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October 30, 2003

Democrats' problem is not how they play the game

En route from Colorado to DC: I frequently talk to progressives who claim that Republicans and conservatives play the political game more skillfully (and roughly) than Democrats and liberals, which explains the success of the Right. Democrats would win if they could come up with simpler and more effective messages; choose issues that embarrass Republicans or split their constituencies; and tie individual conservative leaders to scandals.

I find this vision deeply disturbing, because it would damage an already fragile civic culture. What's more, I don't think that Democrats can win by playing the political game with less sportsmanship than they exhibit today. It may be true that some aspects of the system are tilted against them: for instance, they get less than their fair share of campaign money and access to the mass media. But imagine that liberal leaders were granted two hours of Americans' time, unfiltered and uncensored. What would they say?

Democrats are in the position today of defending old institutions that they are also the first to criticize. Thus they favor increased support for public schools, yet they have been saying for generations that schools are alienating and dehumanizing as well as unfair to vulnerable minorities. They do have plans for school reform, but past reforms have always run aground. They support regulation, yet the most powerful and trenchant criticisms of expert-driven, centralized regulation have come from the Left. They defend the welfare state, yet they have been arguing for 50 years that welfare systems dehumanize "clients." They defend unions, yet unions violate modern progressive values by being hierarchical and disciplined (and often corrupt, to boot). Thus, at their most effective, today's "progressives" are actually conservatives, staving off radical change and defending old institutions as preferable to the market alternatives promoted by Republicans. Bill Clinton is a progressive hero not because of what he built, but because of the proposals he vetoed.

I actually think that the old institutions are preferable to markets; but no political movement can win by half-heartedly defending the recent past. Nor are public school, unions, and welfare programs worthy of more than half-hearted support. Thus what we need are new models, new institutional arrangements. The best of these, however, are still in a nascent, experimental, R&D stage. If that is our problem, then we will get nowhere by playing politics Texas-style.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:04 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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