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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Swing Ideas, not Swing Voters

By Kenneth S. Baer and Andrei Cherny
At this spring’s exclusive Gridiron Dinner, Senator Barack Obama — according to reports, as the dinner is closed press – offered up a complaint common in Democratic circles. “You hear this constant refrain from our critics that Democrats don’t stand for anything. That’s really unfair,” he said, “We do stand for anything.” As they say in the Catskills, the line killed. But the problem it refers to has been killing Democrats for years.
Since the end of the Clinton years, the Democratic Party has been adrift – without a coherent agenda or public philosophy. According to a poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research earlier this year, only 29 percent of Americans believe that Democrats have a better sense than Republicans of what they stand for as a party (while 51 percent say that Republicans have a better sense than Democrats). As Stan Greenberg has put it, the American public believes Democrats have “no core set of convictions or point of view.”
Part of that is expected: when you lose the White House, a party loses a de facto leader who can impose message and ideological discipline. But there is more to it. The world has profoundly changed since President Clinton sat in the Oval Office: globalization has accelerated at a torrid pace as have the technological innovations fueling it, the country has become more diverse and more dispersed, changing family arrangements and workplace structures have deeply affected how people see the world, and the attacks of September 11th have brought to the surface a simmering war with radical Islamist terror.
Yet Democrats have not put forward a vision of where the country should go, where it should lead the world, and why. And absent that vision, no get-out-the-vote effort, re-messaging exercise, or charismatic candidate will help Democrats win the White House and, just as importantly, become a vibrant progressive force for years to come. That is why if Democrats want to win in 2008 and beyond, they must invest in the intellectual infrastructure that underpins a modern political movement. They need to develop coherent responses — rooted in the party’s deepest beliefs about democracy, liberty, equality, and justice — that respond to the new realities that America faces.
What Democrats cannot rely on are the explanations that have cropped up in the wake of the loss of the Senate in 2002 and the failure to win back the Presidency in 2004. These include the technological — witness the huge amount of money poured into the Democratic National Committee’s “Demzilla” database project, and now into the independent Democratic DataMart – but more often than not focus on the Democratic message. Here is a sampling:
1) All we need to do is retool our message – a quadrennial complaint that probably extends back to Thomas Jefferson’s loss to John Adams. This time this strategy has resurfaced under the rubric of “framing”, otherwise known as putting old wine in new bottles.
2) All we need to do is boil down our message to four phrases that have the same catchiness as the GOP’s “Smaller Government. Less taxes. Stronger Military. Family Values.”
3) All we need to do is figure out what goes on the bumper sticker. This produced a Democratic response to the 2006 State of the Union in which Virginia Governor Tim Kaine repeated the phrase “A Better Way” nine times in his short address – using the very same slogan which the Robert Redford movie “The Candidate” mocked as the essence of vapid, meaningless political rhetoric.
4) All we need to do is figure out “how to talk to” evangelical, gun-owning, Hispanic, exurban married couples in red states as if voters simply had merely not understood what we were saying.
Tactics and targeting, media and messaging – these are the ways we try to put lipstick on a party that does not know what it stands for. Democrats today are rich in strategies and poor in beliefs. Ask most Democrats what they believe in, and they will respond with a list of policies and programs, criticisms of Republican wrongs, or a series of painful stammers.
Right now, Democrats are like the fourth-generation that takes over the family firm: we have forgotten why we went into business in the first place. As a result, we spend most of the time fighting to protect the proud heritage of our past achievements from being destroyed, a necessary assignment in the current climate, but not sufficient to provide the roadmap to the future that America needs and that a great political party should provide.
Of course, Democrats have policies – by the truckload. But policies are not ideas – and anyone who tries to conflate the two is putting the cart before the horse. A policy is the “How?” An idea is the “What?” and the “Why?”. Social Security is a policy, one that has served the nation well. The notion that the federal government should mandate that Americans put money aside into a pool to ensure that seniors, widows, and orphans are not left to rot in poverty is a powerful idea, rooted in distinct beliefs about equality, justice, and the role of government in our economy.
Understanding what you believe and developing a view on how the world works and how it should are critical to the nuts-and-bolts of politics. That is to say that you cannot work on the bumper stickers or on talking to swing voters if you do not know what it is exactly you believe. Think of policy platforms, political slogans, and bumper stickers as the tips of icebergs. The ones that work are deceivingly simple but strong because underneath the surface is all the substance and weight that holds them up and that most people never see.
And therein lies the strength of the conservatives’ slogans. Their bumper sticker phrases were not cooked up in a focus group or decided by a central committee of Republican Party elders meeting in the wood-paneled boardroom of Dick Cheney’s secure undisclosed location. They were arrived at through years of vigorous debate and discussion by people who passionately held some core beliefs – and debated them with each other and the politicians seeking their support. They were unafraid to think big and unafraid to anger those who disagreed with them – including many voters.
And, most of all, conservatives had the institutions in which to float the fanciful idea and debate it — not just think tanks and academic institutes, but also idea journals such as The Public Interest and Policy Review. In fact, almost every signature idea that we associate with the modern Republican Party – from supply-side economics to pre-emption and Social Security privatization – was incubated in one of these journals years ago. It doesn’t change the fact that these policies are wrong-headed, but we cannot deny that underneath them is a well developed public philosophy.
Election Day is when the Republicans reap the rewards of this intellectual spadework. When George W. Bush, Bob Dole, or any other mainstream Republican is chosen as their party’s nominee, they get placed on top of a pyramid of thinking that has been developed far in advance of their first visits to New Hampshire. It was not George W. Bush’s campaign, for instance, that developed the theory of compassionate conservatism; that was done by Marvin Olasky and others before. Bush, characteristically, inherited the work that others had sowed in the intellectual vineyards. Democrats, on the other hand, tell their candidates to go into the fields and plant their own ideas six months before the first primary. As we have seen in campaign after campaign, what ends up happening is that candidates lapse into the default position: what does everyone else say or what does the most powerful interest group want.
To help Democratic candidates win and to revive the progressive movement, Democrats need to invest in ideas – and in the think tanks and journals that incubate them. They need to recognize the importance of investing in the development of a coherent public philosophy not just for its electoral implications (of which there are many), but because when a party lacks a viewpoint on the type of nation and world it seeks, then it loses its raison d’etre.
While winning elections is the ultimate goal for any political party and the way to affect real change, Democrats need to shed their compulsion for the transactional. Currently, candidates are selected by Party committees on the basis of their bankroll rather than their experience. Primary voters sometimes seem more concerned with that elusive quality of “electability” than with the old-fashioned notion of ability. Policies and ideas seem to be discussed by Party insiders almost exclusively in the context of which voters they would appeal to instead of what impact they would have on the nation and the world. What does it profit a political party to win an election and lose its soul?
Instead of another round of discussion over who are our swing voters, Democrats need a real debate over what are our “swing ideas”: the big notions that will remake the political landscape as surely as Republican ideas have over the past generation. To do that, we need to get back to first principles, thinking deeply about the world we want to build and how we will do it. Once we do this, we will be able to build a Democratic Party that strides boldly into this new century confident about who we are and where we are headed. That is a Democratic Party that will win again – and one that will be ready to change America for the better.
Kenneth S. Baer and Andrei Cherny are the founding editors of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, www.DemocracyJournal.org.

