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The Future of the Democratic Party

Left or Center?  After a “shellacking” at the polls, it’s what Democrats always wind up debating.  Do we focus on the core values that make us a potent political force or do we re-tool ourselves to meet the swing voters who get us over the top?  I’ve had this conversation with many people lately, and I’ve reached the conclusion that we’re almost certainly asking the wrong question.

I don’t think it’s a matter of politics for Democrats.  To be the party of the people we have to do a lot more show, don’t tell.  Are we standing up for people and their personal issues or are we just playing a game?  If that means we wind up being more to the left than we’ve been, so be it.  But I don’t think it’s where we need to start.

I’d like to know your opinion.  Which way should we go?

The problem for Democrats has always been that we are the ones who believe there is a role for government of some kind.  That is what it means to be on the “left” these days, especially as the other side seems to focus on “getting government off our backs”.  The case for government as a force for all that is good and decent about us has to be completely re-made, which is to say that we have to show that we’re the responsible ones who are capable of making things work.

This may come down as a fight, a series of pointed exchanges made in fiery speeches that engage people in a way that centrist politics never can.  But in the end, we have to prove that we can actually deliver and make it work effectively.  We have to be the responsible adults – even when that position is hard to make and very little fun.

What’s more important – enthusiasm or competence?  Do we have to pick one?

The case for a lot more enthusiasm and fight is an easy one.  Democrats win when their people show up at the polls, which is why Get Out the Vote (GOTV) has to be the centerpiece of any Democrat’s campaign.  If people aren’t fired up, why would they show up?  That means more heat and more pointed engagement, which easily translates into a more left-leaning politics.

The other side, the argument for quiet competence, is much harder.  But it was made in the Rally to Restore Sanity more clearly than anything I’ve heard in a long time.  Jon Stewart spoke from the heart at the end of the rally, emphasizing that we make all make small compromises to get on with our lives every day.  Up until that point it was fun and games and a bubbly kind of excitement that the center rarely develops.  I hope it’s a trend.

During the last Depression Will Rogers was more than just a successful comedian, he was the most thoughtful political commentator of the time.  Jon Stewart is, for all practical purposes, our Will Rogers.  A good skewering might be the one bridge we have between level-headed reason and a fight for what is important.

Less fire, more icy sarcasm.  Could it work?

I can’t say for sure, but it doesn’t seem that the particular politics defined by a conventional spectrum really has a lot to say about what will work for us.  There are things that government does well, and defending them will always come off as leftist.  But people have to believe it’s gonna work, which is more about taking care of business in a way that will involve compromise, consensus, and some really boring attention to detail.

Can we generated the excitement that a GOTV strategy needs while we let the politics float wherever it works best?  I think so.  But I don’t think we can do that if we’re focused on the left-center debate.  To be a Democrat is to believe that people working together are stronger than the sum of their individual efforts.  That means we have to reach out and engage people we don’t agree with – or even like all that much.

But I’d like to know what everyone else thinks.  This is an argument in process, and it’s up to all of us to make it together.  What do you say?

17 thoughts on “The Future of the Democratic Party

  1. I see what you’re saying, but most of those centrists who were supposed to be the future of the party lost this election. Whether you agree or not the party is going to go to the left. Maybe we have to make something better of that then we usually do but I think that debate is over.

  2. I think that we do know better what will work and what is important. If the Republicans do not want to be a part of it and block everything people will understand who is messing things up.
    We can say anything we want and probably nothing will get done so we might as well go with our principles. The future is certainly on the left.

  3. The moderates who lost did so largely because they went along with the unpopular policy of the more liberal members in their caucus. For instance, in swing districts, most of the Blue Dogs that voted for bills like the health care reform bill lost, while most of those that didn’t won.

    Swing voters are just like any other voting bloc. If you are in power and want our support to keep you there, listen to what we want, or we’re more likely to stay home or vote for the other guy. In this election, we didn’t vote FOR the other guy, we voted you out… seeing split government as the much lesser evil out of our terrible options.

    Solomon Kleinsmith
    Rise of the Center

  4. Once again, this is an example of why we need more parties and a political system that is more democratic than the republic we have gotten stuck with.

    With more parties in play, it would no longer be an issue of us v. them. People would get to pick who should go in, instead of just voting against the current individual.

  5. Solomon, your point that listening to voters is the most important thing is what good politics is all about. It goes with what L Z had to say about picking the individual in the sense that a good track record does appear to be what people vote on in the first place – a good system should be able to respond to that, too.

    Dale, Janine, I’m no so sure that the future is on the Left. Yes, it is for the short term, but if we let that argument drift for a while we might be surprised where we go. It might look like today’s center, but it also might look like something completely different. That’s what I hope.

