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Wither the Democratic Party?

Monday, July 26, 2004
There's a really interesting article in the New York Times Magazine by Matt Bai about the increasing activity of big investors in developing a liberal infrastructure outside of the traditional party organization. I think this is a welcome development- the lack of left-wing institutions has crippled liberalism over the last several decades. But I think Bai's point about the risks are very well taken. Do we really want a party dominated by rich corporate philanthropists? Don't we already have one of those? This seems to be a phenomenon that is the precise reverse of the democratization of fundraising and organization we have seen because of the blogs and the Dean campaign. But I am actually quite hopeful- I think the two groups will compliment eachother. And I even think that the danger of the party being captured by ideological extremists is quite minimal. First, because that hasn't seemed to have hurt the Republicans, and second because electoral defeat is a great teacher of pragmatism. You learn by doing.

But what concerns me more is the reaction to this piece by kos. I love Kos, but he's dead wrong here. His message that the Democratic party is inreasing irrelevant betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what a party is, and what liberalism's long term interests are. A lot of people think of the party as just the formal superstructure (DNC, state and county committees, and maybe the elected officials). The reality is that parties are complex networks of social groups and institutions who have brokered a strategic alliance, and are united by an overarching ideology. These new groups like ACT or Podesta's think tank are part and parcel of the party. It doesn't matter if they don't appoint the DNC chairman, because if they win sufficient influence, one day they will. And then they will BE the party establishment.

Like it or not, the Democratic Party is the vehicle for the left in America. It has been since at least Woodrow Wilson. The Federalists and Whigs collapsed when they represented a tiny minority or failed to reflect a major ideological cleavage. And that is clearly not happening now. The problem that the left has with Democrats is 1) perceived incompetence, and 2) timidity. NOT a difference in issue positions.

These are eminently solvable problems, and the shake-up is already well under way. But I have one big concern- that the left's commitment to ideological purity will drive out valuable coalition partners. Like them or not (and I do), the DLC are our allies, as are labor unions, civil rights activists, etcetera. Addition by subtraction doesn't work on sports teams, and it certainly doesn't work in politics. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who will support liberal candidates and back us on issues of vital concern is welcome to join. I don't care if they're black nationalists, corporate executives, or pro-life gun-toting economic populists. The point is to win, and we can't do that when we're telling people not to apply.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:48 PM
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