39 comments on “Swing Ideas, not Swing Voters

  1. S.O. on

    This is a good question–What do Democrats really stand for? I have asked myself this same question numerouse times and many thoughts come to mind. If Dems want to beat the GOP they must come up with hardhitting slogans and concepts that demostrate clear, concise policies with a set core-values. People need something thay can sink their teeth into if want their attention and their vote.
    Dems must work very hard to debunck the effective Neo-Conservative anti-liberal diatribe which can not be accomplished without a tough defence. Republicans have created a very negative cut & dry view of ‘all’ Liberals which alot of people buy into. This highly distorted image must be countered by a core set of Democratic beliefs which appeal to wide range of Americans. Democrats must appeal to the majority… Progressives must show the American people they are not weak but tough and have character. Dems must show they have clear political strategies to cope with ‘Radical Islam’, global terrorism, Iraq, Iran and the middle east. Most importantly Dems must have a clear plan that will help more Americans acheive a better quality of life and reduce the uncertainy that afflicts the country.
    Thank you,

  2. Hesiod on

    I suggest that every Democat running for political office be given a copy of Harry Truman’s 1948 nomination acceptance speech as required reading.
    Or, even better, dowload it to an iPod and make them listen to it.
    If Truman were running for President today, he’s be portrayed by the Democratic Leadership Counsel and the staff writers at the New Republica as a “dangerous radical leftwing nut,” for not only the plicies he advocates (which indlude universal health care!), but for his strident, clobber the Republicans over the head tone.
    ONe can argue that the cou try has moved to the lef since Trum an was in office, and that the powerful FDR coalition has long since dissipated over, among other thigs, Civil Rights and Vietnam.
    But, I think the people are clamoring for that type of fighting Dmorat today. They wnat from us passion and committment. People who are willing to fight for our ideals, even in the face of determined opposition. It proves character, and that’s what people ultimately vote on.

  3. David Stinson on

    A very good article, but it obviously leaves out one crucial step.
    “Ask most Democrats what they believe in, and they will respond with a list of policies and programs, criticisms of Republican wrongs, or a series of painful stammers.” Democracy. The ‘Reagan revolution’ was predicated on a philosophy of small government. The small government part was obviously successful, but the concept also rested on a relatively narrow definition of freedom. You’re free to excercise the freedoms we say are important. Political freedom is a larger freedom than economic freedom, and we have to be able to make that case.
    All of the things James Armentor and Michael Brewer listed above, for instance, can go under the rubric of democracy. (In fact, I think it would even answer Brewer’s question #4.) Democracy is basically the same as rights for the poor, since most people are in fact not well off. But adding that extra step makes people more confident that we’re not nutcases, and the problems we talk about are real.
    The first place we have to be able to prove ourselves is in foreign policy, because it’s the most difficult area. Here also Baer and Cherny’s argument is right on point: instead of using the Iraq war to place ourselves on a continuum of faith in American power, we should question the existence of this continuum in the first place. There is nothing unpatriotic about wanting to get a return on an investment.
    The biggest impediment to democracy worldwide is religion in politics. We need to oppose theocracy everywhere – obviously in the Muslim world , but also in Israel, Thailand, with the Buddhists, even the (Christian) Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa. When you have the credibility that comes from this kind of consistency in foreign policy, then people will give you more lattitude domestically – a point again proven by Reagan. And seperation of Church and state is a value that would also do us well at home.

