Thursday, October 02, 2003

Some common ground

I agree almost completely with everything Joe and Barry have said. I think that money is a problem inasmuch as it requires the Democrats to do the splits--cozying up to the monied interests on the one hand while supposedly fighting for the little guy on the other--and raises the already incredibly high barrier to entry for third parties. My thoughts:

1. While many of Grossmann's fixes would lower the barrier to entry, as long as we have single winner districts won by the majority (or plurality) of votes--the system will always tend toward two dominant parties. Yes, there have been several times in our history when a viable third party sprung up, but it always either went away after one or two elections (Populists, Progressives, Reform Party), or it grew to the point that it devoured one of the then-major parties (Republicans). That said, Instant Runoff Voting would be a godsend and would alleviate the problems with general election voting I am referring to.

2. Joe has pointed out an area which I did not explain well enough. There are two ways to get noticed by one or both of the major parties--become the backbone and driving force of the party or become a swing group. I concede that by abandoning the Democrats en masse, people on the left can become a swing group of sorts. However, as I discussed in my original post on the topic, they would need to be twice the size of the centrists to move the party to you since a centrist vote you lose both deflates your total and increases the Republican total while a lefty vote lost only deflates the Democratic total. A far more effective strategy for liberals to controlling the party would be to dominate it in its organization and in its primaries. This we seem to agree on.

3. I wholeheartedly agree that the grassroots must be reclaimed. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Joe and other disaffected Democrats in that fight. However, that is a liberal vs. conservative fight, not a D vs. R one. If the liberals can turn the tide of what the conservatives have done over the past quarter century, it will be tremendously helpful. Hopefully, opposition to W. will fuel these fires. This, however, is a separate question from what Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives should do at general election time. Unless the claim is that liberals' deliberately putting a (insert expletive here) like Bush into power will help their cause in the long run because Bush engenders so much hatred, I don't think that abandoning the Democratic party to pave the way for Bush helps the liberal cause in any way. If that is the claim, I think that it is a dangerous and irresponsible way to win supporters.

If you'll notice, the conservative grassroots and the Republican party have a symbiotic relationship, but are not one and the same. There is an unspoken deal that the party will do the movement's bidding, within reason, when it is in power in exchange for the movement's unflinching electoral support and efforts to promote the party and undermine the opposition in the court of public opinion. This allows the party leaders to put on the front that they are "independent", "moderate", or "compassionate conservatives." In fact, during campaigns, Republicans often explicitly distance themselves from the rabid right to win votes from naive centrists.

I'm not sure why liberals and the Democratic party have such a comparatively dysfunctional relationship. The movement and the party's interest gropups for some reason demand total public fealty (e.g. the recent forums hosted by NARAL and the NAACP in which the presidential candidates were forced to show up, bow before the throne, and toe the group's line. Stuff like this does nobody any good except the Republicans. Second, the whole "unflinching electoral support" thing is a clearly foreign concept. Third, the party leaders may have failed to do the movement's bidding when in power. All of these things need to change.

At the core is the fact that both the right and the left have, for want of better descriptors, a purist faction and a pragmatist faction. Joe and I illustrate this divide on the left. If we could each become king tomorrow and rule by fiat, I suspect our policies would be nearly the same. The only disagreement is over strategy. The purists seek to force their positions and are willing to go down to defeat rather than compromise. The pragmatists will act strategically to win and will take compromise over defeat. The difference, and a significant one, is that there are far more purists on the left as on the right.

The right also doesn't rely on its elected leaders for passion or vision. They take their own conservative zeal and control the process so that the leaders simply come from their ranks. These leaders are essentially interchangeable. It's a bottom up strategy rather than a top down one. Liberals need to do the same. If the Democratic leaders aren't doing what the movement wants, it's the movement's fault for either being ineffective in seizing control of the selection process or for picking a bad apple.

If a "housecleaning" is necessary, then so be it. As a pragmatist, I realize that the Democrats can't win without keeping their purists happy. I don't have any particular love for anyone in the current leadership. What the purists need to understand is that we also can't win if the liberals transparently seize control and frighten off the centrists.

Because of the purist/pragmatist divide, however, I doubt a housecleaning is necessary. As Joe argues, Dean may be the answer. He is the embodiment of my exhortations for the purists to work within the party. He apparently satisfies the purists who hopefully will not now run to Nader. The pragmatists will support whoever wins the nomination. Ergo, he unites the left. What remains to be seen is whether he can draw enough centrists to actually win the election. If he can, problem solved. If not, we need to find a way to be liberals and work to shift the center while at the same time be Democrats and do what it takes to win.

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