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‘Communities’ Organizer

From the Scrapbook

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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 There’s added confirmation for our colleague Jay Cost’s thesis about the Democratic party from a surprising source. In his new book, Spoiled Rotten, Cost argues that the Democrats have increasingly become less a traditional political party than an agglomeration of client groups, who band together to feed at the federal trough. As he wrote earlier this year in these pages:

Over the decades, the Democrats have added scores of clients to their operation: trade and industrial unions, African Americans, environmentalists, feminists, government unions, consumer rights advocates, big business, and big city bosses and their lieutenants. All of them are with the Democratic party in part because of the special benefits it promises them when in office, and all have a major say in how the party behaves in government. 

With more and more clients who needed constant tending, it became harder and harder for subsequent Democratic leaders to focus on the public good. .  .  . [U]nder the Obama administration, clientele liberalism has achieved a kind of apotheosis. The stimulus, the health care bill, cap and trade, and the financial reform package were all designed with heavy input from the party’s clients, and ultimately each reflects their priorities, so much so that any kind of national purpose the legislation might have served was totally undermined [“Spoiling Julia Rotten: The Democrats’ Clientelism Problem,” May 21]. 

As it turns out, the Democratic party itself embraces the essence of Cost’s analysis. On the convention website you’ll find prominently displayed the “Communities” page (www.demconvention.com/communities/overview), with the following explanation: “The Democratic National Convention provides a platform for representation by people of many different origins, orientations and backgrounds. To get involved with a group, find the community that best fits you and see how you can connect with others.”

The browser of this page is encouraged to select his or her community from a list of 14: African Americans, Americans With Disabilities, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, European and Mediterranean Americans, Faith Caucus, First Americans, Labor, Latinos, LGBT, Rural, Seniors, Veterans and Military Families, Women, Youth. (For those uninitiated in Dem-speak, First Americans = the group formerly known as Native Americans.)

You might think only a right-wing crank like The Scrapbook finds this balkanization off-putting. You’d be wrong. We found the website page not by browsing the DNC’s site (The Scrapbook is many things, but masochistic is not one of them). Rather, our attention was drawn to it by Time magazine’s Joe Klein, who wrote a column lamenting the Democratic party’s “drift toward identity politics, toward special pleading.” Wrote Klein, 

If I’m a plain old white insurance salesman, I look at the Democratic Party and say, What’s in it for me? These feelings are clearly intensifying in this presidential campaign. .  .  . If the Democratic Party truly wants to be a party of inclusion, it must reach out to those who are currently excluded from its identity politics. It needs to disband its caucuses. It needs to say, We are proud of our racial and ethnic backgrounds, our different religions, our lifestyle differences. But the things that unite us are more important than the things that divide us. We have only one caucus—the American caucus. 

The Scrapbook feels for Klein. We encourage him to affiliate with the European and Mediterranean American caucus—and perhaps the Seniors caucus, too—and make his voice heard. 

Vice President Al Gore was roundly mocked for a speech in January 1994 in which he said, “We can build a collective civic space large enough for all our separate identities, that we can be e pluribus unum—out of one, many.” Yes, he got the Latin wrong, but as a Democratic party leader, he was ahead of his time.


D.C. at the DNC

Sure, like everyone else The Scrapbook was mesmerized by the Democratic convention: those three yea-or-nay votes on God and Jerusalem, ex-governor Jennifer Granholm’s emotional tribute to financial bailouts, Eva Longoria’s plea to pay higher taxes. But The Scrapbook was also sniffing around the edges and discovered an amusing, if minor, complaint about the proceedings. 

 It was issued by Robert McCartney, a Washington Post Metro page columnist, who was furious that the Democrats had “disrespected the District [of Columbia]’s quest for full voting rights” by barring any prominent D.C. officials from addressing the subject in Charlotte. So appalled was -McCartney, in fact, that he approvingly quoted Marion Barry’s angry tweet on the subject: “Let’s be honest,” the ex-mayor for life wrote to his Twitter -audience. “Does D.C. have to be ‘gentrified’ to get voting rights? Is that what we are waiting for? Democracy has no color, right?”

Marion Barry’s immediate resort to racial demagoguery is par for the course. But given the politics of race these days, it is worth noting that while the Republican platform is opposed to statehood and “full voting rights” for the District of Columbia, its opposition is based almost exclusively on politics: Washington, D.C., which is about evenly divided between black and white residents, is overwhelmingly Democratic—Barack Obama won 92.5 percent of the vote in 2008—and Republicans see no reason to hand Democrats any electoral advantage. Unfair, perhaps, in the eyes of some, but a purely political calculation.