  4. James Armentor on

    A previous post proposed some positions Democrats should take articulating a message.
    OK, Mr. Ideal Democrat. You’ve just been elected POTUS in November 2008 along with comfortable majorities in both the House and the Senate.
    After your first 100 days you:
    Increased the minimum wage.
    Made sure that the Estate Tax is kept in place.
    Insisted that Congress get immigration under control.
    Released all classified documents but the nations most critical secrets.
    Elevated the level of complaints about corruption.
    Complained that Republicans ran up the deficit.
    Reminded people that the Iraq war was a war we didn’t have to fight.
    Reminded everyone that Bush failed to bring Bin Laden to justice.
    Reminded everyone that Bush lowered our standing in the world.
    The rhetoric may sound good to people who already going to vote Democrat but it won’t attract new or disaffected voters.
    You can’t assume that just because you complain about Bush and the Republicans that voters will know what you are going to do.
    And this is what they will want to know. This will be especially true in 2008. GWB will not be on the ticket.

  5. Jim Ingraham on

    Take your ideas to the next step. We Democrats have been humbled by the electorate in 3 straight elections and despite the train wreck Bush Administration we are still in danger of a fourth straight electoral loss because of the very ideas you set forth in your article. Take the next step. Set down at your computer and hammer out the strategic infrastructure we need to rediscover the soul of our party. If it takes 10 years or more the journey will be worth the pain of finding our way once again. Lay out the strategic framework and I believe there are enough lost Democrats to work the plan and battle our way back to a solid majority. We stand for the properity of the american people. Republicans stand for the profit of a few individuals and the desire of evangelicals to stand in judgement of the rest of us. America deserves better. Show the way and many will follow.

  6. Eric E on

    The thrust of this point is fair – we need all the infrastructure of a modern political movement, including the intellectual incubation – but can we skip the self-referential Third Way tripe of adopting Republican criticisms of Democrats to demonstrate that one is a “different kind of Democrat? If you’re serious about Democrats incubating a marketplace of ideas, of course there will be lots of different kinds of Democrats. Saying we lack a fundamental philosophy suggests we can’t even break ground on the market yet, which is dead wrong. That market is the blogosphere, from TPMCafe to DonkeyRising to DailyKos.
    When push comes to shove, Democrats always know what we stand for: we believe the liberal ideal that society can provide opportunity for regular folks and the disempowered, but that open access to opportunity doesn’t always happen by individual action alone. We know it in our bones like FDR knew it in his. The meaning of “regular folks” and the specifics of when and how to use societal action to solve them have definitely changed, and Democrats need to reorganize around them. We may lack coherence, but we do not lack a philosophy.

  7. James Armentor on

    Dear Democrats;
    I visited the blog Democrat Strategist out of curiosity.
    No, I’m not a Republican,. Philosophically I’m Libertarian who votes mostly Republican. Occasionally, I will vote for a stray Democrat at the local level.
    Many libertarian thinkers vote Democrat so, I have to say that I could go either way. So what would it take for me to vote Democrat at the national level?
    For starters you can turn off the shrill rhetoric. When you rage about how stupid Bush is, you only show your own stupidity. After all he’s been elected president twice.
    The vision thing. It was the downfall of Bush Sr Now, it’s the downfall of Democrats. The only vision Democrats project is backwards. The New Deal is over. The new Republicans have co-opted it. Haven’t you noticed. You can’t out spend George Bush.
    Railing against the deficit and proposing to balance the budget. Come on! Who is going to believe that? You’re Democrats after all. George Bush and the Republican congress have alienated a large segment of their base by spending like Democrats. Too bad Democrats have zero credibility on this issue.
    Come to think of it there are some visions of the past that might be helpful. How about a “Scoop Jackson”
    strong defense policy. How about a bipartisan foreign policy instead of one that undermines the President’s. What a better way to show the electorate that Democrats can protect their security.
    Think forward. Think future. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan had a vision for the future, while
    Democrats rested on their past success. Now Republicans are only giving lip service to their vision:
    Limited government within the safety net.
    A strong America that leads by example.
    Fiscal policies that promote economic growth.
    Domestic policies that preserve and extend (individual) freedom.
    Keep your eyes on the prize. Say no to redistribution. Say yes to individual opportunity.
    A think tank for Democrats? Looks like an oxymoron from here. But maybe…
    Come on guys. I’m tired voting Republican.
    James A.
    Houston Tx.

  8. Ralph Woods on

    How can the democrats put forth a coherent nessage or come up with a motto?
    Their last presidental candidate voted for the Iraq war before he voted against it. (Motto: Democrats Changing on a Dime)The DNC chairman hating everything Republicans stand for.(Motto Try Hate for a Change). Long term Senators favoring illegal immigration and extending rights to illegals beyond what legal citizens presently have. (Motto: Send Us Your Poor We Will Pay the Bill)

  9. Bob Woodyard on

    Excellent article! You have articulated one of the Democratic parties main problem. However, you did not even mention what I consider to be the real problem, the heart of the problem.
    To see the Democratic parties true problem, you just have to read some of the comments posted here. You paint all conservatives with a broad brush….greedy, racist, rich, stupid, evil.
    You prejudge people base on the color of state they live in……Paul Begala stated after the 2000 election that people in Oklahoma who voted for Bush were no different than the Oklahoma City bomber who killed hundreds of people.
    You might come up with some great new ideas. But, who will listen to you….that is if you can bring yourself to talk to them. Right now, you are just talking to each other….not the millions of people like me who were born and raised a Democrat only to be left by party.
    Real problem – You have to convince us to come home.

