The future of the Democratic Party


Left or Center? After a “shellacking” at the polls, it’s what Democrats always wind up debating. Do we focus on the core values that make us a potent political force, or do we re-tool ourselves to meet the swing voters who get us over the top? I’ve had this conversation with many people lately, and I’ve reached the conclusion that we’re almost certainly asking the wrong question.

I don’t think it’s a matter of politics for Democrats. To be the party of the people we have to do a lot more show, don’t tell. Are we standing up for people and their personal issues or are we just playing a game? If that means we wind up being more to the left than we’ve been, so be it. But I don’t think it’s where we need to start.

I’d like to know your opinion. Which way should we go?

The problem for Democrats has always been that we are the ones who believe there is a role for government of some kind. That is what it means to be on the “left” these days, especially as the other side seems to focus on “getting government off our backs.” The case for government as a force for all that is good and decent about us has to be completely re-made, which is to say that we have to show that we’re the responsible ones who are capable of making things work.

This may come down as a fight, a series of pointed exchanges made in fiery speeches that engage people in a way that centrist politics never can. But in the end, we have to prove that we can actually deliver and make it work effectively. We have to be the responsible adults – even when that position is hard to make and very little fun.

What’s more important – enthusiasm or competence? Do we have to pick one?

The case for a lot more enthusiasm and fight is an easy one. Democrats win when their people show up at the polls, which is why Get Out the Vote (GOTV) has to be the centerpiece of any Democrat’s campaign. If people aren’t fired up, why would they show up? That means more heat and more pointed engagement, which easily translates into a more left-leaning politics.

The other side, the argument for quiet competence, is much harder. But it was made in the Rally to Restore Sanity more clearly than anything I’ve heard in a long time. Jon Stewart spoke from the heart at the end of the rally, emphasizing that we make all make small compromises to get on with our lives every day. Up until that point it was fun and games and a bubbly kind of excitement that the center rarely develops. I hope it’s a trend.

During the last Depression Will Rogers was more than just a successful comedian, he was the most thoughtful political commentator of the time. Jon Stewart is, for all practical purposes, our Will Rogers. A good skewering might be the one bridge we have between level-headed reason and a fight for what is important.

Less fire, more icy sarcasm. Could it work?

I can’t say for sure, but it doesn’t seem that the particular politics defined by a conventional spectrum really has a lot to say about what will work for us. There are things that government does well, and defending them will always come off as leftist. But people have to believe it’s gonna work, which is more about taking care of business in a way that will involve compromise, consensus, and some really boring attention to detail.

Can we generated the excitement that a GOTV strategy needs while we let the politics float wherever it works best? I think so. But I don’t think we can do that if we’re focused on the left-center debate. To be a Democrat is to believe that people working together are stronger than the sum of their individual efforts. That means we have to reach out and engage people we don’t agree with – or even like all that much.

But I’d like to know what everyone else thinks. This is an argument in process, and it’s up to all of us to make it together. What do you say?