Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Common Good

An issue that has received a lot of attention lately is the fact that, although the public is sick and tired of the GOP, the Dems do not seem to offer much of an alternative simply because people have a hard time figuring out what exactly what they stand for. This is a shame, because it is due in large part to the Dems themselves. Not only does it prevent them from presenting a principled approach to a whole variety of issues (hence what you read in the press is about Dem strategy and tactics, not values and commitments) but it also allows the GOP an easier time in defining their opponents.

The historical roots of this problem stem in part from the Watergate upheaval, which introduced a renewed Democratic majority at a time when civil rights was tearing down the old New Deal coalition, but a majority based basically on not being the GOP in 1974 and then hanging on like grim death to the advantages of incumbency. The fecklessness of this approach has been exacerbated by the disfunctions of the Dem party where too many of the same failed tacticians have been calling the shots for campaigns for far too long.

Also, many of the Dems supporters have organized themselves into single interest advocacy groups that fail to take into account the larger picture. For example, feminists may oppose Casey (Dem pro-life for Senate in PA) despite the fact that, as a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate Casey will de facto be supporting a much more 'feminist' agenda regardless of his personal views, simply becuase he will vote for a Dem as a majority leader and will likely vote against regressive judicial appointments - as has Reid (Senate Minority Leader and also pro-life) - on the basis of an evaluation covering a whole host of progressive issues. The Dem interest groups are still acting as if the Dems had the majority, in which case lobbying for a narrow set of goals may make a limited amount of sense - but the Dems do not and the behavior of such groups will help perpetuate that situation by protraying the Dems as kowtowing to particular interests even if their pliciy stances are derived from attempting to uphold the common good for our entire society.

As a result of these factors, Dems appear to many less political people as always trying to play an angle, to play 'politics' with issues that for many people are more than just political footballs. The one consistent charge the GOP tries to make every election cycle (well, well apart innuendo about sexual shenanigans) is that Dems don't stand for anything, they lack 'backbone,' they blow with the preailing winds and 'flip-flop.'

The GOP has realized that people will respect you even if they don't agree with you if those disagreements are a matter of conscientious beliefs. The Dems need to rediscover their backbone and stand distinctly for a set of beliefs and only then address particular political issues. Issues are no substitute for core beliefs. It doesn't matter how many issues you agree with your constituents on if they cannot link those positions up to a much greater, overarching perspective that informs them and gives the voter confidence in the candidate's ability to prioritize and make judgments without bending to special interests.

What makes this even more frustrating is that the Dems do have overarching commitments, but they fail to discuss politics in these terms. The notion of the party of the 'common man' and the 'common good' has been discarded for a long time as old fashioned 'class warfare' and potentially offputting to donors, but it is in reality the Dems best argument for the stances they tend to take and the actions they favor.

Hurricane Katrina should be tattooed on every voters' conscience when it comes time to vote this November, because it encapsulates the differences between Dems and the GOP perfectly. When people are in trouble they do not look to abstractions like 'the market,' they look to government. The GOP loves to spout ideology about big versus small government, but in reality the public only cares if the government is efficient and is fair.

Obscure ideological debates over the size of government simply distract us from the more central question: is the government doing what it should be to aid the public good or not? It is not an ideological question, it is a simple pragmatic question of practicality. If my neighbors house is burning down, do I ask him if he invested wisely in the fire prevention devices? Do I turn my back and tell him to quit 'whining' for help? Or do I get together with him and other neighbors and put the fire out?

The same is true of the government: whether to use the resources of our government - the govenment that our tax dollars pay for - should not be subject to the GOP ideological mumbo-jumbo over the who the government can help (corporations) and who it can't (individuals). If we need it to serve the public interest, then it should do so. The alternative is Katrina - with the government standing by helplessly because of the ideological blinkers of our 'leaders' - the most power nation on earth unwilling to help its own people in distress. It is the equivalent of the fire department watching a house burn down simply because 'they did not have proper paperwork to fight the fire.'

Dems need to emphasize who what they advocate is in order to better serve the common good of a diverse and dynamic society. There are no answers in advance, as the GOP and its ideology would have you believe. The best answer is the answer that works to advance the common good. That is why the middle class and those who want to be middle class should embrace the Dems - not because of a laundry list of particular issues - but rather because the Dems work to ensure that everyone get a fair shake and that the government works for the people, not the people working for the government so that it can shower rewards on the few.

Katrina is the GOP vision, a country fettered by ideology. The country that won WWII and rebuilt Europe through pragmatic decisionmaking - that is the Dem vision.