Sunday, November 07, 2004

Heads We Win, Tails You Lose

I will try to simultaneously abstract and respond to the rather interesting essay "The Road To Victory Goes Through the End of the Democratic Coalition" by Timothy Burke (pdf here). Mr. Burke is looking for a way forward for the Democratic party. Along the way, he engages in some brutally honest self-assesment, and at the same time gives us some unbelievably arrogant and high-handed dismissals of the opposition. I will note the latter primarily because they highlight the reason why Democrats will not reform easily; but aside from that I would imagine they are simply due to after-election reaction and atypical of Mr. Burke.

To give a spoiler, the conclusion is that the Democrats will have to either become a federalist party, forfeiting the attempt to use the long arm of the central government to advance their agendas nationally, and instead seeks to allow each state and principality to govern itself as it sees fit; or else they will become a soft-libertarian party, abandoning most of the agendas of the left and embracing individual rights.

From the point of view of this libertarian: heads we win, tails you lose.

We lost, and more importantly, we lost under conditions that are about as favorable as you could ask for. We really lost: it's got nothing to do with rain or electronic voting machines or Ralph Nader or Fox News. John Kerry ran the best campaign he could, and he was a reasonable enough standard-bearer for the Democratic Party as it stood before November 2, 2004. It's a matter of cold, hard numbers. The old Democratic coalition got all of its people to the polls, it got all of its people mobilized, it got angry and motivated and had a razor-sharp focus on a single goal, and it lost.


The Democratic Party as we have known it since the New Deal is finally dead. I come to bury it, and from its ashes, reinvent a coalition that can drive a wedge right into the heart of the Republican Party and take back national power from the hardcore constituencies behind George W. Bush.

"Drive a stake into the heart of the (undead) Republican Party"... my, those are fighting words.

Not all constituencies behind Mr Bush are hardcore, nor are they particularly unified as wielders of "national pwoer". In fact it is the soft and quite diverse moderate middle which proved decisive in this election.

Much as I would like to think so, it's also not enough to wait for four more years of failure, dishonor and malfeasance and think that this will make enough people come around to our point of view. Because the case was made very clearly this time that Bush and his colleagues were incompetent.

Some of us disagree. Even if that were true, incompetently right beats competently wrong, every time.

More than anything else, this has fueled the despair among those of us who oppose him. Can't they see? Don't they know? Are they stupid? Are they blind?

Arrogance: exhibit A. If anyone disagrees, they must be stupid or ignorant.

I've asked the same questions, voiced the same cries. What I've had to face in the last three days is this: a desire for competency and respect for political process is a cultural value, as surely as abortion is. My intense belief in the importance of those things is just that, a belief. More to the point, it is a self-serving belief, a belief that advances the interests of my own social class. I believe in the importance of competency, knowledge, "best practices" of decision-making because I've been trained to be part of an elite that holds those things to be of importance, and aspires to them as a matter of course.

Arrogance: exhibit B. I'm part of an elite which has a monopoly on competence.

On the morning of November 3rd, many of us awoke and asked, "Why do they hate us so?" Because really, they do. It's no use talking of unity and sweetness and how we're all Americans and so on, not yet, not now. If this marriage is to be saved, we're going to have to get real. Using "moral values" first as their shield and now as their sword, the heart of the red-states is on the march. Any casual contempt a blue-stater might feel for a rural Alabaman is returned, much of the time, a hundred-fold.

Arrogance: exhibit C. A blue-stater feels casual contempt for a rural Alabaman.

I would imagine a rural Alabaman would feel not contempt but mainly puzzlement in response.

Regarding "moral values" as a "sword"... the Democrats have relentlessly pushed their agenda in many areas through judicial activism and legislative skulduggery, and the "sword" consists merely of passing legislation that explicitly re-asserts the status quo.

They hate us because we are in economic and social and cultural terms the winners, the owners of the future. Because they are the losers.

Arrogance: exhibit D. We are the winners and they are the losers.

Whomever is left in the red states is left because they have no skills which are transportable, because they have no capital to pay for the costs of relocation, because they have no social networks to act as their safety net in the blue-state world, because they have family or friends who are not leaving and that they cannot bear to leave, because some dominant person in their life terrorizes them and bullies them into staying. Because they like it where they live and figure nowhere else could be better, even if there aren't any jobs besides minimum-wage service jobs where they are. Because, like my paternal grandfather, they don't particularly have any ambitions beyond getting along ok. Because they don't know the people who live in cities and suburbs, or what they think they know of them, they don't like.

Arrogance: exhibit E. Red-staters are unskilled, low-wage, unambitious people with no prospects. Oh, and they've never been to a city.

Now the facts are just a little bit different. The population of red regions is actually growing much faster than of blue (see the CommonWealth 10-region model) as a result of both migration and brith rates. As a result, Bush got more electoral votes from reapportionment since the last election. Economically, Bush voters are a majority in every income bracket over $50,000, while Kerry voters are a majority only in the under-$30,000 income brackets. Educationally, Bush voters are a majority in every category except (a) no high school diploma or (b) postgraduate - the only two categories in which Kerry voters are a majority. (source: CNN exit polls).

Much of this echoes the argument made by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter With Kansas?, but I depart sharply from Frank in his view that the red-staters are the duped zombie armies of a plutocratic business elite, that they have come to support policies and governance which have accelerated their decline and suffering.

Any book that suggests half of America is inhabited by "duped zombie armies" is hardly worth serious consideration. However, Josh Chafetz has nicely demolished that so-called book.

This is where we arrive at the necessary end of the old Democratic coalition, which I would summarize as unions, racial minorities and educated cosmopolitan elites. In different elections and moments, there have been other significant constituencies added to this core, but these are the essential three legs on which Democratic victories and political power have rested.

