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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Loud and Proud L-Word

Linda Hirshman (yes, the self-same Linda Hirshman who recently roiled progressive circles with her critique of “choice feminism”) has a new piece up on the New Republic’s website arguing that Democrats—a party she says is living without an organizing principle—need to re-embrace both the word and the underlying philosophy of liberalism.
I think most Democrats sense the void of which Hirshman writes, despite recent electoral success. If you don’t know what I mean, try asking a newly minted candidate what it means to be a Democrat and see if you don’t get a list of programs (or even ideas!) instead of a governing philosophy. What people may not realize it the detriment that brings to day-to-day Democratic governance.
“Rather than embrace this bedrock commitment, however, Democrats shy away from it. The best example of this failure is their talk about the cost of health care,” Hirshman writes. “Most sensible analysts agree that, even with efficiencies of scale, any of the Democrats’ health care plans is going to cost more than it saves. So the dreaded government is going to have to use its taxing power.”
It’s not just health care. Democrats frequently have a great, liberal idea…that costs money. But instead of balancing it with other priorities and then telling people how much this new thing they want is going to cost, we bend to the conservative governing philosophy. We try to conceal the cost, do it on the cheap, or make it look like a painless trade-off.
But it never is painless. Programs implemented this way—even the really popular ones—end up costing more than we said and not working as well. Every Communications 101 class learns about “managing expectations”; not dealing forthrightly with the costs of our ideas and moral and philosophical reasons for them sets expectations at a place that will always leave the American people disappointed.
Recent conversations about our national infrastructure are a great opportunity to talk openly in the language of collective action to solve a national problem. Our aging bridges and roads represent an asset that should be benefit us all and a problem we need to deal with together. (Anti-tax crusaders should be referred immediately to examples of what happens to economic growth when these problems are ignored.) Call it a liberalism moment.
But remember, if we are going to reclaim the “brand,” that liberalism has many edges, some of them no more perfectly consistent with “left” than with “centrist” perspectives. The ambiguous legacy of liberalism is one reason, along with its demonization by the Right, that contemporary “progressives” aren’t always comfortable with it.

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