ECOVERY OR IRRELEVANCE?
The Future of the Democratic Party
Jay B. Gaskill
November 15, 2004
We “Truman Democrats” who find our party consistently weak on national security understand that the time has finally arrived for a comprehensive ideological reassessment. The Democratic Party will not survive the next three election cycles as the party of out-of-step liberals tricked out in moderate camouflage.
Ever since JFK was succeeded by LBJ more than forty years ago, the party of FDR and Truman has drifted from its muscular national security roots. Consider that of the two democratic presidencies of the post LBJ era, one of them (Carter) was a clear failure. Consider that FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Humphrey had genuine national security policy credibility, while that unqualified endorsement belongs to none of the post LBJ democrats.
If the LBJ Divide was one watershed in the American Presidency, we have arrived at another.
As of November 2, 2004, the Democratic Party has decisively been denied power to govern at the federal level, and has lost control of most statehouses and governorships. This is a catastrophic failure by the leaders and activists who have controlled the Democratic Party for the last generation.
The party activists and supporters who are looking at this as a marketing failure are missing the central point. It is a product failure. It heralds nothing less than a sea-change in American politics.
The real electoral defeat was that of the elite, anti-populist opinion-makers. I believe that we are witnessing the birth pangs of an authentic populist revolution, but the opinion makers and the Democratic Party’s left wing are deep in denial.
A prediction: The first political party to pick a charismatic standard bearer with tough foreign national security credentials and a populist domestic agenda and to fall behind that leader with enthusiasm will dominate the political landscape for decades to come.
Arguably, the prize is still within the grasp of either party, but most democrats haven’t even figured out the nature of the challenge.
The Democratic Party of the forties could meet the challenge of producing a strong, pro-American populist leader, hands down. The current party cannot. Its disarray and incoherence were masked by the unseemly lust to defeat the current Commander in Chief during a time of war. This is why the defeat of November 2, 2004 must be followed by an authentic self examination, the kind that starts and ends with brutal honesty. This is the unflinching kind of self-assessment that any alcoholic or drug addict must conduct as the first step to recovery. The list of Democratic Party addictions is a long one. It includes the addiction to the bromides and alliances of the 1960’s left, to the capricious fashions of political correctness, to the international voices that disparage American exceptionalism, and to the temptations of blatant class warfare, among others.
The democrats need a leader whose visceral commitment to a muscular and farsighted defense of the homeland is immediately recognized as authentic, a leader who speaks with a distinctly American voice, the voice of a modern populist. This must be content not stylistic populism because Americans can tell the difference.
Here’s what the post 9-11 version of a renewed American populism would look like:
Populism speaks with the confident assertion of American exceptionalism, the ideal of America as representing the powerful social exemplar for the world. This is the populism that animated the chants of rescue workers in the rubble of the World Trade Center, “USA! USA!”
Populism is rooted in our common American social values, especially the historically pro-family social traditions that govern in the heartland. These values trump all the non-democratic institutions of governance. While I still believe that a legitimate populist movement can accommodate local custom (when popular sentiment clearly differs from the mainstream, thinking of the accommodations for gay marriage in Vermont for example), I also believe that there can be no accommodation for the anti-democratic reversal of the popular will in the rest of the country in this important area of life, especially by judicial fiat. When judges abuse their trust by overriding the popular will on essential “family values” issues, a populist rebellion is inevitable.
Populism values the contribution of all newly arrived Americans but recognizes that the current very low rate of assimilation poses a threat to American cultural integrity. There is an emerging populist consensus about immigration: the rigorous exclusion of illegals coupled with robust restrictive border control and a very high priority for assimilation into American culture and values.
Populism is authentically tough on crime and terrorism. National and domestic security considerations (especially during the current wartime conditions — think of FDR’s “Freedom from Fear”) trump all bureaucratic processes, political correctness, isolationist obstructionism, and fractious interest group politics. A self confident populist administration would overcome the narrow civil libertarian objections to “racial” profiling to exclude terrorist suspects and to the use biometric identification technologies and terrorist lists for all those entering the U.S.
A populist environmental policy is explicitly pro-human, with equal emphasis on resource preservation and people access. Environmentalism by the people and for the people prevails over those who worship the environment as some quasi-deity or who elevate the protection of obscure species at the expense of the concerns of ordinary people.