  10. Tymbrimi on

    I think Democrats should propose a minimum wage of $100 an hour. THis should make everyone much better off, and studies have shown that the higher the minimum wage, the better it is for the economy. 😉 Also, we should tax the rich until there are no rich any more, and give their money to the poor. 🙂

  11. Tymbrimi on

    New Jersey is an example of why Democrats fail. We have a budget deficit because we spend too much. Republicans want to cut spending, but the Democrats solution, raise taxes. Can’t Democrats try something else than just raising taxes all the time? 🙂

  12. Tymbrimi on

    Until Democrats stop trying to tax the rich, and until they are ready to be able to stand up against the unions, trial lawyers, and all the other Democrat special interests, they deserve to be a minority party. Clinton was successful because he helped pass Republican welfare reform, NAFTA, and because of the REpublican landslide of 1994.

  13. JFP on

    The Democrats don’t need new ideas. What they need is to understand reality, and the reality is that they have been betraying many of their own supporters for the last forty years. Up until forty years ago, the Democrats were primarily a labor party, but then they branched out to deal with other causes, and many of the new policies that were created affected the workers (particularly the white workers) adversely. They reacted by voting Republican. Trying to win them back when you don’t understand that you betrayed them isn’t going to work.
    Here is just one example of what I mean. Affirmative action hurts poor white males more than it hurts rich white males. Rich white males have the connections to get into the elite schools and to get the best jobs that poor white males don’t have. Solution? Impose a special tax on rich white males that would be redistributed to poor white males.
    Good ideas will come once you understand reality.
    John Pepple

  14. Yevgeny on

    Hello, guys.
    I am a conservative Republican, so not a likely person to be seen on places like this. That said, I do believe that it is crucial that efforts like the one discussed in the article should bear fruit. It is not good for the country when one of the two main political parties is ineffective. Not only does it deprive half of the country from an opportunity to try to have their ideas implemented, but it hurts the other half as well.
    When this country was established, the basic principles of division of powers was set up for the benefits it provides. In the interaction and conflicts between opposing forces, we arrive at better solutions, better policies. Having Democrats being as ineffective as they have been lately is hurting everyone – Democrats, Republicans and the country. Without viable ideas, Democrats are reduced to obstructionism. And without viable opposition, Republicans are not forced to come up with better solutions.
    Too much of Democratic effort is taken with slowing the Republicans down; and in the process, slowing the country down. It is not a winning strategy – Democrats are correctly perceived as someone who wouldn’t know what to do if they won. Besides occasional “throw the bums out” election, it is not going to produce a long term opportunity to hold power.
    So, I wish you luck in moving past what the party became now, past the tiresome blame game, and moving into the process of successfully builing your own appeal. You need it to keep your party successful. And I need it to keep my party successful.

  15. Clark Iverson on

    The article engages in a thoughtful discussion of the necessity of ideas and the infrastructure to support the effort. It is welcome, if years and years late.
    Nevertheless, I must still wait to see if the Dems disengage from complicity in creeping fascism, which is to say “bipartisanship” with right-wing extremists. When they oppose that with the same visceral rage that they’ve easily and unceasingly mustered against Ralph Nader lo these last several years, I’ll begin to think about coming back. And not before.
    Clark Iverson
    Royal Oak, MI

  16. Michael Brewer on

    The Democratic party must recapture its role as the progressive party in American politics. In practical terms ‘progressive’ means that government has a role to play in ensuring individual liberties, in providing universal and fair entry into the economic system, and in handing future generations a better world than the one we inherited. Specifically, consider these principles for a 21st century Democratic party:
    1. Support the development of these pre-conditions for representative democracy: a free press, an independent judiciary, an open economic system, freedom from arbitrary actions against individuals or organizations by the government, religious tolerance, free movement within countries, respect for women’s rights. Support these principles in our dealings with ALL nations. This provides the basis for a moral foreign policy, but also represents long term enlightened self interest. Enthusiastically support multilateralism—we cannot go it alone, and most Americans understand this.
    2. Make environmental thinking central to all economic and social proposals. Show how there is no contradiction between economic growth and environmentally wise decisions. Indeed, this could be a growth industry led by the United States.
    3. Reform the tax system. Consider a range of alternative ideas. Consider a consumption tax that (properly adjusted) will not fall unfairly on the poor, but which will discourage consumerism and reward savings and investment.
    4. Recognize that multinational corporations pose a new challenge to our economic and political systems. (Wish I had a solution for this).
    5. Finally, ask all Americans to buy into a common vision of the future. Don’t be afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. The underlying imperative here is to leave our children with a better world. This can mean many things—oil independence, embracing immigration, financing any child who wishes to go to college, tax reform, universal service for every young person.

  17. Chris Glaze on

    Erik wrote: “Today, that intellectual basis for government intervention in the economy is largely absent.”
    So I think this is a good summary of what’s going on. I also agree that we need to look to the future and not rely to heavily on ideas of the past.
    Democrats need to define basic moral principles on a level that goes deeper than a philosophy of government intervention in the economy or foreign affairs. One of Marx’s fallacies was his assumption that man is purely social constructed. Of course, Adam Smith made the basic fallacy that that man is inherently self-interested.
    One of the major fallacies that I see throughout much of our national debate is the use of false dichotomies. For example, many talk as if a sense personal responsibility is mutually exclusive with receiving government support. Or that collaboration with our allies is exclusive with national security. When forced to choose one or the other, politicians come off as either “strong but arrogant” or “cooperative but weak”. Well, this is a losing formula, especially if you are forced to choose the latter.
    Progressive, forward-looking policy puts truth and results above illusory metaphors. The bottom line (in my humble view) is maximizing both overall security and economic growth as well as the capacity for each individual citizen to develop and actualize their own dreams. Over the short run there are inevitable tradeoffs, but over the long run, each of these things are required to make the other possible.
    Questions about how or whether government should intervene should not be seen as moral questions, but as pragmatic ones meant to serve deeper principles like these.
    Many people I talk with tend to mistake this kind of thinking as “centrist”. But its not–the point is to develop a base of ideas *independently* of the Republican party, not in reaction to it.

