We Are the Conservatives
Time and time again, I hear the punditocracy complain about the Democrats. An editorial columnist writes that "All the Democrats seem to able to do is criticize. What's their plan for the country?" "If only they would stand for something, I might give those liberals a little more respect," a radio talk show host intones.
This is a smart tactical move, because calling for a solution assumes the existence of a problem with the Democratic Party that may or may not actually exist. If you try to answer the complaints on their own terms, you have already implicitly agreed that the Democrats (or Liberals more generally) are bereft of ideas and have no substantive stances of their own.
It is really that first assumption, the one that talk jocks and spin doctors skip, that is most vital. So let's more fairly phrase it not as a matter of fact, but as a factual question: Does the Democratic Party stand for anything? If so, what?
To make this a more than trivial exercise, we must meet the "Pablum" challenge. Morton Downey, Jr. originated the term "Pablum-puking liberals" to refer to the notion that the stuff Democrats believed in was either so vaguely defined as to escape definition, or so obvious that everyone agreed already. To read Mr. Downey nicely (which he never managed to do for his own opponents), he was saying that if the Democrats' stands are taken for granted or unclear, then they really aren't stands at all.
So, to finally rephrase the question, do Democrats have any political ideas that are actually for something and not just against something, that are clear, and to which there is significant opposition? If we can identify such ideas, then we've put up and those Republican-leaning pundits need to shut up. If we can't manage this task, then the Democracts have some explaining to do.
Core Democratic values are simply identified and articulated because they are, as the punditerati imply, nothing new. Core Democratic values are old, representing a solid tradition in American politics that can be traced in some aspects as far back as the Revolutionary War, but can also be identified in more recent strains leading from Emancipation through Suffrage and the Civil Rights Era.
What do the Democrats stand for? Let's hum a few bars:
1. Liberty. Democrats believe that unless people are hurting others, they should be able to do what they please. What people choose to do in their bedrooms, as long as everybody consents and nobody gets hurt, is their own business. Who people choose to love is their own business. Which god (or lack thereof) people choose to worship (or not) is their business. People should be free to hold and express any idea they wish to, so long as they don't try to force others to live by them.
The Republican Party can't stand this idea. Instead, they favor the criminalization of consensual sex acts that hurt nobody. Wherever they can manage it, they've passed laws that won't let you buy a beer on Sunday mornings, even if you're a moderate drinker. When someone disagrees with a Republican leader on foreign policy issues, GOP politicians don't do the civic thing and just talk right back. No, they label it "treason." If someone dying of an incurable and terminal disease makes the rational decision to spare themselves a final week of severe pain, Republican Party authorities push to have them arrested. If someone smokes a joint from a plant grown in their own backyard in order to relieve the persistent eye pressure of glaucoma, Republican policies send them to the jailhouse. Republican Party operatives justify their crusade against civil liberty by making the historically and legally inaccurate claim that "it's a Christian nation," which apparently means that everybody has to act by a conveniently Republican interpretation of Christian values. They say they want to make consensual and non-harmful conduct illegal because it is a "crime against God" or a "crime against Nature." It's possible that Republican politicians think that they have an exclusive phone line open to God and Nature, in which case they are simply insane. More plausible is that they know the "God and Nature" lines are bullshit, but use them as cover for personal tastes. This is even more disturbing, because it implies that the Republican Party (and hence our nation) is run by people who want to throw others in jail not because those others have hurt anyone, but because they personally find those others' conduct ICKY. The Democratic Party is committed to countering these imperious prudes.
2. Accountability. This is the flip side of liberty: when people exercise their freedoms in a manner that causes harm to other people, they must be held accountable. If a person knowingly kills, maims, or molests someone, for instance, that person must be brought to justice. Accountability also applies to the activities of people working together in organizations: if a corporation pollutes a river, that corporation should clean up its mess and atone for any negative consequences. If a cigarette maker knows that its product is cancer-causing and addictive but hides that knowledge from its customers for decades, it should recompense those customers and the health care system that has spent so much picking up the pieces. If a conglomerate dodges its responsibility to pay taxes for upkeep of the roads, mail system, education support, price subsidies, securities administration, economic coordination and legal system it makes such extensive use of, then it must be brought to justice.
