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How Liberal Should Democrats Be?

Monday, August 08, 2005
I took a little mini-vacation over the weekend because it was my birthday. Not a vacation out of NYC, because I couldn't afford to go anywhere, but just from politics. No TV, no internet, and definitely no blogging. Doctor's orders.

So I come back and what do I find? A fascinating little discussion over ideology and partisanship. The debate developed over two different posts. The first was Michael Lind's argument (via Kos) that as America is culturally conservative and economically liberal, Democrats should moderate their social liberalism and advance economically-oriented populism. Digby and Atrios have pointed out that America is more socially liberal than you might think - just look at stem cell research and abortion. Chris Bowers notes that income is now a better predictor of voting than it was during the New Deal - in other words we never could win elections based on economic populism. Economic populism just ain't enough. (Although the study Chris cites does indicate that while the extremes have become less polarized by income, the middle incomes have become less polarized. Republicans are now at parity with Democrats among middle income voters.)

The second debate is over whether we should imitate Norquist and Rove and build a "movement liberalism." Matt Yglesias thinks this is a bad idea because there are simply more conservatives than liberals, and the right is easier to organize anyway. Paul Waldman responds, noting the difference between ideology and partisanship - a lot of self-proclaimed moderates are really Democrats. He also notes that Republicans have NOT been winning based on issues, where they are still in the minority. Sirota, on the other hand, thinks that Yglesias is silly to suggest that we shouldn't imitate a successful political strategy.

Okay. What are we to make of all this? Well, first of all we shouldn't abandon social liberalism. That's just giving in to the most cynical kind of political calculation. Democrats fight these battles because they are right, not because we're trying to harvest votes. That's what the other side does. If we have to take a hit for championing the rights of minorities, or the poor, or women, then so be it.

But Lind is making an important point. Cultural liberalism has cost us a ton of middle & working class votes. While abortion rights, stem cell research, etc. might be a majority opinion, it's a majority formed by an alliance with the affluent. It's not exactly a recipe for long-term political success.

So what do we do? First, we need to recognize that cultural liberalism really isn't all that liberal. The Democratic position is one of cultural moderation, and I would suggest that the majority of middle class voters are in no more a hurry to be oppressed by the government on privacy issues than they are in any other way. Let's just look at the record, shall we? Democratic candidates have come out in favor of civil unions, not gay marriage. Of abortion rights, but not federal subsidies for abortion. While I personally may not agree with these positions, it is certainly the case that the position of Democratic candidates for President can only be described as mainstream.

Second, we must recognize that the Republicans have not abandoned their economic conservatism, however unpopular it is. So why should we abandon cultural liberalism? The issue isn't one of abandoning our positions on these issues, it's more a matter of emphasis. We should be talking about the problems of middle class economic anxiety because it is our primary concern (and will help us win enough power to do cultural liberalism too). That doesn't mean we have to sell out, only that we need to focus the argument on subjects where we are strongest.

Finally, I would say that abandoning any kind of organized "movement liberalism" would be a serious mistake. The conservatives have been using their political institutions and megaphone to engage in a massive project of public persuasion. Thirty years ago they had the same positions, but they couldn't get a hearing because the right's ideas were perceived as terribly radical. Now privatizing social security and the like has gone mainstream. Why? Because for the last generation or so they have molded public opinion. They weren't in the majority, but they managed to move a large group of voters in their direction through a prolonged period of public education (really propaganda, but you get the point).

So my advice would be to develop liberal political institutions as a way to shift the public debate back in our direction, remind people of how moderate our positions on culture issues really are (in part by defining the right as a bunch of loonies on the issue), and to keep our focus on the economic concerns of middle class America.

This is a very simple strategy, and one I thought was pretty well settled during the 2004 campaign. Just because it didn't work in that one case doesn't mean it should be abandoned. The Wright Brothers didn't exactly get off the ground their first try either.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:35 AM
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