  6. Okay, I think that you are generally right that there needs to be more compromise all around, and though I lean left, I wince at unthinking partisanship whenever it occurs. I also think that in actual fact, Obama was modeling that compromise pretty well in his first two years, if the health care bill was any bellwhether.

    But for the meat of my response, I’d point you back to yesterday’s SD65 Facebook “article of the day” (www.facebook.com/sd65) which was from Robert Reich, suggesting that rather than take a general drift to the center, Obama in this economic climate especially would be smart to focus on economic populism. Reich is more persuasive than lil ol me will ever be, so I’ll just let him talk:

    Obama shouldn’t be fooled into thinking Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 because he moved to the center. I was there. Clinton was reelected because by then the economy had come roaring back to life. President Obama won’t have that luxury in 2012. In all likelihood, the economy will still be anemic.

    Obama won’t be able to win this argument by moving to the center — seeking to paint himself as a smaller-government moderate. This only confirms the Republican’s views that the central issue is size of government…Obama’s best hope of reelection will be to reframe the debate, making the central issue the power of big businesses and Wall Street to gain economic advantage at the expense of the rest of us. This is the Democratic playing field, and it’s more relevant today than at any time since the 1930s.

    The top 1 percent of Americans, by income, is now taking home almost a quarter of all income, and accounting for almost 40 percent of all wealth. Meanwhile, large numbers of Americans are losing their homes because banks won’t let them reorganize their mortgages under bankruptcy. And corporations continue to lay off (and not rehire) even larger numbers.

    With Republicans controlling more of Congress, their pending votes against extended unemployment benefits, jobs bills, and work programs will more sharply reveal whose side they’re on. Their attempt to extort extended tax cuts for the wealthy by threatening tax increases on the middle class will offer even more evidence. As will their refusal to disclose their sources of campaign funding.

  7. What’s up, Erik! I had to come read your stuff. Drop me a line and tell me what I need to know– to get where I want to go (Dem politics). Your post seems to be about inspiration and… how do we inspire. Yes?

  8. Bob – big THANK YOU for that contribution! Reich is a real hero, and he speaks to what I was getting at (badly, by comparison). We do have to change the debate. Big forces are running people’s lives in ways that they don’t understand, and we have to show that we are the way they can band together and get some control over it. That’s my lesson from what Reich said.

    Holly – I’ll get with ya in a bit … yes, it’s about inspiring people and how we lead, more or less. Take it however you want – getting some good alternative perspectives here away from my original bit and it’s been gold so far! 🙂

  9. Solomon, I somewhat disagree with your analysis. There were 10 blue dog house democrats who voted against an extension of unemployment benefits. They lost. Now I certainly don’t think there is a causality here but there perhaps is some linkage. What I didn’t like was a bill that in order to fund some teacher hiring for the school year of 2010/2011 they had to take out a chunk from the food stamp program. I do like your website and think it could be helpful on the state level, nationally I have no idea. There is policy and then there is politics.

  10. Interesting idea to rephrase the debate. Let me add my rephrasing. The American voter has swung back and forth since the creation of the Republic between wanting action and getting something done on the one hand and then finding that change a little unsettling and wanting a “breather” on the other hand. I think Obama, Pelosi, and Reid were amazingly effective in bringing change – health care access, financial reform, economic stimulus, a host of other great changes. But whenever that happens, the American voter gets a little skittish and demands a little “down time” to process and absorb all the change. This is what I think was happening in this election. Oh, and way too many people have lost their jobs. Not the fault of the Democrats, but they were in power when the power of the vote came around and so got blamed and held responsible. I personally don’t think the Democrats really need to do that much hand wringing and I totally agree with Reich.

  11. Pat, while it’s true that progress does seem to only come in waves (to the extent it comes at all) I’m worried that we’ve lost some critical pieces of our main argument for being lately. I addressed some of them here:


    In many ways, it’s just a re-hash of what I’ve been saying since before the 2008 election, but I’m trying to refine my arguments to get at the key issue. Also I’m trying to get something to catch on. 🙂

  12. Bill Clinton helped steer the economy towards robustness by being the ONLY PRESIDENT in the past 80 years who reduced the yearly operating budget deficit all 8 years he was in office.

    On top of that, centrist policies such as workfare helped reduce the deficit as well.

  13. > beg for forgiveness while kneeling on a chopping block.

    Doesn’t that seem a bit … I dunno, excessive at best? Seriously, a call to humiliate members of your own party hardly seems productive at all. That kind of internal warfare would create a solid generation of Republican rule, something which I do not think we can tolerate. So I think it’s best to leave that kind of language out of the equation no matter what. OK?

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