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By the time a campaign starts, it’s too late to put a completely new idea into the heads of a majority of the electorate – especially a broad new theme or a major reframing of an issue voters think they already understand. At that stage, a candidate can do little more than agree or disagree with ideas the public already knows. President Bush, for example, didn’t invent the family-values theme or the strength-makes-you-safe theme or the tax-cuts-create-jobs theme. He just aligned himself with them; that’s why his campaign seemed so simple. (Actually, the basic conservative ideas are no less complicated than their liberal competitors. They just seem simple because we’ve heard them so many times.)
So what ideas will liberal candidates be able to campaign on in 2008? The ones we start developing and promoting now. I have ten suggestions. None of the ideas in my list is original, and in some sense that’s the point: These are ideas that are already gestating somewhere in the community, but they need your help if they’re going to become part of a majority platform. Some of the ideas are floating freely in the zeitgeist, but I’ve tried to reference the ones that I stole from particular places.
The ten ideas fall into three groups. The first three ideas are defensive: The Right has been making some dubious claims that we need to start challenging. Ideas 4-6 reclaim major ideological assets that that we have let the Right own without a fight – Christianity, globalization, and capitalism. The final four ideas align the Democratic Party with democracy and the common good.
We fought the 2004 campaign with one hand tied, because we let the Right get away with a few sweeping assumptions that just aren’t true. Some of those assumptions are explicit and some are subliminal. We need to make them all explicit and deny them.
The Republicans have become the party of Christianity, globalization, and capitalism – three victorious historical forces. If we can’t reclaim those forces for the Left, we lose. The question is how. The move-to-the-right faction says that we should adopt some or all of the Republican positions, as Clinton adopted welfare reform. In other words, liberalism by its nature is anti-Christian, anti-globalization, and anti-capitalist, so we need to abandon it if we want to start winning elections again. Others take the John-Kerry’s-hunting-trip approach: keep our liberal values, but change our imagery and rhetoric so that we look and sound more like Republicans. A southern good-old-boy, they claim, could have won in 2004 without changing any of Kerry’s positions on abortion, gay rights, health care, environmental protection, and outsourcing.
Both of these approaches are short-term fixes to a long-term problem. We don’t need to move either the Democratic Party or its rhetoric to the right. We need to move Christianity, globalization, and capitalism to the left. None of the three is conservative by its nature. We need to understand each of them deeply, so that we can present the public with authentically liberal Christianity, liberal capitalism, and liberal globalization.
Sound impossible? A century ago, the idea that conservatives could own Christianity sounded impossible. At the turn of the 20th century, the political face of Christianity was the Social Gospel: help the poor, heal the sick, lift up the working man. Conservatives were greedy Wall Street types, the kind of people that Jesus said would get into Heaven at about the same time that a camel walked through the eye of a needle. How did the conservatives turn that around? Well, they didn’t move to the left, and they didn’t fiddle with their image and rhetoric. They moved Christianity.
The Right may have mastered the art of winning elections, but it lacks a fundamental understanding and appreciation of democracy. A healthy democracy is not a herd of sheep that legitimizes its shepherd by taking a vote. In the long term, democracy requires an active, informed, responsible citizenry that participates in shaping and running its public institutions. Secrecy, propaganda, privatization, and the spreading of fear and distrust all work against democracy. The Left has objected to these developments one by one, but rarely pulls them together into the single issue they are: We support democracy; the Right undermines it.
My purpose is not only to encourage you to push and develop these ten ideas, but your own ideas as well. If there’s something you’re waiting to hear from a candidate, stop waiting and say it yourself. Tell your friends, write letters, start a web site, arrange classes at your local library – do whatever you can to popularize the next set of liberal ideas. Maybe in four or eight or twelve years, the candidate on the Left can be the one who seems to have clear, simple, common-sense solutions – because we’ve worked hard to make the sense of those solutions common.
29 November 2004
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