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Posted by gustav at 04:01PM, Saturday, November 01st, 2003

Thoughts on an Opposition Party

I was reading on Kos about the chair of some "family values" hate machine spewing forth about how moderate Republicans like Lincoln Chafee should no longer be welcome in the Republican party, as they were Republicans in name only. I wonder whether it's in progressives' best interests to try to convince politicians like Chafee to join the Democratic party.

First, of course, we need to figure out what, exactly, the Democratic party will be from now on -- whether it can change direction and become a successful force in the future, or whether progressives must abandon it for something new. I've outlined here before some of the things that I think need to change, which can be summed up in: start rallying around the progressive base in order to mobilize them, and to be able to market the party as proud of its progressive, liberal core values, rather than ashamed; do better at communicating those values and selling voters on why they should be every American's values; form a strategy to mobilize the base and people attracted by our new message, while targetting specific messages at historically-Republican fringes whose interests are not being served by the Republican party of today (fiscal conservatives, libertarians, etc.); and start to be present a unified front against Republicans in Congress and the Executive branch, to block every move they make from here on. It's not clear whether the Democratic leadership will embrace this, or instead, as Lieberman and others advocate, stay the course that has cost us Congressional seats in every election since 1994; that has cost us five of the last seven presidential elections; that has cost us the federal courts. If the party is to have a future, and does choose to grow a spine, rather than continuing as Republican-lite and continuing to lose, then it faces the challenges of attracting voters and, in the short term, gaining seats in Congress.

It's certainly attractive to try to convince moderate Republicans like Chafee and Olympia Snow that they share more with Democrats than with Karl Rove's lackeys. Being a party that welcomes many viewpoints resonates with many of our core values. The danger is to continue to be a party fragmented, with no leadership and no unity against our enemies. If bringing in people who are now Republicans makes that even worse, the party can't afford it. Then again, it's hard to see how the party's direction and leadership could get any worse than they are now.

The other danger is building strategies that only work in the short term, that are only designed to help us re-take Congress and maybe the presidency. Many progressives would argue that this whole mess came to a head in the early months of the Clinton administration, when Congressional Democrats failed to support his universal health care legislation; that division opened the party up to the Republican sweep of 1994. Democrats must not once again let their cohesion be defined by being the opposition. Such cohesion crumbles if they ever retake a majority of the branches of the Federal government. They need a strategy that not only gets them there, but lets them get things done afterwards.

So how do Democrats get there? The party (the figurative, progressivism-embracing Democratic party of the future, rather than the dying shell with no cause or strategy of right now) needs to be careful, in embracing politicians of different backgrounds and issues, to avoid division and a toward-the-"center" swing away from its core values. (Which I think is bullshit, anyway; I don't think the "center" advocated by Lieberman is centrist at all. Anti-worker, anti-gay, anti-separation-of-church-and-state, anti-dissent, and pro-war sounds pretty damn wrong-wing to me.) Meanwhile, as I said, it needs to be able to market itself as the party of freedom of worship, libertarianism, and fiscal sanity in the red states, and the party of gay rights in the blues, and the party of Constitutional rule and American values across the whole country.

How does Rove walk that knife-edge? It's not all just about marketing. It's also, at least in part, about making members in Congress toe the line, whether it's for fillibusters against unqualified judicial nominees or backing, say, ENDA. If Democrats can welcome a diversity of views, and be the party of inclusiveness, while forming and maintaining centralized power, that's a huge advantage for the party. There are plenty of Republicans who believe their party is being coopted by reactionaries and zealots -- who are ashamed of the same people who are calling on Bush to use his exaggerated "mandate" as an excuse to roll back abortion and other reproductive rights, to shred the constitution and put in the "right" to discriminate against gays, and to enshrine the Baptist church and its views in legislation and the workings of the state. There must be plenty who are disgusted by his partisan remodeling of the CIA and the State Department -- his sickness for surrounding himself with yes-men, no matter how incompetent.

How can Democrats welcome these people, and get them to proudly back all of us who protested against the war in Iraq and boosted Howard Dean early in the primary season -- plus the people who are all in favor of gay marriage, and fiscal conservatives who backed Goldwater and now see Bush's deficits as reason to denounce the current Republican leadership, and soldiers who've seen first-hand how war-mongers treat their pawns, and been disgusted by that. Is that really so different from getting all those people to back Democrats?

I tend to think savvy marketing, with good, well-distributed national memes and targeted regional ones, can, in fact, win a party the backing of diverse constituents. I am plenty cynical, but, having lived in red states, I find it tough to believe that they're really populated by people who wish as much evil on gays as a lot of us seem to believe. I do really think it's all about marketing, and that progressives have been outmaneuvered on that front; Rove has manipulated our willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and debate rationally and used it to let him define Democrats, so that they cannot define themselves. If Democrats can overcome that through a centralized messaging strategy, their arguments and their values are far stronger than the Republicans'. Progressives right now are Americans who believe in the Constitution, in liberty, in freedom, and in love; but the Democratic party can't articulate that, and is willing to be painted as weak losers, full of appeasement; Republicans meanwhile are fascists who believe only in forced conformity and cronyism, but talk like winners -- and so become winners.

I'm not sure whether politicians can be won over by the same means. It's nice to think that in a few years there will be enough new, progressive blood that that's not an issue, but it isn't realistic for the short-term, and I feel like Democrats would be missing a good opportunity if they didn't at least attempt to widen the cracks in the Republican front. There are so many chinks in that front -- so many places within that party where dissent is not welcomed. Sadly, people aren't rational, and there are plenty of gays, for example, in the Bush administration, backing a man who works against their own self-interest. (So much for Adam Smith.) Can the party bring them onboard, while transforming the Democratic Party into the hard-line, buckle-down, ruled-with-an-iron-fist entity it must be to win the respect of proud progressives and middle-America red voters?

I think it's possible. First, though, progressives need to convince Democratic leadership that they must represent us, or go. That's something I'm not convinced they can learn. Kerry still seems to have learned nothing from his campaign's marketing failure, if rumors about his support of Vilsack for DNC chair are true. Senate Dems, meanwhile, have appointed an anti-choice, anti-free-speech, pro-cross-party compromise legislator to Senate Minority Leader, which, to me, indicates they're totally oblivious to the failures the last decade of compromise has brought us, and to the costs of a failure to differentiate Democrats from our opposition. These people, despite calling themselves Democrats, do not in any way represent me or my interests. Without a clearly-defined base to support them, without clearly-articulated differences between them and the opposition, and without any fire to drive them, they're doomed to continue the cycle of failure that's gotten us into this anti-gay, anti-dissent, anti-women, pro-war, Patriot Act, Bill of Rights-dissolving situation. Apparently, even the successive failures they've suffered over the last 25 years, including losing the presidency to an inept bumbling idiot of a fascist, haven't convinced Democratic leadership that it needs a change in direction and strategy. It's sounding more and more as though, despite the support and fire Howard Dean worked up talking about the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, progressives may need to think about strategies for a viable third party, and abandon Democrats to wallow in their own cluelessness. And that's terrifying.
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