  18. FreeDem on

    As you can see we are still the party of Will Rodgers, There are Ideas galore, and stratagies, and every sort of intellectual concept. I have more than a few of these on my blog as well. That is not the bad thing.
    The bad thing is that we are faced with a group of totalitarian extreamists who have subverted not just the Republican party, but most of the formerly Conservative institutions, as well as the majority of the press, and added any number of new institutions.
    The really bad thing is that we are late in the sixth inning and most Democrats, and especially the leadership hasn’t figured that out yet.
    Democrats have lost most of the last elections, not because people didn’t vote for the Democrat, but because it WAS FIXED!!!!
    People can hate the Republicans, they can march in hundreds of thousands, and vote Democrat in every election.
    And still Democrats would lose and the press would report a silent majority are shy Republicans, and the demonstrations were small if they occured at all.
    Soon the last free speech that is the internet will be gone as well, cause thet just got sold down the river this past week as well.
    It is time we do not label a stronng call to the problem, an extream policy position.
    That is the Totalitarian’s game. Just look at the many Republicans like Joe Wilson , or Paul O’Neil, even John Dean that have been labled radical left when they have very conservative policy positions.
    Even Howard Dean has a centrist policy concept but is labled extreme just because he FIGHTS!
    The rest of the “Uncle Tom” Democrats will be making get out the vote plans while stuffed in boxcars on the way to the new Halliburton camps.

  19. Charlotte on

    The more Democrats say “we don’t stand for anything”, the more non-Democrats believe it. I think we as a party stand for many great things, but your point about how to really flesh them out is a good one.
    Thank you for pointing out the false reasoning of “electability”! If we choose candidates in the primary who we are not excited about [this is how I’d characterize Jim Webb in Virginia], we’re going to have difficulty selling them to anyone. The thing about leadership is that it takes convincing. If the majority of Americans have a wrong idea about something, we shouldn’t pick a candidate who agrees with that wrong idea. We should pick a candidate who can lead them to the right idea. And what we as a party can do to help that candidate is educate people on our reasoning, and the facts that lead us in the direction we’ve chosen.

  20. Erik on

    The point being made in this article is is powerful and absolutely correct. And yet, it is telling that in this article, as in the articles posted in the inaugural edition of the authors’ new journal “Democracy,” there are precious few attempts to actually answer the hard questions posed.
    Do we Democrats need a foundation of ideas upon which to build a message and electoral strategy? Of course we do.
    But where will these ideas come from? The authors’ answer seems to be “if we build it they will come.” In other words: create the policy journal and the great public philosophy ideas spring forth.
    I hope they are right. And yet somehow i find it hard to accept that the idea vacuum that currently plauges progressive politics in America is really just an infrastructure problem.
    Let me suggest a different hypothesis.
    The absence of big ideas underpinning progressive politics in America may actually be the result of our having lost a coherent worldview that allows us to frame, understand and analyze our reality.
    We once had one. And, as loathe as we may be to admit it, that worldview was Marxism.
    To be sure, the Democractic Party was never Marxist. We did not advocate class revolution. We did not call for the end of private property. We did not seek collectivism.
    But we did accept a fundamental tenet of Marxist historical analysis — namely, that inherent in unbridled capitalism is a trend toward increasing inequality and the degradation of working people. Western social democratic parties, the Democratic Party of the United States included, all were born as a response to this problem. What we call “progressivism” or the “left” came about with the raison d’etre of mitigating capitalism’s excesses while still protecting the basic foundation of private property and individual freedom.
    In this context, the two great progressive milestones of 20th century America — FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s War on Poverty — made perfect sense to the American electorate and to Democrats themselves.
    Of course it was the role of the US Government to intervene in the marketplace in a massive way to protect working people, because to fail to do so would lead to further impovershment of workers and potentially to violent revolution in the future.
    Today, that intellectual basis for government intervention in the economy is largely absent.
    This is not meant to suggest that Democrats necessarily need to go dust off their copies of Das Kapital. But it does mean that we need to focus our thinking on a very simple question: Do we believe that significant Government intervention in the economy is necessary to achieve a just and stable society, even if the cost of that intervention may be somewhat slower economic growth and/or lower economic efficiency?
    That is a tough question and it must be thoroughly analyzed within the context of the new globalized economy. Unfortunately, it seems that rather than recognizing just how new the world now is and how badly in need of reexamination all our public thinkig is, progressives seem to be fleeing to a cherished past. Whether it is Peter Beinart’s excavation of post-war global interventionists, or Gary Hart’s indentification of core principles from the 20th century progressives appear to be far more comfortable examining how things used to be than applying ourselves to the grueling task of understanding how they are and how they are likely to be.
    Put another way: it may be that progressives have gotten very lazy.
    Because the truth is that while we may find much wisdom in the past, we are unlikely to find many practical answers. When FDR put in place the New Deal, he didn’t need to worry about US Steel, or General Motors or any other major US corporation deciding to pull up stakes and relocate to a lower-tax, lower-regulation jurisdiction. When LBJ designed and implemented the War on Poverty he did not have to consider the possibility that one day America would cease to be an industrial nation capable of creating blue-collar jobs. Yet these are precisely the realities we face today. And the future economy is likely to be even less amenable to Government intervention that today’s. Capital can now flee around the globe at a mouse stroke. In such a world, is it advisable for Government to dare impose rules, regulations and taxation policies that may tempt US industry to find a more welcoming home? And, if it is not advisable to do so, then what, if anything, can be done to yet achieve the core objective of creating a more fair and equitable society?
    It is a remarkable thing that the progressive community has become so deeply energized in the search for new ideas and a new road map for our country. But identifying the problem is a relatively easy step. Solving it may prove far harder than even the most pessimistic among us can fathom.

