Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, November 07, 2002
So why do people like Peter Beinart - true New Democrats, people with liberal values but conservative temperaments; people who believe in seeing what's in front of their nose rather than blindly following ideology; people who in a deep sense are not left-wing - why do these people continue to support a Democratic Party that does not truly represent them?

Since I consider myself to be one of these people, but one who has decisively crossed over to the other side of the line, I think I have some insight into this question. Let's dispose of the least-interesting reasons first. One is family history. Parents' party identification is the strongest predictor of childrens' political preference. These people tend to come from longstanding Democratic families, and from ethnic groups and regions that have voted Democrat for generations. Moreover, their political heroes are the Democrats of yesteryear; Harry Truman looms large, but Wilson, FDR, JFK and in many ways Johnson are also in the pantheon. Switching sides is a very painful thing, and on the other side of the line are people who embrace not just Lincoln and Reagan, who can probably be worked in somehow, but McKinley and Coolidge, who will be much tougher to square.

Another less-interesting reason is the conviction that the other side is controlled by extremists. Sometimes it's the Christian Right, sometimes it's the supply-siders, sometimes it's the NRA; some part or all of the GOP coalition is way out there and uncompromising. We couldn't possibly join a coalition under the sway of extremists. This is simply a canard. If it were true, TNR would firmly support Republicans in states and localities where the Democrats are overwhelmingly dominant. They would not simply decry Al Sharpton's influence; they would urge voting against Democrats because the party as a whole in New York is beholden to Sharpton. They would be cheered, not dismayed, by this week's election results in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and Minnesota, all victories for moderation and reason against the extreme and the corrupt. But the people I'm talking about are not really so non-partisan. They are not really Democrats because they think it is the more moderate party; they are Democrats because they believe, deep down, that extremists within the Democratic fold are more right, in some sense, than the extremists in the GOP fold.

But why? Even if the GOP is anathema for one reason or another, why do New Democrats like Beinart - or Mickey Kaus - continue to consider themselves Democrats? Why is Marshall Whitman bolting the GOP over a lousy tax bill (and it was a lousy bill) rather than Marty Peretz bolting the Dems over Oslo, Iraq, Terry McAuliffe, Al Sharpton, the teachers' unions, the betrayal of welfare reform - it's quite a list, isn't?

I think the primary, deep reason is that the New Dems embrace what has been a Democrat master-narrative since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and reject the Republican master-narrative which dates from Abraham Lincoln. The recognize the current Democratic Party as a deformation and betrayal of that narrative. But they want to redeem the narrative, not reject it in favor of its alternative.

Allow me to explain. By a master-narrative, I mean an story that explains what America is and can be, and that ties this story to the political ideals of a particular political party. Lincoln knit together a disparate coalition much as Roosevelt and Reagan did. What held it together was a story about America. America, fundamentally, was a land of individuals and families free to economically better themselves through participation in the market. American freedom was not purchased at the price of slavery; it was not the Athenian freedom championed by Calhoun, the Marx of the Master Class. And it was not the Platonic order of a Jeffersonian egalitarian meritocracy. Freedom was freedom to compete, not freedom to rest from competition, and equality meant equality of opportunity, not a genteel society of equals. And to preserve that freedom and that equality, it was worth killing, and dying.

The Civil War ended the specific question of slavery, but it did not end the debate about the nature of freedom and the nature of America. The Populists carried forward a Jeffersonian-Jacksonian vision of freedom that was quite different. They accused the Republican vision of freedom and equality of being corrupted by financial elites on the East Coast and by foreign powers. They believed that the practical consequence of Republican freedom and equality was wage slavery for workers, debt slavery for farmers, and social and sectional stratification. They called for a government policy that explicitly favored "ordinary" people: an inflationary, nativist, isolationist policy that would level distinctions and thereby bring about something closer to the Jeffersonian vision of freedom and equality.

The Progressives - who inhabited both parties - tried to square the circle of these two visions. They were elitists and liberals - neither is a curse word with me - and it is not shocking that many of them were Republicans because the Republicans were always subject to a Hamiltonian temptation from their distant Federalist ancestors, the temptation to accept the existing heirarchy as permanent and necessary and meliorate it with regulation rather than opening it up to greater competition and fluidity. The Progressives would achieve "Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means" - they would empower the people, and make them more equal and free, by empowering government to tame the market (they also favored an aggressive foreign policy, as against Populist isolationism). The expression in quotes was coined to describe FDR's New Deal, and indeed the New Deal was the apotheosis and the merger of Progressive and Populist Democratic thinking. That is why I say that Roosevelt inaugurated the Democratic master narrative, even though that narrative in truth extends back to Jefferson: because FDR was the man who established a Democratic master-narrative that was appropriate for the industrial age and that garnered clear majority support, something the Democrats had not achieved since the founding of the Republican Party.

This is the master-narrative to which our modern New Democrats are faithful. It is a narrative that embraces all Americans, that makes sense of the American experience and American ideals. Even those who reject it, and embrace the Republican narrative, can recognize its nobility. Indeed, until Reagan, Republicans were unable to articulate a strong counter-narrative; rather, they could only object to the excesses of the Democrats. By the mid-1960s, the Democratic narrative was so strong that the party could begin to attack its own base by decisively embracing the cause of desegregation and civil rights for black Americans, a deeply moral crusade that was truly part of the unfinished work of the Repubicans.

