Saturday, August 27, 2005

The overstated shrillness of the Democratic Party

Okay, I'd like to get provocative. And I'd like to do so by referring favourably, more or less, to a certain bow-tied conservative commentator. No, not Tucker Carlson, but George Will — to me, one of the more palatable right-wing pundits, an old-fashioned tory who often breaks from the ranks of the talking-point-spewing apologists for the Bush Administration and dares to write challenging critiques across partisan lines.


Just look at his column in Thursday's Washington Post, where he ripped apart extemism on both wings but more specifically argued that the Democratic Party has fallen under the spell and influence of its more left-wing elements, settling into "a shrillness unlike anything heard in living memory from a major tendency within a major party":

[The Republican Party] is showing signs of becoming an exhausted volcano. Regarding Iraq, it is mistaking truculent asperity and tiresome repetition for Churchillian wartime eloquence. Regarding domestic policy, intellectual anemia has given rise to behavioral patterns not easily distinguished from corruption, as with the energy and transportation bills. Yet the Democratic Party, which by now can hardly remember the far-distant past when it was a volcano not of molten rhetoric but of serious thought, seems preoccupied with the chafing around its neck. The chafing is caused by the leashes firmly gripped and impudently jerked by various groups such as that insist the party adopt hysteria as a policy by treating the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. as a dire threat to liberty.

If Hillary Clinton has half the political sense her enthusiasts ascribe to her, she must be deeply anxious lest all her ongoing attempts to adopt moderation as her brand will be nullified by the increasing inclination of her party's base to succumb to siren songs sung by the likes of [Cindy] Sheehan. But, then, a rapidly growing portion of the base is not just succumbing to those songs, it is singing them.

Alright, I don't really agree with Will. Like so many on the right, he overemphasizes the influence of groups like MoveOn and loud-mouthed individuals like Michael Moore (n.b.: I liked F9/11 a great deal, but he is, you must admit, a loud-mouth). I mean, how is the left wing of the Democratic Party worse than the right wing of the Republican Party? Where's the Democratic Pat Robertson, Tom DeLay, or Grover Norquist? Where's the left's Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity? Ted Kennedy? Al Franken? Come on, get real.

The plight (and hope) of the Democratic Party has been on my mind in recent months, not least because even from Canada, with my love for America and my wishes to see it resurrected from the political depths to which it has recently plunged, I was heavily invested in the 2004 election. As were many other Canadians I know. But I firmly believe that the Democratic Party already has within it the seeds of its own resurrection to electoral success, and, indeed, a case can be made — a thoroughly convincing one — that the Democratic Party is doing much better than most people realize, including those in the media who seem to focus exclusively on national politics. As I put it back in June:

[T]he weaknesses of the Democratic Party have been wildly overplayed. Yes, Bush won two elections he shouldn't have, the Republicans now control both sides of Capitol Hill, and conservative appointees threaten to shift the entire federal judiciary to the right. But look at it this way: Bush barely won in 2000 — indeed, he may not have won, but that's another problem entirely. He only won because everything broke his way: Gore was a lousy candidate; Nader took important votes away from Gore in key swing states; Bush effectively campaigned as a compassionate conservative, blurring the differences between him and Gore; a relatively peaceful and prosperous country was willing to take a chance on Bush after eight years of Clinton; and, well, there was Florida. If Florida had gone the way it should have, or if Nader had taken himself off the ballot in certain states, or if Bush hadn't campaigned as such a moderate, then Gore would have won. Then Gore would have guided the country through 9/11 and Afghanistan, the Democrats likely would have done well in 2002, the U.S. likely wouldn't be in Iraq, and Republicans would be having this very same conversation about how to refashion themselves in the face of a significant Democratic majority. As it is, Bush won, then capitalized on 9/11 for partisan purposes, leading to a solid Republican showing in 2002.

Given all this — the memories of 9/11, the threat of terrorism (which Bush, as president, was able to manipulate to his own benefit), and the bully pulpit in a time of war, not to mention mass mobilization of evangelical voters — Bush barely won re-election last year. And although Kerry was a stronger candidate than Gore, he wasn't a great one and never quite managed to find his footing (too much nuance, not enough bluntness). It wasn't as close as 2000, but 2004 was hardly a rousing endorsement of a sitting president.

I suspect that the Republicans have already peaked (and not just because Bush's approval ratings are tanking). And that peak meant two narrow presidential elections, Congressional victories fueled by 9/11, terrorism, war, and gerrymandering, and Democratic successes at the state level. That's hardly the kind of dominance worthy of envy and emulation.

