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Perlstein Replies

8 Adolph Reed and Dan Cantor wonder about the sanity of those who disagree with my general orientation. Bill Galston, Ruy Teixeira, and Elaine Kamarck find my views so outlandish they don’t know where to begin. Teixeira’s Web site, “Donkey Rising,” has been calling for a truce “between the centrists and progressive-populists in the Democratic Party,’” but it is clearly not yet time for the honeymoon. I welcome the opportunity to clarify the debate as I see it.

One general observation before proceeding: my sharpest critics, all relatively close to the centers of power in the Democratic Party, appear to share some satisfaction with the status quo: a tie. They seem to embrace a “median voter theorem” intuition, the idea that the safest way to win an election is with 50 percent-plus-one of the votes: count on your base, then nose yourself over the line by attracting voters in the center. But it is precisely my suspicion that the more times this game is repeated, the less safe it becomes, because the very ideological timidity it requires erodes the base. Thus my central contention: these are self-defeating, short-term strategies.

Keep that in mind as I take up five issues raised in the responses.

Corporations and parties. Richard Delgado gives me a chance to clarify my business analogy. The kind of company that I use as a model operates on two levels, profit-making in the short term and institution-building in the long term, structured around a relatively organic set of core commitments. The two levels are mutually reinforcing. Likewise in a healthy political party: an organic core identity and a record of pragmatic electoral success should be mutually reinforcing. An investment fund has no core values; it can fold up shop, cash out its shareholders, and no one need mourn the loss. A political party, on the other hand, needs to nurture a minimal core identity in order to get people to identify with it. Nothing I say here should be read to contradict Bartels’s Law—“First, win. Second, govern. Third, win again. Fourth, keep at it”—but there are better and worse ways of winning battles, and the best ways are the ones that help win wars. Thirty years’ wars.

But Bartels goes astray in the thickets of intention. Yes, the programs that drove Democratic control from the 1930s through the 1960s—I am including the 1950s because Eisenhower oversaw a moderate expansion, not a retrenchment, of the New Deal agenda—were not the result of self-conscious intent. But once the commitments were made, they were institutionalized. So the description of this period as a relatively consistent multi-generational project, adding value by its very consistency, still stands. But consistency can also be planned. Any competent history of the Republicans will show how conservatives settled on a small set of core commitments since the 1970s and successfully pressured the party to stick to them. This clarity, I argue, allowed an agenda often unpopular in its particulars to carry many more elections than it should have. The Democrats should aim for clarity, too—not least because economic-populist proposals are popular; also not least because, as Klinkner notes, they are morally imperative.

Parties and strategies. Dan Cantor is a hero of mine, and one of these decades I would love to seem him reflect about what his experience with the Working Families Party in New York has taught him about how the Democrats should run their presidential campaigns. I am glad to wait; he is doing crucial work in the interim.

Phil Klinkner is a marvelously ornery political thinker, but he takes the discussion of political strategy off course by belaboring the question of how many people call themselves “liberals.” The best evidence I know shows that when most people are asked their position on “issues,” they answer like economic populists. So it seems reasonable to me that they would be attracted to a party that champions economic populism. You don’t have to call it “liberal.” I don’t care if you call it a ham sandwich.

Michael Dawson is right: I offer no strategy on race. May I propose a piece of such a strategy? Republicans understand the political juice that can be squeezed from white Americans’ deep desire not to see themselves as racist. John F. Kennedy took brilliant advantage of an analogous dynamic by slyly prodding Nixon leaners into questioning whether anti-Catholic prejudice influenced their preference. Today’s Democrats could work a similar trick by nominating an African-American vice presidential candidate and hinting, “We know you are not going to vote for the Republicans just because you don’t want a black person a heartbeat away from the presidency.”

The forces pushing the Democrats right. Of all these commentators, Adolph Reed is the one who pushes me the furthest. His attention to the political ecology of consultantland leads inevitably to a discussion of the political ecology of money. Consultants and money are both implicated in the Democrats’ retreat from a politics of popular mobilization.

For example, one Democratic consultant has published focus-group findings describing voters’ deep mistrust of multinational corporations. His firm’s Web site boasts that this company’s research has “helped the CEO and top executives of a Fortune 100 multi-national pull off three high profile mergers and acquisitions in just three years” and also “helped a Fortune 100 manufacturing company improve the alignment of its employees around/with its new corporate mission.” I detect a conflict of interest. Is this consultant using the data he’s gleaned on popular anti-corporate animus to serve his corporate clients? Would this consultant avoid giving Democratic candidates “Rage against Corporation X!” advice that might make it easier for them to get elected even if it conflicted with the interests of one of those clients?

I raise the point to help Bill Galston understand what goes on in the minds of those who conflate the DLC and Dick Morris as forces that have converged, objectively, on the conviction that the best way forward for the Democratic Party is to preserve the end of the age of big government. The dominant social reality of recent decades—future historians will judge our era strange for not questioning it more insistently—is increasing economic unfairness. Yet many establishment Democrats still deny a core lesson of history: that economic anxiety (of the sort Stanley Aronowitz and Robert Reich succinctly describe) can be a uniquely galvanizing electoral force. And the most elegant explanation for this denial is Adolph Reed’s, and comes from Woodward and Bernstein: the establishment follows the money.

