Recently Andrew Cuomo asked me to contribute to a book of essays on the future of the Democratic Party. I thought I would send it to Andrew through OpinionJournal.com. That way he will be able to see your responses pro and con and perhaps include a few of them in the book, too.
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As a former Democrat I’m happy to talk to my old party about its future. Some of my words may sting a little, but I send them to you in hopes your party will see in them food for thought, and for progress.
All political parties have problems—infighting, internal dissent, philosophical disagreements. But the modern Democratic Party has problems that are essentially different from that, and could actually do it in.
The first is what seems to me a lack of a constructive spirit within your party. Great parties exist in part to give us markers for the future. They offer a rough map that will get us to a better and higher destination. In the Democratic Party now, and for some time, I have not perceived that they are trying to get us to a good place. They seem interested only in thwarting the trek of the current president and his party, who are, to the Democrats, “the other.” When the president is a Democrat you now support him no matter what. You support him if he doesn’t have a map, and isn’t interested in markers, and is only interested in his own day-to-day survival.
I am not saying you are too partisan. Partisanship is fine. But Republicans by and large don’t suffer from blind loyalty or blind antagonism. They would think it irresponsible to the country. They will bolt on one of their own if he insists on a route they think is seriously wrong (the first Bush on taxes). They will kill his presidency if they conclude he is essentially destructive (it was his Republican base in Congress that ended Richard Nixon’s career). Recently it was Republicans who did in their own Senate majority leader because they would not accept a certain kind of nonsense. If George W. Bush begins to seriously compromise conservative political philosophy, or to behave in a manner grossly offensive in a leader, they will turn on him too.
The Democratic Party will now stick with its guy forever, no matter how harmful he is. Perhaps you call that loyalty, and perhaps there’s something to it, but a bigger part, I believe, is that you have come to think that winning is everything—that victory is the purpose of politics.
If the purpose is just winning, you can do anything to win. And you can do anything to stay. You never give an inch. But people who never give an inch sometimes wind up occupying tired and barren terrain.
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You have grown profoundly unserious. This is the result of the win-at-any-cost mindset. A recent illustration: President Bush broke through to the great middle of America and persuaded them we must move in Iraq. He was able to do this not because the presidency is the Big Microphone—President Clinton used to complain that Rush Limbaugh had the big microphone—but because he honestly believed, in his head and his heart, he was acting to make our country and other countries safer. Maybe history will show him right and maybe not, but people can tell his passion springs from conviction.
Democratic leaders, on the other hand, have by and large approached Iraq not with deep head-heart integration but with what appears to be mere calculation. What will play? What will resonate? These questions are both inevitable and a part of politics. But again, they are not the purpose of politics. Lincoln himself said, “Public opinion is everything,” but he was speaking of public opinion as a fact he had to consider as he tried to push the country in a new direction. He did not think public opinion itself was a direction. And he didn’t think it was a policy.
The modern Democratic Party is unserious in other ways. In the 1950s and ‘60s the party included many obviously earnest and thoughtful liberals who supported goals that were in line with and expressions of serious beliefs. They believed that America was an exceptional country. (See the speeches of Adlai Stevenson among others.) Because it was exceptional it needed to remain strong. (JFK: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, suffer any hardship . . . to secure the survival and success of liberty.”)
They also believed America had real flaws, actual sins, that needed to be righted. They assumed this exceptional country could right them. (That’s what optimism is in politics; it’s not smiling a hearty smile in front of a podium and pointing with a commanding air toward all your friends in the audience.) They wanted racial integration for the good of justice and the good of our country. They wanted more government assistance to the poor for the same reason. They were anticommunist. They were grownups. They were thinking.
Vietnam changed everything of course, and even though this is an old story I’ll touch on it. Your party’s problem was not that it opposed the war—that was one honorable position among many. The mistake the Democrats made was to allow their antiwar movement to become infused with bitterness and hostility, with a spirit of destructiveness. By the end the animating spirit of the movement looked something like this: We do not love this place; we prefer leaders unsullied by the grubby demands of electoral politics; we are drawn to the ideological purity of Ho, Fidel, Mao. And by the way we’re taking over: Oppose our vision and we’ll take care of you by revolutionary means.
That was the ultimate spirit of the movement, and it began to take over your party. The old-bull liberals were swept away, more radical Democrats arose, and they led your party to become not a united and spirited force but a party of often warring pressure groups. The pro-abortion lobby, the affirmative-action lobby, other lobbies. You have had only one two-term Democratic president in the 35 years since Vietnam. This is because in the end you looked extreme, bought and paid for, and weak.
