Democrats: Shake It Up

CAN THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY change from within?  Probably not, because most very active Democrats see no need to.  The party has its entrenched blocs of support, just as the Republican Party does.  The Democratic Party’s need to retain its base, which it counts on to win in national elections, enforces its own tendency to be conservative.  Sadly, the party is unlikely to give up or disregard interests already in its column, even if doing so would bring it a base of support that’s broader, stronger, and more fervent.

It’s an unfortunate situation for several reasons.  1.) The Democratic Party is at risk of losing control of the Senate to an observably weaker party that’s on the verge of disintegrating.  Yet rather than boost its popularity by advancing a constellation of smart new ideas, the Democratic Party is coasting along defensively, its identity defined by its historical positions and the reactive posture it habitually assumes vis-à-vis the Republican Party.  What the Republicans attack, the Democrats defend.

2.) The Democrats’ patchy ideological vision leaves the country vulnerable to a rightward lurch: the staleness that might seem a parochial problem is a problem for the country, too.  The party’s failure to take up feasible positions on matters like fiscal reform or entitlements, for instance, leaves us with a defeated, going-nowhere feeling.  (Did you know that many Democrats, including my own representative Jan Schakowsky, voted against the bill to increase the debt ceiling?  Their numbers equaled the number of Republicans who voted no.)  Democrats’ inability to change with the times is creating an ideological vacuum that other ideas—other candidates—other factions are filling.

3.) In the meantime, large blocs of disaffected or simply bored voters have been left without partisan representation.  Such voters now comprise a plurality of the electorate, as the percentage of Americans affiliated with either party has continued to decline.  If the Democrats wish to remain relevant, they as a group must fashion an ideology that appeals to a greater number of these voters, and that’s compelling enough to induce them to identify with the party.

It’s not enough for a few leading Democrats (e.g., the President) to espouse new ideas.  The Democrats collectively must shift to new ground.  It’s not enough for a few Democrats reach out to young voters, or to green voters, say, because, in themselves, such gestures have no efficacy.  Without the power of a whole party behind them, the proposals of a few men or women mean nothing.

Until the Party modifies its identity, its would-be adherents will know the party is not really about them.  They won’t be able to rely on it as a vehicle of their values and concerns.  This is why enthusiasm for voting and the parties is waning.  This is why so many Americans are dissatisfied with the work their political leaders are doing.  The parties do not faithfully mirror modern Americans and their world; the mirrors they hold up are cloudy with the treacly cliches of decades.  They’re distorted with age.

Democrats must give up their comfortable mantras and embrace efficiency.  They must become champions of small, smart government, because this is the only kind that we can sustain.  There’s no reason why Democrats can’t continue to champion a constructive federalism (that’s only sensible), but they must work to rid government of its bloated, statist qualities.  Democrats must work toward a sort of state that maximizes individual freedom, which paradoxically might include becoming more protective of our economy, our skills & labor, and our resources and environment.

Democrats should identify themselves with the project of restoring civic integrity to the country, whether through increased emphasis on civics education in schools, through clearer paths to citizenship, or through the embrace of a party-wide pledge to renounce things like super-PAC money.  Democrats should acknowledge that entitlements must be reformed and take the lead in proposing changes that are practical and humane.

There are glimmers of hope within the Democratic Party.  I find it hopeful that the president and the Clintons are working together more closely.  Though none are ideologues, each has personified a pragmatic liberalism that could help catalyze a new outlook party-wide.  If aided by an echelon of leading Democrats, their inclinations could form the nucleus of an all-out movement.

Meanwhile, closer to home, a progressive version of Democracy is very much on display, with Illinoisans like Rahm Emanuel, Toni Preckwinkle, and now even Governor Quinn pushing against the party’s traditional constituencies in a quest for more efficient government that reins in spending.

Can the Democrats shake it up and become a new party?  Though it seems up to them, perhaps the answer’s with you.

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15 responses

  1. I think the Democratic Party is always changing…..the GOP recycles the same thing year after year……I am amazed that people fall for their nonsense……

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    • Joe–
      The GOP does have an amazing ability to stay on message; it’s what makes them so formidable, even when they are in a minority position, as they are now.

      What’s startling is how weak both the major parties are. About 30 percent of the electorate identifies itself as Democratic; the Republicans, the same. That leaves 40 percent in the middle. If Democrats want to strengthen their party’s hold on power, they need to ask themselves how to appeal to these unaligned voters, many of whom occupy the center rather than some extreme.

      Thanks for your readership, and for taking the time to comment. I look forward to hearing from you again.
      Susan

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    • Hi Susan…..The GOP does have an amazing ability to stay disciplined. They are basically a party that sees the demographics of this country changing and not in their favor. I am sure this explains the Armageddon talk about the next election. They appeal to old white guys (I am one but they do not appeal to me at all): “flag wavers” and an assortment of “Social Conservatives” who like to talk about irrelevancies that mean little of nothing to most people…….

