"For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?"-- Corinthians 14:8, chosen by E.J. Dionne as the preface to his book Stand Up, Fight Back
"The point of a political opposition is to oppose -- if there are no grounds for opposition, then there is no reason for such an opposition to exist. Better to join the president's party or go out of existence." -- Josh Marshall
"Nothing will motivate conservative evangelical Christians to vote Republican in the 2008 presidential election more than a Democratic nominee named Hillary Rodham Clinton -- not even a run by the devil himself." -- Jerry Falwell
"The American people will trust the Democratic Party to defend America when they believe that Democrats will defend other Democrats." -- 2004 Democratic presidential candidate General Wesley Clark
A great deal of thought and ink are currently being expended on the problems with the Democratic Party as it currently exists, and the methodology to once again make it a viable alternative to the GOP with the potential to not only wrest the reins of government away from Republicans, but to keep power by working to address the needs and desires of the majority of Americans. This section reflects some of the thinking going on in this arena.
"I believe very strongly that the so-called Reagan Democrats -- you can put any label on them you want -- but the people who once were the backbone of the Democratic Party when the Democratic Party truly was the party of working people in this country need to come back. The Democratic party needs to focus on the issues, I believe, that I was talking about here -- economic fairness, social justice, a strong but reasoned foreign policy, and if they do, you're going to see the people in red state America start gravitating back to the party that takes care of their interests." -- Democratic senator Jim Webb, March 2007
"The last thing our party needs is to start vacillating and shifting and moving, trying to figure out strategically what part of the political spectrum we need to occupy. I always think that's a bunch of nonsense. I always come back to this: I'm a Democrat because our party gives voice to people who don't have a voice. It's why I've always been a Democrat, it's why I'm one today, and I think we cannot let the soul of our party slip away." -- John Edwards, 2004 and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate
If "you review the history of the Democratic Party, we're a coalition party, which means that you have to form consensus. The Republicans are a much more corporate party in the sense that their beliefs, their core beliefs, are much more shared and common. Democrats are all over the lot. It's a virtue and it's a curse in a way; the virtue is it's an open tent, the curse is it's awfully hard to get people to agree on things." -- Gary Hart, former Democratic senator and presidential candidate
"If you want to be a malleable politician, you campaign from the center. But if you want to be a leader, you define the center. You don't rely on polls to tell you where to go. At best, polls tell you where people are, and it's pointless to lead people to where they already are. The essence of political leadership is focusing the public's attention on the hard issues that most would rather avoid or dismiss. We know the problems that need fixing. Centrism is bogus. There's no well-defined consistent political center in America. Meanwhile, the [Republicans keep shifting the ] center...further right...while Democrats keep meeting them halfway. ...The silent majority really is a liberal majority, even though the word liberal has taken a real beating over the last 20 years by radical conservatives. The fact is that most Americans support [liberals'] basic values. They represent mainstream America. The problem is that the radical conservatives are better organized, have more money, and have monopolized more of the airwaves and broadcast media than liberals. Also, the Democrats have been so weak-kneed and have lacked the courage of their convictions." -- Clinton treasury secretary Robert Reich
I believe one of the most important books on the subject may well be Crashing the Gates, written by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and MyDD founder Jerome Armstrong. The book accurately portrays the current Democratic Party as soft, ineffective, and antiquated in structure and policy, a party that has become complacent and all too willing to play political second fiddle to an aggressive, contentious Republican Party bent on rewriting the Constitution and eliminating much that makes the USA a uniquely free country. The book touts a new paradigm of technologically savvy, politically progressive politics. Worth reading.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, an unabashedly liberal populist, wrote a book a year before the offering by Moulitsas and Armstrong, titled Stand Up, Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge. He urges the Democrats to become more, not less, populist, and notes that Al Gore, who in reality won the 2000 elections, won largely because of his populist positions on the issues: "He attacked big oil companies, polluters, HMOs, and big insurance companies. Does anybody think he lost voters by doing this? ...On many issues, the 'mainstream' is populist." Buzzflash observes, "Dionne falls into the camp of those who urge Democrats to redefine the issues to their advantage. It is what Berkeley Professor George Lakoff calls framing. Up until now, the Republicans have been brilliant at framing (and deceiving), and the Democrats have been abysmal failures at framing (while being generally successful at being relatively honest). Deeply interested in the writings of Orwell, Dionne quotes him as observing: 'If thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.' This could be the Republican propaganda motto. Perhaps it is." Dionne says, "[O]ne of the central themes of the book is the idea the Democrats became afraid of their own principles, or weren't certain of what their principles were. As I say in the book, Democrats and liberals, to a significant degree, have spent so much time saying who they're not that nobody knows who they are. I've always loved that Corinthians quote because the point is if you don't know who and what you're fighting for, you will be, I think, utterly ineffective in the world, and especially in the world of politics."