Remarkably concise and enlightening summary.

The problem is that the Republicans stitch together a larger number of potentially antagonistic constituencies and more crucially, they do it across a larger range of geographic space.

Indeed. And why might that be?

In its current form, the Democratic coalition can capture no new major constituencies. That's what 2004 proved. The youth are not coming: they didn't vote much, and split evenly when they did. The white suburbanites are not coming: they stuck to the Republicans, seeing little in common with at least two of the three legs of the Democratic coalition (unions and minorities). The women are not coming. No one is coming.

Cry me a river. Again, why?

The opposition to Bush will need to command the dedicated, structurally solid loyalty of at least one, possibly more, major American constituencies that it does not presently command in order to meaningfully oppose the forces that put Bush back into office in 2004. The opposition can only get to that point by throwing overboard at least one of the major historic components of its former coalition. More importantly, it will require the complete abandonment of many of the treasured causes and ideals that have characterized Democratic politics over the past two decades.

I'm intrigued...

Russell Arben Fox has explored one with great subtlety and imagination. Essentially it amounts to choosing the traditions of communitarianism and "moral values" within the history of the American left and making them the glue that cements together an opposition to Bush.

Not sure I understand.

The political alliance that this road envisions brings together those in the old Democratic coalition who hold the trope of community close to their hearts and identities--the African-American church tradition, the old communalist-socialist left, some parts of the union movement, much of what lies behind "identity politics"--with some of the abiding interests and constituencies in the red-state social world. ... Such an alliance would almost inevitably be implicitly anti-capitalist, protectionist, anti- globalization, on both the right and the left.

Hmm... are we talking about class-war and race-war? I am uncertain in how to parse this.

Here I am dead serious: such a devolution is a necessary precondition of a successful alliance against the politics of resentment, against the slide towards a proto- fascist mobilization.

Proto-fascist? Not even crypto-fascist? Memo to VRWC: mobilize faster.

Those on the left joining such an alliance would have to know that its price is conceding to all localities profound powers of self-governance. The old Democratic coalition in this configuration must surrender gun control. It must surrender abortion rights. It must surrender affirmative action. It must surrender rigid enforcement of church-state separation. Not surrender those things in its own communities: that would be the terms of the bargain. To each his own, to every state and town, its own values.

It's called federalism and we've had it for a while. Generally, it is a good idea.

It is not my road. I am with the part of the old coalition that would be tossed overboard. My narrative is not the New Jerusalem. It is "don't tread on me". It is America as the experiment in the universal promise of freedom, as unified by its constitutional guarantees.

I applaud the sentiment, but... Democrats as the libertarian party? To turn an essentially statist party into a limited-government party appears an impossible task.

The other road gives up on the red-staters, or at least on the people trapped in old, dying rural communities.

I don't see how. The red-staters appear quite content to live in their "old, dying" rural communities as long as nobody "treads on them".

Instead, it turns to the business elite and to suburbanites and says, "You guys are playing with fire, and you're going to get burned if you keep it up. Leave while you still can."

There are more than a few people who are uneasy with Bush. However, uneasy with Bush and comletely at odds with the left-wing agenda still translates into a vote for Bush. Remember, the other choice is an openly big-government party, and so there is essentially no choice.

It is a soft libertarian road, characterized by an intense commitment to the universal enforcement of constitutional rights, by an uncompromising protection of free speech, free assembly, to the restraint of the power and capacity of the federal government, any government, to intrude on the rights of its citizens. But this road also has to abandon the strong version of the welfare state, to throw overboard strong regimes of governmental regulation of business, to subject government intervention in economic and social issues to very strong needs-tests and very intensive assessment of effectiveness.

It is mindbending to contemplate that the above paragraph could apply to any offspring of the present-day Democrats, who stand for the exact opposite.

The rhetoric of this road would have to strongly favor meritocratic visions and conceptions of social mobility and economic policy.

Social mobility and economic policy are hardly pillars of libertarian thought.

Essentially this embraces the common interests of suburbanites, business elites and cosmopolitan liberals, and I strongly suspect, many of the so-called "Reagan babies" and "South Park Republicans", who vote Republican when they do much more for these logics than because of red-state "moral values" rhetoric.

In the inconceivable event that a party came about with the agenda you describe, then yes, it will probably split off a large group from the present Republican coalition.

What I am certain of is that to a greater or lesser degree, this is what the opposition to the current coalition behind George W. Bush is going to have to look like. It will have to walk one of these two pathways in some fashion. There are no more voters, no more money, no more commitments, no clever tactics, no charismatic leaders, no better media, no nothing that is going to make the Democratic Party as it presently stands capable of stopping the cumulating economic, political and social disaster of the politics of resentment that drove Bush's victory in 2004. Communalism or soft libertarianism or some exotic combination thereof: you take your pick. Just don't stand still and wait for things to shake out differently the next time.

IF, if, if...

If either of these two paths were to materialize, the Neo-Democrats (or whatever they call themselves) will provide a valuable and much needed counterweight. I agree that these are the available paths forward, and I am partial to the same one that Mr. Burke prefers.

However, the likelyhood of this actually happening? Nil. There is almost no prominent figure in the present party leadership who can stay on. It is likely that the Democrats will have to suffer a few more crushing defeats before the message sinks in. I consider it a lot more likely that something like the soft-libertarian party might emerge from the present Republican party, and gather up the moderate Democrats who have been alienated by their increasingly far-left leadership. In any case, it is clear what the tension lines are, and it is equally clear that a serious imbalance in politics - one perhaps we are seeing the emergence of today - naturally leads to a dramatic realignment.