      Sure, most people are in the middle of the political spectrum, and in many ways the major parties differ very little…They are both owned by money…….I also believe that Obama understands where the votes are and he will get them……There are extremes in both camps, but the norm in the GOP is not what it was years ago…….Reagan would have a hard time identifying with this bunch IMO…….

      I have been looking for a site to discuss politics with sane people and hope this is it…….Joe

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    • Joe–I agree with you that the GOP is on the wrong side of demographic change and that it adds up to a crisis for the party. It’s interesting that this did not temper the media hype surrounding the candidacy of people like Rick Perry. A dominionist who believes Christians are meant to rule the world, he did not stand a chance of getting the votes of non-believers, Muslims, or Jews, and he had likewise made himself unacceptable to blacks, gays, and the elderly! It was almost funny. Yet rather than offer this analysis and write him off, the media continued to give him tons of coverage. This exaggerated his importance far in excess of his desserts. Well, this is just one example. As for commenting regularly on the site, feel free. This is what it’s all about–we’ve got to do something. . . . SB

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    • Yes, we have to do something. I see a lot of young people complaining about the future, jobs, debts, etc. Well, I tell them, who is likely to deal with your problems (besides yourself)? Life is about choices, and the future should belong to the Progressives in the country. The Democrats should own the youth, Hispanic, Black, Jewish, Seniors, etc. Yet the GOP stays competitive. Their tactics are fear and division. They exploit the ignorant and the worst in human nature. In a period of diminished expectations, fear can be a powerful tool. The task of the next generation and beyond is to gracefully manage decline. We should take a lesson from Great Britain in this regard. Thanks for your comments and I look forward to more. Joe

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  2. Interesting and insightful article. I agree that the Democrats do need new ideas. If, however, even a relatively few DEMS do start to trumpet something catchable–as the Tea Party did–their ideas could take hold more broadly.

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    • I think the Democratic Party has already changed simply by taking a more centrist position……The current GOP is dominated by far-right ideology……The influence of the Tea Party is waning because, when the ideas they have are put into specifics, people do not support them……

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    • Allowing the Tea Party into the Republican fold was a major mistake that’s caused a terrible problem for the party. The Tea Partiers elected to the House are not compromisers, they are beholden to no one, and they have rebelled against party discipline, all of which has been a major humiliation for John Boehner. Now they are challenging established Republicans like Dick Lugar and seeking to topple them. This is a nightmare for the GOP because they cannot control the extreme factions within their own party. SB

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    • Yes the TP is calling the shots to a great extent. They have made Boehner look weak as he cannot change them. I do believe they have run their course and will see reversals in the 2012 elections….Scott Walker is a case in point. There is a real chance he will be removed…Most Americans are not ideological purists. They are pragmatic and results-oriented. . . An odd thing about primaries is they do not reflect the electorate per se. . . They [primary voters] are the most committed to ideology. Rick Scott of FL is also faring poorly according to polls. . . The GOP has a death wish and I hope they get it. . . The only way forward is through compromise.

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    • Yes, the tea party has been somewhat of a thorn in the side of the mainstream GOP party~~~but, at the same time, they have stolen votes from the DEMs. A lot of new GOP congressman were elected in 2010–Tea Party candidates–so, there is something that resonates with the voters. Most households in the U.S. are run on tight fiscal budgets–try not to have too much debt–or have too much debt. These folks can identify with a govt that is running amok with debt–“vote out the old debt-believing DEMS and put in tough-talking fiscally responsible representatives–GOP tea partiers.”

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    • Hi Sam…..Many of the TP followers do not have any idea that 60-70% of the federal budget is mandated. Many of these people are older, whiter, and more affluent than the average American…..sure, balancing the budget sounds great but it will not happen any time soon. The lobbyists and entrenched special interests have created a situation where the way out is seemingly impossible. Instead of solutions and compromise they divide and confuse. Older folks will not support cuts in Social Security, Medicare, etc…….The military consumes a huge amount of money….do we really need 750 bases all over the world? I doubt it. Do we need to build a nation in Afghanistan which has never been a nation in the first place? The president is winding these foolish adventures down and we can hopefully rebuild this nation and its shrinking middle class…Joe

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    • Sam–Good point. I agree that there’s a lesson for the Democrats in the Tea Party’s strength. The Tea Party did draw off Democratic votes; we can see that in some of Chicago’s suburban districts (in, for example, the district that elected Joe Walsh.) The Tea Party could have drawn many many more Democrats away from the fold, had the Tea Party stayed independent–and not been swamped by social conservatives.

      I am already on record as urging all Democrats to get behind Simpson-Bowles. (Readers can use the new “index” link above to find the article.) Americans want their governments to be fiscally responsible and to mirror the citizens’ own exigencies. Again, I think Illinois Democrats are showing that you can get on the bandwagon of fiscal responsibility while still caring about how shrinking the budget will affect people.

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    • Sam–I agree. I think the key is idea “linkage”–showing how the Democratic view of government, women’s rights, the environment, etc, etc, add up to a different, saner, and safer vision for everyone in the country.

      Thanks for your comment–
      SB

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