Dionne also focuses on language as a major stumbling block for Democrats: "[I]n three areas in particular -- the use of market language; the way they talk about government; and this debate about softness versus toughness -- progressives and Democrats seem given to using a language that is often alien to what they're trying to argue. The market language is the most dominant. I have a quote in the book from Ann Lewis, who said, 'We used to call for immunizing little children against disease. Now we call it an investment in human capital.' ...I think the same problem has arisen when liberals and progressives talk about government. There's always an apologetic tone about using government. That wasn't the case in the New Deal era or in the Truman era. It's true, of course, that a government can be oppressive and inefficient, but government can also expand human and civil rights. I argue in the book that African Americans are among the most loyal progressives or liberals precisely because they understand better than anyone that a government acting forcefully can expand people's rights. And for African Americans, it happened first with a strong federal government that ended slavery, and second, through the civil rights laws. Progressives need to be less afraid than they have sometimes been about speaking plainly about their principles, which are actually at odds with some of the dominant language in the culture right now."
On the use of the term "compassionate conservative," Dionne observes, "I think there was a period when Clinton was putting together the projects, both political and intellectual, that helped him get elected president, when he and the people around him, including both new Democrats and liberals, were actually quite skilled at using language. To some degree, I think the Bush project learned from the Clinton project. I think Bush understood going in that there were problems left over for conservatives that he had to solve if he was going to get elected. I did an interview with Bush in 1999, which I quote some in the book, where he talked about the importance of putting a compassionate face on conservatism. Of course, we knew just whose face he had in mind. The original formulation of compassionate conservatism was, I am told, first used by his father in the 60s. ...Dan Coats, the former Senator and Ambassador to Germany, was also one of the first people in this era to use it. And it's no accident that Dan Coats' speech writer was Mike Gerson, Bush's great speech writer. But what Bush did with compassionate conservatism was clever on so many different levels. He linked it not to a sense of social injustice or structural injustice, but rather to human failure that can be overcome through the compassion of others, essentially a conversion experience. And that's where he got to the faith-based organizations.
"Now in my experience, there are two kinds of compassionate conservatives. There are the real ones and there are the less real ones. Over the years, I have run into a number of conservatives who really do have troubled consciences about poverty, and they really did think that it was important for conservatives to come up with their own anti-poverty agenda. Many of them were religious; they are Christians and felt this obligation, and for them it was real. I think there's another kind of compassionate conservative; they are mainly interested in dismantling the state, in reducing government programs. They see moving money over to the faith-based groups as a way, over time, of dismantling government. This difference between these two kinds of conservatives is, in a sense, a contradiction within compassionate conservatism, because people who are in the first camp, the real ones, tend to understand -- even if they're critical of the welfare state and traditional government programs -- that many of the government programs we have are actually necessary if you're serious about lifting up the poor. The second group seems more interested simply in dismantling government. Then Bush rhetorically was in the first camp, and I know some of those compassionate conservatives really believe Bush believes this. Yet the budgets he proposed, the tax cuts he proposed, never fit in with anything that really looked like compassionate conservatism. I think what you've seen until very recently is that he largely abandoned talk of compassionate conservatism and is now talking, if you will, a martial conservatism in the wake of 9/11. But as the campaign gets closer, compassionate conservatism is getting back into his speeches. I think that's happening because there's a problem for the president in the middle part of the electorate, among independents and moderate Republicans. So I think they realize they've got to pump up this talk again."
