The election highlighted major, long-term changes in American society and politics. Many Americans feel threatened by the outside world. At the same time, the country is in the midst of a great religious awakening, comparable to those in the early 18th and 19th centuries, with church membership rising and ‘values’ questions dominating the election. Demographic change has amplified the electoral effects of these changes, shifting political power to southern and western states, which have been the most religious and most isolationist parts of the country. Economic change has weakened traditional Democratic power sources in labor-intensive industries.
However, none of these changes is necessarily fatal for the Democratic Party or for progressives. Times like this have been seen before, and at least one of them, in the early 19th century, was one of the great flowerings of progressive politics in America. Although this is a dark period, it can be brighter, if we work at the hard task of building political strength in the changed country we live in. Success will come not from denying or decrying the changes, but from moving along a different axis.
In this post, I will propose a direction for the Democratic Party that I believe can recapture American politics from the left. At the outset, let me reemphasize that this kind of exercise is necessary. The recent election was narrow, but do not take that seriously. It was not as narrow as we expected, and it took place in the context of a disastrous war and a stumbling economy. If the occupation in Iraq had not been blatantly mismanaged, President Bush could well have won by a landslide.
This is not to say that the country is intrinsically conservative. The changes mentioned above are neither conservative nor liberal in themselves. With the right approach, the Democratic Party can take advantage of them just as the Republican Party did. They built a coalition from disparate groups that together accounted for more than half of the country. Many of those groups can just as naturally be Democratic voters, given the right policies. Those policies will need intellectual cohesion, to invite the trust of skeptical voters. They must relate to a central idea that is carefully chosen to appeal both to progressives and to the mass of American voters.
The idea I propose: The federal government is too far from the people to know what’s right. I know this sounds more Republican than Democratic. But as I will argue, that taint is an accident of history, and it is a temporary phenomenon. In the long term, and especially now, a small federal government is strongly consistent with core Democratic values.
What are these values, and what have they been historically? The Democratic Party has always been the party of individuals and the working class, opposed to corporations and the business class. Historically it has favored protecting civil rights, like the right to vote; protecting economic rights, like the right to work and be paid; and protecting human rights, like the right to marry your partner. Note that I do not mention opposition to capitalism. The party has approved or disapproved it to the extent that it can support the party’s real values.
These values are under threat from governments. Particularly, they have been threatened by the federal government. Consequently, a distrust of the federal government has been at the center of Democratic politics since the Constitution was ratified. It was this distrust that led to the insistence on a Bill of Rights, in the teeth of Federalist opposition. This distrust led Thomas Jefferson to repeal the Alien and Sedition Acts, that had been signed by the first Federalist president; and to cut federal tax rates. Later, Andrew Jackson dismantled the first Bank of the United States out of a conviction that powerful bankers were using it to exploit Western farmers. A desire to constrain the power of the federal government was the oldest plank in the Democratic platform.
In the last eighty years, that plank was abandoned. Two developments necessitated a stronger federal government. First, the modern industrial economy required government regulation, and federal regulatory agencies grew to fill that role. Second, the civil rights revolution was resisted by the southern states, and the power of the federal government was needed to overcome their resistance. In these two developments, the Democratic Party successfully used the federal government to achieve its ends of protecting economic and civil rights.
However, these revolutions are now in the past. The Democratic Party should revert to its traditional stance against the federal government, as the government is reverting to its historical relationship with business interests. Politics today provides myriad examples to show this change, of which I will mention only a few.
The war in Iraq has been run in a way that is very profitable to Halliburton, Bechtel, the Carlyle Group, and other companies. This is not just because Halliburton has ties to Dick Cheney, but also because they all, as companies, have ties to the government as a whole.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has strengthened copyright laws, to protect large companies from even the threat of improvements in copying technology. The term of copyright was extended, partly to keep Mickey Mouse under protection.
The government has resisted the reimportation of drugs from Canada. There is no doubt that these drugs are safe, but the reimportation will cut the profits of pharmaceutical companies.
At the behest of automobile manufacturers, the government has refused to increase automobile fuel economy standards. To achieve a de facto increase, the California government has tried to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
In all these cases, the Democratic view stands opposed to federal power. Such opposition also accords with Democratic values with respect to non-economic matters.
In drugs policy, the federal government is resisting the effort of states to relax their drug restrictions. Note that in Montana, more people voted to legalize marijuana than to re-elect George Bush.
Note that strengthening the states at the expense of the federal government does not mean destroying welfare or health care or education. These programs are largely state-run. Indeed, they are suffering today because the federal government has appropriated extra power over them without providing in any money. The idea I have proposed would improve these functions.> <> >
<>><> Thus, the simple, single idea of strengthening the states the expense of the federal government should be attractive to Democrats, and it is consistent with our historical core values. In addition, it appeals to a large, important constituency that currently votes Republican. In my next post, I’ll talk about that constituency, and I’ll discuss how their politics can be separated from their politics.>