance of what Paul Soglin calls “lemon socialism” – the idea that it is all right for the government to get into private business as long as there’s no money to be made out of it. Once you accept the idea of public enterprise – the opportunities for economic change mount geometrically. We already have some successful examples of public enterprise in this country, such as the few communities that own their own utilities, but the idea is in its infancy.

Acceptance of a decentralized public enterprise ethos would permit, for example, a city government to buy and then lease redevelopment land rather than merely collect the taxes on it. It would encourage the formation of state and local banks to fund housing programs out of profits made from middle and upper income mortgages. It would allow government to get something in return for its subsidies. It would give local governments a piece of the equity in housing programs they fund. It would give the government stock shares in businesses it subsidized or bailed out. We would never have to reach an ultimate confrontation between monopoly capitalism and monopoly socialism; rather we would develop a case by case economy. The only thing stopping us from moving in this direction and enjoying its obvious benefits is our fear of violating an economic theory that no longer has any practical meaning.

o A new Democratic politics would stress, ways to reduce confrontation in the society. It would reject the adversary society created by such institutions such as legal profession and would develop means for people to resolve disputes rather than win or lose them.

o A new Democratic politics would decentralize justice. Like everything else in our society, prosecution and adjudication has been removed from our communities. It must be returned. America, among western countries, is one of the most punitive and least effective in dealing with crime. The Republican theory of more of the same should be rejected. The Democratic Party should stress the fact that crimes are committed against a community and that the community must be the focus of law enforcement. Failure to recognize the key role of communities in crime prevention and the subsidiary nature of professional law enforcement is a major reason for our failure to deal effectively with the problem. We need to greatly strengthen fledgling neighborhood justice systems – with the emphasis on prevention rather than punishment and on restitution rather than retribution – and we need to stop playing catch-up in the Republican game of the more cops the better.

o A new Democratic politics must continue to stress proper care and feeding of the environment, with the greatest emphasis on the avoidance of irreparable damage. Whether immediately popular or not, the party must take a stand against playing Russian roulette with eternity.

o A new Democratic politics requires a foreign policy that finally recognizes the independence of the rest of the nations of the world. Our intrusive, arrogant meddling in extra-territorial politics has brought us little but grief. It is morally indefensible, politically unproductive and economically risky.

o A new Democratic politics requires a military policy that is based on the needs of the military rather than of the military-industrial complex. One of the best kept secrets of American politics is that the huge sums taxpayers are providing for the “defense budget” has surprisingly little to do with defense. It is a make-work program for defense contractors. You don’t even have to raise the moral issue: from a military point of view it doesn’t make sense. The essence of any military force is the professionalism and skill of its personnel. There are strong indications that this has seriously declined despite the ever-growing number of toys the military has to play with. The Democrats could get a lot more mileage for a lot less cost out of the defense issue, by emphasizing real preparedness and skill rather than the traditional predilection for bigger and better weaponry.

o A new Democratic politics should make the Democratic Party the party of neighborhoods, the party of communities. Local Democrats should be at the front of every battle for neighborhood government, for more participation by citizens in local decisions, against the rape of communities by developers and speculators and city governments. Because Democrats control so many city halls, there has been a tendency for local Democratic parties to lay low .on such issues. Over the long run, however, the people will turn on the Democratic city machines just as they have turned on the Democratic federal machine. One way to prevent this is for local Democrats to start representing the interest of the people rather than those of their mayors.

The physical infrastructure of our old cities needs to be rebuilt, our railroad system is In a sorry state, the effects of decades of environmental unconcern need to be ameliorated, neighborhoods need help overcoming years of neglect. There is no justification for wasting public jobs. Further, many of the policies I’ve outlined are actually job production programs as well. A shift from wasteful military spending towards economically regenerative domestic programs would create jobs. A shift away from mega-corporations towards smaller businesses would produce jobs.

It is important that the. government recognize the effect of its policies on employment. Federal urban redevelopment, for example, has tended to hurt less skilled employment. One person’s progress may be another’s layoff. Within its own structure, the government has tacitly accepted an anti-jobs policy. Both federal and local governments have allowed grade creep and reorganizations to destroy much of government’s traditional capacity as job provider. One $60,000-a-year federal bureaucrat is taking the job of three $20,000-a-year lower-level civil servants. Government, in part, has become a jobs program for the college educated. This tendency must be reversed.

o Finally, a new Democratic politics should rethink issues of human rights. The party can not retreat from a commitment to these rights, but it should stop raising strategies to the status of rights. Bussing, for example, was a strategy, not a right. It was effective neither educationally nor politically. In fact, because blacks and liberal Democrats refused to look pragmatically at the results of bussing, only the new right really benefited from it. – On other issues, we need, as the general told his troops,, to “elevate the guns a little lower.” Abortion is one of these issues. It involves ultimately irresolvable conflicts in values; both sides have morally sound positions. You can not handle this sort of issue as you would the ERA or segregation. High visibility advocacy politics risks the sort of backlash that we are currently observing. What’s needed here is more subtle politics.

In the field of civil rights, the trend of recent years has been to link these issues with the same sort of regulatory, punitive approach of government that people are rebelling against in every area. Blacks tend to see resistance to bussing and affirmative action as being racist, but if they would just ask their ideal OSHA inspector what/sort of reception he’s getting, they would see the problem is not theirs alone. To cling to government regulations as the prime strategy for racial justice seems politically naive at best. Even if the laws stay on the books, .enforcement will almost certainly wither over the next few years.

In fact, no matter what minorities do, the outlook is pretty gloomy. But a few changes in approach might help. One would be to find ways the government could be used as a carrot rather than always as a stick. Another would be for minorities and women to reexamine their reluctance to form meaningful coalitions with other groups. The activist individualism of the seventies didn’t work so well in its prime; in the next few years it will be futile. There should also be more attention paid to some sources of the problem that have been largely ignored. One of these is the demographic gerrymandering of institutions such as the US Congress. Ineffective as it may be over the short run, we should at least begin raising the issue of how we can have legislative bodies that somewhat represent the composition of the country. We need not only the right to vote but the right to have someone to vote for.

One of the components of the so-called “backlash” is a feeling on the part of many Americans not of a minority that they, like Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect.”
Because of the real problems and insecurities of minorities and women, these groups have tended to .underrate the problems and insecurities of those with whom they find political conflict. But while losing many of the real battles, minorities and women have tended to have the upper hand in the rhetorical war. The ground rules, decided in no small part by the media, have been that it is all right for blacks to make hyperbolic statements about whites but not vice versa; Women can stereotype men but men can’t stereotype women. It is acceptable to lampoon a born again Christian but not a Zionist.

The political effects of this dynamic have not been adequately examined, but I think there is ample evidence that they are there. A new Democratic policy on human rights needs a considerable emphasis on human respect – even for those one finds politically objectionable. We need to question the assumption that one’s political, religious or social views define one’s worth as an individual. And the burden for this falls most heavily on those who feel strongly the need to end invidious discrimination.

Okay, that’s enough to get started on. If you don’t like it make your own damn list. I don’t care. But remember: you were led into this ambush by the crummiest bunch of Democratic leaders of modern times. They lost the election and now you can lose them. Just go out and start acting like Democrats again.

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