The Challenge to Lieberman

I was going to write a post about the Lamont insurgency in Connecticut, but thankfully, the NY Times editorial staff pretty much covered everything I wanted to say. Instead, I’ll discuss something else that’s going on here: the beginning of the end of single-issue politics in the Democratic Party. Mark Schmitt describes this well (italics mine):

They aren’t looking for the party to be more liberal on traditional dimensions. They’re looking for it to be more of a party. They want to put issues on the table that don’t have an interest group behind them – like Lieberman’s support for the bankruptcy bill — because they are part of a broader vision. And I think that’s what blows the mind of the traditional Dems. They can handle a challenge from the left, on predictable, narrow-constituency terms. But where do these other issues come from? These are “elitist insurgents,” as Broder puts it – since when do they care about bankruptcy? What if all of a sudden you couldn’t count on Democratic women just because you said that right things about choice – what if they started to vote on the whole range of issues that affect women’s economic and personal opportunities?
But caring about bankruptcy, even if you’re not teetering on the brink of it or a bankruptcy lawyer yourself, is part of a vision of a just society. And a vision of a just society – not just the single-issue push-buttons of a bunch of constituency groups – is what a center-left political party ought to be about.

I think Schmitt is absolutely right in identifying the problem as the failure of single-interest politics. The ascendancy of ‘large issues’, such as healthcare, bankruptcy, and Iraq are absolutely terrifying for political consultants, to whom the Democratic establishment seem to be enthralled (even though these same consultants’ incompetence has repeatedly failed the Democrats). The ‘large issues’ make it much harder to manage and control Democratic constituencies. You can’t simply placate the enviromentalist wing by voting for ANWR, placate labor by supporting minimum wage (erm, but what about repealing Taft-Hartley? Just askin’…), and so on. This has been a very lucrative strategy for Lieberman et al.: essentially, Democrats like Lieberman pull a “what’s the matter with Kansas” on the Democratic base. Ooh, look I’m pro-abortion (sort of)! Shiny pebble! Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just enacting legislation that will make it easier for investment bankers in Stamford, and screw out-of-work factory workers in Derby. As long as your single interest groups don’t oppose each other, you can keep the bucks and the votes rolling in.
Now consider healthcare. Here’s a list of groups that could either support you or oppose you depending on your stand and on the particulars of the healthcare proposal: medical associations, nurses’ unions, other healthcare unions, small businesses, large corporations, Medicare recipients, the Veterans Administration, and healthcare insurers (I’m sure I forgot some other groups too). Trying to predict the political fallout from this is virtually impossible, so you avoid the issue, even though it is very important for your constituents. This is what happens when policy is essentially made solely by those whose job it is to elect individual candidates.
Second, former Democratic political consultants often follow lucrative lobbying paths. Lobbyists, even those who haven’t taken the Road to Mammon, typically focus on single issues. To them, the large issues are a distraction from what they do. Consequently, the Democratic Mandarin class is institutionally incapable of seriously broaching the larger issues.
This is why I think the ‘progressive’ movement needs to be more than “Bush is bad on issues A, B, and C”, and instead, must have a program that has a basis in larger themes and ideas. While this might sound ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’, it really isn’t in terms of policies or political philosophy. Instead, what we’re witnessing with Lieberman is the beginning of the end of the old Democratic political order. That order is ending simply because it is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the daily lives of the political supporters on which it depends. Although if ‘liberatarian Democrat’ Kos is any indication of what the ‘new order’ will look like, be careful of what you wish for…

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1 Response to The Challenge to Lieberman

  1. Barry says:

    That’s good, but I think that it’s more than that: “Democratic Mandarin class is institutionally incapable of seriously broaching the larger issues.”.
    These guys are the whores. They’re living pretty large, even after having lost for four years straight. They profit more from losing than most of us ever will from winning. Lieberman’s the extreme example, who’s openly and actively joined the GOP, but the rest of the DLC spends more time working with the GOP than opposing it. Just recall the 1990’s – the GOP regared Clinton as the enemey, not a poltical opponent. That got them a lot of stuff, like control of the entire federal government.
    The thing which scares them the most is Democratic *people* actively involved in politics at the party level. Judging candidates on winning, losing, and what they do when they’re in power.

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