I reprove myself for expending too much energy in my essay avoiding what I call the Bulworth Tempation—after the Warren Beatty movie in which the presidential candidate uncovers the awful truth that the only thing keeping the Democratic Party from sweeping the nation is the Money Power, and is shot in the back for his dangerous knowledge. Blaming money for everything is so tempting because there’s something to it. If you are trying to understand why so much mainstream Democratic strategizing makes so little sense, you cannot afford (if I can be permitted the word) to ignore its malign influence—malign because it operates at the expense of establishing a broader mass base.

Take “wired workers”—which the DLC defines as those who “frequently use computers that are part of a network and work together in teams.” The formulation is conceptually meaningless (is this really a demographically significant group?), if not politically bankrupt. I have a loved one, a lifelong Republican, who fits the definition; she is a social worker whose employer has recently forced her “team” to complete interminable, infantilizing paperwork on networked computers, in order to better surveil them. She is just the kind of professional Ruy Teixeira’s data has convinced me might vote for a party that spoke to her experience of proletarianization. Yet the DLC pollster Mark Penn (and Ruy Teixeira seems to agree) insists “outdated appeals to class grievances and attacks on corporate perfidy” would “only alienate” such voters. (The greater the salience of class differences in American life, paradoxically, the more outdated appeals to their salience are said to be.)

The idea that “wired workers” are somehow inherently anti-liberal makes no sense. So what accounts for this concept’s introduction into Democratic councils? One reason, of course, is the aura of Third Way hipness it conveys. But Bulworth tempts me to suggest another: that the DLC had an investment, literally, in propagating it. The DLC may have pushed the idea so hard because it stood to gain financially from an association with the author of the “wired worker” concept: not a political scientist, not even a political consultant, but a California AT&T executive and DLC donor.

Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck would serve their case better defending their ideas on their own merits rather than investing them in an attempt to defend the honor of the DLC. New Democrats were just eager, Galston says, to “spur the long-term resurgence of the Democratic Party.” They had a funny way of showing it. After the 1994 elections Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow of the DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute, called for New Democrats to cut Clinton loose in favor of a primary challenger in 1996 or even think about leaving the Democratic Party altogether. The DLC’s Progressive Foundation put out feelers to begin a third-party movement—”a new approach,” according to the PPI board chairman Michael Steinhardt, “to separate ourselves from the Democratic Party.” (Whatever its self-mythologization, the DLC’s relationship to Clinton was always exceedingly complex.)

The DLC does not deserve Galston and Kamarck’s ministrations. But forget the DLC. Their points fare poorly on their own merits. Reinventing government is fine in the abstract; I am all for efficiency and competence (though I wouldn’t bet an election on it; in a telling bit of pleading against interest, Kamarck acknowledges that such matters “barely show up in public-opinion polls”). The problem is playing into Republican propaganda. Because Medicare administration costs are radically lower than those in private medicine, James Q. Wilson’s admonition that the country won’t trust government to reform health care until it reforms itself strikes me more as ideological smoke screen than sound advice.

The past. My critics’ historical recitals (and this includes Ruy Teixeira’s) ring especially false. All stress Democratic incompetence in managing foreign policy and the economy in the 1970s, as if this were a live concern to voters now. They cannot seem to imagine how in George W. Bush’s America the issue of incompetence—read a newspaper—might now break a bit differently. And what about Jimmy Carter’s unrealized “promissory note” to evangelicals? I have recently begun reporting among evangelicals, who tell me they embraced Ronald Reagan in the 1980s because he, like them, believed literally in the Book of Revelation. Winning without the South sounds like a wise course to me if the margin of difference must come from advocating the restoration of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. (Of course one way to win with the South might be by mobilizing black voters with a black vice-presidential candidate. See above.)

What my critics seem to want is to once more march a Democratic presidential candidate along an ideological path defined by Republicans, and then blame the candidate for not doing enough to rehabilitate the Democrats’ image. Much centrist Democratic strategy works exactly this self-defeating way. Take the idea of deficit reduction as end in itself as a political platform. All that means is that conservatives have boxed Democrats into a corner where they cannot propose any new programs, no matter how sound or popular, because the proposal will be shredded by the Republicans as a budget buster.

The future. Where does hope lie for those who find this insane? My intuition is exactly opposed to the sort of “open-source, collaborative politics” that Dan Carol imagines, a coral reef of a million self-activating coalitions. “Test marketing,” Carol’s other suggestion—the endless feedback loop of sampling, adjusting, then sampling again—is the Dick Morris model by another name.

My hope is not particularly small-d democratic, but at least it has the advantage of precedent. It is that a patrician politician, winning the presidency on a middle-of-the-road platform of balanced budgets in a time of social calamity, saves capitalism from itself by turning his back on the values of Wall Street and bequeaths to his party grand dreams upon which to build a generation of ideological dominance.

In 1932, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 2004, let it be John Forbes Kerry. <

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and the chief national political correspondant for the Village Voice.

Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum “How Can the Democrats Win?

Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.



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