Monday, June 07, 2004You know the old joke by Will Rogers: "I don't belong to an organized political party, I'm a Democrat." Since at least the civil war, the Democratic party has been a badly divided party, particularly in comparison to the more disciplined and homogenous Republicans. Thirty years ago it was the battle between the northern liberal wing and the southern conservative wing, and since the 1980's the fight has been between the progressive Wellstone part against the centrist DLC faction. Democrats have no governing ideology, and agree only on their dislike for Republicans.
There is only one problem with this story. It's wrong. It confuses organizational with issue coherence, and is trapped by history. Like much of American politics, advocates of this narrative think it is still 1968.
It is true, there was a time not so long ago when the Democrats differed on a lot of issues. But I would contend that today's dispute between the liberals and moderates has more heat than light. Instead, I think that the Democratic party is pretty much homogenous when it comes to issues. Think about it- how many real substantive policy disagreements do Democrats have? They are all pro-environment, pro-labor, pro-minority rights, suspicious of corporations, and in favor of a cautious and multilateral foreign policy. You no longer have true conservatives in the party- they are all either Republicans or dead.
I would contend that the differences are now more strategic than substantive. The moderates think we should emphasize the areas of agreement with the suburbs, while the more progressive groups think we should highlight our differences with Republicans in order to give voters a real choice and to mobiilize our base. Of course, we should do both, something the Republicans have been doing for years.
So why does everyone think that Democrats are an anarchic party united by nothing? The answer lies in what Marx described as false consciousness- when what people profess to believe does not jibe with their real interests or the objective reality. Liberals think they are divided because they are used to thinking that way, even when this view no longer reflects reality. The problem is definitional. Each part of the Democratic coalition thinks of itself not as a liberal or a Democrat (and sorry, the Democrats are inescapably the vehicle for liberal politics), but as a member of whatever group they are most attached to: an evironmentalist, a gay rights advocate, what have you. Not that a feminist isn't also anti-WalMart, just that she thinks some other issue is more important. And this is where you find the only real differences in the party: how we should rank-order issue preferences. Whoopee-dee-doo. When you win the majority of Congress and the President, you can push for ALL of your agenda, no matter what has gotten the most attention in the election. This is how coalitional politics works.
But we liberals don't think of ourselves as part of a broader egalitarian movement, which cripples our ability to communicate a compelling message or to organize properly. Our disorganization is precisely that: organizational. We don't have a strong institutional structure that helps us coordinate and plan. And we and the country have paid the price.
I would like to make an even more controversial point, namely that the Republicans are the truly divided party, not the Democrats. They actually do violently disagree over issues: the Republican party is split between the libertarian and christian wing, and they disagree on a whole range of issues. But what the right has been able to do is paper over these differences, partly by constructing a powerful narrative that combines elements from each group, and partly by building a strong party organization with influential (and long-serving) leaders. And they all think of themselves as part of the conservative movement, working together through the Republican party. Ta-dah.
So we have a case in American politics where the ideologically united party is organizationally weak, and the ideologically divided party is organizationally strong. The latter has been victorious over the last several years, which tells you a lot abot how vital organizational and thematic unity really are.