The Republican Party still manages to cohere around principles that are essentially clear and essentially conservative. The Democrats are not cohering. They are held together by a gritty talent for political process—message discipline, for instance. But what good is message discipline if there’s no serious and coherent message?
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There is another problem. You have become the party of snobs. You have become the party of Americans who think they’re better than other Americans.
Let me quickly chart the life of a former Democrat. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, the Democrats seemed to me the party of the working class and middle class—the party of immigrants, strivers and those who adhered to an expansive reading of the American dream. I shared that dream, and saw my home as the Democratic Party. I was swayed by JFK and Bobby, by their implicit sense of honor about being Americans, as if they thought to be an American was a great gift and yet had a price: You had to help your country, you had to have guts and an open mind, you had to care about people others forgot.
I thought of Republicans as bland, unimaginative, vaguely immoral people who drank things like gin and tonic where they played things like golf. I remember reading in high school or college and being moved by someone’s wonderful old turn of the century agitprop poem—”The golf links were so near the mills that nearly every day / The laboring children could look out and see the men at play.” I assumed those men were Republicans.
My father had been a poor kid in Brooklyn who grew up on what was then called relief. He’d talk about the rancid butter people like him were given to eat. But he thought Franklin Roosevelt was the only president who’d ever done anything to help the workingman, and he had a resentment of those who were comfortably middle class, or upper middle, or rich. I inherited this. These were the biases I brought to the conversation when talk turned to politics when I was a teenager and young woman.
But—again—the antiwar movement startled me. I knew America was imperfect, but I also loved it. I had no illusion that other countries were perfect, or superior. I couldn’t imagine an unelected dictator had more legitimacy than an American president. I will never forget a moment when on local television they showed one day an antiwar march meeting up with a bunch of New York hardhats near City Hall. They fought, and the hardhats tried to raise the American flag. I watched and realized I was pulling for the hard hats.
I worked in Boston after college and saw affluent, well-educated and deeply insensitive officials forcing busing on working-class people who were understandably aghast at the idea that their young children couldn’t go to the school down the block but had to be bused to a place far away where they knew nobody. I worked in an all-news radio station, and many of my colleagues, the writers and editors and producers, were young liberals gone left, bright and engaged by life. They were almost all for busing. Their enthusiasm for it—they hadn’t yet had children whose presence might have moderated their thoughts and conclusions—left them patronizing the ill-educated and no doubt racist poor-Irish-Catholics-who-have-nothing people of South Boston, who opposed busing. Again I was startled. This was like the antiwar movement. It was like Henry Cabot Lodge looking down on the help! It would never have occurred to me to look down on anyone. But boy, these liberals did. They were real snobs. And it was class snobbery.
I was, as a young woman in the ‘70s, trying to commit myself professionally for the first time. I wanted to do good work, and really tried. But I saw in time that I was being clobbered by taxes, and in time I had a subversive thought. Hmmm, liberals who back busing are taxing me extra heavy so I can pay for busing. Great.
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Liberals were also acting as if street crime was an inevitable result of societal injustice. I didn’t doubt there was truth in that, but I also knew street crime was the result of street criminals, and they should be caught and thrown in jail. But how can you find time to do that when you’re busy reforming society top to bottom like little Pol Pots? In fact, why do it at all when the fact of exploding street crime seems to support your theories about American inequality and injustice?
Once one late night on the T, the city transit system, I got off at a downtown stop and noticed a woman who’d gotten off with me. She was about 60, she was furiously going through her purse, and she had the kind of flopping expression of someone who’s just lost control of her facial muscles. I asked what was wrong and she turned to me and began to cry. She said she’d had her purse next to her on the subway, she feared the kid next to her had opened it, she was afraid, she got off, and all her money was gone. He’d taken everything. She did not appear to be someone who could lose $40 or $60 lightly. I helped her report it and I think I gave her money. But hers was truly the face of the oppressed: an old lady alone who’s lost control of her face. And who was oppressing her? It wasn’t the tough-on-crime crowd.
All of it came together bit by bit, and I started to become a conservative, and in time a Republican. And for the very reasons that my father was a Democrat.
Not a word of what I am saying is new. You’ve heard stories like this before. But it is still fiercely pertinent to your fortunes, because the journey I describe was common. It was the journey millions and tens of millions of people were taking at the same time, in the same era, for the same reasons. By the ‘80s their numbers were massive. They were the ground troops of the Reagan revolution. They left the Democratic Party. They left you. Here’s your problem: To this day they haven’t come back.
