How To Deal With The Moral Bankruptcy Of The GOP, Its Power, And Their "Stepford" Supporters
Permit me, as this is one of those longwinded pieces I try to do when I get the time to do some thinking. But it touches on some of the concerns we on the left have had with the willingness of a large portion of our population to blindly support a corrupt regime and what the Democrats can do about it.
One of the gnawing concerns that many of us on the center-left have is that no matter how many lies are told, how many crimes are committed and mistakes made, and no matter how many times the public interest is sacrificed for private gain by this administration, there will still be about 40-42% of the electorate that will vote for George W. Bush no matter what. It is a fact that drives those of us with grandiose notions of our democracy and its citizens nuts. Yet it is a fact of life that the center-left needs to come to terms with immediately if there is to be a counterbalance to the damage that the right wing and its religious allies are doing to this country as I write this.
The right wing in this country realized decades ago that in an environment where voter participation keeps heading downward and your political opposition cannibalizes itself over ideological and political process purity, an energized and well-funded minority in this country can use religion, single-issue politics, and deception to gradually build from the ground up and eventually take control of the nation, thereby forcing extremist dogma onto the majority even if the precepts behind this dogma are against the interests of the majority. A great summary of how this has already manifested itself is Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas” (available for purchase on the left of this site), wherein Frank explains how it is that many Americans vote more and more against their economic and social self-interest by being manipulated by the right wing and the GOP, a party and ideology that shows no moral compass and consistency except to win at all costs.
The San Francisco Chronicle runs two good pieces today that are great discussion points in this area. The first is by author Theodore Roszak, who astutely notes what drives liberals to distraction about the contemporary Republican Party.
Here's what I think most infuriates liberals. They are up against a Republican opposition that has shown no comparable willingness to risk party unity on a matter of conscience -- nothing that compares to the sacrifice liberals were willing to make over civil rights and Vietnam. Republicans have had no difficulty swallowing episodes like McCarthyism and Watergate. Indeed, the relentless effort to impeach Bill Clinton was largely retaliation for what conservatives still see as the "persecution" of poor Richard Nixon. Others (like Ann Coulter) are now toiling to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy, including his charge that liberals are traitors. And Ronald Reagan went to his grave this year all but officially pardoned by Republicans for Iran-Contra, the most blatant violation of constitutional government in American history.
We have yet to see any sizable group of Republicans who will admit to a single moral blemish, let alone display a willingness to defect. Hardly surprising, then, that Bush supporters display no discomfort over a war that liberals see as an obvious hoax. Bush's political base has become so ideologically entrenched that it is willing to offer his administration a blank ethical check.
Let me be the first to admit it: The Republican Party scares the living daylights out of me, and that has nothing to do with differing interpretations of "The Federalist Papers." It has to do with presidential adviser Karl Rove. I cannot think of a single principle Rove's party would hesitate to trample into dust for the sake of holding power. There is much talk of God and values on the right, but the ruthlessness of right-wing politics belies the sincerity of those professions for me.
What must the center-left do in response to this corrosive politics? What are the short-term and long-term strategies for the center-left in dealing with the right wing to stop this cancer from spreading any further? Roszak not only correctly notes the lack of a moral compass and backbone within the GOP, he touches briefly on what may be a solid short-term strategy for the Democrats to stop right wing extremism from taking over the country for generations: form an alliance with GOP moderates. Just like the GOP looked for opportunities to peel off Boll Weevil and Blue Dog Democrats to build voting blocs in support of common aims, the Democrats can now do the same to capitalize on the far right drift in the GOP.
As Roszak noted, except for Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee who has bravely not endorsed George W. Bush’s election this year, moderate GOP senators haven’t formed a bloc to stop their extremist colleagues consistently. This can be expected given that any such move in advance of the 2004 election only ensures that the this White House will retaliate against that state’s interests, and that should Bush win this year the White House and its payback allies like Cato’s Club for Growth will run conservatives against the moderates, like they did against Arlen Specter this year. Chafee is vulnerable to such pressure as he is up for reelection in 2006, as is Maine’s Olympia Snowe.
Yet Ohio’s George Voinovich is running for election this year, and if he wins (which is likely) and if Ohio goes for Kerry, Voinovich could withstand any right-wing pressure and be a good candidate for the Democrats to actively work with. Likewise, Maine’s Susan Collins will not be up for reelection again until 2008, and if Maine goes for Kerry she would also be a likely member of a center-left effort to stop the right-wing extremists. But even concerns from Snowe and Chafee about right wing or White House pressure may be mitigated by the likely dissipation of political support for Bush in a second term nationally, and in their states locally which are both likely to go for Kerry this election. In other words, it should be possible for the Senate Democratic leadership to fashion an agenda of common interests with these Senate GOP moderates that could not only stymie any Bush second term agenda, but also bring along other GOP senators immune from Bush pressure as well on certain issues, like John McCain, Chuck Hagel, and Lindsey Graham. And if Kerry wins, each of these GOP senators may even be more inclined to work with a Democratic administration to benefit their states and their own ambitions as well. Plus, it is very possible that the Democrats may keep from losing seats in the Senate this year, so any move towards accommodation with GOP moderates would shut down the right wing totally.
