Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Stop the Maniacs

A predictable, but still necessary column, from Paul Krugman. A less predictable but more important opinion piece from John Dansforth, former Republican senator, Episcopal minister and Bush's former UN Ambassador. The Eastern Establishment Republican Party of Papa Bush, the one with which I'd actually agree with 25% of the time, is no more.

Who can stop the maniacs? Is it only the dwindling number of moderate Republicans? You certainly can't count on the Democrats...yet. On the same page, Bill Bradley's instantly-blogged diagnosis of Democratic ailments seems largely correct. Without institutional and infrastructure support, Bradley argues, Democrats now depend largely on star charisma to give political voice to their poll-tested positions and policies. Once a star leaves the scene, it becomes an aimless, timid minority party it is today, waiting for Obama or whomever to lead them again to the promise land. Bradley, of course, is calling for stronger institutional support, but apparently much institutional support was already in place in 2004, when the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy (subs. req'd.) tried to take down Bush. That link takes you to another myopic New Republic article that pins Democratic failures on MoveOn and Michael Moore, a persistent complaint from a rudderless magazine that seems to think it's still 1991. Because TNR still represents the Voice of the Neoliberal Elite, they may well express the views of the Democratic establishment. Only problem is, without the activists, the Democrats would be in even worse shape as little more than a bunny patch for a bunch of self-regarding pointy heads and wonks. And fielding charismatic candidates with TNR-approved positions is one reason why the party's losing the war.

Before this sounds like some activist rant on Daily Kos, I should add that I'm exactly the kind of moderate policy wonk type, historically averse to sloganeering activism, that composes TNR's presumed audience. Problem is, you couldn't fill the Rose Bowl with people like me. The New Republic's circulation last year was around 60,000. The genuinely liberal The Nation, which I don't subscribe to, reached 180,000. MoveOn, Michael Moore et al, however "shrill" they may be, mobilizes people to act, give money, and vote. These guys, along with blogs like The Daily Kos, are part of the "activist base" that the Democrats need to actually build party structure that can wage battle with Republicans.

Back in college, I wrote an article lambasting the rhetoric and tactics of lefty activists in the run-up to the vote on Proposition 209, which prohibited California's public institutions from using affirmative action in hiring or college admissions. (The Daily Cal's archive seems to be down, so the link's to an SF Chronicle piece that quoted my "letter".) To this day I believe dumb, shrill activism can turn people off en masse on specific issues, but on a broader scale of national politics, were there people who actually voted against Kerry (when they otherwise would support Dems) because of their distaste for Moore, MoveOn, or Barbara Streisand? And if these people do exist, are there more than, say, five hundred of these demented souls? (And wouldn't they be cancelled out by folks turned off by Wingnut activists et al.?)

The Democrats have no margin to amputate parts right now. What they need to do is find some spine, backbone, and conviction, as well as making sure they learn how to communicate the message properly and build the grass roots with these activists as part of the foundation. The New Republic, well, if they continue with politically-tone-deaf calls for Democratic timidity such as this one (the Schiavo case lacking emotional "oomph" for liberals? Has Cottle not noticed all the anger brewing about how the government has become an arm of religious fanatics?), they'll slide further into irrelevance.