And only a few years later, the whole narrative began to unravel, and ultimately be betrayed by the Democratic Party. Since the convulsions of the 1960s, the Democrats have had a hard time speaking to a united America. They are much more comfortable speaking the language of division - class warfare, race warfare, what-have-you. This is consistent with the old Populist rhetoric, but it betrays the Progressive inheritance. More damagingly, they are uncomfortable policing the Progressive order they inaugurated. The ascendancy of public-sector unions have corrupted the Democrats' natural commitment to active government at the service of the empowerment of the weak. Were it not for their influence, Democrats would be far more receptive to ideas like school choice and welfare reform, which are really classic Progressive initiatives. The Democrats are increasingly the reactionary party, dedicated to preserving the privileges won in past battles for their interest groups. Thus: opposition to any privatization of Social Security or reform of Medicare, which they can claim is a threat to the benefits due to Senior Citizens. Thus: opposition to welfare reform, which would bring workers into the workforce who would compete with public-sector unions. Thus: opposition to school choice and educational accountability, which would threaten the teachers' unions. Thus: support for affirmative action, which privileges ethnic groups who predominantly vote Democrat. Thus: support for unrestricted access to abortion, which protects the lifestyle of highly educated, upper-income and sexually active women. While the moral issues are not comparable, politically the Democrats of today are in much the position of the Democrats of the 1850s: hysterically committed to the reactionary defense of unjust privilege for a large class of people against the interests of the people as a whole and the ideals of the country.

Most devastating of all, many Democrats, having largely abandoned a master-narrative that makes sense of America, have turned against America itself. This attitude finds its expression primarily in the distaste for the exercise of American power. The New Republic could delude itself for a while that the Democrats had learned their lesson here. Clinton may have exercised power fitfully and fearfully, but he was not completely opposed to the use of force - he did fight a small war in Kossovo, and continued operations in Iraq. And anyhow, his own personal failings may have been the cause of his hesitancy; surely President Gore would be more robust, and finally deliver the Democrats from the Vietnam syndrome. That view is now unsustainable. The Democratic Party, as a body, is constitutionally incapable of defending the national interest and even national security through force. I don't care how many votes Bush got for his Iraq resolution; there is no pro-war wing of the Democratic Party. There are a handful of conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman who are strong supporters of the Bush Administration on the war, and there are a handful of old keepers of FDR's flame - Dick Gephardt comes to mind - who do the same. But the party as a whole is better exemplified by the trio of Daschle, Gore and Kerry. Daschle had no interest in formulating a position on the most vital issue of the day because he didn't think it would be helpful electorally. Gore is so blinded by his own failure to attain the Presidency that he has become positively unhinged; I am quite convinced he would adopt any position on any topic so long as he was lambasting the Bush Administration. And John Kerry is probably the last honest liberal, genuinely opposed to the unilateral use of force, genuinely believing that being a good global citizen and member of the UN is the moral thing to do, rather than supporting the cause of right with arms. I am being charitable to the Democrats by appointing Kerry the voice of the "peace camp" - I could have chosen forthright America-haters like Nancy Pelosi (the likely future minority leader) or David Bonior (the man who would rather take Saddam Hussein at his word than George Bush). Once again, if you look back at the Old-New Democrat debates of the 1980s, you will see that much of what passed for New Democrat thinking was mere positioning vis-a-vis the Republicans. Gore in particular was a master of seeming to be an expert on defense policy while in fact being a purely political calculator; the perfect proof is the debate of the MX and the "Midgetman" alternative promoted by Gore. It is because they no longer believe in their own master-narrative that Democrats have increasingly been unable to stand up for America.

The master-narrative having been decisively betrayed, there have been opportunities for the GOP to take over natural Democrat territory. The GOP has embraced a Populist agenda on cultural matters. The GOP has more fitfully adopted a Progressive agenda on certain aspects of social policy - fitfully, because the GOP's heart isn't really in the fight, and the ideology of Progressivism is hard to reconcile with Coolidgism. The GOP tent now has room not only for its Whiggish core but for Federalists and Progressives who will be somewhat ill-at-ease with Coolidgism but far more comfortable there than among today's Democrats, and for Jeffersonian-Jacksonian populists whose particular causes are more compatible with the rest of the GOP agenda: gun rights, for example. If Bush is able to build on his recent successes, and re-articulate the master-narrative of the Republicans in a way that embraces more of those currently outside the GOP tent, while keeping core supporters well-satisfied, he may indeed establish the GOP as the majority party for a generation. If he does so be decisively merging Progressivism into the core Republican Whiggism - and I believe that is what he wants to do, that this is what the empty slogans "compassionate conservatism" and "conservative reform" that Bush and McCain threw at each other were really aiming at - he will have shattered the Democratic master narrative.

If that happens, what will people like Peter Beinart do? How will they reconstruct a Democratic master-narrative after it has been shattered? Their task will be far more serious than simply kicking out the extremists - and even that will be very difficult, as extremists like Pelosi and Bonior hold many of the leadership positions in the party. It will be far more serious than abandoning specific policies as outdated. It means rethinking, from the ground up, what a Democratic Party is for, what, simply put, is its idea of America.