The other piece of note from the Chronicle today highlights a longer-term approach. It is by author Mark Hertsgaard, who writes on the “looming fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party” regardless of whether or not Kerry wins next month. Hertsgaard is best known for writing the best book ever on how the Reagan White House manipulated the media into subservience ("On Bended Knee"), and he pens a piece today that represents the longer-term remedy to not only stopping the right wing extremists from capturing this country but also a restoration of the Democratic Party and a true two-party system.
Fights over a political party's future are common after the party loses a big election. But John Kerry figures to face a fight over control of the party from fellow Democrats even if he beats George W. Bush on Nov. 2.
Influential figures on the party's left wing are planning a long-term campaign to move the Democrats to the left, just as right-wing activists took over the Republican Party and moved it to the right over the past 30 years.
If the left's campaign is successful, it could transform the political landscape of the United States, changing the terms of debate and bringing dramatically different policies on local, national and international issues.
Hertsgaard reports that Bush’s extremism has pushed the disparate elements of the Democratic Party to finally work together in their pursuit of Bush’s defeat in the short term, and to learn from the GOP on how to build the party from the ground up in the long term. Hertsgaard sees a scenario whereby the coalitions in the party will push it away from the DLC centrist model and towards the left, regardless of whether Kerry wins or not. The speed at which the coalition of labor, environmental, antipoverty, and civil rights groups will try and remake the party will vary depending on whether or not Kerry wins next month:
If Bush wins on Nov. 2, the battle for control of the Democratic Party will probably come quickly. Leftists will argue that Kerry and the centrists forfeit any right to leadership if they cannot defeat the most vulnerable incumbent since Jimmy Carter.
If Bush is defeated, the battle will unfold more gradually. The left will probably cooperate with Kerry on some issues and fight him on others, while it focuses on building the media, research and grassroots institutions that can swing the party in its direction.
In any event, Hertsgaard sees the left remaking the Democratic Party the same way the right wing remade the GOP. This is a welcome development not only for the party but also for this country. There is nothing wrong with partisanship and a true battle for the hearts and minds of voters through a debate of real choices in a marketplace of ideas. The DLC concluded almost two decades ago that the problem with the Democratic Party was that it wasn’t relevant anymore and didn’t reflect a perceived rightward shift of the country in the age of Reagan. However, the DLC approach left behind the party’s base, which ended up in electing a gifted candidate who didn’t have the moorings of the party for support. Add to that the inability and unwillingness of the Clintons to build the party while having the benefits of the White House, and you end up without the means to push an agenda and confront a well organized and ferocious opposition.
The left finds itself in a similar situation this time with Kerry. If Kerry is successful, the left will want to hold Kerry accountable but must not lose sight of the fact that holding him accountable without also working towards building the party and media infrastructure will only result in another handcuffed Democratic presidency. Kerry and his team have already proven that they can organize and raise money on a par with the GOP, so a Kerry presidency will start with a huge leg up for the party this time, compared to when Clinton came in. Plus, the powers of incumbency can only help Kerry in raising money and recruiting candidates for the national party. But to keep this from being another hollow exercise based solely on fundraising and the advantages of incumbency, Kerry has to set the stage for a real transformation of the party back to its roots and to bringing new voters into the process to overwhelm the GOP's single issue and religious minorities.
To this end, should Kerry win, the biggest thing he could do to help not only himself but the party would be to aggressively take steps to push along the rebuilding of the party from the ground up and to level the playing field for those efforts. As a first step, Kerry could install Howard Dean and Joe Trippi at the DNC so that they could institutionalize the Dean campaign's appeal and outreach approach. This would be an effort in not only bringing in new voters into the base to dilute the power of the well organized right wing religious minority, but to also better use technology to link up all of the elements of the party. Dean could reach out to Ralph Nader to look for areas of common interest and work towards gradually bringing some of the Greens back to a Democratic Party newly recommitted to environmental and consumer protection, equality, civil rights, and reform of our political process.
Dean can take these steps independently of Kerry, who can use the levers of power to not only hold off what will certainly be a repeat of an all-out assault on his presidency by the right wing similar to what happened to Clinton, but to use the Executive Branch to level the playing field through appointments and executive orders that will address corporate control at the FCC, FTC, SEC, NLRB, and other boards and commissions. This will go a long way towards holding off the right wing assault, but also provide some warranted payback against the GOP while giving the Democratic Party the space to rebuild. Due to the damage done and the institutionalization of corporate and religious interests throughout the government and in our media, despite his best intentions and rhetoric Kerry will find himself being basically the transitional figure in Democratic Party politics that Clinton never was. Kerry’s greatest accomplishments inside the party will be to fight the GOP tooth and nail every step of the way while providing the party with the protection and cover for Dean, Trippi, and even Nader to reenergize the Democratic Party and the labor, civil rights, and environmental movements to compete one again in a marketplace of ideas in the media and in Congress. If he can allow the party the room and cover to do these things, Kerry would be in a better position to fix the problems caused by Bush and the GOP with the infrastructure support to sell these tough choices and withstand the Mighty Wurlitzer.
Both of these approaches, one short term and one long term, point the way for the Democratic Party to not only deal effectively and forcefully with the GOP and its extremist base, but to also to fight and remedy the corrosive effects of GOP and right wing control of our media and our government. Not only will building alliances with moderates amongst the GOP in the Senate and realigning the Democratic Party with its base help the party, but it will also benefit the nation by holding off the right wing extremists from consolidating control while rebuilding a real debate amongst two legitimate choices in our national politics.