Saturday, June 10, 2006

the common good platform

tom tomorrow on coultercontrary to my previous indication, there will be no post on "rightwing apologetic, part two" focusing on the defenses of the indefensible statements by the author of such books as slader, treason and godless since she is not even deserving of my even mentioning her name. interested readers should consult the dossier prepared by the fine folks at

i'd rather spend my own energies on more positive, productive endeavors -- particularly with respect to the "common good" platform that's recently come to my attention.

don't waste your time with michael grunwald's wapo op-ed piece from this morning. with a headline claiming it to be "A Step-by-Step Guide for Democrats" on "How to Reconnect With Voters and Realize Your Dreams of Victory," the piece boils down to the non-answer or non-advice of "do nothing," or: "don't listen to the pundits." (curious advice coming from a pundit. well i'll take it and won't bother with any of grunwald's subsequent columns.)

better yet, go straight to the american prospect and the series of articles being promoted under the banner of "the common good." start with michael tomasky's essay "Party in Search of a Notion," which ran in the may issue.

on some level tomasky's simply acknowledging the thesis, hardly original, that rights-based identity politics of the late 1960s and 1970s combined with the left's perceived or actual alienation of its traditional working-class constituencies have in large part contributed to if not altogether created the ongoing political and electoral failures of the american left. what's useful, and unique as far as i've seen, is how tomasky posits an actual value behind which a liberal progressive political agenda can be mobilized. it's specific enough to be easily intuited and yet broad enough to win popular appeal: the common good.

here's how tomasky sets it up historically.
The stance of radical oppositionism dissipated as the ’60s flamed out; but the belief system, which devalued the idea of the commons, held fast and became institutionalized within the Democratic Party. The impact on the party was that the liberal impulse that privileged social justice and expansion of rights was now, for the first time, separated entirely from the civic-republican impulse of the common good. By the 1970s, some social programs -- busing being the most obvious example -- were pursued not because they would be good for every American, but because they would expand the rights of some Americans. The old Johnsonian formulation was gone. Liberalism, and the Democratic Party, lost the language of advancing the notion that a citizen’s own interest, even if that citizen did not directly benefit from such-and-such a program, was bound up in the common interest. Democrats were now asking many people to sacrifice for a greater good of which they were not always a part.[...]

By 1980, Reagan had seized the idea of the common good. To be sure, it was a harshly conservative variant that quite actively depended on white middle-class resentment. But to its intended audience, his narrative was powerful, a clean punch landed squarely on the Democratic glass jaw. The liberals had come to ask too much of regular people: You, he said to the middle-class (and probably white) American, have to work hard and pay high taxes while welfare cheats lie around the house all day, getting the checks liberal politicians make sure they get; you follow the rules while the criminals go on their sprees and then get sprung by shifty liberal lawyers. For a lot of (white) people, it was powerful. And, let’s face it, manipulative as it was, it wasn’t entirely untrue, either!

here's the prescription:
The Democrats need to become the party of the common good. They need a simple organizing principle that is distinct from Republicans and that isn’t a reaction to the Republicans. They need to remember what made liberalism so successful from 1933 to 1966, that reciprocal arrangement of trust between state and nation. And they need to take the best parts of the rights tradition of liberalism and the best parts of the more recent responsibilities tradition and fuse them into a new philosophy that is both civic-republican and liberal -- that goes back to the kind of rhetoric Johnson used in 1964 and 1965, that attempts to enlist citizens in large projects to which everyone contributes and from which everyone benefits.

Arguing for it is the only way that Democrats can come to stand for something clear and authoritative again. It’s not enough in our age, after the modern conservative ascendancy, to stand for activist government, or necessary taxes and regulation, or gay marriage, or abortion rights, or evolution, or the primacy of science, or universal health care, or affirmative action, or paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants, or college education for all, or environmental protection, or more foreign aid, or a comprehensive plan to foster democracy in the Arab world, or any of the other particular and necessary things that Democrats do or should support; it isn’t enough to stand for any of those things per se. Some of them have been discredited to the broad public, while others are highly contentious and leave the Democrats open to the same old charges. And those that aren’t contentious or discredited suffer the far worse problem of being uninteresting: They’re just policies, and voters don’t, and should not be expected to, respond to policies. Voters respond to ideas, and Democrats can stand for an idea: the idea that we’re all in this -- post-industrial America, the globalized world, and especially the post–9-11 world in which free peoples have to unite to fight new threats -- together, and that we have to pull together, make some sacrifices, and, just sometimes, look beyond our own interests to solve our problems and create the future.

it's an appealing platform to me for all kinds of reasons. first of all, it acknowledges where the left went wrong and attempts to correct it. second, it's based on ideas, values and principles rather than polls. a number of liberals have been working on the values issue, including jim wallis and michael lerner. i've looked at the work of shellenberger and norhaus' before and was concerned that it was simply a slick poll-driven business model. i've had another look at the overview (PDF 183K) of their "strategic values project" (you can get a briefer sense of how it works here) and it does seem, like tamasky's essay, and attempt to (re)establish core liberal values, find a way to frame values and only *then* derive policy.

third, it's a set of values that practices what it preaches: constituencies skeptical of "liberalism" will see that liberal interest groups can set aside their immediate self-interests to advance the greater common good. it's a general principle from which all kinds of specific policy goals can stem: ending petropolitics as we know it, campaign finance reform, healthcare, etc.

The Emerging Democratic Majorityalso at the american prospect is a four-part essay by john halpin and ruy teixeira one "The Politics of Definition," touted as "a path-breaking and challenging new study on how progressives and Democrats can close the 'identity gap.'" i was not too taken with teixeira's co-authored The Emerging Democratic Majority, finding it a little too comfortable with its own demographic prophecies, but we'll look at what he and halpin have to offer and report back.

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