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Sam Smith: Things To Do In The Bad Times (Updated)

Things To Do In The Bad Times (Updated)

By Editor Sam Smith


Since 1989, when the first Bush was inaugurated, the Review has offered suggestions to progressives on how to survive the forthcoming administration. Our suggestions for dealing with II Bush II will be added here from time to time


Many Americans think they know what the Republicans and Democrats stand for. The trouble is that they learned it from the Republicans.

This is because Democrats and progressives have been miserably incapable of stating clearly what they are about. This is not - as some have suggested - a matter of better rhetoric or proper branding; it is a matter of having something you believe in and explaining it well to others.

The Vichy Democrats in control of the party aren't interested in this because it destroys their flexibility to appear to be one thing to their contributors and another thing to their constituents. But clever as this may appear, it has left the left to be defined by the right as being interested primarily in gay marriages and abortions.

In the end, to many it appears the GOP stands for all the good things - patriotism, values, family, the economy, security et al - while the Democrats stand for nothing. Nominating Kerry, of course, merely played into the stereotype.

Liberals have also shown an astounding indifference to some of the assumptions that have grown up about them. Worthy as gay rights and conception choices are, it is helpful to remember, as a political matter, that gays constitute something less than five percent of the electorate and only about 700,000 more women have abortions each year than when Roe v. Wade was handed down. If you want to win a national election, you need broader priorities than these.

But I can hardly remember the last time an average liberal expressed any concern to me over health care, pensions, or jobs. There are, of course, those like Dean Baker who continue to carry the load on classic Democratic issues, but sadly too many liberal activists seem to think they can win based on their collective nobility. Politics doesn't work that way.

There is a need for a progressive platform, preferably one that can be written on a single side of a sheet of paper. Here's a sample:

- A foreign policy that makes America a model of and friend to the rest of the world rather than a bully and a threat.

- The restoration of democracy and constitutional government in the U.S.

- Single payer health care

- A safe and clean natural environment

- Fair working conditions for all including pay, workplace safety, labor rights, and pensions.

- An end to the corruption in the Democratic Party that has done it so much harm

- Electoral reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing.

If you don't like that list, then write your own.

But in the end, progressives need to come together and select a handful of issues such as the aforementioned to which they will dedicate their major energies and which will thus finally define them fairly.

Since the sixties there has been a tremendous splintering of progressives into groups specializing in a single issue or around a cluster of single issues. This has produced a high level of expertise on these issues, raised the national consciousness on many of them, and provided a cadre capable of writing and criticizing legislation. The less happy side-effect has been that progressives have forgotten how to work in coalition with one another and seem incapable of providing a holistic vision of that for which they are striving. They have become specialists and technocrats of change rather than leaders and prophets. And far too many fit G. K. Chesterton's description of liberals: they can't lead; they won't follow, and they refuse to cooperate.

This has to change if there is to be any hope for progressive politics.


WHEN YOUR EDITOR was a callow youth he would attempt to deflect criticism by saying things like, "Well, Johnny does it," to which some adult would reply with something like, "If Johnny were to jump off a cliff would you jump, too?" In time I learned the logic of this and stopped using Johnny as an excuse.

Unfortunately the same can not be said of liberals and other Democrats. Beginning in the Clinton years I began to notice that when I wrote something critical of Democrats a frequent liberal reply was along the lines of "Well, the Republicans do worse."

The problem with this argument is that you use as a gauge of morality the views and actions of those you most vigorously oppose. This is poor morality but it's not good politics either. Having a party that is only somewhat less corrupt, undemocratic and unresponsive than the Republicans is hardly a good campaign platform.

The Democrats used to be far more contentious then they are today. There were liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners, civil rights advocates and segregationists, reformists and the corrupt. As a liberal you learned to fight a two front battle - against the Republicans and against the bad guys in your own party.

With Clinton, liberals packed away their views and their vigor and went along with whatever the top guns of the party - led by the Democratic Abandonship Council - wanted.

One reason this has worked so badly may be that the very contentiousness of the Democrats sent a message to the rest of the country that all sorts of people could feel at home, even if a bit restless, within the party. Everyone knew the Democrats were a crazy conglomerate of America.

Now we have the irony that the Democratic Party has moved far to the right while the Republicans, in one of their more clever lies, have convinced many Americans that it is actually controlled by liberals.

What to do? Build the reform movement in the party that Howard Dean started in the last election. It's not his movement; he just had the guts to give it a try. Call yourselves reform Democrats. Go after the crooks and the right-wingers and offer a platform that emphasizes the needs of large numbers of Americans. Raise hell and have fun.

The K Street Democrats will hate you but don't worry. It was just that sort of fractious excitement that once made people feel that there might be room for them in the Democratic Party.


MUCH OF WHAT goes in the Bush regime is not politics at all, but rather theft, prevarication, deception, bribery and similar offenses. There is a tendency, particularly in Washington, to turn everything into a policy matter even when it properly belongs on same page as holdups, murders and the like.

Avoid dignifying the despicable with acceptance that it is debatable. In rhetoric, analysis and approach, bear in mind that we're often not dealing with ideology or policy, but with thugs and thieves.


ONE OF THE GREAT disservices of the media is to perpetuate the notion that American politics rises and sets on the presidency. In fact, the election of a president is the end result of many other decisions and choices made throughout the country that often are of little interest to the press. For example, the makeup of state legislatures strongly effects decennial redistricting; governors often serve as the ward leaders of national politics, and so forth.

