Populism, Social Class, and a Democratic Big Tent
by ACSR, Sat Apr 29, 2006 at 08:22:11 AM EDT
This is the first of a series of diaries I hope to post in the next few weeks. I have some spare time, a high-speed internet connection, and a lot to say. I hope to touch on a lot of related issues: How we define ourselves as a party, how we define certain terms (progressive, populist), what the party should ultimately stand for, psychology and what leads people into political activism in the first place.
Out of frustration, I posted this comment last night: "It occurs to me that the Democratic Party would do well to court and otherwise roll out the welcome mat for Naderites, and not just Naderites but also Venturaites, Perotistas, Reagan Democrats, alienated non-voters, Greens, moderate Republicans, and even significant Democratic politicans that the party apparatus seems to have shoved into the memory hole (Richard Lamm and Mike Gravel come to mind). The key is a big tent Democratic Party where all these people will be welcome and have a voice. The alternative is a party where anyone whose positions don't exactly mirror Hillary Clinton's gets shown the door before they even set foot in it. And if that's the party you want, you can have it because it will find itself a permanent minority party unable to muster more than 30% of the vote. I want a party that represents the American working class in the broadest sense of the term. This means a welcome mat. This means welcoming instead of attacking when somebody like Jim Webb joins our side, and welcoming instead of attacking when somebody who worked for Nader and Ventura joins our side."
The context is unimportant; it could have been posted in response to hundreds of comments on this site, unproductive comments that all smack of "so and so is not a real progressive and should get lost". First, a little backstory. Let's go back, way back. The 1980s to be precise. I was a big fan of Ronald Reagan...
In fact, if asked, I would have said that I disagreed with Reagan on only two issues: The environment, and organized labor. Yet I saw myself as a conservative. I supported environmental protection including wilderness in part because I saw that as a conservative cause; what could be more conservative than conservation? I also strongly supported organized labor. Still do. I self-identified as part of the "white working class" for lack of a better term. (Yes, there are other terms, most of them derogatory. I won't go there.) I supported buying union, buying American, protectionism, stronger labor laws, repealing "right to work", and sympathized with union members on strike. Overall though, I was a conservative and enamored of Ronald Reagan on most issues. Yet when I first registered to vote after turning 18, I registered as a Democrat. Why? It comes down to social class. I was part of the working class, the Democrats were the party of people who work for a living, the Republicans were the party of the privileged country-club set who live in the exurbs and send their kids to prep schools. Even as a teenager in the 1980s I recognized this. I didn't fully understand why social class was so important but at least I knew which political party to join.
I didn't become disillusioned with the Democratic Party until the 1990s. When the disillusionment came it wasn't because I thought the party had gone too far left. I had moved left on a whole lot of issues in the interim myself. Most things, in fact. The sole exceptions are gun rights (I was an NRA member in the 1980s and these days think the NRA is if anything too willing to compromise the second amendment away) and immigration (legal immigration needs to be cut to a sustainable level, never mind illegal immigration). So essentially I've gone from agreeing with the conservative right on all but two issues to agreeing with the progressive left on all but two issues. The basis of my views is still social class, and graduate degree or no I still self-identify as part of the white working class, but have a much better understanding of what social class is and why it's so important. I'm still a Democrat. I was a very disillusioned Democrat throughout the 1990s and up until about 2002. The source of my disillusionment wasn't that I thought the Dems had gone too far left, it was that I thought the Dems were selling out their working class base in favor of "pro-business" pandering and neoliberal globalist ideology. NAFTA, outsourcing, welfare reform, the list goes on. I suspect there were thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands like me. The Reagan Democrats of the 1980s, the Perot/Reform Party supporters of the 1990s, the Nader and Green voters of the early 00's, are all cut from the same stuff. Yes, the Greens have a bunch of left-wing ideologues in their party, yes, the Reform Party was a magnet for every kook with an agenda (ranging from Transcendental Meditation and Social Therapy to ridiculous conspiracy theories), and yes Reagan was an arch-conservative. I'm not talking about the activists, but the ordinary voters who cast votes for them. Don't underestimate these people and don't dismiss them. The Republicans didn't. That's what the "Contract With America" was about; that document contained very little standard Republican fare at all and was mostly cribbed directly from Perot's 1992 platform, conspicuously excluding such things as campaign finance reform and anti-globalization but still containing enough to win many of those voters over.
