Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Dean flap, Part II: A perception of extremism that's bad for Democrats

(For Part I, see here.)

One problem for Democrats is that electoral success in America (and I'm writing from Canada, where we have a different electoral system altogether) depends on striking the necessary balance between mainstream appeals to the center and rallying one's base. One of the reasons for the Republicans' success -- and I'll focus here on strategy, not substance -- is that they've managed to do that extraordinarily well. Bush is marketed (by Rove et al.) as a "real" American with "real" values who stands up for other "real" Americans, specifically on national security and terrorism, but also on "values" generally. Whether or not he matches this image is another matter entirely (I don't think he does, as you might have predicted), but politics is often perception, and his success can very much be traced back to how he is perceived by (because marketed to) the electorate.

Meanwhile, however, Republicans have learned (from 2000, mostly) that lower voter turnout across the board means that turning out the vote is a key to electoral success. And when half of Americans don't vote, give or take, turning out the vote means rallying one's base, those emotionally-charged voters who will take the time to come out and vote and make their voices heard. Isn't this the brilliant strategy of 2004? Bush wins just enough centrists by appealing to national security and terrorism to complement a huge turnout by the religious right, his base.

Democrats are learning this, but in-fighting always seems to be getting the better of them. So the choice always seems to be between a liberal Democrat like Dean who can rally the base and a moderate Democrat like, say, Lieberman or Biden, who can appeal more directly to the non-partisan center (Nixon's silent majority, if you will). There should be room in the Democratic Party for both liberals and moderates, but the Dean storm only serves as a reminder of those internal tensions.

In the end, Dean wasn't right to make those comments, at least not in the way he did, but Biden and Edwards weren't right either to chastise him publicly. Democrats need to be strong, united, and organized. This means recognizing Democratic diversity, but also the need to put up a united front. Because, yes, Republicans are loving this. They love to see us come apart at the seams just as we love to see them splinter into disunited factions, just as we love to see the religious right and the moderate neo-liberal center at odds with one another.

Democrats won't win by ignoring their base, and that includes the Deaniacs and the types, but nor will they win if their party chairman is spewing such venomous, and ill-founded, loathing for the Republicans. We may feel such things in our hearts, and think them in our heads, but there must be a filter somewhere between the heart, the head, and the mouth. Otherwise, all we'll continue to do is provide fodder for the Republicans and the right-wing commentariat/blogosphere, and push away moderate voters who want to give us a chance (but who also want us to give them a good reason to vote Democratic).

  • I should add here -- and this is very important -- that what I am advising is that Democrats not act like Republicans. Not all Republicans, of course -- I respect the likes of McCain and Hagel, for example -- but many Republicans get away with brutally obnoxious attacks against Democrats (and liberals) -- and I'm talking about elected Republicans, Republican officials, and their mouthpieces in the media (including the blogosphere). I wrestle with this all the time. If they do it, why can't we? Fair enough. We need to be tough, too. But I suggest that Democrats cede the partisan low-road to Republicans and stand up for themselves and their ideas with confidence, strength, and conviction. Americans -- who are looking for real leadership in this time of crisis and challenge -- will respond to them, respect them, and vote for them if they do.

As I mentioned in a previous post about the fortunes of the Democratic Party, there are Democrats who are doing very well in "red" states: Bredesen in Tennessee, Easley in North Carolina, Sebelius in Kansas, and Warner in Virginia, among others. It may be true that many voters in those highly Republican jurisdictions don't may much attention to Democratic politics, and it's true that we might all be making something of nothing, or of very little, largely because the right is so keen to keep this problem alive and because it all just seems like politics-as-usual, but Democrats won't recover the center, and won't win nationally, if they are perceived to be a party of the coastal establishments, out of touch with the concerns and values of middle America.

And they certainly won't win if they're perceived to be the party of Deaniac rage. Dean, I believe, has the makings of a fine DNC chair, and I think that all Democrats should try to work with him and to elevate their common concerns over petty bickering, but, above all, let's make sure to treat each other with respect. That means our fellow Democrats, our Republican friends, and those millions of Americans across the political center who are looking for Democrats to offer them a serious, viable alternative to Republican leadership -- because look where that's gotten them.

Bookmark and Share


Post a Comment

<< Home