Our newly updated charts illustrate what really has happened to the Democratic Party and why, even in the midst of a disastrous foreign policy and bad economic conditions for many Americans, it is doing so poorly.

These charts show a party that has been in general decline over the past four decades. In fact, in the Senate and the House, the peak of Democratic power was way back in 1937. The party has been on a downward trend ever since. More recently, it was the Carter administration - not Reagan's - that accelerated the party's fall followed by the disastrous effect the Clinton years had on the party. The party did worse under Clinton than it had under any incumbent since Grover Cleveland.

None of this is incorporated into the mythology of either the party or the media, both of which persist in blaming party progressives for the Democrats' problems, when in fact it has been those such as Carter and Clinton who so muddled the party's social democratic image that in the end no one quite knew where it stood.


As the record of Democratic Party losses indicates, Bill Clinton's administration was disastrous for the Democratic Party:

GOP seats gained in the House: 48
GOP seats gained in Senate: 8
GOP governorships gained: 11
GOP state legislative seats gained: 1,254 (as of 1998)
State legislatures taken over by GOP: 9
Democrat officeholders who became Republicans: 439 (as of 1998)

One reason for this failure: Clinton moved the party dramatically away from its populist past towards a low carb Republicanism.

One of the best things Democrats could do is to dump the Clintons and get on with something new. Hillary Clinton not only carries the baggage of the corrupt and cynical Clinton years, she adds huge liabilities of her own, including being the only First Lady to come under criminal investigation. She is the Democrat's Bernie Kerick and there is no Clinton Justice Department to cover things up this time. Remember: the GOP now has access to all the case files.


There has been a stunning increase in class-based arrogance and disparagement by liberals towards large blocs of voters: red staters, fly overs, evangelicals, etc. For a species that prides itself on avoiding stereotypes this is a bit hypocritical. Worse, it is terrible politics. Just a more respectful attitude might have gained some those missing three million votes in the last election.

Martin Luther King reminded his aides that among their goals was that the people they were opposing would one day be their friends. Progressives should take the same approach towards those they now disagree with. Among them, for example, may be the basis of a new coalition when the Bush economy truly begins to fall apart.

So liberals need to cut out the Michael Moore-type bashing and demonstrate respect for all Americans, even ones with whom you disagree. One good way to do this: go after to the big guys - the rightwing pols, hypocritical preachers and so forth - but leave the little guys alone. Remember: if want to win elections rather than merely feel superior, you're going to need their votes.


Contrary to the myth propagated by the media and the RICO-enabled Democratic Party leadership, populism is not dead. In fact, since the late 1800s it's been the one thing that has repeatedly worked for progressives. The real divide in this country is not between Democrats and Republicans, blue states and red, conservatives and liberals, faith-based and sectarian, or socialists and capitalists, but between little folk and big shots, between ordinary citizens and their leaders. The Democratic elite don't want you thinking about this because it gets its money from the latter even while pretending to represent the former.

American populism has a long past. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion. One hundred and ten years later, farmers of Massachusetts complained that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses.

The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism and it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects. On balance, however, populists have done better than liberals in producing real progress.

As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn't long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It's not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran.

The New Deal borrowed both populist ideas and populist spirit. Hence, things like Social Security or minimum wage. In fact, the most striking difference between liberals of the Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson eras and post-Reagan liberals is that the former emphasized programs that large numbers of Americans could enjoy, while the latter emphasized the rights of minorities increasingly as though they were incompatible with more heterogeneous progress. There was, of course, nothing inconsistent with, say, civil rights and a war on poverty as Lyndon Johnson easily proved.

Democratic liberals need to face up to their retreat from broadly popular programs as they have become an almost church-like minority rather than a vigorous, populist voice for the majority.


PROGRESSIVES wasted nearly four years whining about the 2000 election while failing to come up with policies or a candidate that might have changed things in 2004. Elections are won between elections, not during the campaign season. Get going now.


THERE'S NOTHING wrong a strong sense of self-identity, but it's not a particularly good way to win votes unless what you identify with is in the majority. What's needed in politics instead is a strong sense of mutual identity. For a number of decades the progressive movement has emphasized the former at the expense of the latter.

A good way to change this is to start thinking about somebody else's problems. Encourage your cause to join worthwhile coalitions even if they seem removed from your cause. You'll make new friends and change others' view of you. Gays against pension cutbacks, women for drug reform, blacks for small business, whatever. . . If enough people make the cause bigger than their own, before you know it will be.


Optimism is deeply ingrained in American culture. Progressives are in a tough spot in this regard, because they tend to bring America the bad news. And America typically kills them for it. We need a lot more skill in motivating people to correct what's wrong without simultaneously casting a pall over their vision of the future. Progressives need not surrender optimism to the conservatives. As Thomas Jefferson said, "My theory has always been that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter than the gloom of despair." It was the Democrats, after all, who in the runaway election year of 1936 labeled Republicans as "disciples of despair" floundering in a "fountain of fear." Roosevelt himself got considerable mileage from his insupportable assertion that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. And one of the driving characteristics of the sixties was its vibrant, if unrealistic, vision of the future, including the dream of an Age of Aquarius. Today, the Democrats have an excess of whiners, nagging nannies, and contumelious scolds. Did the politics of joy really die with Hubert Humphrey?



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