Whither liberalism? Again?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 3 2004 6:45 PM

Whither Liberalism? Again?

Here comes the usual bad advice.

In the coming days, a heartfelt dialogue will begin in which Democrats ask themselves, in a refreshing spirit of constructive self-criticism, why they can't connect with the American middle class. I have been listening to, and occasionally contributing to, discussions on this topic for more than two decades, and they began well before I tuned in. By now, the very subject makes me want to scream. Three critiques tend to dominate this discussion:

1. Democrats need to move right.
2. Democrats need to move left.
3. Democrats should sit tight and await the inevitable demographic shift that will put them on top again.

They're all wrong. Let's take them one at a time.

Democrats need to move right. This is the animating philosophy of the Democratic Leadership Council, a reform group within the Democratic Party. The DLC has made a valuable contribution to the political debate, especially on the subject of welfare reform. Bill Clinton was a former DLC chairman when he became president, and by implementing a DLC-influenced "triangulation" strategy he was able to steal the right's thunder, and even some of its rhetoric ("The era of big government is over").

Today, though, the DLC approach is, for two reasons, a bad prescription for the Democrats.

Reason 1: The DLC is a victim of its own success. Having already moved the Democratic Party rightward—these days, there isn't much point in distinguishing between a "new Democrat" and a plain old "Democrat"—it now risks taking the party too far rightward. If the Democrats continue down this path, then pretty soon it will be impossible to distinguish the Democrats from today's Republicans. (Some folks on the left, including Ralph Nader, think that's already happened.)

Reason 2: The process of moving the Democrats rightward has no end point, because every time the Democrats shift rightward the Republicans respond by shifting a little further rightward so they can continue to denounce the Democratic position as radical leftism. That explains why the GOP of today is so much further right than the GOP of the Reagan era, when Republicans were still willing to support expansion of the earned income tax credit for low-income workers; more progressive taxation of Social Security benefits; arms control; and promotion of human rights abroad. (This rightward shift was documented compellingly by Joshua Green in "Reagan's Liberal Legacy" in the January/February 2001 Washington Monthly.) In theory, there ought to be a point where the GOP has moved so far to the right that nobody will vote for its candidates. But in practice, I'm not confident that such a point exists.

Sometimes the need to move rightward is portrayed as more a matter of style than of policy. But John Kerry didn't get anywhere with his hunting-trip photo op, or with frequent affirmations of his Catholic faith. Democrats, I fear, are doomed to be thought phonies whenever they play this game, even when they aren't. (Kerry is a phony in some ways, but I believe him to be sincere in his faith and in his enthusiasm for hunting.)

Democrats need to move left. The mere fact that this would sharpen the difference between Democrats and Republicans makes this option appealing. And in at least some ways, a leftward shift would likely improve governance. The Democrats' reluctance to move leftward has hobbled party efforts even to imagine, much less enact, truly comprehensive health-care reform, which is badly needed. And the party's left wing turned out to be wise to resist the invasion of Iraq.

But while a more leftist agenda might be advisable policy, as politics it doesn't work. Merely to identify oneself as "liberal" is suicide for most politicians, and these days you even see private citizens edging away from the label. In his brilliantly textured book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank documents and analyzes the mysterious alliance between corporate America and the proletariat better than any of the countless other academics and journalists who've attempted it. But when it comes to offering advice to the Democrats, Frank's recommendation—move leftward!—is no more satisfying than anyone else's. Moving leftward has been tried repeatedly. It never works! Al Gore tried to get himself elected president four years ago by adopting a post-convention strategy of economic populism, and it didn't win him victory in the Electoral College (or, if you prefer: It didn't win him a decisive enough victory in the Electoral College to keep the Supreme Court from stealing it back). Indeed, since the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., it's been difficult to name a single politician on the national stage who's acquired a significant following while positioning himself to the left of the Democratic Party's center. (Michael Moore has, but nobody elected him.) The left can hardly lecture President Bush about the importance of fact-based reasoning if it ignores this recent history.

Democrats should sit tight and await the inevitable demographic shift that will put them on top again. This is the enormously appealing message of The Emerging Democratic Majority, a book that John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published right before the Democrats took a pasting in 2002's midterm congressional elections. (For an extended discussion of the book, click herehere, and here.) It may well emerge. But Judis and Teixeira's coalition a-borning depends heavily on people whose lives were shaped by academic and quasi-academic environments, i.e., it excludes the white working class. The best Judis and Teixeira can say is that as Republicans continue to wreck the economy, these proletarians will migrate back to the Democratic Party. Even if it were possible to have a Democratic Party that didn't include the working class, would we really want one?

And who knows whether this demographic messiah will ever arrive, anyway? Teixeira is a genius at crunching data in ways that keep the flame burning, but on his Weblog he hasn't yet weighed in on the 2004 results. He'll have a hard time spinning this one.

So what should the Democrats do?  In the words of Jack Benny: I'm thinking, I'm thinking!

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.