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February 26, 2005

She's a Deaniac

During a recent meeting with a group of activists in San Francisco, new DNC Chair Howard Dean proved once again he is the right man for the job:

Two months earlier, many of the same Democratic stalwarts had dinner with the outgoing DNC chair, Terry McAuliffe. Despite John Kerry’s loss in the presidential race, McAuliffe’s message was remarkably upbeat: For the first time in 30 years, the DNC had raised more money than did the RNC. They had built an impressive Washington headquarters, housing shiny new technology.

McAuliffe’s ebullient demeanor soured during the question and answer session. Many of the activists had worked outside California getting out the vote. They were distressed by what they had encountered: Republican dirty tricks; voting irregularities; dysfunctional systems; antagonism between DNC staff and local Democrats. As one difficult question followed another, McAuliffe seemed to bristle. Finally, he exclaimed, “I didn’t come here to listen to whining!”

There were remnants of this anger in the audience that met with Howard Dean. Unlike McAuliffe, Dean chose to listen to every question, no matter how difficult, and then to propose solutions.

What a concept.

While the main focus of Dean’s remarks, and of the questions from the audience, was on building a better system for the party, he also touched on the core Democratic message. He began by observing that many Americans don’t understand what the Democrats stand for. His solution is not for the party to change its positions, but rather to modify the way that it delivers them.

Just a few days ago, Mr. Shakes and I were talking about this, and he was complaining about the lack of a cohesive message.  My response was that there is a cohesive message: human rights.  We defend Social Security because we believe it is a human right not to suffer through one’s old age, after dedicating one’s life to employment for the country’s benefit, in abject poverty; we seek to protect abortion rights because we believe it a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body; we advocate gay rights because we believe in equal rights for all citizens; we believe in war as a last resort because we value human life and dignity; we condemn torture tactics for the same reasons; we argue for transparent elections to ensure the right to vote and have that vote counted.  Whatever the issue is, Democrats’ advocacy stems from a belief in equality and the advancement of human rights.  Our policies are not forged by social Darwinism, but by empathy and justice.  Those are our moral values, and they’re not that difficult to convey.

-- Shakespeare's Sister

February 26, 2005 | Permalink


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Actually, the values that are most difficult to express or convey include torture and transparent elections.

If someone is ambivalent about (or supportive of) torture, chances are there isn't any anti-torture argument you can propose that they haven't somehow considered. Suggesting torture is inhumane is, well, redundant; the claim is an assumption, and while a sensible one from our perspective, it has been dismissed by those who disagree with us.

Phrases like "transparent elections" reek of 'parliamentary procedure'-sounding formality, an automatic disincentive to conceptual ethical assessment (did you really, really enjoy reading that last bit? Of course not. Same problem, really.) Claiming it's related to human rights is accurate, but tenuous enough to lose people.

Posted by: letters | Feb 26, 2005 7:34:48 PM

People still seem to eat up references to the LL&pH, however inane. Hey, alright:

--child health care
--for that matter, health care
--torture is bad
(might also want to pull out WWJD if talking with a Christian individual)

--votes count
--most of the other stuff

I also advocate subtly changing the "the pursuit of Happiness" to "the pursuit Thereof" as a reference back to Life and Liberty.

The best way to go about this is to reduce the statements to sentimental expressions -- people can sympathize with statements like "If I go out and vote, it had better be counted" or "Why are we forcing people in our prisons to shit on themselves?" far more than abstractions about valuing everyone equally (which is a senseless platitude that gets you ignored, since no one actually does -- most everyone values their family, for example, over random strangers -- and if you start tearing this generality into abstract technicalities qualified so as to make "we should value everyone equally" restrictedly correct, you've lost the neutral person's interest.)

Posted by: letters | Feb 26, 2005 7:46:10 PM

The best way to go about this is to reduce the statements to sentimental expressions -- people can sympathize with statements like "If I go out and vote, it had better be counted" or "Why are we forcing people in our prisons to shit on themselves?"

I agree totally. (Although I still think that human rights as an overarching theme is applicable; it's just a matter of framing - isn't it always?) It's no coincidence that the more emotional I get about an issue, the more response it gets. The personal is indeed political.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Feb 26, 2005 8:07:56 PM

Sister's remark about social darwinism maybe hit a chord. Read Karen Armstrong's "The Battle for God" on the Scopes Monkey Trial. Bryant's (a populist Democrat) objection was not to preserve bad science, it was a concern about the implications of social darwinism and what that might mean to the Republic. Well, I guess we've found that out, but now those who promote social darwinistic policies hide behind fundmentalist truths about scientific Darwinism (and how it is just an "unprovable" theory). The irony is palpable but maybe there is a story line in there that we can get ahead of the bastards for a change.

Posted by: gord brown | Feb 26, 2005 8:10:32 PM

GB, at the risk of being a total blog whore, I used the concept before when I was bitching about Social Security reform. It was just one of my usual rants about something that was pissing me off, but looking back, it is a rather effective argument, as you suggest.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Feb 26, 2005 8:50:01 PM

I think this way of putting our positions is especially useful in the judicial arena. Where conservatives talk about "activist judges", I like to talk about judges who respect people's rights.

Posted by: Ethical Werewolf | Feb 26, 2005 8:56:21 PM

Ethics. Human rights. It's not something that you can use as a talking point, but it does seem to be that the leading lights of the right utterly lack empathy, in the sense that they cannot seem to put themselves in others shoes.

Posted by: Sandals | Feb 26, 2005 9:51:43 PM

Interesting how we're part of the same wing of the same party and yet have such different self-images. I'm not a huge fan of human rights, not because I think the end-result of people having rights and enjoying them is bad, but rather the formulation is not particularly effective at getting us from here to there. I'd grab onto your invocation of empathy and say that what we stand for is community in the face of atomism--that we're only as good as the least of us, and that no matter how great our greatest accomplishment, we will ultimately be judged by the extent to which that accomplishment is the accomplishment of a cohesive society and a climate of innovation and success. They, our enemies, choose petty politics to divide us and think about ourselves as individuals, whereas we pick one another up and search out the greatness to be found in the aggregate of ourselves.

Posted by: Marshall | Feb 27, 2005 6:38:16 AM

ok, so you have no message. LOL.
sorry ,but "human rights" is not a cohesive message, and is exactly why the dems dont have one. Nobody is against human rights, once again the left wants to conflate THEIR agenda with an implicit morality, while attackign rep for talking morality.
sad. seems like the Dems will continue to wander in the wilderness.

Posted by: sean mccray | Feb 27, 2005 8:29:30 AM

It's interesting to see how few people see this as a good strategy. The thing I've found, living in a red state, though, is that when you're actually talking to someone who is one of those people that we are forever hearing about - the ones who support Democratic principles but still vote Republican anyway - there is no more effective argument than human rights, particularly as framed juxtaposing social Darwinsism vs empathy and community.

I've never - never - found a better way to illustrate to people how their voting is out of alignment with their interests. Most people are interested in equality and justice for everyone, and pointing out that people's rights are being infringed upon is very persuasive.

Down in the trenches of Red State America, where I find myself talking about these things with people face to face, it's been a damn effective strategy. So forgive my insistence on sticking to my guns on this one; it's rooted in my own experience. And something tells me it's not down to any unique powers of persuasion that I have. :-)

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