A week ago I read in the New York Times (“Republicans Debate Merits of Following Schwarzenegger to the Center”) about a bunch of conservative Republicans spinning Schwarzenegger’s election as a “fluke” (sounding like nothing so much as the spin of the mainstream Democrats here in California) and claiming that his pro-choice and other signal social-liberal views had not contributed to his success. One comment that stuck in my mind was from Stephen Moore (he’s not just the president of the Club for Growth – he’s also a client):
I don’t think this means that the party nationally should move to the center in any way. The party that has to do some soul-searching right now is the Democratic Party.
How generous and broadminded of him, I thought to myself, to offer that frank advice to his political adversaries. Could it be however, that both parties could afford to spend some effort on searching for their souls? Democrats and Republicans have come unhinged from left and right, which have themselves come unhinged from liberalism and conservatism, which at this point seem to reflect mainly intuitive impulses.
Recently, Aaron Swartz took the left to task for failing to connect its message to a wider audience (Aaron is a teenaged programming prodigy and respected weblogger):
Today’s criticism of the left is that they blow tiny things out of proportion, whine about how awful they are, and then whine more about how their whining has had an effect. … The first example is the PATRIOT Act. This darling of the left has been the subject of ACLU TV ads, Nightline episodes, and countless editorials and op-eds. If you went by the editorializing, the PATRIOT Act was the first step towards turning America into a police state where the Bill of Rights no longer applied. But when you look at the actual act, you find very little: some more surveillance authority, a nasty court, but it’s not like our fundamental freedoms are being taken away. I’d be much more concerned about being declared an enemy combatant and whisked off to a military prison. Or being held indefitely without charges as a material witness.
>So left, I ask, why are you wasting your time on this stuff? The public’s attention is precious, wouldn’t you rather talk about how Bush is giving money to Osama and giving his relatives free flights out of the country when all planes are grounded? Or how about how, while all but one of the hijackers were Saudis, we gave Saudi Arabia a free pass and in fact Bush hugged a member of the House of Saud just 48 hours after the attacks? Or maybe how the Clinton administration left a complete plan for dismantling Al Qaeda, and while the few holdovers from his administration were trying to get the President to carry it out, Bush went to his ranch to show the press his dogs? Perhaps remind folks about the public dismantling of environmental and other restrictions for large corporate donors? Or point out Bush’s lies about how everyone benefits from tax cuts for the rich? Or ask why Ashcroft is trying to jail pornographers, sellers of drug paraphanelia, and computer programmers when there’s supposedly a war on terrorism going on? Nah, you’re right, I guess it’s not important.
Oops, I forgot, I’m supposed to be attacking the left. What’s wrong with you, left? Have you lost all sense of proportion? I mean, yeah, it’s sad Valerie Plume [sic] was outted, but maybe you should worry about the rest of the population for a bit? Who knows, if you started talking to the public, you might even win an election one of these days!
Now, I could quibble about Aaron’s Internet-mediated view of politics and the left (EFF and other civil libertarian concerns loom larger online than off), but it’s hard to argue with his basic point that the left isn’t hammering away at a cohesive message the way the right tends to do with its comforting mantras (“lower taxes, reduce government,” etc.).
I’d also add that the message should be positive, not just about what’s wrong or corrupt or venal about Bush and much of the Republican apparatchik. There’s needs to be an easy-to-grasp, positive agenda that’s not just about hand-outs or stroking interest groups.
Which brings me back to soul searching. What do Democrats stand for? What does it mean to be a liberal in America? What is the political program of the left that transcends the “dialectics” of the past?