Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Democrats' Paradox

update, 6/1/06: The article I discuss below is, in fact, online, and you can read it here.

Putting aside the issue of whether it will be enough, in 2006, for Democrats to return to power in Congress solely on the strength of Republican venality and ineptitude, here's my take on the central dilemma the party faces:

To achieve partisan ends, they must eschew partisan means.

In other words, if they ever hope to again have a sustainable majority, the Democrats have to stop acting like Democrats. I'm not referring to the usual MSM-regurgitated critiques: the lack of a single voice, the muddled message, the schizophrenia (as if any major party at any time could avoid that). I mean the interest-group stridency below *and* the reflexive trimming and self-preservation above. Most of all, if they want to lead, prominent Democrats must stop being afraid of getting out in front of public opinion--and if we hope that others not online or intensely engaged in politics will follow, we need to stop being so damn condescending to our countrymen and -women.

What brings all this up? A piece in the current New Yorker, which details the ongoing struggle between the moderates and the true believers. (The article isn't online, but here is a Q&A with the author.) The story begins with a lot of the usual disingenuous arguments that annoy progressives about media portrayals of Democrats: shots at the Kerry campaign, an unsubstantiated jab at Howard Dean, etc. In that sense, it's annoying to read. But toward the end of the piece, the author makes two points that I found very disturbing--as, I think, should any progressive who hopes to see Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008.

The first, which has been talked to death everywhere else so I won't delve too deeply into it here, was the author's perception--one that, sadly, strikes me as accurate--that progressive activists just aren't very interested in issues of national security and particularly the struggle against Islamofascism.

These people--maybe it's a New York City thing--should be burning with outrage that we haven't caught bin Laden, that we haven't cracked down on financing for terror networks among our "allies" (and creditors, which probably explains things) in the region. They should be asking why we haven't even tried (to my knowledge) to create means of cultural outreach to the Arab world, to show them that America represents more than military power, to replicate the idealism of the Peace Corps and related efforts that helped win hearts, hearths and minds in the Third World, to really get smart about how we try to spread our ideas and ideals in that world rather than just giving it to Karen Hughes and Madison Avenue types with ties to Republican donors.

They should be asking why the president never called on his country to get personally involved in the effort, whether through writing letters to soldiers or setting up pen-pal programs with Iraqi schoolchildren, or even for some kind of new GI Bill for returning troops. If this is a "Long War," we'd better be trying to win it with more than military power.

The second was his description of the abortion debate, specifically the back and forth at one recent Democratic event:

Recently, at a meeting held at the Center for American Progress... an abortion-rights activist named Rachel Laser... was impatient with the refusal of others to view abortion as a moral issue as well as a personal one. "I said at this session that there are 1.3 million abortions in this cuontry and that's too many, and it's too many for the majority of Americans," Laser... recalled. "Polls show that a majority of Americans think that abortion is morally wrong some or all of the time, and we have to address that."

After Laser spoke, the moderator asked the audience "by a show of hands, how many people here think that 1.3 million abortions is too many abortions?" As Laser remembers the moment, "It was only me and maybe one other who raised our hands. I definitely touched a nerve. The fact is that the majority of Americans are pro-choice, but the majority of Americans also sees something sad in what this procedure does."

This is political tone-deafness--not to mentin stupidity and self-sabotage--of the highest order. As I think I've written on AIS before, I'm a big fan of the Prevention First Act as both good public policy and a political masterstroke. Laser (great name; think of Dr. Evil chatting her up) gets this; we can make the conversation about the rank hypocrisy at the core of the Dobson/Robertson position on abortion, which is that they're perfectly happy to keep the number of abortions at current levels if the alternative is fewer pregnancies through greater access to contraception and sex education. Most Americans aren't ideologues or theocrats; they'd like to see fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer terminated pregnancies. Don't the Democrats?

Some are saying that 2006 is a "competence, not ideology" election. Fair enough, and successful progressive governance will move more Americans toward our worldview. But we have to change our elitist habits, and we can't just insist on our superior morality and rectitude. The first step to changing someone's mind would seem to be acknowledging that s/he has one.

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