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What a Democrat Is

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The Democratic Party is a big tent. It is even bigger now that more "conservatives" and centrists have been recruited and elected. Liberals and Progressives might be a minority within the Democratic Party at this point, which leads us to consider what the role of Liberals and Progressives is to be in the next two years and beyond.

Clearly, the "two party system" in the United States is not at all what it appears on the face of it to be. CNN recognizes eight significant political parties, while other groups will extend or shorten that list. The notion that Democrats and Republicans are the only real parties is just as false as the notion that third parties are effective means for voicing dissenting ideas in our country. When you look an any list of political parties the essential point is usually missed that the Democratic and the Republican parties have been vast "holding companies" for a range of political ideas at least as broadly disparate as the named "third parties." This is an essential point because the granularity in politics-the observable variances-actually is much deeper and finer than parties, factions, caucuses, and regional flavors. Ultimately, ... and this is often missed by all of us ... politics frequently resolves into reality only at the level of individual office holders. (And even then, of course, there are problems of consistency and compromise.) A political party like the Democratic Party has harbored all manner of people during its history. The Dixiecrat faction of the Democratic Party had the organizational advantage of being a regional phenomenon as well. It is gone now, transmuted into a Republican problem, exploited by Reagan and Rove for votes, but fundamentally untenable in ethical terms. The half-life of race hatred defies the laws of physics and perpetuates itself wherever the conditions of fear, moral decay, social and economic uncertainty become commonplace.

Currently, the Democratic Party has a loosely organized group devoted to a more "conservative" approach to politics called the Blue Dog Coalition, reminiscent of the (Texas and nearby states) Democrats who swore they'd vote for a yellow dog as long as it was Democrat. It is the nature of human beings to seek alliances and to pool intellectual and political resources. This is what political parties are, in fact! In the 1980s Republicans welded three fundamentally different kinds of people under their roof: the radical, intellectual, empire-builders who reject fiscal conservatism in favor of power political alliances with global corporations, then add two socially conservative groups, often intermixed, but substantially different in views, the religious evangelicals and the ever-present circle of racists, all of whom are violently jostling the traditional center of the Republican party, the social and fiscal conservatives whose economic class attachments to Conservatism differ according to their class of origin, but which amazingly includes the super rich, the rich, the middle classes, and even elements of the urban and rural poor, all tied together by a common apprehensiveness and fear of the unknowable future and, in some cases, an unpleasant past.

Democrats are often people who see the party label as a form of protection against the Republican coalition more than as a brand name defining their points of view on the issues confronting government. The propensity of Democrats to squabble amongst themselves in public is legendary. It is traditional, but it is clearly not always good to do this. Squabbling only rarely represents real communcation and the process leading to necessary compromise. It can be disabling and fractious. It could lead to a debacle and a resurgence of one-party rule again. And, as the Editors of The New York Times said on Thursday, the Democrats are off to "A Clean Start", but they will have to be constantly on guard against the deceptions and seductions of Washington.

From the Progressives and Ultra-Liberals to the traditional Liberals through the Centrists to the new and the traditional "conservative" faction of the Party, there is a common thread, an attitude about government, government programs and initiatives, the relationships of the parts to the whole and the whole to the parts that sets them off and clearly distinguishable from Republicans. It would be good, essential in fact, during the next two years particularly, for Progressives and Liberals to respect and teach that essential principle that holds this big tent up. That common principle is a respect for and responsibility to the Common Good.

Democrats believe in something greater than corporations and wealth, something vastly more important than power and hegemony, something deeply historical and evolving, a sense of human life on this planet that transcends the commonplace, but is nevertheless made substantially of the commonplace. Liberals and Progressives have respect and responsibility for the Common Good as an integral principle, but in the heat of politics it is all too easy to gore another's ox or to ignore insistent facts while righting a damaging wrong. Centrist and Conservative Democrats have the Common Good as an article of faith, and with that ontological status it lacks the sense of empirical truth. The Center and the "conservatives" must take courage from the Liberals and Progressives, caste off their fears about unintended consequences and realize that progress is itself interactive and political, at once pragmatic and idealistic, a process of compromise with clear goals guiding the way.

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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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