Cross Posted from Rethink
Written by Ashok Karra
All of us are familiar with the story that the Founders were opposed to political parties, and those of you who have gone through the previous posts on faction and equality can see deep arguments for why parties are a problem. The two I’m thinking of right now are:
- Parties increase the chance that a majority faction imposes its will.
- Parties make it hard for us to relate to each other as citizens; we think of each other as means to an end (pro-choicers ally with leftist evangelicals to get what they want), or we attack each other for similarly artificial reasons.
Right now, though, we’re seeing a classic case of why parties are absolutely necessary. Poor Senator McCain, in this age of candidate centered elections, doesn’t have a media fawning over him or anywhere near the slick marketing Senator Obama has. What Senator McCain could use is a Republican party that was halfway decent.
1. Problem: the Republican party is in shambles. Congress is most certainly lost for several cycles now. Most observers are placing blame at President Bush, but truth be told, everyone blames President Bush for everything. I actually think he was the last great hope for saving this party, and it was the structure of the political landscape that was too big an obstacle.
Consider – in 2000, when Vice President Gore was whining, Republicans were furious. Those “Sore Loserman” buttons were hilarious; there wasn’t DailyKos with the sort of leverage it had but there were plenty of right-wing media outlets online with almost similar power. It didn’t look like this party had anywhere near a dour mood. In 2002 and 2004 again elections were delivered and it looked like the Republican party was a force to be reckoned with for some time.
People underestimate just how good a campaigner President Bush is – we might never have seen anyone as good at campaign strategy as he is. Consistently the base was energized and new voters were being pitched to, for a time. Furthermore, he and Rove had a strategy to bring in Latino voters: he had (has) real concern for the future of the party, knowing that a party that’s growing old and with an active but small Evangelical component can’t win elections forever.
The deepest problem with this story – the reason why the Republican party has fallen apart now – is that President Bush was too good, and up against too much. Could any one person really build the Republican party for the future?
We, who were Republicans, took too much for granted.
I’ll prove it to you – go onto right-wing websites and ask how many people on those sites are younger than 40. It’s hilarious talking to other conservatives: numbers of them I’ve talked to dismiss younger people, the ones sometimes paying their Social Security now, as “dumb” and “ignorant” (I’m not going to humiliate the person who said this. I don’t talk to her anymore anyway). It’s really clear most people on the Right are older, much much older. And they’re doing their best to keep younger people away from the party, by setting a tone that makes it sound like young people have no concerns besides drugs and getting laid.
Case in point: I should vote Democrat. I know very few on the Republican side right now who could care less for what I teach. Why don’t I just vote for the party that will give federal dollars via a blank check to universities and give me more opportunites for a cush tenured job? Where does the Republican party cater to my self-interest, given the fact I do have qualifications and make something of them every single day?
Not once in these last 8 years of Republican rule was a serious attempt made by the party to build the party.
People want to blame Republican candidates for this. But that’s utter nonsense: the issue is larger than any given candidate. The young/old divide has occurred because the party has no common ground other than a vague appeal to values.
The same thing holds for the Democrats, btw: Senator Obama has so little experience that he might turn out to be one of our most conservative presidents. Who knows how the reality of holding power and being in charge of the military will shape him? And it’s not like he keeps his promises. What motivates Democrats right now is a vague sense that he’s Progressive. But there’s a big difference between catering to the Samantha Power crowd and actually endorsing their views because you believe them.
When we lost sight of the particular interests that should make us partisan, we became susceptible to how a campaign makes us feel. That inability to be specific, I submit, occurred with candidate-centered elections. Stripping the parties of their power actually alienated us from the electoral process more. Now we can choose what candidate we like, sure, but we have no clue what he stands for.
Whereas if the parties meant something, you would have to be able to articulate reasons for why you liked the party, as opposed to saying “I’m afraid of the other guy.” And if you have areas where you and the party disagree, you have to be vocal and make it clear that your voice matters. (Notice that I’m dodging any idea that there was a golden age of American democracy: I submit the process before this was probably too corrupt and insider. This process, though, might border on meaningless.)
So what you’re seeing in the Republican young/old problem is an appeal to values so vague that it is the mere tone which causes friction. The older elements just can’t stand hearing the younger ones, and that’s the divorce in a nutshell. Notice that the older elements drive the mindlessness of conservative media: How many times do Malkin and LGF and Rush and the rest have to repeat the same story? Isn’t there something a bit different to talk about? No? We’re gonna talk about the same thing for 8 years? Alright…
2. Solution: The Left has it halfway correct online. They’ve got people talking and creating, they’re active. They moved to increase participation here, and that alone won them midterms and will probably win them the Presidency. Even though the Obama campaign uses the Internet more than it uses him, there’s no doubt in my mind we would even be talking about Obama if it weren’t for the Internet.
Where they have it wrong is that none of this is building a party. Kos can preach “winnerism” and talk in terms of taking the party back, but I don’t think the wins are the same thing as having a party.
What a party does is plan for the future: forget Obama. Forget these Congressional elections. What do you want America to look like 10, 20 years from now? And what sorts of citizens will it have and how will it involve you?
The party takes the present concerns and makes them a platform. It gives a vision for America. Statesmen then determine what’s feasible and proper and work from there. But that looking ahead is critical: without it, all people do is attack each other over the pettiest of issues. Politics loses any sense of nobility.
I realize some of you probably remember C.S. Lewis saying the problem with Communism is that it believes in the future. That sort of applies to what I’m talking about: in a sense, this is an instantiation of the general will I’m working with here. But on a very real level, making pronouncements like “no one is allowed to think of the future” is simply idiotic. Of course you’re thinking of the future. You have hopes. And you should have a place to invest those hopes and deliberate with others, and you should be allowed to look ahead and ask for the country you want. It’s a free country.
You don’t have that option nowadays. All you’re allowed to do is ask for very specific things, like gasoline. To ask for those specific things, you need to embrace “change” and “hope,” or conversely the “maverick” who stood up to “special interests.” You must make a moral choice based on the tone of the candidate in order to get gas to drop a few pennies. The specific policy doesn’t originate from a genuine partisanship, or a real concern on the part of citizens. It only exists because the abstract appeals are so vacuous there’s nothing else to say in our media-obsessed world.
You already know the solution. I want to turn as much of the Internet as possible into a real teaching tool. And I want parties to take the lead.
I want the Democrats to help their members learn about John Dewey and the history of American labor and Margaret Sanger and Marx and Rousseau. I want them to be able to talk about Keynes and not have to go to Paul Krugman for quick and dirty talking points. I want to see Democrats that have an awareness of their party and country historically, and where progressivism fits into a larger scheme of ideas. I also want them to know what the other party’s ideas are and where they come from. Maybe Ayn Rand and Hayek should be on Democrat reading lists, at the least.
Maybe there should be a Democratic reading list.
I want Republicans to sponsor classes for anyone willing to learn, and yes, I volunteer to teach them. I will gladly teach Lincoln, Jefferson, the Federalist and go back to Locke and Blackstone and all that stuff if need be. I’ll even throw in a Bible reading seminar of an interfaith sort – we’ll read the Bible as literature.
This sounds ridiculous – the parties as educative – but think about what I’m asking. All I’m saying is that people should know why they believe what they believe. In the absence of formal education caring to do this, and instead only teaching specialized skills for making money, the party that embraced this would do a civic duty of the highest magnitude. It wouldn’t just inform its members politically: it would banish the utter chaos and vapidness of what we call politics today and bring back politics simply. We’d be better as people for being citizens, and I see nothing wrong with that.