Dionne concludes, "A progressive patriotism would insist that a free republic will not prosper if too many of its citizens are deprived of opportunities, of health care, of education, of hope. It would seek to make the United States a beacon not only of freedom but also of justice. A progressive patriotism would allow us to cast aside the politics of revenge. It would declare that we are all in this together. That's an old-fashioned idea that would offer a bold alternative to a status quo that is dividing and failing our country." -- E.J. Dionne
Another seminal book on the subject is Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Using the heartland state of Kansas as an example, Frank reminds liberals that a huge shift in the makeup of conservative voters -- working class voters, who thirty years ago were the backbone of the Democratic Party, now vote overwhelmingly Republican -- has yet to be addressed by Democratic strategists and political thinkers. The Nation's Tom Engelhardt writes, "His book is an exploration of just how hard hit Kansas has been in an era of ever more right-wing Republican administrations and ever-rightward drifting Democratic ones; of how a right-wing war against a fantasy 'liberal power elite' was successfully waged, and why it is that people seem to vote against what once would have been considered their interests."
Frank observes, "That our politics have been shifting rightward for more than thirty years is a generally acknowledged fact of American life. That this rightward movement has largely been accomplished by working-class voters whose lives have been materially worsened by the conservative policies they have supported is a less comfortable fact, one we have trouble talking about in a straightforward manner. And yet the backlash is there, whenever we care to look, from the 'hardhats' of the 1960s to the 'Reagan Democrats' of the 1980s to today's mad-as-hell 'red states.' You can see the paradox first-hand on nearly any Main Street in middle America -- 'going out of business' signs side by side with placards supporting George W. Bush." The change isn't solely due to conservative machinations: "somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Wichita and Shawnee, Kansas with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over." For decades, the Democratic leadership has advocated abandoning its former constituency of blue-collar workers and replacing them with more affluent, white-collar, college-educated professionals who are largely liberal on social issues.
"The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McAuliffe...wants desperately to court...corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and -- more important -- the money of these coveted constituencies, 'New Democrats' think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as 'class warfare' and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness to business interests. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where's the soft money in that? This is, in drastic miniature, the criminally stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking off and on ever since the 'New Politics' days of the early seventies." While Republicans industriously courted the working-class voters, Democrats gave them what Frank calls "the big brush-off."
He writes, "A more ruinous strategy for Democrats would be difficult to invent. And the ruination just keeps on coming. However desperately they triangulate and accommodate, the losses keep mounting. Curiously enough, though, Democrats of the DLC variety aren't worried. They seem to look forward to a day when their party really is what David Brooks and Ann Coulter claim it to be now: a coming-together of the rich and the self-righteous. While Republicans trick out their poisonous stereotype of the liberal elite, Democrats seem determined to live up to the libel. ...Maybe someday the DLC dream will come to pass, with the Democrats having moved so far to the right that they are no different than old-fashioned moderate Republicans, and maybe then the affluent will finally come over to their side en masse. But along the way the things that liberalism once stood for -- equality and economic security -- will have been abandoned completely. Abandoned, let us remember, at the historical moment when we need them most."