  21. Ralph Ekwall on

    I think that many Democrats have been reluctant to take stands for fear of antagonizing middle-of-the-road voters.
    Here are a few positions we should publicly embrace.
    1. Increase the minimum wage.
    2. Adjust the tax system to insure that the Estate Tax remains in force. Keep reminding people that only people with estates of more than 2 million dollars are affected by the Estate Tax. Also keep reminding people that it is an Estate Tax not a death tax. remind the public that it is not true that farms and businesses are sold to pay the Estate Tax. Not one single case of this have ever been verified.
    3. Take a position on immigration that says that Congress must pass legislation that gets the situation under control. One central factor is to insist that there are severe penalties for those who hire undocumented workers. Insist that Congress, now controlled by the Republicans, take some sort of positive action.
    4. Take a position on openess in government. Insist that all but the most critical secrets be open to public scrutiny.
    5. Develop a “rogues gallery” with pictures of prominent Administration figures who have been convicted of crimes or who are under indictment. Elevate the level of complaint on the “Culture of Corruption.”
    6. Complain about and emphasize the growth of the National Debt. Come down hard on the Republicans for running up debts that our children and grandchildren will have to pay.
    7. Keep reminding people that Iraq was a war that we did not need to fight. Keep calling these facts to the public’s attention.
    A. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, 3 were from the United Arab Emirates and one was from Egypt. Yet, our president attacked Iraq.
    B.Before the 9/11 attack, the State Department prepared a list of 45 countries where Al Qaeda was active. Iraq was not on that list. Yet, Bush lied and said that Iraq was supporting terrorists.
    C. Bush sent a small force, 15,000 (?) to attack Afghanistan the nation who harbored Osama BinLaden, the man who planned, financed and ordered the 9/11 attack. Remind everyone that the progenitor of the 9/11 attack is still active and is now planning more attacks on the US. Bush has failed to bring him to justice.
    George Bush sent 150,000 men to attack Iraq for no real reason at all.
    8. Keep reminding the public of how our standing in the world has diminished. Point out the fact that there are consequences of such actions. We are much less likely to get cooperation from nations who think our president is a warmonger who makes unprovoked attacks.
    Ralph Ekwall

  22. John T-H on

    Clinton had a laser like focus on three ideas: 1) Help the little guy who plays by the rules but gets screwed by the system. 2)”It’s the economy stupid.” Bring the gov’t economic house in order and create an economy that creates fair growth for all. 3) An activist foreign policy designed to bring all parties to the table to devise solutions to large problems like N Ireland that are long term but support America’s ideals of human dignity throughout the world. He was willing compromise his tactics so long as his strategy did not change. He even worked with “the other party” from time to time. America rewarded him with strong support throughout his presidency. As Dems we get too caught up in looking for new ideas, rather than building on core ideas that worked in the past. These three Clinton tenants can be a wellspring for new ideas that will make the world a better place.

  23. John on

    Brilliant. Amen. And shout it from the highest mountaintop. Too many Dems are deluding themselving into thinking that the party’s diparate messages are wildly popular, but just not being heard property. We need a coherent and cohesive program that also happens to be good for the country.
    The trouble, however, is that us Democrats are riven with major internal divisions. The GOP is too, but ours are worse. And nowhere does it show up more than on national security issues.
    In arguably the most important issue area we’re all over the map. Republicans are too, but they at least have a president who articulates (sort of) and encapsulates the party’s main viewpoint. Until we cohere around a philosophy and stop re-fighting the 2003 Iraq vote we’re in trouble.
    Kerry was a straddler on the Iraq war, something he to do given the party’s internal divisions. And, when he won the nomination, he wasn’t free to drift right given the Nader challenge on his left. Had we nominated Dean we would have been crushed. Had we nominated Leiberman we would have had significant defections. Kerry’s straddle was the best we could hope for, but his (necessary) ambiguity left him vulnerable on the flip-flopper charge.
    Anti-war progressive types(yes, you Markos) need to understand that hawkish moderates did not all vote for the war resolution simply out of fear or cowardice or fealty to President Bush. For many of them it was a reflection of a larger philosophy surrounding the use of American military power.
    And, moderates (yes, you Joe Lieberman) need to understand that not all the anti-war left opposed the war as a knee-jerk reaction to oppose president Bush. Many genuinely beleive that the war would do more harm than good.
    So, lets kiss and make up. Then lets develop a national security strategy that would be good for the nation – not just one that might capture hispanic, exurban, married couples.

