Monday, November 06, 2006

How can the Democratic Party attract Socially Conservative/Economically Liberal members?

Mouldy asked me “in your opinion[,] how should the Democratic party shape its message to accommodate more people who may share your views?”

He also summed up my previous assertions with the label- “Socially Conservative and Economically Liberal.”- I think it a fair assessment of my views.

By way of philosophical background, I believe that there are two forces that impose order on the universe: Divine Will and Man’s will. Where Man’s will is in accord with the Mind of God, there is communal health, individual liberty, and generalized happiness. These three are the proper goals of all human endeavors. We refine our behavior and institutions to move closer to His Will through prayer, observation, analysis, and systemic modification. In the final analysis, the value of human action is defined by its affect on the larger movement of Man towards or away from the Divine Plan.

This is the context within which I am “socially conservative and economically liberal.”

I am a “Democrat” for two reasons: because 3rd parties and Independents cannot compete in the present legal and political environment and because I believe that the obligation to care for those less fortunate trumps most other human obligations. (While the modern Democratic Party (Dems) is no great champion for the less fortunate, the present GOP economic and tax policies are actually harmful to them. Again, I do not believe that the Dems represent my interests well, only less badly than the GOP does.)

The question posed was how the Dems could shape the message to sway “socially conservative and economically liberal” persons to vote Democrat. I suppose the answer depends on whether one is seeking to renovate the party platform and structure or dress it up to make it more attractive.

I think that Howard Dean articulated the “window dressing” option well when he sought to invite religious groups into the fold. He correctly analyzed the great discomfort that “biblical Christians” have with the GOP. He noted that what keeps them in the GOP are the keynote social issues (abortion, euthanasia, prayer in schools, same-sex marriage, sex education, etc.). Dr. Dean pointed out that many of these issues are resolvable only through the courts and many others are state, rather than Federal, issues. As such, religious persons can be plucked away from the GOP precisely because the GOP’s hawk-like approach to foreign policy and economic policy, that favors those with resources, is at odds with the beliefs of many Christians.

One of the reasons that I am skeptical of the ability of the Dems to capitalize on this loose, issue-based allegiance to the GOP, is that Dean’s analysis received such vehement opposition. In my opinion, the claim that softening the Democratic stand on keynote social issues, thereby allowing for party debate of those topics, was tantamount to capitulating to the GOP, was incredibly short-sighted. The strong reaction affirms the remarkable level of control that the elite have over the Democratic Party. So long as that generation of Dems controls the dialogue, we cannot break the hold that the GOP has over “persons of faith.”

In my opinion, the Democratic Party is like a run-down structure with beautiful, but neglected, architectural features. A can of paint may make it look better, but it will not restore it. What is required is the careful removal of the features worth saving and the gutting and replacing of the rest.

So… What is worth saving?

Well, I think we should go back to the beginning with Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic, “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” as are starting point.

The United States is the preeminent power. Our resources are immense. However, successive administrations, have squandered reoccurring opportunities that could have been turned to alleviating the effects of poverty and want. By the wholesale adoption of the GOP plan to trim social welfare programs, the Dems betrayed their legacy.

There is no doubt that the GOP was onto something… There is an insidious rot that sets in when lethargic acceptance of “handouts” from the state takes the place of personal ambition. However, the Dems abandoned the legitimate interests of the trampled and abandoned and allowed the GOP dialectic to frame the debate. The Dems can, even now, formulate a better way to provide a “safety net” and to break the “cycle of poverty” while encouraging personal achievement.

At the risk of ending up in a policy discussion, I would like to offer a single example of the kind of alternative that the GOP will not embrace but that the Dems are uniquely positioned to champion.

School Desegregation has gone about as far as it can. The courts have been narrowing the scope of remedies for thirty years and any improvement in minority-dominated schools will come from the legislatures, not the courts. This is a good thing. The Dems ought to champion a policy that rewards the top ten percent of every graduating class, that can win a spot at college, with full tuition at any state school. Such a policy is achievement based, affects the poor without minority specification, bolsters the state university systems without being a direct subsidy, and acts as a clear break with the Civil Rights Era approach that has run its course.

In one sense, I am rejecting Mouldy’s characterization of social conservativism and economic liberalism as separable. One necessarily feeds the other.

If you believe, as I do, that the greater, communal good, can only be furthered by individual achievement of potential and that that greater good is paramount interest of the state, then some amount of redistribution of resources is necessary. If the Dems are going to attract social conservatives and retain economic liberals, they need to stop running from the mature argument that measured taxation should fall more heavily on those of with resources. The “key” is that the social programs that come out of that approach must be efficient, have demonstrable benefits to the broader society, and be intimately tied to personal responsibility.

To illustrate: I consider a critical part of “breaking the cycle of poverty” to be reducing the number of single-parent households in the United States. While there are many examples of extraordinary single-parents who raise children of benefit to society, the majority do not. If the policy is merely to support single-parent households, as a way of breaking the “cycle of poverty,” the paying of benefits without any personal accountability must fail. It is simply easier to stay at home with children then it is to shuffle them back and forth to caregivers, while maintaining a minimum-wage job. Thus, any state outlays that seeks to serve this need and do not address this basic problem will be inefficient and have little demonstrable benefit to society precisely because it requires nothing of those who benefit.

My point is only this… The Democratic Party has a unique history of caring for the downtrodden and disadvantaged that we have betrayed in our quest to speak the language of Washington’s “big donors.” (This was particularly evident in the Clinton Administration, which, in six of the most prosperous years of US history, made no appreciable investment in America, alleviated no great harm to the disadvantaged, and took no political or economic risks that would distinguish the party as other than another tool of the wealthy.)

To turn this around, we need to do more than invite “people of faith” into the fold… though that is a good start. We need to invite dispute about social issues, allow candidates that are “right” about broader issues (like Casey), and champion policy that makes a “preferential option for the poor.”

Until we do these kinds of things, we will be a party that can only ascend when the GOP trips over its shoelaces.


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