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The Stupid Party

How the Democrats earned the epithet previously reserved for Republicans.

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Thoughtful Democrats have reacted to their situation in two different ways in the last decade. Some have resisted siren pleas to embrace any big new theory and instead have returned to what inspired the liberal project when the liberals were on top. As Paul Starr has maintained, "American liberals do not have to invent something new or import a philosophical tradition from abroad. They have only to reclaim the idea of America's greatness as their own." Democrats, according to this view, should reaffirm the basic values of their past, but with more confidence and a greater willingness to stand up to the cultural left. Some in this camp reject not only the need for a new theory, but also the need for any theoretical foundation or first principle at all. Overconcern with abstractions, they argue, leads to rigid, doctrinaire approaches of the kind the Republicans are accused of embracing. Liberalism, to use the philosophical term, should adopt a position of "non-foundationalism." By the same token, in international affairs, liberals should take the world as they find it, not look at it through any ideological lens. Thus, these liberals--even with their commitment to a long list of values, from humanitarianism to equality to global justice--often fancy themselves the great "realists" in American politics today, dismissing the project of liberal democratic expansion and attaching themselves to "order" of almost any kind.

In a variation on this same approach, some liberals have argued that liberalism could stage its comeback with better packaging--or, as social scientists like to say, better "framing"--of what they stand for. This has been the premise of the new California School of political thought, headed by the linguist-sophist George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley. Lakoff's simple message to liberals before 2006 was that they had been thoroughly defeated by conservatives in the task of framing. Conservatives over the years, Lakoff argued, had made "a heavy investment in ideas and in language. . . . They've put billions of dollars into it." Liberals, by contrast, just "don't get it. They don't understand what it is they have to be doing."

Lakoff's solution was to gather the cream of Berkeley's liberal--er, better frame that "progressive"--intelligentsia into an "institute," the Rockridge Institute, that would begin to receive "investments" of their very own. In the great tradition of the sophists, what this genial Gorgias offered progressives was victory and power: If you frame it, they will come. Part of the originality of the California School is that it reverses the usual direction of the flow of ideas on the left between Hollywood and academia, introducing the wisdom of the entertainment industry into the theories of social science. The new role of social science marked a considerable comedown from the vaunting aspirations that the progressives once claimed for it, but Lakoff's point is that you have to acquire power before you can use it. Not surprisingly, the California School has enjoyed much appeal on its home turf. The speaker of the House is on record as an enthusiast (which places her light years ahead of her Senate counterpart, a personage in drastic need of reframing).

The second way thoughtful Democrats have responded to their predicament is by asserting that liberalism needs a new "public philosophy." This position has been forcefully argued by some party intellectuals, most recently Michael Tomasky in a lead article in the American Prospect. "What the Democrats still don't have," Tomasky wrote, "is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society." Even more disturbing to Tomasky, however, is that the party has lost the capacity to engage in this kind of thinking; its spirit is now anti-intellectual. "The party and the constellation of interests around it," he writes, "don't even think in philosophical terms and haven't for quite some time." Tomasky is one of the brave hearts not only to propose the idea of finding a "big idea," but also to offer a version of a new public philosophy, in a plea, reminiscent of Michael Sandel's, for "civic republicanism." As he might have foreseen, his attempt to rekindle a debate has generated a smattering of commentary, but mostly indifference.

The greatest flurry of interest in "big ideas" in the party, it has to be said, occurred after the Democrats' defeat in 2004, when some of its leaders came to the conclusion that they were losing to conservatives because, unlike their foes, they had no ideas. Some ideas, it was reasoned, beats no ideas. Democrats accordingly became interested in setting up new think tanks and journals in Washington that would probe deep questions. Treating ideas, especially "big ideas," as pure political commodities, worthwhile for their electoral punch, might seem an affront to serious thought, which it is; but it briefly opened a window to higher-level dialogue. The real problem with this position, however, was not intellectual cynicism, but a flawed political premise. The Democrats' victory of 2006 proved that a party does not need ideas to win elections. Many have drawn the obvious conclusion that these new intellectual ventures have little worth.

Today, the Democratic party mainstream has its values, its instincts, and, as usual, more than its share of 10-point programs. It even has its "isms," represented by its leading troika: the pragmatism of Hillary Clinton, the idealism of Barack Obama, and the populism of John Edwards. Yet its intellectual reservoir has shown itself to be lacking in depth and confidence. Today's Democratic mainstream is no more willing or able to stand up to the party's present leftist insurgency than the older mainstream was to stand up to the New Left. The tenor of the current left is best captured by something Lionel Trilling said in 1949 about conservatives: They do not "express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."

Even this description may be overly generous. The journalist Matt Bai, in his recent book The Argument, undertook an anthropological field trip to investigate the natives who inhabit the progressive coalition of billionaires and bloggers. The big money men and women--what the left used to call, back when it framed matters more astutely, the "obscenely wealthy"--are mostly people who have made their fortunes recently. (George Soros, the godfather of the movement, is an exception.) The last thing these newly rich would wish to be called, however, is nouveau riche; they are bobo billionaires who profess to regard their own fortunes with nonchalance. Steven Gluckstern, for example, who helped bankroll the Democracy Alliance--a new organization to fund the rebuilding of the progressive infrastructure (dues $200,000 a year for five years)--told Bai, "I don't really care about money. I mean, I like it. You can do fun things with it. You can give it away." All in this progressive money set, which includes some of Hollywood's more modest donors, follow the new progressive formula of buying political influence while decrying the influence of money in politics.

The allies of the wealthy, the bloggers, are the coalition's hit men. Almost all are males in their thirties. The two most prominent, "Markos and Jerome" (Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos and Jerome Armstrong of MyDD), gained their fame and won their political clout by latching onto Howard Dean's candidacy in 2003 and using the Internet to help create the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party." Their websites not only constantly abuse thought, but show contempt for intellectuals, even while gaining influence among them. The language is often violent and vulgar. The moving spirit of the Daily Kos is one of anger and resentment, which, when not directed at Democrats who dare to stray from the wing line, is directed at the president, the vice president, and the Iraq war.

The bloggers in turn are teamed up with the new, Internet-reliant grassroots associations like MoveOn and ACORN. What emerges from Bai's study of the coalition is that the tone of MoveOn's recent New York Times ad assailing General Petraeus as "General Betray Us," far from being exceptional, is perfectly typical of the discourse preached and practiced by this so-called progressive coalition. The ad stood out because it exposed to the world at large the ugly style the new radicals have developed for use among themselves--and because it forced the main Democratic presidential candidates, who declined to disavow it, to show publicly their fealty to the movement.

The Democratic party, its prowess renewed by a taste of success in 2006, is riding the crest of a political wave. It is the stupid party triumphant. What serious Democrats must now consider is whether to accept this state of affairs--or begin to think deeply enough to find a principled ground for rejecting a faction in their midst that is not only stupid but dangerous as well.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and coauthor, most recently, of Red over Blue: The 2004 Elections and American Politics.