« The Politics of Definition, Part III | Main | Dem Leaders Push to Make '06 Year of the Donkey »

The Politics of Definition + Crashing the Gate = The Winning Formula?

By Ruy Teixeira

(Note: this is a cross-post from the TPM Cafe Coffee House blog)

What are the two biggest things wrong with the Democratic party today? Sure, there are a lot of candidates, but I suspect the two that would top most lists are:

1. Voters and the party itself don't have a clear idea of what it stands for.

2. The party doesn't know how fight--it's slow, unimaginative and ultimately ineffective at responding to political challenges.

Could it be, though, that we're actually starting to make progress?--that we now have reasonable approaches to righting these wrongs and therefore something close to a winning formula? I actually think so.

On the first problem, as described by David Brooks in Thursday's New York Times, there is a school of thought emerging on the progressive/Democratic side that directly addresses the need for Democrats to define themselves clearly. Here's Brooks' take on Michael Tomasky's American Prospect article, Party in Search of a Notion, and my paper with John Halpin, The Politics of Definition: The Real Third Way (posted in four parts on the Prospect website, Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV)


Tomasky.... argues that it is time Democrats cohered around a big idea not diversity, and not individual rights, but the idea of the common good. The Democrats' central themes, Tomasky advises, should be that we're all in this together; we are all part of a larger national project; we all need to make some shared sacrifices and look beyond our narrow self-interest. Tomasky is hoping for a candidate who will ignore the demands of the single-issue groups and argue that all Americans have a stake in reducing economic fragmentation and social division.

Coincidentally, two other liberal writers, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, have just finished a long study that comes out in exactly the same place. Surveying mountains of polling data, they conclude that the Democrats' chief problem is that people don't think they stand for anything. Halpin and Teixeira argue that the message voters respond to best is the notion of shared sacrifice for the common good. After years of individualism from right and left, they observe, people are ready for an appeal to citizenship.

Halpin and I further argue that the politics of definition we propose can be usefully differentiated from the two approaches that generally dominate progressive strategy today, the politics of mobilization and the politics of inoculation. We believe that both of these approachers are inadequate to the challenges facing progressives and that only a politics of definition can successfully appeal to both the base and centrist voters the progressive coalition needs. (I refer you to our paper for motivation and copious data about why we believe this is so.)

But I freely acknowledge that our paper has lttle to say about problem #2: the weakness and ineffectiveness of the Democratic party as a fighting political organization. That is where Jerome Armstrong's and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga's excellent little book, Crashing the Gate, comes in (if you haven't read it yet, read it!) Armstrong and Moulitsas provide a compelling argument about why and how the Democratic party must change its losing ways, from the bone-headed politics of many single-issue organizations to the corrupt consultant culture that rewards failure to the threadbare and poorly-paid progressive infrastructure to the dinosaur-like insistence of relying on network TV in the new media universe. And above all, they argue that Democrats need a 50 state, from the ground-up, contest-Republicans-everywhere organization and culture if they hope to succeed.

I can only say "amen". And combined with the common-good based politics of definition sketched above, I really do believe it adds up to a winning formula. Of course, a winning formula still has to be executed. But it's a good start and a clear improvement on where progressives were, say, just a couple of years ago.