Wed Mar 15, 2006 at 06:57:13 AM PDT
See if any of this strikes you as familiar:
...this is more a reflection of a Democratic party that is rudderless... reflect splits within the party about what it means to be a Democrat -- and what a winning Democratic formula will be ... while Democrats have no shortage of criticism to offer, they have so far not introduced a strategy for governing...
Article after article expresses the opposite view of Republicans. Though the recent plummet in Bush's popularity has opened some schisms between the administration and the rest of the party, Republicans are seen as being "united," and "on message," and "delivering a clear platform."
You think that's because Democrats are a big tent and Republicans are just a bunch of white guys who all think alike? Partly right. But what makes Republicans able to march in lockstep isn't their similarity -- it's because they've learned to exploit their differences.
A Confederacy of Opposites
There's a general assumption that politics is about 'coalition building.' Find enough people that go along with a position and you can become a force to be reckoned with. Stitch several of these groups together, and you're celebrating at the inaugural ball. That's all true. Only the idea of what a "coalition" means is often misinterpreted as a bunch of folks with shared ideas, concerns or "values." Nope. All it means is that you can get them to vote with you. These folks can have as little in common as Dick Cheney and a Mississippi farmer, but as long as they're voting together, all their differences don't mean a thing.
On the other hand, a group of people who have shared beliefs can squabble like there's no tomorrow. The worst arguments aren't over the differences between black and white, they're over differentiating off-white and eggshell. When you agree with someone 98.5% of the time, that last one and a half percent becomes like sand shoved down into an oyster -- only it generally gives only the irritation and not the pearl. No one can annoy you like someone you love. Don't believe me? Ask your mom.
Republicans get along because Republicans are a coalition of strangers. And it's always easy to be polite to strangers.
The largest group that makes up the Republican base can be summed up with a two word phrase -- and it's not "lilly white." It's "lower taxes." Some of these people may make a pretense at being libertarian. Some of them are unapologetically avaricious Burnsian hand-rubbers. All of them have made the same Faustian bargain "give me lower taxes, and I don't care what else you do." No matter how much they may sing the song of this right, that right, or the other right, they will follow anyone who promises to reduce the rate on capital gains -- and they'll do it even if they don't have any capital gains. They have determined that there is no sin greater than taxes.
On the great Venn Diagram of politics, the Republican Party looks like this
That larger circle represents the "give me lower taxes or... hell, just give me lower taxes" bulk of the Republican Party. So what's the smaller circle? That's the moralists. That's the part of the party that says abortion is a sin, being gay is a sin, and being non-white or non-American is a punishment from God.
Members of this second group are more likely to know the inner workings of the John Birch Society than the American Enterprise Group. They don't care about scaling back OSHA. They don't have many thoughts on CEO pay. In fact, they don't spare many brain cells for anything not involved in stopping abortion and hating gays.
Which makes the two groups perfect allies.
A new law stopping abortions in South Dakota? Group A, the taxes are sin group, looks at this and says "means nothing to me, but if it helps us get the votes to lower taxes on cigarettes, I'm for it." Group B, the sin is sin group, takes this vote, and returns one on some other topic that they're equally indifferent about.
They're in nigh on perfect back-scratching harmony, because they share almost no overlapping concerns.
A War Among Friends
When we look at Democrats... and aw gee, do we have to? I mean we get Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and Bill Richardson and John Edwards and my man Russ Feingold into the same room and what can they agree on? Answer: nearly frackin* everything.
On almost every issue of substance, the positions of the most vocal Democratic squabblers land solidly in line. But it's the almost and the of substance that are causing us fits. A Venn diagram of the Democratic Party looks like this:
Got a position on women's issues? Hey, so does every group within the party. Abortion rights? Thirty seven flavors. Environment? We're all in favor of that, and we have eight hundred proposals to prove it. The Democratic Party is suffering from a state of violent agreement.
