Friday, November 05, 2004

Saletan: What Democrats Should Do--And Be

I think Saletan hits pretty close to the bull's eye with this. I only disagree strongly with him when he writes:
People are voting Republican because they think you're weak. And, let's face it, you are weak. You say you'll defend this country, but then you go on about consulting other governments, cultivating goodwill, and playing well with others.

I do think there's a weak, wimpy, silly peacenik wing of the Democratic party. Before you reflexively bash me for that, remember that I sometimes call myself a quasi-pacifist. (By which I mean: I think that violence is rarely warranted, and that its consequences are almost always far worse than people think they will be. I'm not a real pacifist because, as part of the reality-based community, I recognize that breaking things and hurting (bad) people is sometimes the only way to defend what's right.)

So, yes, there's a wimpy wing of the Democratic party. But it's absolutely absurd to say that "consulting with other governments, cultivating good will, and playing well with others" makes us weak. Rather, doing all those things as much as possible makes you stronger in two ways: first, you have more allies and fewer enemies. Second, when you DO have to go it alone, as we did in Kosovo, you have built up moral capital which can be used to encourage others to follow your lead. So Saletan is just being silly there.

But if you want to know what kind of Democrat (or quasi-Democrat) I am, it's the kind Saletan describes in this article. What Democrats need to do, IMO, is to adopt the counterpart of Bush's "compassionate conservative" paltform. We need to be...well, don't ask me to make up a snappy term for it, but...resolute, tough-love liberals. We want to work with others and play nice so that war isn't necessary, but we make it clear that we'll use force if absolutely necessary. We want a strong social safety net, but we're not going to take money away from hard-working people to give to people who are unwilling to work or otherwise irresponsible. We know there are some things government does best, but we won't expand the reach of government unless we can't reasonably expect to achieve the relevant goal in any other way.

See, that's the way I've always seen the Democrats, and it's only of late that I've come to realize that, even if that's what they are really like, there are strong currents in the party that threaten to carry it in a bad direction, farther to the left, down what I think is the road to perdition. To some extent when people vote they are voting for the ideal that the party represents, voting with an eye to what the party would do for/to the country if it could completely implement its ideals. Elements of the Democratic party would, I think, enfold us all in the smothering arms of an all-pervasive nanny state if they got their political druthers. That element is not dominant in the party, but the stronger it is, and the more tolerance the rest of the party has for it, the less appealing the Democrats will be to many average voters. I myself become less sympathetic with the Democrats when they become more sympathetic with the nanny state ideal.

Republicans have their own problems, and their ideal has in many ways become a downright cruel and heartless one. But many Americans--including me--would rather, if we had to choose, have a government that was too indifferent to our suffering than one that smothered us with well-intentioned meddling in our affairs. I'd rather be starving and autonomous than well-fed and infantilized. At least in the former state one retains one's humanity. (Perhaps this is all easy for me to say, since I've always been well-fed...)

Before you freak out, remember that I'm more sympathetic with the Dems right now than I am with the Republicans. Obviously I don't think that the Dems really DO intend to institute a massive nanny state. All I'm saying is that there are elements in the party that would, and that much of the party's leadership is insufficiently averse to the idea.

Finally, let me note that one of the reasons that I am more sympathetic with the Democrats is that I think that the Republican ideal of government is in fact more meddlesome than the Democratic ideal. Republicans are more inclined to tell us whom we can have sex with, whom we can marry, what we can ingest, and in what ways we can express ourselves. They're also more likely to allow religions--well, their favored religion, anyway--to impose itself on us in the public sphere. So, I think, those who fear a nanny state (or a kind of "dorm monitor" state) should currently be more averse to the Republicans than the Democrats. Nevertheless, (a) Democrats have failed to make this clear and (b) they've got similar tendencies (noted above). If they're going to win--and deserve to win--they've got to take care of both of these problems.


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