"By all rights the people of Wichita and Shawnee should today be flocking to the party of Roosevelt, not deserting it. Culturally speaking, however, that option is simply not available to them anymore. Democrats no longer speak to the people on the losing end of a free-market system that is becoming more brutal and more arrogant by the day. The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school-prayer; it's that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the sneers of Hollywood whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class -- in a coded way, to be sure -- but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up. ...Liberalism isn't a force of karmic nature that pushes back when the corporate world goes too far; it is a man-made contrivance as subject to setbacks and defeats as any other. Consider our social welfare apparatus, the system of taxes, regulations, and social insurance that is under sustained attack these days. Social Security, the FDA, and all the rest of it didn't just spring out of the ground fully formed in response to the obvious excesses of a laissez-faire system; they were the result of decades of movement-building, of bloody fights between strikers and state militias, of agitating, educating, and thankless organizing. More than forty years passed between the first glimmerings of a left-wing reform movement in the 1890s and the actual enactment of its reforms in the 1930s. In the meantime scores of the most rapacious species of robber baron went to their reward untaxed, unregulated, and unquestioned."
Unions have suffered most from Democratic reforms. Once the backbone of Democratic fund-raising and get-out-the-vote efforts, unions have been demonized by Republicans and sidelined by their former Democratic allies. "Just being in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics, inoculates them against the derangement of the backlash. Here, values matter almost least of all, while the economy, health care, and education are of paramount concern. Union voters are, in other words, the reverse image of the Brown-back conservative who cares nothing for economics but torments himself night and day with vague fears about 'cultural decline.' Labor unions are on the wane today, as everyone knows, down to 9% of the private-sector workforce from a high-water mark of 38% in the 1950s. Their decline goes largely unchecked by a Democratic Party anxious to demonstrate its fealty to corporate America, and unmourned by a therapeutic left that never liked those Archie Bunker types in the first place. Among the broader population, accustomed to thinking of organizations as though they were consumer products, it is simply assumed that unions are declining because nobody wants to join them anymore, the same way the public has lost its taste for the music of the Bay City Rollers. And in the offices of the union-busting specialists and the Wall Street brokers and the retail executives, the news is understood the same way aristocrats across Europe greeted the defeat of Napoleon in 1815: as a monumental victory in a war to the death." Instead, the Republicans have successfully wooed millions of former Democratic voters away from unions and away from voting in their own economic interests. "[T]his movement speaks to those at society's bottom, addresses them on a daily basis. From the left they hear nothing, but from the Cons they get an explanation for it all. Even better, they get a plan for action, a scheme for world conquest with a wedge issue. And why shouldn't they get to dream their lurid dreams of politics-as-manipulation? They've had it done to them enough in reality."
"American conservatism depends for its continued dominance and even for its very existence on people never making certain mental connections about the world, connections that until recently were treated as obvious or self-evident everywhere on the planet. For example, the connection between mass culture, most of which conservatives hate, and laissez-faire capitalism, which they adore without reservation. Or between the small towns they profess to love and the market forces that are slowly grinding those small towns back into the red-state dust -- which forces they praise in the most exalted terms. ...As a social system, the backlash works. The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one. This arrangement should be the envy of every ruling class in the world. Not only can it be pushed much, much farther, but it is fairly certain that it will be so pushed. All the incentives point that way, as do the never-examined cultural requirements of modern capitalism. Why shouldn't our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?" -- Thomas Frank/Tom Engelhardt
Air America radio host Randi Rhodes, another unabashed liberal Democrat determined to win back her party from the conservatives and the gutless, wrote a screed for the Air America Playbook in 2006 that lays out "What Liberals Believe." Rhodes penned the polemic at least in part to remind the powers that be in the Democratic Party what they should stand for, and what they should fight for. I've borrowed her words almost in toto, because, well, they're that important.