And they’re not teaching their kids to love you.
I see the modern Democratic Party as the party of snobs. I wonder why your much-proclaimed compassion is distributed on such a limited basis—to this pressure group, that minority group, this special interest group.
Yes, all parties do this to some degree, but again, the Republicans the past quarter century seemed to be building coalitions that embraced the same general principles—freedom in the world, security at home, smaller and less mighty government wherever possible, more money left in the pockets of the people, a respect for the things that were tried and true. They recognize the fact of evil in the world, and they’re unwilling to excuse crime and criminals.
The Democrats seemed motivated not by general principles and beliefs but only the need to win, which left you protecting your market share by bribing groups you’d once been able to champion. You’ve become confused as to your purpose, your reason for being. Yes, Republicans have pressure groups too, and the party pays great attention to them. But the GOP’s pressure groups are in line with the sympathies of the party as a whole. When the National Rifle Association agitates for its issues, it’s agitating within a party that supports the right to keep and bear arms.
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Let’s stick with the right to keep and bear arms for a minute. My Democratic friends, when you think about this question, ask yourself if snobbery as a political force isn’t part of the reason you stand where you stand.
Gun owners hunt. They keep guns to protect themselves in dangerous places—rural areas where help isn’t always immediately available, for instance. They like and respect firearms and are committed to their right to have them. A lot of gun owners live down South or out West or in the less fashionable sections of the Northern industrial states. They are mostly not coastal and urban in their cultural interests. They are not the media elite, the academic elite, any kind of elite. Do you respect these people?
As long as they’re law abiding, and responsible enough to respect the damage guns can do, conservatives completely support their right to have arms. (Sure they should be registered, but registration should exist to allow the law abiding to have guns, and not be twisted into a way to keep guns out of everyone’s hands.)
Liberals/leftists as a class—and I’m sorry but really, you’ve become a class—don’t usually know people who shoot. They don’t like people who shoot. They look down on them; gun owners are boobs and yahoos out in the sticks killing Bambi. As for living in a rural area where there’s no nearby police force, why don’t you just . . . move?
Let me be, admittedly, mean, but to make a point I can’t figure out how to make any other way. Those who oppose the right to keep and bear arms are not as a rule the kind of people who would, or could, take down a nut waving his gun at the kids in a McDonalds. Those who oppose gun rights are more like the kind of people who when the incident was over would write a sensitive essay about how it felt to come face to face with one’s existential powerlessness when faced with the sudden force of a sick man who alas shot two kids right in front of me. You may mean to be helpful in the abstract, but you are not helpful in the particular.
Conservatives are on the side of the citizen who’d protect the kids and takes down the bad guy with the gun. Aren’t you, really? Shouldn’t you be, “for the good of the children”?
Do you wish Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett, and the stewardesses and pilots of the hijacked jets of 9/11 had been armed? I do. “That’s a dramatic, worst-case scenario,” you say. Sure. But life is full of dramatic, worst-case scenarios. Is your life so comfortable and protected that you’ve forgotten this? Did you ever know it? Really, doesn’t mere snobbery have something to do with where you stand?
This is the Democratic paradox: You want so much to run America and yet you seem not so fond of Americans.
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Here is a challenge for modern Democrats. The old things the party stood for—civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, the women’s movement, a more appreciative and accepting view of those who feel marginalized—have been fully or in good part achieved. And the Democrats now seem like people who’ve run out their string and have grasped at radicalism not only because of lingering ‘60s sentiment but also, simply, to stay afloat.
An example: abortion. The Democrats became the party of what they called abortion rights. Fine. It seemed to them right at the time and a step toward human progress. But now, 30 years later, after all the things we’ve seen and pondered, after all that science has shown us, the Democratic Party has grown not less radical on abortion, but more. Your party won’t even agree to ban third-term abortions—which is the abortion of a baby who looks and seems fully human and capable of life because he is. The Democrats oppose parental consent even in the cases of 14-year-olds who are themselves children. It opposes directing doctors to inform frightened young women before an abortion is performed that there are other options, other possible paths.
This is so radical. So out of touch with the feeling and thought of the vast middle of the country. So at odds with our self-image as a nation. We think we try to protect the vulnerable. We think we’re kind.