So there were really two types of people attracted to those third party movements. The first group is the hardcore ideologues, the second group is disillusioned but decidedly non-ideological. The hardcore ideologues, I would wager, made up only a small minority of either the Green or Reform voters, but it is the nature of any political movement that they made up the majority of the actual party activists. Since it's also the nature of hardcore ideologues to fight with each other over who has the One True Ideology, they wound up driving the Reform Party into the ground before it ever had a chance. The Greens have been split from the beginning into two rival national organizations and to boot there are state splinter parties in Virginia and Utah that aren't aligned with either of the national parties. The Greens won't hold together in the long run. The Libertarians still exist as a going concern in spite of numerous splits, not because they have avoided them (look up the history of that party sometime, they undergo a nasty round of infighting and split practically on cue every four years.) It's beyond the scope of this post but I recommend spending some time reading the writings of Eric Hoffer, especially ''The True Believer'' but also his other books. I will have a longer post on him in the future. To understand Hoffer is to understand why the Reform, Green, and Libertarian parties will collapse from infighting long before they ever become major parties. My point: these parties got most of the electoral support they did, not because of the true believers running those parties, but from a decidedly non-ideological but disillusioned bloc of voters.
I believe the Democratic Party must reach out to that bloc of voters - the non-ideological ones - while specifically shunning the true believers from those movements. Letting the true believers get a foot in the door would be suicide for the party. Laying out the welcome mat for the non-ideological bloc who were for whatever reason attracted to those third parties would make us a majority party for a generation. This also bodes well for us for another reason: The Republican Party has its own problems with true believers right now. I won't recount all the players here but I believe the Republicans are headed for a nasty round of infighting themselves, and perhaps some major splits. They brought it upon themselves by making ideological special interest groups (religious right, etc.) core parts of their party base.
This holds a cautionary lesson for the Democratic Party. We cannot effectively counter the Republicans' true believers by becoming true believers ourselves. This contradicts things I have posted before. My view has changed. (Again, read Hoffer. I did.) Let me say that again: We cannot effectively counter the Republicans' true believers by becoming true believers ourselves. Nor can we do so by making the Democratic Party base a hodgepodge of rigidly ideological interest groups; that's what the Republicans did.
Instead, we must be the non-ideological "big tent" party. I believe it is possible to do this while still remaining "progressive", "populist", and "liberal". Those words do not necessarily denote rigid ideologies, but ways of thinking which are at their core pragmatic and sensible. A few core principles come to mind immediately:
- The Democratic Party is the party which represents working class people, defined in the broadest sense of the term. Most working people are non-ideological, but have definite class interests. Furthermore, most working people have a certain class consciousness.
- In the United States, working class culture and values are typified by a no-nonsense pragmatism. Yeah I know "Git-R-Done" has probably already gone the way of "Sit On It" but it sums up the American working class attitude pretty well. I didn't recognize the source of this pragmatism until reading ''Born Fighting'' by some guy named Jim Webb who, I've been told, is now running for U.S. Senate :) (I will discuss Webb's Senate campaign in a future post, why Webb is the most exciting Democratic candidate in years, and why his campaign is important for the party.) It's a Scots-Irish thing.
- When I talk about social class I am in no way referring to Marxism. (Yeah, I know, the Free Repugs think I'm an anarchist communist socialist revolutionary, they think that about all of us.) Honest, I'm not. If anything, the combination of Webb's ''Born Fighting'' and Eric Hoffer's books has made clear to me why Marxism never caught on with the working class, especially in the U.S. For one, Marx wasn't working class himself (has anyone ever tried reading his books? They're obtuse and impossible to make heads or tails of unless you have a PhD in erudite polysyllables.) Yes, we have class interests. Yes, we have class consciousness. Marxism and ideological political leftism have nothing to do with working class interests and consciousness, because the working class is above all pragmatic and has little tolerance for true believers. Hoffer and Webb could write about the working class and get it right, because unlike Marx they are working class.
- If you are supposed to represent the working class, you don't denigrate their symbols or use stereotypes. You know: beer swilling Confederate flag waving pickup driving Bambi killing white trailer trash. This should be a given, yet I still see this mentality in some of the comments on progressive blogs all the time. The reaction among some "leftists" to Howard Dean's Confederate-flag-and-gun-rack remark was disheartening. Dean was right and his detractors wrong. Those people are exactly who the Democratic Party needs to welcome back into the tent. (Although to be fair, the right wing blogs have a far worse problem with this, with stereotypes abounding about African-Americans in paticular - who are definitely part of the American working class. I'm with Jim Webb on this: If the Democrats can find a way to bring rural white "rednecks" and African-Americans to the same table to fight for our common interests, we will see a political realignment in this country such as hasn't been seen since the 1930s.)
- Progressivism needs a good definition. This is a subject for another post but it's one that I think I finally have a handle on.
Upcoming posts will be about: The Jim Webb campaign, Eric Hoffer, working out a new definition of progressivism (Hoffer and Webb were big influences with this one, trust me), and strangely enough, talk show host Chuck Harder whom some of you may remember as an anti-Clinton ranter from the 1990s.