  24. Peter Stern on

    The varied responses to your thoughtful article frame the problem: We have no core philosphy or unifying ideas other than our dislike of the Republicans. My own feeling is that moderates in the party are always apologizing for or explaining away our brethren on the far Left, a fact not lost on Independents. It’s a defensive posture that costs us elections.


    We know what our core values are, but we seem to be afraid to speak them, especially on foreign policy. Too often, Democratic candidates have conceded the foreign policy debate before it has begun. Therefore, they seem to stand for nothing. Why do they not reaffirm the Truman-Kennedy interationalist consensus? We know what our core values are. If we think, we can list them, and then sell them. And half of them are related to the Rooseveltian inheritance on which Truman and Kennedy built, and that Carter and Clinton, at their best, followed.
    These are our domestic values: personal liberty, human equality, environmental preservation, and inclusive upward economic mobility.
    These are our foreign policy values: collective security, international leadership, the universality of human rights, and peace.
    We can sell these — they are stronger than Republican answers of solitary security, bullying rather than leading allies, ignoring the aspirations of subject populations, and always choosing war over diplomacy, war over covert action, war over economic pressure, war over strenuous containment.

  26. Frank Hammerstrom on

    I attended my first Palm Beach Democratic Party meeting this year and was immediately struck by the deep desire on the part of many fellow Democrats for a leadership message. While the party select droned on about how to organize in capital letters, the faithful kept asking: “But, what is our message, what do we stand for?” (sic) What are we For? It is easy to be against the Republican’s deficit, war mongering, reducing budgets for “entitlements” (BTW Social security is not an entitlement, we paid our dues.)tax relief for the richest, and so on. But what are we for?
    The vision may be in John Edward’s message today. I suspect that some of it is, but what will be lacking is the proof of It may be the role of the think tank folk. For example, it has been shown that raising the minimum wage has a positive impact on the economy, helps the disadvantaged exit welfare, and improves the lot of all. That is a meaningful message with the necessary proof to help convince voters of a posititon that will not hurt them, but on the contrary will help us all. The same can be said for education, but we need the facts, figures, and fresh words to not only carry the idea but to make it stick. Studies also show that words have real power to move people, and I submit that is exactly what most people i.e. voters really want.
    There are many examples of the power contained in cooperation as well. Witness the recent partnership of certain big oil with the chemical company to develop biomass fuels in Great Britian. What is economically profitable can eventually provide us with cleaner air and les foreign oil dependence.
    Our present government is not only corrupt, but dangerously short sighted. But a negative message carries a negative connotation about the speaker. So the effort must focus on the Democrats’ solutions to lift us all. Another very powerful example is Massachusett’s recent legislation to provide health insurance for all the state’s residents. Accomplished under a Republican leader, but with everyone’s cooperation.
    My deeply frustrated belief is that correcting our collective social ills positively affects us all. Democrats, centrists and republicans alike. I am not naive, simply hungry for leadership, and ready to support the person who can deliver the message and the hope.
    The Hammer

  27. Jenny D. on

    Thank you! And “Amen” and whatever else constitutes a grand affirmation. I have been saying this same thing for years! I first read the Democratic Party platform when I was 16, and 16 years later reread it. It was disheartening to say the least. Where did my party go? The ideas, what few there were amongst the “what did the stupid Republicans screw up this time?” rhetoric, were so vague. I thought: who in their right mind would get behind this party? Where is the inspiration?
    Thank you for laying it out so clearly and eloquently. I agree 100%!

  28. jonathan reed on

    I agree strongly with this article. As a corollary let me suggest that Democrats’ confusion about core beliefs often makes them look phony to independents or swing voters. Let me give some examples:
    1) John Kerry took time out from his 2004 campaign to shoot birds. I doubt this energized his core supporters. He was trying to emphasize that Democrats don’t want to take away guns from hunters. But in our increasingly urbanized country most gun owners own because they feel they might someday have to protect themselves. Having a Democrat go hunting just reminds swing voters that many Democrats do want to take away their potential ability to use guns for self-defense. Guns weren’t a big issue in 2004; Kerry should’ve foregone shooting at Big Bird.
    2) Kerry’s position on the Iraq war was that he knew what had to be done and he could do it better. Get real: Democrats are not going to enlarge their base by claiming that they can invade Iraq better than Bush.
    3) I am very sympathetic to Sen. Clinton’s decision to emphasize that she wants to make abortion vary rare. However, it hurts credibility not to simply say that a woman has a right to an abortion. Period.
    4) A lot of white males feel discriminated against by affirmative action. Whenever Democrats suggest that an African-American is a sell-out for being a Republican it suggests to whites (esp. males who get no affirmative action preference) that, perhaps, they really do belong in the Republican Party.
    5) If the Republican propose an across the board tax cut, Democrats point out that the rich benefit more than the poor. A lot of people, poor or rich, think, “Well, at least I get something out it.” When Democrats say, “The rich need to pay their fair share,” a lot of affluent people wonder what the Democrats figure their “fair share” is. Is there some percentage tax of income that is excessive? For example, does “fair share” mean going back to 90% tax rates on top earners? Democrats need to think hard about how to campaign on taxes. The slogans of the past are not working.
    6) There seems to be uncritical acceptance on the part of Democrats that long term capital gains deserve a tax break, even if the long term gain is buying shares in a well-established company such as Coca Cola. Democrats and Republicans alike seem to gloss over the fact that there is no social security and medicare taxes on investment income. Democrats should address these issues in a discussion of “fair share.”