Democrats can surely do better, but I think it's important to keep their recent "troubles," not to mention their alleged extremism, in perspective.

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  • I 100% agree. The Democrats do need to get their house in order, but their decline has been vastly overstated. So has the so-called Republican ascendency. Great post!

    By Blogger A.L., at 12:10 AM  

  • Thanks, Anonymous Liberal! I'm certainly not saying that the Dems don't have problems -- they do, not least in terms of how they market themselves to the American people (it's amazing how many of the Republican stereotypes of, and slurs against, liberals and Democrats have managed to stick) -- but the country is still roughly 50/50. One problem I see, however, is that the House has been so deformed in the Republicans' favour through gerrymandering that it may be tough for the Dems to win it back. But neither the White House nor the Senate is out of reach. And, of course, Democrats are doing well at the state level, even in the highly Republican South. To me, demographic shifts -- growth in the Southwest, growing Hispanic population, etc. -- will be challenges for both parties, and the Dems certainly need to realize that they can no longer depend on their tradition constituencies to win at the national level.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:40 AM  

  • I blame the baby boomers. They don't even know how to blog.

    Nate, I think you are ding dong dead on right with the comparison of Cindy Sheenan and Ann Coulter as exemplars of the problem. I observed a macrocosmic example of this when two colleagues of mine were discussing vegeterianism with a student. The two colleagues were self-righteous vegetarians and the student was not. The student asked why they were vegetarian and it resulted in a ten or more minute tirade about the violence of eating of meat, compassion, and all things true but extremely alarmist. Unpalatable. Instead of accomplishing what they hoped, which was to add a new vegetarian to the flock, they guilted and shamed the student for her current way of life and alienated her from the discussion. How did this help their cause? Not at all. She probably went home and had a steak to spite them in their malcontent. There are a thousand sayings for the strength of gentle changes and a thousand more for knowing which battles to pick.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:47 PM  

  • I think you are absolutely correct, Michael. There are some shrill voices on the Left, but the shrillest are generally ignored (which of course makes them more shrill, and more ignored -- except by right-wing blogs).

    Contrast that with the shrillest voices on the Right: You have the President interrupting a vacation and flying back to D.C. to sign a law in the middle of the night to appease them. You have top Republican lawmakers appearing at "Justice Sunday," where judges lives' are threatened. Republican corruption in Washington and the states is rampant, and making headlines both locally (Ohio, Kentucky, California, ad nauseum) and nationally (Delay, Abramoff, ad nauseum). This is not lost on the American people.

    This doesn't even take into account the war, oil prices, Social Security, and every other blunder this administration and its Congressional puppets are fully responsible for.

    No, the Democrats, while certainly not perfect (there is corruption, war apologists, etc. among them as well) look real good when compared to the other guys, depite the hand-wringing in some quarters of the party. Now a win is a win and all that, but doesn't the recent Ohio special election, combined with what can only be called truly abysmal approval ratings for the President, begin to paint a decidedly unpleasant portrait of the Republican party in late 2005? And I suspect a lot of Republicans are getting an earful from their constituents this summer break.

    I suspect that as the midterms approach, we're going to see some serious panic on the Right -- heck, we're seeing it already. As the campaign season begins to pick up steam, I believe we will be treated to some nasty spectacles, and some very troubling (from the Republican point of view) gains by the Dems in November.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:30 PM  

  • I have never understood why the left (and by that I mean the "hard left" of Michael Moore, MoveOn, etc.) think they can win with the kind of angry, politics of alientation that the practice. They seem unaware that most people don't share their view of the United States as a nightmare. They seem to see politics more as catharsis for themselves than trying to accomplish something. But then, given their unwillingness to compromise, they probably don't have any real desire to get their hands dirty. This, of course, applies to the fringes--most liberals (a very amorphous term) aren't like that, but you traces of this even on liberal blogs where anger seems to be the predominant emotion. It's especially strange because I suspect most of these people have pretty good lives themselves--I suppose they feel some guilt about their own good fortune.

    Having said that, I'm not sure that I agree with Nate that Ann Coulter is somehow less offensive than Cindy Sheehan. First of all, I can't take Sheehan seriously--she doesn't seem to be that bright. Second, I think Coulter's kind of over-the-top rhetoric encourages the kind of extremism on both sides that have become the bane of politics. She doesn't bash some liberals, she bases every liberal, regardless of the distinction in their politics. I think this is, in the long run, a lot more corrosive to American politics than some loony woman who will soon be yesterday's news.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:18 AM  

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