"Progressives believe in progress. Progress in schools, health, and the environment and the spread of prosperity and hope. These are examples of a strong democracy. Democracy should work for everyone who participates and even those who don't. Democracy can only be spread by works, not words. Remember, America can NEVER be destroyed by outsiders. Destroying America will be an INSIDE JOB. Liberals will never allow America to be destroyed." -- Randi Rhodes
"You know who's pushing [abortion]. You saw some of those women out there. I mean, those women aren't ever going to have a baby by anybody. I mean, these are primarily lesbians, and lesbians don't have babies. And it's the one thing a mother has -- that a lesbian can never have -- is this femininity, and they can never achieve that. And so, in order to level the field, they say, 'Hey, let you abort your baby so you'll be like us, because we don't have them." -- Pat Robertson on the 700 Club, quoted by Al Franken
"What you are seeing is the failure of right-wing conservatism. The failures since 2000 are not Bush, or Cheney, or incompetence; they are the logical end result of their philosophy of government. When you vote for people who believe government is the problem, this is the government you get. When you vote for people who believe corporations are more important than people, this is the government you get. If you vote for these people, you will get more of the same. It is time to say, 'We tried it, and we don't like it.' It is time to stop voting for the right-wing Republican agenda, and start voting for progressives who believe in government of all the people, by all the people, and for all the people." -- Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (paraphrased), May 11, 2006 (Note: You can watch an excerpt from Moulitsas's May 11 presentation here, where he develops this idea more fully.)
Over a thousand Daily Kos members and participants spent a week in early June 2006 at a convention in Las Vegas called the "Yearly Kos." Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga gave the keynote address on June 8, where he said, in part, "Look at this conference! It's the epitome of people-power. It was organized by volunteers, without impetus from a traditional 'leader.' We now have the ability to support leaders wherever they may be. Leaders that would never have a chance in the traditional world of establishment politics or media. Like Gina Cooper, who was a one-woman force of nature in making this conference happen.
"Who was Gina Cooper? A former teacher from Tennessee? And how did that make her qualified to plan something of this magnitude?
"Of course it didn't. No more so than I was 'qualified' to write about politics.
"No more so than an organic farmer named Jon Tester from Nowhere, Montana is 'qualified' to be a United States Senator.
"But people-power is a wonderful thing. Everyone can be a leader. Everyone can be a strong voice. Everyone can make a difference. There has been far too much talent, far too much passion, far too much intelligence in this country marginalized by the establishment currently stinking up Washington D.C.
"...Unlike the out-of-touch establishment in D.C., we actually know what it's like to live day-to-day in George Bush's America. Chris Matthews may say that only the kooks don't like George W. Bush, but we, like the rest of the country, know better.
"We come from every corner of this nation. We are blue collar and white collar. We are liberal, moderate, and conservative Democrats.
"The blogosphere may be the only place where people from all corners of the party's ideological spectrum can get together and fight over the details, before we come together on Election Day to fight for our Big Tent Party.
"Popular movements are rarely as practical as ours.
"...We can now choose amongst ourselves what information to consume. The old media are no longer the gate keepers.
"...And that's why we're crashing the gate. That's why people-power is taking the nation by storm.
"Because the media elite failed us. The political elite -- from both parties -- failed us. Republicans because they can't govern, and Democrats because they can't get elected. Our leaders failed us. Our issue groups failed us.
"so now it's our turn.
"It's our turn to inject some good ol' fashioned common sense into Washington D.C. It's our responsibility to demand accountability and reform from the Democratic Party and allied organizations that claim to represent us.
"And if they refuse to reform, if they refuse to be more accountable, if they refuse to join this people-powered movement as it seeks to move our country forward...well then, they'll be relegated to the dustbin of history.
"Technology allows each and every one of us to be a leader, and allows us to support our new leaders wherever they may emerge.
"This is our moment. We have to take hold of it and ride it to victory.
"And we will." -- Markos Moulitsas Zuniga
"As far as the charge of being too liberal -- no one can be too liberal. We can only be not liberal enough. Being liberal means one is for civil liberties, equality, social justice, fairness. We work to improve the world, not maintain the status quo, and especially not to enrich those who already have too much. How can someone be too liberal?" -- Professor Paul Myers
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." -- Robert F. Kennedy
"As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but all together, we make a mighty fist." -- Watanka Tatanka (Sitting Bull)