More than just progressive talking


I found much to agree with in the columns that J.R. Parker and David Min wrote in the November 8th issue — liberals have certainly lost their way, in part because they are not “communicating a coherent and engaging message,” and no one can seriously deny that the two-party system is a “scary joke.” However, I think the liberal disease runs deeper than Min suggests.

The first and most fundamental problem is not that liberals can no longer articulate their core philosophy, but that their “leaders” have betrayed it. The Clinton administration’s accomplishments included: “welfare reform,” NAFTA, a dramatic increase in incarceration, increases in defense spending, the Defense of Marriage Act, dramatic decreases in EPA-enforcement action, the watering down of the Kyoto treaty, no increase in automobile fuel efficiency, increased restrictions on habeas corpus and immigrant rights, escalation of the Drug War, sanctions that have killed 500,000 Iraqi civilians, decreased FDA enforcement, bold innovations in bending campaign finance laws, gratuitous favors for the wealthy, a dramatic increase in number of Americans without health insurance, an exponential increase in wealth maldistribution, unprecedented corporate consolidation, child-poverty rates that are the shame of the industrialized world and a parade of other rollbacks of the liberal agenda. All of this in exchange for the Family & Medical Leave Act, some midnight regulations, and a few other token measures and platitudes.

Some honest self-scrutiny would go a long way toward revitalizing progressivism. In refusing to acknowledge the Democratic Party’s failures and to condemn leaders who depart fundamentally from the left’s core principles, progressives have lost credibility. For example, the support that prominent feminists gave President Clinton through the Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Juanita Broadrick affairs demonstrated a distressing willingness to place politics over principle.

Disenfranchisement of the poor, the shifting of wealth from the less- to the more-fortunate and short-sightedness are certainly hallmarks of Republican politics, but the Democratic Party is only slightly less guilty. “Corporate welfarists” play an important role in both parties. As the Democrats have relied less on mobilizing their constituents and more on corporate cash, they have eroded their volunteer base, and voters are increasingly staying home, rather than wasting time deciding which business-friendly centrist will betray them for the next four years.

If the Democratic Party can purify itself of the hypocrisy in which it currently engages to please large donors, it can credibly attack both the hypocrisy in Republican politics, and the falsity of its underlying assumptions. Republicans have no problem with “big government;” they just favor different forms of government interference with private lives than do Democrats. No party that advocates governmental scrutiny of private sexual behavior, as well as decreased protections against searches, seizures and arrest, can seriously claim to be “libertarian.” Judicial conservatism may embrace “restraint,” but the Rehnquist court is probably the most activist court in history. The champions of “free enterprise” and “personal responsibility” are also the primary advocates of corporate welfare, “tort reform” and weakening of laws against corporate crime.

More fundamentally, progressives should question the principles the Republicans claim to embrace. For at least a decade, Democrats have accepted Republican axioms about the proper role of government: “privatization of public services is good for America;” “increasing criminal penalties decreases crime;” “national security is better served by defense spending than by reducing the sources of strife in the world.” They should recall the Reagan years. In the 1980s, the Reaganites had won pretty much every battle on their economic policy, and they were ready to all but destroy social security. A Clinton or Gore might have suggested a slightly watered-down version of the Reagan plan, but Tip O’Neill went on all the talk shows and drew a line in the sand. He made the inhumanity of Reagan’s plan clear by giving an honest, heartfelt statement about his own values, and connecting them with the basic fairness and goodness that most Americans share. Whatever their political philosophy, few people would endorse a plan that would return us to days when over 30 percent of the nation’s elderly lived in poverty. There were doubtless many in his audience (perhaps even a “silent majority”) who found his vision one of government paternalism, but in openly laying out his values, O’Neill was able to shift political dialogue from a sloganeering battle toward a referendum on what values the nation’s people shared.

To articulate principles, the Democratic Party must have principles, and act on them. While compromise is obviously part of politics, the Democrats can only generate the volunteers and votes necessary for continued success if they stake out their own moral high ground, invoke it with every legislative advance, however small, and resist the temptation to scuttle it for short-term political gain.

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