Sunday, September 04, 2005

Why the Democrats Don’t Have New Ideas

I’m in the camp that believes the modern Democratic Party lacks a fundamental vision that is clearly defined and well-articulated. The charge that the Democrats are little more than a collection of (disparate) interest groups seems accurate. And despite all of their contradictions and inconsistencies, the GOP does have a clearly defined vision that many more Americans strongly identify with.

So what follows may surprise you: I think the reason that the Democrats appear so stagnant and lack “big ideas” is because they’ve won just about every major battle there is to win (at least on the domestic front). I will even go so far as to claim that what afflicts the current Democratic Party is not their failures, but the fact that they have been so successful.

Let me explain.

A central tenet of the Democratic Party is that government plays a constructive role throughout most realms of society, and that the government should command significant influence and control over the nation’s resources. No matter what conservatives say about the evils of big government, the size of government has grown under both Democratic and Republican administrations and congresses, and shows no signs of abating. The Democrats’ ascendance to power came on the heels of the New Deal, which is now a fixture of American life, as is the acceptance that big government is here to stay. (While people love to complain about government who do they turn to after natural disasters or when gas prices skyrocket?) While conservatives talk endlessly about the ills of entitlement programs it has been the Bush Administration that has dramatically expanded the Medicare program with a price tag of hundreds of billions of dollars. In addition, Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security has gone nowhere as solid majorities favor keeping the program as a form of government insurance, not an additional 401(k) investment plan.

But the Democrats’ overwhelming success in expanding the role of government is also what makes the Democrats so woefully incapable of enacting the necessary reforms that are so crucial for our continued prosperity. The truth is that there is too much government in the wrong places (e.g. agriculture subsidies and other corporate welfare) and too little in the right places (e.g. national health care).

On the topic of civil rights, it has been the Democrats who have been at the forefront of expanding the rights of minorities and women. Affirmative Action programs, which were once again declared Constitutional by the Supreme Court just last year, are in force across the country and women have made tremendous strides with regard to equal pay and fair treatment. Although gays still are denied their basic rights in most of the country, it is the Democratic states of California and Massachusetts where moves are being made to finally afford them these rights, and most social scientists predict that in a generation or two few people will understand what all the fuss was about gay marriage. (The CA senate just last week voted to legalize gay marriage– the first time this has been approved by a legislature in America.)

But again, Democratic success has been a double-edged sword. While the Democrats are rightfully associated with the Civil Rights Revolution, the almost unflinching loyalty they receive from American blacks has caused them to take this constituency for granted and prevented a more nuanced approach to civil rights in the modern era. For example, while there is now a strong black middle class and Democrats can rightfully point to the tens of thousands of black doctors, lawyers, and business executive as (partial) vindication of Affirmative Action policies, poor blacks have fallen even further behind over these past decades, and yet the Democrats resist any efforts to consider new types of policies, such as school vouchers. In addition, in our ever-increasing multiracial society (where future success is much more correlated with income than racial identity) Affirmative Action is much harder to justify both on ethical grounds and on outcomes (see the great article on the Becker-Posner blog).

On the most heated “culture issue” of them all, abortion, the Democrats have also won the issue convincingly. While there are tens of millions of American who believe that a woman doesn’t have a right to choose an abortion, the majority do, and it is almost inconceivable that this fundamental right will ever be taken away from women across America. (This is not to minimize the many state efforts that the GOP has embarked on to restrict access both to abortion and contraception.)

But this victory for women’s rights has been disastrous for Democrats on the national level given the realities of electoral politics, and the very small margins of victory in the presidential elections and many senate races. Although Democrats have rightly put a woman’s right to control her body and her reproduction decisions at the forefront of their political platform (one of the few areas where it is clear what they stand for), the Supreme Court ruling that has stood for over 30 years has so enraged many religious fundamentalists that they vote against Democrats solely based on this single issue. This has guaranteed Republican dominance in many Southern and Mid-western states where religious fundamentalists make up a sizeable portion of the population.

On the foreign policy front, while it is true that the Democrats do not have a unified and coherent foreign policy vision, this is one area where they actually share much with the GOP. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a strongly anti-interventionist platform and it was only the events of 9/11 which prompted him to enact a policy of active regime change in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Democrats were virtually unanimous in supporting the invasion of Afghanistan, and given how Iraq has played out so far, the Bush doctrine of preemption is seriously being called into question. Although we do not have any counterfactual Democratic leadership of the past five years with which to compare, it is not unreasonable to believe that a Democratic response to Al Queda would have been as or more effective as the Bush Administration’s (after all, Kerry pledged to focus more on Al Queda and the dominant Democratic critique of the Bush Administration was that Iraq has diverted resources from this struggle). We can be almost assured that under Democratic leadership the country would now have a much more serious energy policy and not the corporate give-away that President Bush just signed.

In summary, while it is true that Democratic power has now been eclipsed by the GOP, this is due in part, paradoxically, to the across-the-board success of Democratic policies and ideals. Democratic stagnation stems not solely from a lack of imagination and vision, but because almost all of the Democrats’ ideas are now an accepted and established part of American society.

Looking at it another way, what have the Republicans and conservatives actually won or have a chance of winning? They control all branches of government and seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices have been appointed by Republicans, yet on issue after issue the conservative movement is a dismal failure. Government is bigger than ever and so are the deficits. While some aspects of abortion rights are being curtailed the essential right is not threatened. Republicans continually erect protectionist trade measures even while preaching the doctrine of “free trade.” The separation of church and state has not been eroded. While true that many tax cuts for the rich have been enacted, these are likely to be reinstated by future administrations (Republican or Democratic) given the tremendous budget deficits. A Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage will never pass and it is inevitable that as the younger generation enters the halls of power opposition to gay rights will erode. The government’s ability to regulate business and protect public goods remains strong and the essential elements of the New Deal have broad public support. And the list goes on….

Perhaps one day the GOP will have the power to actually threaten the great Democratic achievements, but I doubt it. America in the year 2005 looks a lot like Democrats had envisioned it, and (for good and bad) it will probably remain so for the remainder of our lifetimes.


P.S. Kevin Drum explains why the government response to Katrina shows even more conclusively what an utter failure modern conservatism, in practice, has been.


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