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March 13, 2006

strategic vs. principled politics (on Randy Brinson)

Amy Sullivan and I have something in common. Dr. Randy Brinson, the Chairman of Redeem the Vote, calls each of us periodically. Sullivan, in a piece called "When Would Jesus Bolt?" depicts Brinson's disenchantment with the current leaders of the national conservative movement and asks whether Democrats could "change the entire electoral map" by attracting members of Redeem the Vote, thereby "peel[ing] off a few percentage points" from the GOP's religious-conservative constituency. Sullivan is especially interested in Brinson because "Redeem the Vote registered more voters than all of the efforts of the Christian Right heavyweights--Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, American Family Association, and the Family Research Council--combined."

To put my reaction bluntly: Sullivan wants to use Brinson and his people just as the Republicans have: strategically. Like Karl Rove, she wants to have some conservative evangelical voters in her column (although she'd settle for a smaller proportion). She's thinking about what shifts in rhetoric, emphasis, and actual policy the Democrats could make to "peel off" some evangelical Christians.

Strategy is necessary in politics. If you think you have good ideas and core principles, then you should try to win elections to implement them. In order to win a national election, you need an ideologically diverse majority coalition. And to get to 51% or higher, you need to win over some strange bedfellows by making political compromises or by finding partially overlapping goals. To shun all strategic thinking is simply to cede the field.

Nevertheless, strategic thinking can corrupt. Winning can become an end in itself. Any tactic or position that builds the coalition becomes desirable. Anyone not already on your side becomes a target who should be talked into joining for any reason that works. You may listen to opponents to find openings, but not to learn new ideas and perspectives.

It's precisely this kind of corruption that has made Brinson mad at the Republicans (who are indeed very strategic at this late point in the "conservative revolution"). If Brinson gets the same treatment from Democrats, he's not likely to admire them either. So let me suggest an alternative ....

I start with the assumption that there are principled conservatives who basically disagree with principled liberals about some core issues. Their differences cannot just be compromised away but must be contested in elections. Nevertheless, it is very valuable for liberals and conservatives to address issues that do not divide them. Brinson models such collaboration when he works with civil-libertarian groups to promote a Bible course that is truly appropriate for public schools.

Moreover, liberals and conservatives can work together to improve the political system and the political culture in which they both operate. Again, Brinson is a model: his form of voter mobilization increases turnout without manipulating new voters into lockstep support for any one party. He is enlarging the base of genuinely active, independent voters. That's a goal that many principled progressives share, and there would be ways to coordinate their efforts.

Brinson also expresses sincere respect for liberal groups like People for the American Way. Such displays of respect are important. Many Americans shun politics because they dislike conflict, especially when it seems petty, unnecessary, or personal. I'm convinced that our highly conflictual political culture suppresses participation. If evangelical conservatives sincerely respect their liberal opponents, politics will seem more constructive and will draw in more citizens. But the converse is equally important. Liberals like Amy Sullivan must sincerely respect people like Randy Brinson. Respect means not using others as means to one's own ends. (Compare this subtle argument about why one should usually overlook one's opponents' hypocrisy.)

March 13, 2006 7:31 AM | category: none


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