Populists favor and honor productive work (which includes the critically important work of child rearing) over all forms of subsidized idleness. Few living democrats seem to honor the pro-work ethos of FDR’s New Deal except in hollow rhetoric.
Populists agree that the burdens of taxes must be meaningfully reduced on those who are actually working for a living. This issue transcends all the other left-right, partisan issues on tax policy.
Populist economic and social policy is governed by the goal of promoting upward mobility without undermining the value of the goal: to be successful, financially secure, and to be allowed pass on those benefits to one’s family. Liberals find it incomprehensible that “ordinary” working people, who (from the perspective of the Euro-centric left) have no prospect of gaining great wealth, would nevertheless oppose confiscatory taxation of estates. This is because these liberals don’t take the American dream as seriously as do the so called “common” people.
In other words, there is a core populist agenda the departure from which vitiates all populist rhetoric. This core agenda necessarily includes honest, unflinching support for the following:
cutting back welfare for the able-to-work;
effectively guarding our borders and excluding illegal aliens;
controlling the influx of lawful immigrants in order to increase assimilation into American culture, life and values;
strengthening traditional marriage and parental authority;
supporting a very strong military empowered to actually kill our enemies in furtherance of our own interests without international permission.
Elite opinion makers have worked for decades to reeducate public opinion against these and other populist positions. But every competent professional political operative in each party knows that the elite opinion shapers have failed. These professionals also know that the populist positions have consistently polled with the approval of a supermajority of the American people as a whole for at least twenty years.
This is why they are the populist issues.
Those who see my sketch as “conservative” have forgotten how sharply the left has departed from its populist origins.
Both parties have given lip service to populist principles while still playing to the elites. Each party would do better to actually adopt the core populist agenda, while implementing it with different emphases based on the different party traditions and constituencies.
A weak trend in this direction is already under way. President Bill Clinton – before his self destructive sexual misconduct – had begun to inch the democrats towards a version of populism when he embraced welfare reform and a balanced budget. And President George W. Bush attempted in his first term to nudge his party in the same direction by his faith based initiatives and education reforms. The threads of policy continuity of the two administrations were more congruent than their partisans generally recognize.
To be competitive again, the Democratic Party needs to decisively shed the boutique left, the anti-American baggage of the 60’s and 70’s and the neo-racism of the reparations crowd. The party of FDR, Truman, and Kennedy needs to rediscover its warrior heritage. The Democratic Party’s hawk wing has withered. The leftward drift of the Democratic Party took place because it lost the South. Whatever else one can say about the demise of the Southern Democrats (recall the Republicans did a better job of supporting the first Civil Right’s Act than did the democrats), the absence of southern Democrats on military and national security issues has deprived the party of much needed balance.
The central fact of the current situation is this: America has lost its bipartisan balance during a time of war and the American people can be counted on to continue to punish destructive partisanship.
The country as a whole will recover only when both parties return to track the populist mainstream. In his 2004 acceptance speech, George W. Bush coined the phrase “ownership society” to identify the general thrust of his party’s domestic agenda. A populist democratic party would promote the notion of an “opportunity society”. These two goals are complementary.
Bipartisan cooperation means healthy competition in domestic policy, but essential agreement in foreign and national security policy.
In the absence of a healthy bipartisan competition around a neo-populist consensus, we can expect the emergence of a single new majority party founded in neo-populism and a muscular national defense policy.
Who will be first?
Each party tends to be defined and shaped by its president. Because it is very probable that 2008 will still find this country engaged at war against fervid Islamist extremists, “Who will be first?” will be shaped by the exigencies of that war. The party that is able in 2008 to generate an effective populist leader with strong national security credentials can shape the new majority of the next twenty years.
The lead times for major national candidacies effectively preclude the emergence of the unknown rescuer on a white horse. The list of potential presidential candidates for 2008 consists of a finite set of public figures. Among visible democrats, few are capable by virtue of natural ideological orientation and personal history to inaugurate a populist revolution. Moreover, the party apparatchiks can be counted on to resist authentic populism, and the American people can be counted on to spot the phonies.
Leaders in both parties need to support the emergent populist voices. The future is theirs to shape….
This piece was first posted on “The Policy Think Site”
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Copyright © 2004 by Jay B. Gaskill
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