Part of that's natural. One of the core Democratic tenets really is a support of education, not just in the sense of putting books into classrooms and cutting ribbons on new schools, but education as in being open to ideas and opinions. That openness means we get a party where every master of one field is also an interested amateur in all the rest -- and no one fights to show off their puny packet of knowledge like a dilettante whose depth of experience is exceeded by the thickness of a soap bubble.
What's that one sad little circle sitting all alone within the Democratic diagram? That's African-Americans. They used to overlap with the rest of us, back when Democrats made a pretense at supporting working families and equal rights. Since those things have been pushed over into the "sure, sure, we like that but we're not going to do a damn thing about it" column, African-Americans have been cut adrift.
Democrats have used them a bit like Republicans and their "save the unborn babies, kill the infidels" group -- we make grand speeches to them each election season. Only the Republicans have remembered to actually support their internal allies once they're up there making the sausage. Democrats have a little black hole in their memory that shows a few signs of activity every two years and really warms up every four. Then they go back to squabbling over things that African-Americans don't care about.
So far, Democrats have been able to drag the African American group along, but promises are wearing thin. If the Republican "tax me not" group can figure out a pitch that would lure in African Americans without requiring that one tenth of one percent more be paid on estates over one billion dollars, they'll go for it. Believe me, they're wearing down a lot of pencils on this right now, because they know that, though the African American circle has floated in the Democratic diagram for a long time, it's now held in by little more than the memory of old partnerships. As long as Democrats are offering scarcely more than words... well hell, Republicans can offer words.
Giving up some things to win everything
So what do we do about it? How can Democrats stop fighting their own civil wars over the proper method of crossing T's and dotting I's long enough to win some elections and get some blasted work done?
They have to learn to give up.
Not that we have to give up to Republicans, or surrender our ideals. We have to learn to surrender territory within our own coalition. Democrats are often out to prove how smart they are by coming up with a new angle, a slightly different view on an issue. They want their own position that shows they're informed and innovative. To that I say: please, please stop it.
If someone has a position on abortion rights with which you agree 99%, don't get in front of a camera and talk about the other one percent (and yes, Joe L. and Joe B., I'm looking at you. Bozos.) Don't wait for something better. For God's sake, don't check the polls. Just support it.
If you're not the expert on foreign policy, don't pretend to be. Listen to the folks who have put in the years and come up with thoughtful solutions. Then just nod your head.
You, you personally, do not need to be the champion of every cause and an expert on every subject. Admit your shortcomings confess your own failings and lack of knowledge. Pick a circle. Hell, pick several circles. Work hard to understand the things that are most important to you and to stay informed on other issues. But when someone else from one of those other circles, someone who has worked until their brains are leaking out their ears, asks for something, don't cut them down because you don't like the way they cut their hair.
Learn to be "selflessly greedy." You can get what you want, if you're willing to have other people get what they need and not play speed bump on their road. Scratch some backs, damn it. We're a really diverse group, but the only way we can win is by putting that diversity out there as an advantage, instead of letting our internal fights drag us backwards.
We need to learn what it means to have a working coalition. Look for those things that are in someone else's circle, but not so strongly in your own, and lend them support. It's fine to point out issues that you believe are important, but don't insist that everyone must step completely into your circle before they're on your side. If an environmental group lists saving National Parks as their top priority, don't give them a "you guys better take care of CO2 first" lecture. Don't ignore them until they're focusing on what you believe it the top issue. Just help them. And then look for their support when you push forward on your own issue. You give to them, they give to you, you don't have to always agree. That's what it means to be in a coalition.
Republicans didn't give up on tax cuts because they felt they should be focusing on redistricting, or surrender on abortion limits to concentrate on gay marriage. We can all win at the same time, if we learn to use our differences to help us work together.
Oh yeah, and we better damn well decide that the concerns of African Americans are more than good window dressing for our next set of campaigns, or we're going to wake up one day and find they're decorating windows over at some party willing to give them some real return on their investment.
Now go out there and Venn! Um, I mean, win!