The Democrats, by contrast, made a racial calculation. The D.C. officials who were barred from speaking in Charlotte—Mayor Vincent Gray and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton—are both black Democrats, and, as McCartney acknowledges, their exclusion was the judgment of “Obama’s campaign operation in Chicago [which] wanted to avoid publicizing African American leaders or causes that might perturb some white voters or hand Republicans an issue to exploit.” 

And what might that issue be? Well, Delegate Norton and her husband once failed to pay their District income taxes for seven straight years (stiff fine, no prison time), and the Post has been expecting Mayor Gray’s indictment any day now for fraud and campaign law violations. The convention’s judgment to keep these prominent Democratic faces off-camera is, at the least, understandable.

But are voting rights for the District a matter of race, as Marion Barry and Robert McCartney believe, or partisan politics? Well, in The Scrapbook’s view, it is essentially neither. And therein lies an interesting tale, seldom told. The problem with “full voting rights” and statehood for the District of Columbia lies in the Constitution, which in Article 1, Section 8, very carefully defines the District as the “Seat of the Government of the United States” and places it exclusively under the control of Congress. Self-government has come and gone over the years—Washington currently enjoys a healthy measure of home rule, with indifferent congressional oversight—but there is a general legal consensus that any basic alteration of the District’s political status would require a constitutional amendment. 

Beyond that, it’s just politics. Democrats favor statehood because it would confer two new Democratic senators on America, and Republicans oppose it for the same reason—as well as the constitutional complications described above. Republicans have also suggested that Washington, D.C., simply revert to Maryland, out of which it was carved in 1790; but District Democrats have grown attached to the idea of statehood—they even have a name for the 51st state, “New Columbia”—and Maryland shows little enthusiasm for gaining territory largely under federal control, as well as a political establishment personified by Marion Barry.

So there you have it: The Obama campaign at its convention wanted to “avoid publicizing African American leaders or causes,” in McCartney’s words. The Scrapbook can only imagine the furor if a Republican convention had done the same.

Compare and Contrast

The Scrapbook attended both parties’ conventions this year, and beyond the obvious ideological distinctions, we noticed a few other differences. In Tampa, the prevailing mood was subdued. Anxiety permeated the convention hall, as if the Republicans in the stands seemed unsure how the rest of America would react to their speakers.

Meanwhile, from the arena to the streets of Charlotte, the convening Democrats were a raucous bunch. The speakers fed off the crowd’s energy, and the people were loud—deafening at times.

Does this mean the GOP’s much heralded enthusiasm advantage has been overhyped? Probably not. Rather, it reflects the fact that the personality cult surrounding the president is alive and well among the party engagés. The evidence was there in the paraphernalia that littered Charlotte: Messianic images of Obama on clothing, pins, stickers, and posters. “We Love Our President,” read a typical T-shirt. The official logo of the convention was set against the iconic Obama “O” to which we have all grown accustomed. 

One more difference. Besides the delegates, Charlotte was full of political tourists, liberal activists, professional progressives, and left-wing gadflies, many of whom had probably hoped to see President Obama at Bank of America Stadium, before his speech was moved back to the Time Warner Cable Arena. At the Republican convention, on the other hand, there were few such hangers-on. 

There was kitsch in Tampa, to be sure. But the wares for sale were more anti-Obama than explicitly pro-Romney. Republicans, even those who like Mitt Romney, just don’t view their candidate with the same devoted fervor. There was nothing to match the pro-Obama calendar spied by Slate’s Dave Weigel in Charlotte, which cited John 3:16 and described the president as “Heaven Sent.” All in all, that’s probably a good thing for Republicans.

Leiter Reading

The Scrapbook likes forthright, no-nonsense arguments, even ones we disagree with. Our interest was piqued when we discovered that Princeton University Press will publish, this coming October, a book called Why Tolerate Religion? In it, Brian Leiter makes the case that “no one has been able to articulate a credible principled argument for tolerating religion qua religion.” Bold! 

But who is this Brian Leiter? Princeton’s press release describes him only as a “popular University of Chicago blogger,” specifying that he is “host of the popular philosophy blog Leiter Reports.” That makes Leiter sound like one of those street “characters” who never really graduate and just sit around Hyde Park playing hacky sack or guitar or chess.

Well, no. Leiter is actually the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School. None of this is mentioned anywhere in Princeton’s press release. What does it say about the prestige of higher education when one of the best academic publishers in the country chooses to conceal its author’s departmental affiliation and to present him as a blogger instead?

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