The Republican Party believes in individual accountability, but cannot abide the idea that corporations should be responsible for the damage they cause. When corporations defraud investors, the Bush administration's "get tough" measure is to demand that the perpetrators ADMIT they've done wrong. That's it: no fine, no jail time, just an admission. Republican politicians have gutted the budgets of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, whose jobs are to ferret out corporate fraudsters and tax cheats. With the remaining meager budget the IRS has left, the Republican administration has insisted that audits be directed toward the less wealthy, not the rich. Laws, you see, are for poor suckers in the Republican universe. Another great Republican idea: corporations with their administrative offices, their factories, their distribution centers and all other business activities in the United States can escape corporate income taxes by setting up a mailbox in the Cayman Islands and calling it their headquarters. These corporations use our roads, our mail, our education system, our hospitals -- but they don't contribute a penny to cover the expense. On Planet Republican, that's the job of the little people, the suckers. Also the job of the us little people is to suck it up and pay the price when corporations run roughshod over our lives. Chemical plant pollutes your river with carcinogens? Tough nougat: under Republican "tort reform," your ability to sue for compensation should you get sick is limited. Plus, YOU get to pick up the tab for cleaning up the mess. That's the Republican way.
3. Kindness. The Democratic Party supports a social compact in which we commit as a people to look out for each other. This means that everyone deserves public education, and that no one should be without health care. This means that no one should go hungry, and that everyone should at least have a cot to sleep on at night. By the social compact that the Democratic Party stands for, those of us who are fortunate enough to have more than we need commit to chip in a little bit so that the less fortunate can survive. Of course, the Democratic Party isn't interested in imposing this dictatorially; rather, a vote for a Democrat is a vote for this compact. If enough Democrats are democratically elected, the social compact of kindness will grow stronger in policy.
The unfortunate converse of this is that the more Republicans are elected, the weaker the social compact of kindness becomes. The "compassionate conservative" version of kindness promoted by the Republican Party is simply to notice that others are less fortunate, but to do nothing about it except vocally hope that SOMEONE (someone else, that is) will lend a hand. Medicare? Cut it. Social Security? Cut it. Education? Underfund it. Head Start? Weaken it. That's the Republican way: talk a good game of compassion, but walk away from the Democratic compact of kindness.
4. Fiscal Responsibility. Oh, the Republicans talk a good game about fiscal responsibility; they go on and on about how irresponsible the Democrats are.
But the facts are not on the Republican Party's side. Democrats Kennedy and Johnson contributed less to deficits than Republicans Nixon and Ford. Democratic President Carter borrowed less than Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush. It was Democratic President Bill Clinton who brought us out of deficit territory back to surpluses. It is Republican George W. Bush who has brought us right back into record deficit territory.
The simple historical matter of fact is that Democrats are amazingly better than Republicans at balancing their budgets. The Republicans repeatedly have shown a tendency to blow their budgets on credit. The Democratic Party is the party of fiscal responsibility, cleaning up after the mess left by the elephants.
5. Don't Start Wars. Democrats fight wars, as history will show. But Democrats don't start them. The Republican Party has become so addicted to the jingoistic politics of war that it has crossed the line that the United States respected for so long: that One Does Not Start a War. War is supposed to be a matter of defense. With the war against Iraq, however, no imminent threat was shown. As each day passes and no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq, it becomes increasingly clear that not even a distant threat from Iraq was present. But to war we went anyway, thanks to the Republican Party and their Halliburton-Bechtel-Exxon defense and oil interests.
Democrats are more decent than this: most Democrats will fight a war in defense of their nation (in fact, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry served two tours in Vietnam, unlike the dodging Bush and Cheney). But they will not start a war, knowing that despite their use in propping up polling numbers, wars are acts of horror that cannot be won, only survived.
It is curious that the Democratic party, so often characterized as radical in the past, has now become conservative in the truest sense, acting to conserve these most traditional values of American civic politics. In the meantime, the efforts of the Republican leadership to overturn centuries of civilized precedent earns their party the adjective "radical."
The key difference today is that the radicals are not in the streets and at the gates. No matter how many times Bush Junior poses in Waco, the Republican Radicals are not outsiders. They are insiders. They are in the boardrooms. They have the Speakership and the majority of the Senate. They control the Oval Office. Given just one more justice, they will take the Supreme Court. The radicals have the keys to the car, gas in the tank, and the rest of the country strapped in the back seat. Considering their rejection of the basic traditions of American civic life -- liberty, accountability, kindness, fiscal responsibility and military restraint -- we have reason to fear their final destination. Before we're moved from the back seat to the trunk, before we've accelerated out of control, we true conservatives need to strain forward and pull the emergency brake. If we wait too long, it may be too late.
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