I tend to excessive optimism about politics. So I shouldn’t be taken too seriously when I say that I’m more convinced by John Judis’s optimistic story about the meaning of this year’s elections than I am by Tom Edsall’s pessimistic account of Democratic fissures.
As to Edsall’s analysis:
The socially liberal set doesn’t want much from the Democrats right now except inaction (e.g., not confirming any more right-wing judicial appointments), and they can easily deliver that without annoying the lunchpail voters. The fact that the various promises don’t add up fiscally hardly matters until/unless we retake the White House; in the meantime, Democrats can cheerfully vote for every appropriation (except Republican pork) and against every tax (except on the very rich).
A higher minimum wage, a better deal on college loans, a somewhat better deal for consumers of Medicare Part D financed by bargaining Big Pharma down over drug prices: that agenda will appeal to every part of the Democratic constituency. Unlike prosperous Republicans, prosperous Democrats are actually in favor of things that help the poor and the working class, so the conflict of material interests isn’t especially painful.
It seems to me that it’s the Republican coalition that was held together by spit, baling wire, victory, hatred, and pork. Take away the victory and the pork, and it may turn out that spit, baling wire, and hatred aren’t enough. In particular, the libertarians and the social conservatives have diametrically opposed interests; in addition to the obvious clash around social issues, not many of the people who attend megachurches leave estates over $3 million, and lots of them would like a better deal on Medicare Part D.
But even in my most Panglossian moments, I can’t deny one fundamental problem: “liberal” is still a dirty word. An election-day poll using the “feelings thermometer” found that the voters had gotten much warmer toward liberalism, but “cool” still won by 49-37; they’d gotten cooler toward conservatism, but conservatives were only net -3 on that measure as opposed to net -12.
I’m not at all in favor of ditching “liberal” for “progressive,” partly because I prefer Locke and Lincoln to TR and Henry Wallace, and partly because I don’t think it would work. It seems to me that, just as the DNC needs to do some fundamental party-building, outfits like People for the American Way and the Center for American Progress need to do some brand-repairing.
Since the opposition to liberalism comes largely from people who identify with tradition, I would propose ads on the theme (which happens to be the truth) that liberalism is the American tradition. Imagine a series of 10-second, or even 5-second, TV spots:
1. Thomas Jefferson saying, “These truths we hold to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” A gruff, unpleasant-sounding voice offscreen says “You must be some kinda librul.”
2. Abraham Lincoln saying, “If anything is wrong, slavery is wrong.” A gruff, unpleasant-sounding voice offscreen says “You must be some kinda librul.”
3. JFK saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” A gruff, unpleasant-sounding voice …
4. Someone dressed as a businessman circa 1910 saying to his colleagues in a boardroom, “Maybe we should think about giving workers Saturday and Sunday off.” One of the other board members says, in a gruff, unpleasant-sounding voice …
It seems to me the ads just about write themselves: child labor, minimum wage, pure food and drug standards, clean air, college loans, land-grant universities, public education (using Horace Mann or the Northwest Ordinance), religious freedom, voting rights for women, voting rights for blacks, equal treatment for Catholics and Jews, the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps, the Test-Ban treaty, national parks. (I wouldn’t use direct election of Senators because I doubt many voters would believe they were ever appointed by the state legislatures. Same goes for imprisonment for debt.)
Then if we just could persuade liberals to take elementary steps toward embracing traditional symbols (e.g., by wearing American-flag lapel pins and putting American-flag bumper stickers on their cars next to the “Visualize World Peace” and “I’m Pro-Choice and I Vote” bumper stickers), we might be on our way toward acquiring warmer feelings from non-liberals.