Friday, 21 March 2008

Rebuilding A Democratic Majority

Thanks to Mainstream Populist Democrats for this:

Irving Kristol points out that the conservative revolution in the Republican Party occurred in 1964 when Rockefeller lost the presidential nomination. He argues that the liberal revolution captured the Democratic Party in 1972 with the nomination of George McGovern.

Kristol described the current Republican coalition as consisting primarily of two main strains: economic and social conservatives. The economic conservatives are anti-state and the social conservatives are anti-liberal who view liberalism "as corroding and subverting the virtues that they believe must be the bedrock of decent society." He believes that the differences between the economic conservatives and the social conservatives produce "tensions" between the two groups. Kristol's long range view is that the social conservatives represent "an authentic mass movement that gathers strength with every passing year."

The Kristol analysis, however, while close to the facts, is not complete. He does not fully explain the nature of the tension between the economic and social conservatives. The economic conservatives are anti-state because of their belief in the free market as the be all and end all of economic policy. As a result, they remain loyal to the business community in advancing programs to de-regulate the economy, eliminate effective health and safety regulations, undermine public schools, weaken trade unions, create employer-dominated worker councils and propose tax cuts for their business benefactors.

The social conservatives are not driven by economic issues. They are hostile to the Democratic Party because they perceive it as the home of a liberalism that believes that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded while at the same time supporting individualist lifestyles based on the pleasure principle. All of this offends their traditional idea about the family, religion and responsibility. They believe in a "moral" and cohesive society that is illuminated by the application of traditional values expressed in terms of country, community and family.

The relationship between the two groups is potentially more than one of tension but rather basic instability. Much of this instability arises out of the fact that each has a different social base that is differentially effected by trends in the economy. For example: since 1973 real annual earnings of the bottom 20% of wage earners has dropped by 24%, a staggering loss, while real earnings in the top 20% have increased by 10%.

The economic conservatives tend to be well-off and unaffected by negative economic trends. The social conservatives, on the other hand, are for the most part middle class, largely blue collar and rural and churchgoers who predominate in the Baptist, evangelical, Pentecostal and Catholic communities.

But, the economic needs of the social conservatives do not automatically open them to the message of the Democrats. These Americans do not live by bread alone. They are appalled by the perceived breakdown of the social fabric that threatens their families and the future of their youth. Hence the dilemma and the opportunity for the Democrats: address their social concerns in a way that is meaningful and thereby get an audience for the bread and butter message that speaks to their self interest: expanded job training, improved public education, college scholarships, job protection through strong health and safety laws, increased minimum wage, fair trade that protects American jobs and a labor policy that protects the rights of workers to freely organize at the work place in organizations of their own choosing.

The Democratic Party does not have to look far for an example of how re-inventing itself can produce major political gains without any sacrifice of core values. Until recently, the British Labor Party had so marginalized itself that is was no longer a factor in British politics. It looked for a long time that this would be the Tory century. Now they lead the Tories by 30 points in the polls. A New York Times journalist correctly observed that this change in fortunes is because the Labor Party "abandoned [their] old class-warfare oratory and [their] more radical leftist policies, stole the initiative from the Tories on issues like family and crime [and] built respect in the business and financial communities for [their] economic policies." Through this process, the Party expanded the size of its tent and brought into its orbit a new constituency not limited by its trade union core.

A political party cannot hope to rule unless it speaks to the traditional culture of the people it seeks to lead. Once the Democrats learn that lesson they will become a party of values and economics, the combination of soul and bread, that will win back the social conservatives who deserted the Democratic Party in droves.

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