TCS Daily

Radical Chic

By Uriah Kriegel - November 12, 2004 12:00 AM

The world of politics has very few hard rules. One of the few is that, on the heels of a major defeat, political parties have an immediate instinct to radicalize.

The pain of election loss gets transformed into anger at the electorate. From this anger follow moral condescension and alienation. The voters are ignorant. The voters are dumb, mean-spirited. They are all too easily manipulated.

The rhetoric becomes feisty. "If we don't have power, at least we have our moral principles!" 'Principles' becomes a huge theme; pragmatism is set aside. Feeling rejected, the losing party recasts the narrative as though it never really needed the people's affirmation. It has the right moral principles, and it's just the people's responsibility to notice that.

If the nation fails to appreciate these moral principles, that doesn't mean that the party should change. On the contrary, the party should harden in its beliefs. It should never sell out. 'Selling out' is another huge theme.

This sort of instinct is understandable, but it is fundamentally self-destructive. Political parties are in the business of getting to power, not in the business of being saints. There is place for saints in political life, but that is simply not the role of political parties. The radicalization instinct amounts effectively to giving up on serious prospects for returning to power. All the feisty rhetoric in the world cannot hide the underlying despair this instinct betrays.

When a political party follows up on this instinct, it is typically shut out of power indefinitely -- or rather until it regains composure and is willing to deal with the people once again instead of insulating itself from them.

The shepherds of the Democratic party must be aware of this rare of rules as they reorganize their thinking in the wake of Bush's unequivocal victory. The calls for radicalization, for clinging to principles and not selling out, are everywhere to be heard. (Officials in the Kerry campaign have been sending and forwarding emails with the text of Paul Krugman's angry tirade in his Thursday column.) But they must be resisted.

Between 1980 and 2008, the only Democrat to ascend to the presidency has been Bill Clinton. That is to say, in the span of almost 30 years, the only Democratic president was a southern, unnaturally charming, dead-moderate Democrat.

But what made Clinton is an altogether different quality. He did not condescend and did not preach to middle America. His initiatives on welfare reform and trade and his tough-on-crime policies were a result of listening to the people rather than telling them where they went wrong or in what respect they were too ignorant to form a responsible opinion.

Clinton was always able to connect to the white, lower middle class, factory worker struggling to make a living. That guy has a real stake in the Democrats' economic agenda, but is also a diehard patriot who loves the American way all but dogmatically. That guy voted for Clinton, but could not bring himself to vote for either Gore or Kerry, or for that matter Dukakis, Mondale, or Carter. All of them exuded the sort of elitist condescension fueled by the intellectual organs of the Left, notably the liberal academia. Democrats must keep in mind that all it might have taken to win this past election is to win over this guy whom Clinton did win over.

One thing the intellectual organs of the Left consistently miss is that, at some gut level, the American people appreciate, and respond to, a coherent governing philosophy with clear overarching themes. Clinton offered one, namely, the Blair-style "third way" of the Democratic Leadership Council. He could thus make a clear case for his presidency.

Not so Gore and Kerry. Gore could never articulate any rationale for his presidential bid over and above the fact that being president is the only thing left for a vice president to do. And the only discernible reason Kerry could ever adduce for being president was that he wasn't Bush. That's a motivation, not a philosophy.

Reagan and Bush clearly have had their own governing philosophies. Bush Senior didn't, so he was a one-term president. If serious about returning to power, Democrats must make sure they articulate a coherent governing philosophy that is moderate and respectful of the people's voice.

The diagnosis that says that the American populace is simply too conservative for Democrats' values is bogus. Here are some simple facts. 86% of Americans think that there are some circumstances under which abortion should be permissible. Despite strong opposition to gay marriage, 60% of exit-polls respondents said they were pro-civil unions. The religious right has been increasingly marginalized in American political life: witness last year's striking down of Texas' sodomy laws and the Feds' forced removal of the ten commandments from the Alabama courthouse.

Democrats should remember that even with an inept candidate, and an even more inept candidacy, they lost this past election by only 3% of the popular vote. There is no reason whatsoever for despair and its attendant radicalization. Getting back into power is far from inconceivable. Democrats would do well to set aside the talk of "principles," "selling out," "fighting back," etc. That discourse is begotten by anger and frustration, not reason. Instead, they should start crafting a clear, coherent, and moderate governing philosophy and look around for a charming but hawkish face to put on it.

The author teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona.


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