  29. Theodore F Vick on

    The Democrats are afraid to openly wage the battle of the “haves” and the “have nots”
    The behind the scenes greedy capitalists have taken over the Repulican party. They are turning this country into a banana republic. They have no interest in operating the government for the people. Every law they work to pass is to expand their power and their wealth.

  30. Sam on

    I agree with a lot of what these guys say; clever phrases and professional messaging alone cannot make a successful party. What I disagree with is the complete disparagement of these things. Once our ideas and philosophy are clearly defined, we WILL need the best messaging availible, or we will fail regardless. Also, to say that Republican messages were NOT cooked up in a focus group and that they AREN’T afraid of alienating voters is just untrue. Democrats are playing catchup right now in the world of political messaging, which I is fully half of why we have been less successful than Republicans at passing our agenda.

  31. Gary Hart on

    This column sounds eerily like a campaign I was involved in now 22 years ago. In a few weeks, my new book, The Courage of Our Convictions, proposes a set of historic principles taken from the core beliefs of great 20th century Democratic presidents: we are a national community based on social justice (Franklin Roosevelt); we base our national security on international alliances (Harry Truman); we believe in the ancient republican ideal of civic duty (John Kennedy); and we are committed to equality and justice for all (Lyndon Johnson). These are core principles that sharply distinguish us from Republicans and they should be the basis for all our policies and programs.
    Gary Hart

  32. John Duncan on

    I just finished reading Ruy Teixeira’s response, and believe that his argument for free and fair elections is linked to a bigger, and hardly discussed issue: That is how to combat today’s Republican party leadership. These people are not your father’s GOP, not Barry Goldwater’s GOP, not Dwight Eisenhower’s GOP.
    I submit to you that no strategy to appeal to voters is going to succeed against the ruthlessness exhibited by these people, because they control access to the polls and the vote counts in the critical states. E.g, exit polls in Florida in 2000 identified Al Gore as the clear winner. Exit polls in Ohio in 2004 identified John Kerry as the clear winner. The media recount of the 2000 Florida vote (the entire state, not just the 4 counties that Al Gore wanted recounted) showed Al Gore won Florida. This was barely mentioned in the U.S. press. We need to reinstitute exit polls in U.S. elections. It won’t stop the fraud but it will certainly expose it.
    I have only scratched the surface of the foul business I believe these people have conducted since the days of Ronald Reagan. Democrats need to stop being the loyal opposition. We need to become emboldened to publicize the wrong doing of the Republican leadership. Maybe it will encourage those conservatives of decent character in the GOP to take back their party.
    Sincerely, John Duncan

  33. Patrick McGarrity on

    I appreciate the need for a party based on ideas, not just policies, but I think that it is inaccurate to suggest that we do not have a liberal idea mechanism. As a recent graduate from a liberal arts college, I can tell you that there is a great bank of ideas that are created, debated, and reviewed. To not acknowledge this make the article incomplete. Additionally, many liberal blogs are idea farms. What of these?
    I agree that we must beat the republicans at the idea war, but must our institutions resemble those of the republicans to be sucessful?

  34. Terry R. Watson on

    It is not just ideas but ideals that are lacking. The conservative republican is out for number one and as more of them have gone into leadership positions we have all bought into that philosophical approach. Many have become sickened by all of this but we have failed to offer a place for them to turn.
    If we seek out the best who truly believe that government is for all the people, we will do just fine.

  35. Caro on

    The American Prospect had a series of articles that promoted the idea of using the “common good” as the underlying theme for Democratic policies.
    This is Tomasky’s introductory article:
    Party in Search of a Notion
    And below is an excerpt I prepared of the four articles by Halpin and Teixeira, with links to the original articles.
    The Politics of Definition
    I’ve found some research on brain chemicals which shows that the desire to cooperate with one another is inborn in humans (and perhaps some other primates, as well). This research could form a foundation for showing that the philosophical basis for right-wingism, that selfishness and greed are not only inborn traits but impossible to counter, is a bunch of hogwash. And it could form a foundation for a culture and a message of cooperation, the common good, and “we’re all in this together”.
    In a sane world, people would be interested in knowing more about this research, and maybe would even help me find a publisher, so that the information could be widely dispersed, but that’s not happening.
    I’m forced to conclude that the so-called progressive world just isn’t interested in first causes or primary motivations or enveloping themes.
    Carolyn Kay

  36. Chris Glaze on

    Right on. Effective politics certainly require good research and data, but those things are woefully insufficient (this is as true in pure science). An essential ingredient is leadership, which in turn requires ideas and conviction.
    I’d like to offer another perspective on what it means to be progressive: open-minded, goal-oriented and intellectually honest.

  37. Will Neuhauser on

    Agreed! The goal should be building a new progressive era — it is not simply to get the one or two more percentage points to win the next election, it is to change the thinking of enough Americans that progressives win decisively — by 10 or 15% — producing mandates to move America forward out of this divisive conservative era of declining expectations.

  38. PaulSiegel on

    On my blog, WE DON’T AGREE, BUT… I have the slogan:
    Promoting the New Liberalism: Cooperation, Community and Concord.
    Istead of the divisiveness of Republicans, Democrats should seek harmony. Instead of fighting everybody both here and abroad we seek peaceful relations. Instead of militarism we concentrate on negotiations and combining with our friends to contain rogue nations. Instead of working for Big Business we work for ALL Americans.


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