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Searching for the Democrats - Show Me the Values

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Americans don’t believe that the Bush Administration is taking the US in the right direction, but they aren’t convinced that the Democratic Party would do any better. This is the fourth of six articles exploring why Dems are having such a tough time taking advantage of Bush Administration ineptitude. This focuses on the issue of values.

Although most of us might not express it so starkly, in the world of American politics it is most certainly better to be feared than loved. Taking their lead directly from Niccolo Machiavelli, Republicans have become the Party to fear, the Party that will say and do anything to maintain their power. Sadly, the Democrats have not become the Party to be loved, but rather the Party to be pitied.

It’s emblematic of how far the Dems have fallen that they have turned off a large segment of their base. Loyalists, who once supported FDR’s Party through thick and thin, now regard their national leadership as weenies, because of their failure to stand up to the Bush Administration’s policies – particularly the war in Iraq. Democrats have fallen so low that even New York Times columnist, David Brooks, gives them advice. In his column of January 26th, Brooks noted, “Smart Democratic analysts are also taking another look at values issues. There has been a tendency in Democratic circles to regard values as a sideshow that Republicans use to fool the working class into voting against its self-interest. But over the past year [Democratic pollsters] noted that voters don't separate values issues from economic issues. They use values issues as stand-ins and figure the candidates they associate with traditional morality are also the ones with sensible economic policies.” The Neo-Con lapdog concludes, “Middle-class Americans feel social anxiety more acutely than economic anxiety because they understand that values matter most. Democrats are beginning to understand this, too.”

Brooks moves in the same New York-Washington DC circles frequented by what passes for the Democratic “intelligentsia.” Therefore, he may be correct stating that in this rarefied environment, where over-priced consultants monitor every move that politicians make and smother them with ill-considered advice, Democrats are just now turning to values.

Nonetheless, out here in the boonies, where we actually talk to real people, we’ve been concerned about values for a long time. We actually worry about things like the morality of the war in Iraq, the ethics of a government that would leave poor black folks behind in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and the mores of an Administration that worries more about the profits of big oil companies that it does about the prospects of global warming. Maybe David Brooks should get out more, talk to Democratic loyalists rather than desiccated DC pols. Because rank-and-file Dems care a lot about values.

In 2005 two prominent liberal Democrats wrote major books about values. Early in the year, progressive evangelical preacher Jim Wallis hit the best-seller list with God’s Politics. Late in the year, Jimmy Carter scored with Our Endangered Values. Given the popularity of these two books, it’s clear that rank-and-file Democrats are reading them. But not David Brooks.

This month saw the publication of yet another book about liberal values, Rabbi Michael Lerner’s, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. Lerner argues that the social organization of the United States, dominated as it is by materialism, has sucked meaning out of the daily lives of most people. He deplores, “a bottom-line mentality that judges every activity, every institution, every social practices as rational, productive, or efficient only to the extent that it produces money or power.” He argues that this produces a spiritual vacuum that has been exploited by the Religious Right, “many very decent Americans… get attracted to the Religious Right because it is the only voice that they encounter that is willing to challenge the despiritualization of daily life.” Most rank-and-file Dems would agree with Lerner’s analysis, if not his prescription for what to do about it. Of course, the DC Democratic elite probably won’t read Lerner’s book; they’re too busy taking polls.

Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, “Something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. [Brooks]?” The N.Y. Times conservative pundit has unwittingly wandered into the middle of a fight for the heart of the Democratic Party. A battle between tactics-based apparatchiks and values-based loyalists. Between the DC-based Dem “intelligentsia” and those of us who inhabit the real world.

This is a fight that has great bearing on what should be the Democrats’ signature issues—national security. Unbeknownst to most voters, the Dems have actually prepared a sensible plan for protecting America. Only the public can’t see it because they don’t trust the Dems anymore than the trust the GOP. The latest Gallup poll “On dealing with corruption in Government,” found that only twelve percent of Americans saw the Democratic Party as more trustworthy than Republicans.

Ironically, the fight for the heart of the Democratic Party will not be decided by the issue of Iraq or the Economy or the other issues vying for media attention. This fight will be about values. What set of values will the Democrats embrace?

More about this in my next article.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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