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Myths of Democratic Renewal

One of the hardest things to do is to change. That's why people--and parties--frequently try to avoid it.

That's a problem because Democrats need to change to take advantage of both their long-term opportunities (as laid out in The Emerging Democratic Majority) and the considerable opening that has been provided in the short-term by Bush's and the GOP's recent political missteps. As a number of recent surveys have documented, despite these missteps, Democrats have not generated commensurate political gains and remain bedeviled by public perception that they stand for little and lack clear ideas to deal with the nation's problems.

Rather than pursue the changes necessary to address this failure, however, much of the Democratic party seems in thrall to one or another of a series of myths about how the Democrats can renew their popular appeal.

The Framing Myth. Associated with Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff, the framing approach assures Democrats they need not change what they say, but how they say it--how they "frame" their message. As Josh Green pointed out in his devastating Atlantic piece on Lakoff, this framing is typically a reshuffling of tired old rhetorical cliches and shows no signs of being any more politically effective than the Democrats' previous unframed appeals.

The Inoculation Myth. One reason John Kerry got the Democratic nomination was that many Democrats thought his Vietnam service would inoculate him against the charge that Democrats were not sufficiently tough to conduct the war on terror. It didn't work. But many Democrats appear to have concluded in the aftermath of the 2004 election that the solution to the party's problems is to have more and better inoculation. Let's act even tougher on national security! And let's inoculate ourselves on values! And on religion! And on culture!

This seems no more likely to work in 2005 and beyond than it did in 2004. Voters still want to know what Democrats stand for and inoculation, pretty much by definition, cannot provide that.

The Unity Myth. Another approach among Democrats is to insist that little needs to be re-thought--the key is for Democrats to unite around what they already believe. As Mark Schmitt pointed out recently, this approach confuses a desirable kind of unity (partisan unity in action) with an undesirable kind of unity (agreement on program and ideas without vigorous debate and discussion). Democrats need far more debate and discussion about ideas, not far less.

The Mobilization Myth. A hardy perennial in Democratic circles, the mobilization approach insists that Democrats' problems can be overcome by a sufficiently high level of mobilization among Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups. The fact of the matter is, however, that the Democratic coalition was pretty highly-mobilized in the 2004 election, especially in the battleground states. The fatal problem was that they couldn't convert the considerable dissatisfaction with Bush among independents and moderates into large enough margins among these groups to win the election. That's basically the same problem facing Democrats today: how to turn the "Revolt of the Middle" into solid support in the center of the electorate. Mobilization, by definition, can't solve this problem.

Sorry, Democrats, there's just no substitute for good ideas and fresh approaches. It's time to jettison these myths and buckle down to the real work of change--serious change--in what Democrats say to voters.

OK, what should those changes be? Here are some guidelines. Ed Kilgore argues that:

....[W]e need a Reform message and agenda that (a) meshes with our negative critique of GOP misrule; (b) reminds voters who's in charge in Washington; and (c) reassures voters we aren't just itching to get back into power and substitute our form of special-interest pandering and fiscal indiscipline for theirs.

....James Carville and Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps agree with this argument, and in their latest strategy memo, lay out the evidence for it. A Democratic agenda that includes budget reform, lobbying reform, ethics reform, and tax reform, they say, could begin to connect the dots for voters skeptical of both parties and help Democrats finally get some tangible benefits from Republican misery.

Harold Meyerson observes:

....[T]he Democrats have been losing the white working class since 1968. In the eyes of many of those voters, the Democrats became the party of racial preferences, as government became the entity that taxed them in order to give money to blacks. To be sure, Bill Clinton repositioned the party by ending welfare, and won back some of that white working class. And John Kerry did nothing to indicate that he would reverse Clinton's changes.

But still-running 16 points behind Bush on the economy, among [white] working-class voters? Something-not just Kerry or national security or the values gap or even racial politics-is badly wrong.

What's disquieting about the Democratic quiet is that it signals a failure to grapple with this most crippling of conundrums. We are all talking about how to inoculate ourselves on cultural and security concerns. But we are not talking about how better to exploit our advantage on the economy. To a considerable degree, that's because we've lost our advantage on the economy, and we don't know how to get it back or even what to advocate to get it back.

And Noam Scheiber reminds us:

....[W]hat voters mean when they claim that a politician or a party lacks ideas isn't that they lack specific proposals; it's that they lack a larger, animating philosophy. John Edwards, for example, leveled a comprehensive critique of this administration--that it was shifting society's burdens from people who made their living from capital to people who made their living working--that gave individual proposals meaning. Tellingly, most of these proposals lost their resonance once the Kerry campaign appropriated them into its wonkish miasma.

How to put all this together? Tricky! It'll take some doing and some change on the part of the Democratic party. But, in the end, it'll be a hell of a lot more rewarding than better framing, more inoculation, unity at all costs and redoubling mobilization efforts. Those may be easier and more familiar paths to take--but they lead to defeat, not victory. Personally, I'm ready to win.