The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

David Sirota on the Democratic Schism

David Sirota rightly points out that it is no longer clear (I think it hasn't been clear for a very long time) why The New Republic is considered a Democatic-oriented rag. Their stance for smaller government, for aggressive globalization, and for a strongly assertive foreign policy is clearly out of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but it points out another problem with the Democratic Party. This comes out in Sirota's discussion of TNR's review of Matt Taibbi's book Spanking the Donkey. Sirotablog: Lies, Damn Lies, & the New Republic's War on the Left

The magazine tries to substantiate its claim that Taibbi is out of the mainstream by criticizing his anti-war positions, and making fun of him for saying Democrats could win by "renouncing the WTO and NAFTA, creating a universal-health-care system, and slashing the defense budget." The neoconservative magazine – which still laughably claims to represent the left – also is angry that Taibbi "lambastes the Dems for supporting the Patriot Act [and] the No Child Left Behind Act."

Sirota's post is really very good and I urge you to check it out. What it underscores is that one remnant of the Clinton years is the emergence of a populist Democratic wing and (for wont of a better term) an elitist Democratic wing. The elitists are in favor of a strong American role in world affairs that rests on a principled defense of American political values and enlightened self-interest. They favor globalization and free trade. They believe the era of big government is over, which complicates the rhetoric on fixing the health care problem in this country. Most importantly, they are represented now among the educated, the experts of the Party who will go on to fill leadership roles in any administration. Within the Party they populate the DLC, the New Democratic Network, but also are exemplified in the person of folks like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Robert Rubin. In particular, they are also represented among that much loathed section of the "liberal media" in the form of publications like The New York Times, the Washington Post, The LA Times, TNR, and to a lesser extent Newsweek and Time and the networks. This is crucial, for it ends up shaping how the elitist views are presented and how the populist argument gets portrayed. You only have to recall Howard Dean's treatment by the media after he reached front runner status to understand why taking anything other than the elitist position on issues is so dangerous to a Democrat.

The problem though is that the populist wing of the Party is where the passion lies and it's not completely clear which is more in the mainstream. At the moment, as Sirota points out, the populists have the upper hand and seem more in tune with the country. The populist view is represented in the unions, in the environmental movement, in the social progressives lobbying for health care reform and more money for education. It is also represented in the Nader-like reaction on the far left which opposes institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO. The populist views are also the more natural views of traditional Democratic voters who are likley to be suspicious of foreign entanglements, protective of their jobs and dubious of free trade's personal benefits, and in desperate need for some assistance in the labor market, in public education, in environmental protection, and in health care costs and coverage.

The problem for Democrats is not that they could win if only they parroted one line or the other consistently. The problem is that neither argument is likely to be a formula for success if trumpeted alone, but adopting both is a weak political strategy because it undermines one's position and commitment to either. Mention for a moment that free trade is often unfair, and The Times jumps all over you for being protectionist and pandering to special interests. Mention for a moment that America has legitimate interests overseas that may require military intervention and the Nader side calls you a corporate shill. Mention that school unions may interfere with education reform and the unions attack you for engaging in union-busting rhetoric. The list goes on. Health care reform is big government liberalism. Energy independence is pie-in-the-sky environmentalism. Reform and efficiency efforts are anti-labor.

No Democrat can break in one direction or another. And no Democrat since Bill Clinton has found a way to navigate a middle ground. And one should recall that Democrats lost control of Congress under Clinton's watch. I think a Democrat could get tremendous mileage among the people with a Taibbi like line of attack. It would be specific and substantive. But it would draw fire not just from conservative, but from the elites within the Party who shun the old school progressive line. And therein lies the rub.