Monday, April 24, 2006

The Politics of Higher Common Good

I finally got around to reading Michael Tomasky's much-discussed article in The American Prospect arguing that Democrats should make "the common good" an overarching theme of progressive politics, reigning in the interest-group particularism and individual and group "rights"orientation that have largely dominated liberal thinking since the 1960s.

There's little in Mike's long piece I would dispute, and it's heartening to note that it echoes a critique of the interest-group approach that has recently spread, often quite dramatically, from "centrist" precincts into segments of the party normally identified with the Left. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger's now-famous essay, The Death of Environmentalism, forms a big chunk of the analysis of the Democratic Party in Jerome Armstrong and Marcos Moulitsas Zuniga's netroots manifesto, Crashing the Gate. Less surprisingly, it (along with "The Reapers'" later research on voter values) has been much discussed and praised in DLC circles as well.

It's important to remember how central the interest group/group rights framework was to the Left until just this juncture of history. Back in 1988, one of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's best known prerorations invoked his grandmother's beautiful quilts as a metaphor for the Democratic Party, and then proceeded through a litany of "the groups" (everyone from small business people and farmers to gays and lesbians), addressing each with the warning: "Your patch is too small." I can remember listening to this powerful litany on the floor of the 1988 Convention in Atlanta and thinking: "Is that who we are? Just a bunch of groups linking arms to protect their stuff?"

Aside from the fact that this "sum of the parts" orientation eroded any sense of genuine overall purpose, it also led Democrats for decades into the trap of bidding for votes based on encouraging Americans to conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis of their relationship with government, parrying "their" tax cuts with "our" juicy new public benefits. And you know what? We never have, and probably never will, beat Republicans in a competition based on selfishness, because they don't really give a damn what government does while we, as Tomasky so rightly notes, are really motivated by something higher than the crass appeals to material interest our politicians have too often relied upon.

The one important historical note that Mike either missed or decided not to mention is that the debate he is calling for among Democrats was actually the central internal struggle of John Kerry's presidential campaign of 2004. The argument for a "common good" candidacy was eloquently laid out by Stan Greenberg in his book, The Two Americas, written just as the campaign got underway. Kerry's campaign book, A Call To Service (disclosure: I had a hand in this little-read book) was heavily based on the very themes and analysis Tomasky talks about. And as Joe Klein details in his new book, Politics Lost, Kerry's whole nomination campaign was set to revolve around the communitarian theme of "New American Patriotism" (a theme powerful enough that Wes Clark picked it up when Kerry discarded it), until the Shrum/Devine consultant team prevailed on the candidate to go with a more conventional programs-and-sound-bites-that-poll-well approach.

Kerry won the nomination without the "common good" theme, but I'm not the only one who thinks he would have won the presidency if he had stuck to it. As Tomasky explains, there is tangibly a deep craving in the electorate for leadership that appeals to something other than naked self-interest and the competing claims of groups. And no matter who our nominee is in 2008, he or she should seize the opportunity to unite the party, and perhaps begin reuniting the country, with an appeal to the very impulses that make most of us progressives in the first place.
-- Posted at 7:57 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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