Democratic leaders are radical on abortion because they live in fear of—brace yourself, more snobs coming—a pro-abortion lobby that has money, clout and workers, and that can kill the hopes of any Democratic aspirant who doesn’t toe the line. And that pro-abortion lobby is largely composed of the professionals, journalists, lawyers and operatives who long ago showed such contempt for America. And for Southie. And for taxpayers. And for those who hold to a spiritual or nonspiritual sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and who have a visceral sense that abortion is bad for our nation and its future.
The Democratic Party’s complete obeisance to this lobby makes Democrats look bought, frightened and craven. It also makes them look stone cold. You look that way when you back stone-cold policies.
Here’s a funny thing. I’ve met a lot of the Democratic nomination hopefuls, and they don’t seem cold or indifferent. They seem like people who are doing what they think they have to do to survive. You’re making these guys do some bad things.
And there’s this. Deep down, in some still vital area of human knowledge within you, the place where you just know things, you have got to know that no political party primarily funded, supported and led by fierce pro-abortionists, by people whose great interest in life is seeing to it that the right to kill infants is retained, can long endure. Nothing can long stand on a foundation like that. Nothing.
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One wishes the Democrats well if for no other reason than the Republican Party will be at its best only when it faces a worthy and vital competitor.
So here’s my advice: Look at the clock. Know what time it is. Half the country is wondering if we are in the end times. (Excuse me, I mean they fear man may be living through a final, wrenching paroxysm, the result of man’s inhumanity to man and of the inevitable culmination of several unhelpful forces and trends.) So wake up and get serious. Get your heart back, and your guts. Be constructive, not destructive. Help. If President Bush advances an agenda you deep down support, then go public and help him. If he advances what you honestly oppose, come forward with constructive alternatives.
Don’t “position” yourself on issues like Iraq, think about your position on Iraq and be guided by a question: What will be good and right for America and the world? Reach your conclusions and hold to them as long as you can hold them honestly. A lot of people, not all but many, can see when you’re only positioning yourselves.
Stare down the abortion lobby, the gun-ban nuts, etc. Be moderate. Make progress. The next time someone like the late Bob Casey, a popular governor of a great industrial state and pro-life due to conscience, asks to address your convention, let him. Welcome him. People like him widen the tent.
Be pro-free-speech again. Allow internal divisions and dissent. A vital political party should have divisions and dissent.
Develop a new and modern Democratic rationale—the reason regular people should be Democrats again. Stop being just the We Hate Republicans Party. That’s not a belief, it’s a tic.
Stop being the party of snobs. Show love for your country and its people—all its people. Stop looking down on those who resist your teachings.
Stop taking such comfort in Bill Clinton’s two wins. Move on. He was a great political talent, but he won by confusing the issues, not facing them. That’s a trick that tends to work only at certain times and only with powerful charisma. And even with that his leadership will be remembered, is already being remembered, as “a holiday from history,” in Charles Krauthammer’s phrase. And he never hit 50% of the vote in either of his victories, even when he had peace and riotous prosperity on his side. He didn’t have coattails. (See Gore, Albert Jr., life of.) And he rose in large measure because George H.W. Bush broke his pledge, raised taxes, and saw the economy plummet. That was calamitous for the Republicans. Your great hope now is more calamity. If George W. Bush suffers a post 9/11 disaster at home or abroad in the next few years it may—may—propel a Democrat into the White House. But who respects a party whose great hope is widespread pain?
So stop allowing Bill Clinton to present himself as Mr. Democrat. Ask him to stay home. He reminds people of embarrassment. He uses up all your oxygen. Love him or hate him, we all know he’s the personification of slick, and slick isn’t what you want as the face of a great party.
Stop the ideology. A lot of Democratic Party movers and intellectuals have created or inherited a leftist ideology that they try to impose on life. It doesn’t spring from life; it’s forced on life, and upon people. Stop doing that—it’s what weirdos who are detached from reality do. Have a philosophy instead of an ideology, hold it high and dear, and attempt to apply it, not impose it.
Respect normal Americans again, even those who are not union members. We’re all touched by grace, we all deserve a voice, and you could learn a few things if you’d listen to those who’ve had to struggle through life.
And by the way, I’d like it if you started smoking again, at least for a while. Democrats were nicer when they smoked. Then they let all those Carrie Nation types in the party beat them to a pulp, and regular Democrats stopped feeling free to be regular flawed messy humans. That was too bad. Why don’t you send the Smoking Ban Lobby back to the abortion-rights meeting, and tell them to leave you alone?
You’re still one of our two great political parties. Show some class, the good kind. Throw your cap over the wall as JFK said, and boldly follow.