I finally got around to reading Michael Tomasky’s much-discussed article in The American Prospect arguing that Democrats should make “the common good” an overarching theme of progressive politics, reigning in the interest-group particularism and individual and group “rights”orientation that have largely dominated liberal thinking since the 1960s. There’s little in Mike’s long piece I would dispute, and it’s heartening to note that it echoes a critique of the interest-group approach that has recently spread, often quite dramatically, from “centrist” precincts into segments of the party normally identified with the Left. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger’s now-famous essay, The Death of Environmentalism, forms a big chunk of the analysis of the Democratic Party in Jerome Armstrong and Marcos Moulitsas Zuniga’s netroots manifesto, Crashing the Gate. Less surprisingly, it (along with “The Reapers'” later research on voter values) has been much discussed and praised in DLC circles as well. It’s important to remember how central the interest group/group rights framework was to the Left until just this juncture of history. Back in 1988, one of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s best known prerorations invoked his grandmother’s beautiful quilts as a metaphor for the Democratic Party, and then proceeded through a litany of “the groups” (everyone from small business people and farmers to gays and lesbians), addressing each with the warning: “Your patch is too small.” I can remember listening to this powerful litany on the floor of the 1988 Convention in Atlanta and thinking: “Is that who we are? Just a bunch of groups linking arms to protect their stuff?” Aside from the fact that this “sum of the parts” orientation eroded any sense of genuine overall purpose, it also led Democrats for decades into the trap of bidding for votes based on encouraging Americans to conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis of their relationship with government, parrying “their” tax cuts with “our” juicy new public benefits. And you know what? We never have, and probably never will, beat Republicans in a competition based on selfishness, because they don’t really give a damn what government does while we, as Tomasky so rightly notes, are really motivated by something higher than the crass appeals to material interest our politicians have too often relied upon. The one important historical note that Mike either missed or decided not to mention is that the debate he is calling for among Democrats was actually the central internal struggle of John Kerry’s presidential campaign of 2004. The argument for a “common good” candidacy was eloquently laid out by Stan Greenberg in his book, The Two Americas, written just as the campaign got underway. Kerry’s campaign book, A Call To Service (disclosure: I had a hand in this little-read book) was heavily based on the very themes and analysis Tomasky talks about. And as Joe Klein details in his new book, Politics Lost, Kerry’s whole nomination campaign was set to revolve around the communitarian theme of “New American Patriotism” (a theme powerful enough that Wes Clark picked it up when Kerry discarded it), until the Shrum/Devine consultant team prevailed on the candidate to go with a more conventional programs-and-sound-bites-that-poll-well approach. Kerry won the nomination without the “common good” theme, but I’m not the only one who thinks he would have won the presidency if he had stuck to it. As Tomasky explains, there is tangibly a deep craving in the electorate for leadership that appeals to something other than naked self-interest and the competing claims of groups. And no matter who our nominee is in 2008, he or she should seize the opportunity to unite the party, and perhaps begin reuniting the country, with an appeal to the very impulses that make most of us progressives in the first place.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:
There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:
“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”
Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.
Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.
Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.
At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.
Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.