Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Polarized Electorate Is Not Good Enough

Ghosts of Christmases past and present and maybe Christmas future:
There's the religious absolutism of the Christian right, a movement that gained traction on the undeniably difficult issue of abortion, but which soon flowered into something much broader; a movement that insists not only that Christianity is America's dominant faith, but that a particular fundamentalist brand of that faith should drive public policy, overriding any alternative source of understanding, whether the writings of liberal theologians, the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, or the words of Thomas Jefferson.

And there is the absolute belief in the authority of majority will, or at least those who claim power in the name of the majority -- a disdain for those institutional checks (the courts, the Constitution, the press, the Geneva Conventions, the rules of the Senate, or the traditions governing redistricting) that might slow our inexorable march toward the New Jerusalem.

Of course there are those within the Democratic Party who tend toward similar zealotry. But those who do have never come close to possessing the power of a Rove or a DeLay....

Mainly though, the Democratic Party has become the party of reaction. In reaction to a war that is ill conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism, and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning. We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and we wait for a White House scandal.

And increasingly we feel the need to match the Republican right in stridency and hardball tactics. The accepted wisdom that drives many advocacy groups these days goes something like this: The Republican Party has been able to consistently win elections not by expanding its base but by vilifying Democrats, driving wedges into the electorate, energizing its right wing, and disciplining those who stray from the party line. If the Democrats ever want to get back into power, then they will have to take up the same approach.

I understand the frustration of these activists. The ability of the Republicans to repeatedly win on the basis of polarizing campaigns is indeed impressive. I recognize the dangers of subtlety and nuance in the face of the conservative movement's passionate intensity. And in my mind, at least, there are a host of Bush Administration policies that justify righteous indignation.

Ultimately though, I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we're in. I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. For it's precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country. It's what keeps us locked in "either/or" thinking: the notion that we can have only big government or no government; the assumption that we must either tolerate forty-six million without health insurance or embrace "socialized medicine."

It is such doctrinaire thinking and stark partisanship that have turned Americans off of politics. This is not a problem for the right; a polarized electorate -- or one that easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate -- works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government. After all, a cynical electorate is a self-centered electorate.

But for those who believe that government has a role to play in promoting opportunity and prosperity for all Americans, a polarized electorate is not good enough. Eking out a bare Democratic majority is not good enough. What's needed is a broad majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill -- who are reengaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others.

I'm under no illusion that the task of building such a working majority will be easy. But it's what we must do, precisely because the task of solving American's problems will be hard. It will require tough choices, and it will require sacrifice. Unless political leaders are open to new ideas not just new packaging, we won't change enough hearts and minds....

Maybe the critics are right. Maybe there's no escaping our great political divide, an endless clash of armies, and any attempts to alter the rules of engagement are futile. Or maybe the trivialization of politics has reached a point of no return, so that most people see it as just one more diversion, a sport, with politicians our paunch-bellied gladiators and those who bother to pay attention just fans on the sidelines: We paint our faces red or blue and cheer our side and boo their side, and if it takes a late hit or a cheap shot to beat the other team, so be it, for winning is all that matters.

But I don't think so. They are out there, I think to myself, those ordinary citizens who have grown up in the midst of all the political and cultural battles, but who have found a way -- in their own lives, at least -- to make peace with their neighbors, and themselves. I imagine the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn't see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own son. Or the former Black Panther who decided to go into real estate, bought a few buildings in the neighborhood, and is just as tired of the drug dealers in front of those buildings as he is of the bankers who will not give him a loan to expand his business. There's the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager's abortion, and the millions of waitresses and temp secretaries and nurse's assistants and Wal-mart asscoaites who hold their breath every single month in the hope that they'll have enough money to support the children they did bring into the world.

I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don't always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting.

They are out there, waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Vintage Books, July 2008) at 46-47,48-49, 50-51.

Others on Obama's brand of pragmatism (of the Dewey variety, not Clintonesque Machiavellianism) see: Mitchell Aboulafia, "Obama's Pragmatism (or Move over Culture Wars, Hello Political Philosophy)" at TPM Cafe; Christoper Hayes, "The Pragmatist" in The Nation; and Cass R. Sunstein, "The Empiricist Strikes Back" in The New Republic.

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