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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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Twice during the past half century, the Democratic party has faced a challenge from its left wing. In the late 1960s, it was the mass movement of the New Left that rose up to defy the party's liberal-progressive core. Following a contest of ideas and of wills, the liberal center collapsed and briefly yielded control to its radical critics. The struggle today is strikingly different in tone, with the party's mainstream being bullied by a network of techno-thugs, spearheaded by MoveOn.org. Nothing remotely resembling an idea or a sustained argument has surfaced in this conflict, and there is no danger that one ever will.

The Democratic party's convulsion in the 1960s can fairly be called tragic, in that it involved the fall of something worthy, however flawed. The party was the carrier of the great progressive tradition that stretched back from LBJ and JFK to FDR and ultimately to the progressive intellectuals John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Charles Beard. These thinkers introduced the transforming idea of "social intelligence," a concept that demanded the continuous application of rational government planning, under the aegis of social science, to the ills of the modern industrial age. Social intelligence was intended to direct and accelerate the forward course of history. The conviction that progress was certain, so long as social intelligence was deployed, was the premise underlying the entire project.

This way of thinking was largely intact in the 1960s, when hundreds of social scientists took leave from their universities to make the great trek to Washington to serve their nation and party. It is true that by this time the theoretical premise had lost its deepest support. Charles Beard, who shared the limelight with Dewey and Croly in the pages of the New Republic in its early years from 1914 to 1917, famously pronounced as early as 1933 that the idea of an objective movement of history in a progressive direction (or any direction, for that matter) was a fiction--at most, a mere belief or subjective leap. Beard consoled his readers by announcing his own continued adherence to progress as a value or an article of personal faith, rather than a fact.

For a time, this "subjective" position seemed to satisfy most liberals. It is touching to recall the enthusiasm that "the best and the brightest" brought with them to Washington in their vision of the Great Society, with its stirring images of new housing projects, model cities, clean parks, and refitted classrooms. The project partook of a secular religion complete with a clerical class of social scientists to minister to every problem and cure every public ill. In a remarkable passage from his memoir, Harry McPherson, LBJ's chief adviser and speechwriter, testified to the faith that the architects of the Democratic programs had in "social intelligence":

People were suffering from a sense of alienation from one another, of anomie, of powerlessness. This affected the well to do as much as it did the poor. Middle class women, bored and friendless in the suburban afternoons; fathers working at "meaningless" jobs, or slumped before the television sets; sons and daughters desperate for relevance--all were in need of community, relevance, purpose. . . . What would change all of this was a creative public effort: for the middle class new parks, conservation, the removal of billboards and junk, better television, aid to the arts; for the poor job training, Head Start, decent housing, medical care, civil rights; for both, and for bridging the gap between them, VISTA, the teacher corps, the community action agencies, mass transportation, model cities.

But the absence of a firm theoretical foundation for liberalism left these Democrats' position increasingly vulnerable to doubts and criticisms. Was the nation really moving in a progressive direction, and was the Democratic party truly a force for progress? Ironically, it was not the conservatives but a movement from the left within the Democratic party that emerged to shake up the great liberal consensus.

For those in the party's mainstream, the revolt of the New Left and the "counterculture" came as an enormous shock. It was as if their own offspring had suddenly and unnaturally turned on their progenitors and set about mercilessly to devour them. The New Left called into question almost everything liberals had deemed to be progress: material well-being, American power, and especially the enlightened motives of the leaders of the American nation. Liberalism was part of the problem, not the solution. In the words of the movement's political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, "What we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era." The moral disaster over which liberalism had presided, culminating in the Vietnam war, was so fundamental, so interwoven into the fabric of American life, that only a revolution could save us. The New Left married a deep pessimism about America to an unbounded optimism about the transforming power of revolution.

Those who look at the writings of the New Left today will find very little if anything that stands the test of time. None of the movement's intellectual luminaries, from Norman O. Brown to Tom Hayden to Charles Reich, can be counted a substantial thinker. Nevertheless, many leaders of the movement engaged in concerted argument--indeed, felt obliged in their political action to expose the theoretical problems of the liberal tradition and to advance their own ideas. Thought mattered to them. Their arguments evidently had an impact, too, as many liberal intellectuals succumbed before the theoretical onslaught. It turned out there was no theoretical position the liberals believed was true. The "best and the brightest" proved lacking in conviction, while the radicals were full of passionate intensity.

This split between the liberals and the radicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s cost the Democratic party its confidence, and the party has never been quite the same since. The New Left did not take over permanently, a task for which it was morally, intellectually, and above all politically unfit. Once it became clear--as it did in the 1972 election--that the majority of the American people had no sympathy for the New Left's cause, especially "revolution," the old liberal mainstream was in effect asked to step back in and serve as the public face of the party, and it did so in the persons of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

But the New Left didn't disappear. Renamed the cultural (or multicultural) left, it decamped from center stage and repaired to safer quarters in the universities, where it managed to carry out much of its program. Inside the Democratic party, it ceded actual leadership, but maintained an impressive power base and exercised enormous influence on the policy agenda. Usually, the old liberals found the cultural left too dangerous to embrace, but too powerful to resist.

The result by the 1980s was a much weakened liberalism that was no match for a renewed conservative movement. Sapped of energy, liberalism had become, in Paul Starr's words, mostly "defensive" and "oppositional." Liberals tried to stick to the catechism of the older values, but were often pushed off course by the conflicting priorities championed by the cultural left. Liberals lacked any clear conception of first principles or anchoring ideas to guide them. Except for the fact that the Democratic party remained the home of almost all of the intelligentsia, it had now become the "stupid party" of American politics, an honor previously reserved for Republicans. Not even the two Clintons, with their high IQ's and a new generation of policy wonks to serve them, could change this. The "New Democrat" thrust was wholly strategic and practical: to move the Democratic party to the center and to "reinvent" government. Whatever other contributions may be ascribed to the Clinton Democrats, deep reflection about the party's theoretical foundations was not among them.

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.