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October 03, 2005

Webster's Political Dictionary

Quick question for Hunter. When he says:

A passing comment by Republican pollster Frank Luntz on the Mclaughlin Group (yes, I know; I'm a glutton for punishment) and this excellent diary by Torta converged to ring the same bell in my ears: what do Democrats stand for? It seems a common refrain, or assumption, that Democrats do not have an overall theme or narrative, and I will certainly agree that the party as a whole does a rather bad job of articulating the message. But it lodged in my brain, and after a half hour of thought I realized that I, at least, know what I stand for. And it's not complicated. And I think, in reality, it encapsulates the Democratic Party rather well:

Strong Families.  Strong Communities.  Strong Nation.

What does he think that means? I don't mean how can you explain it, I mean how does it read on a bumper sticker? How does it sound in a debate? How does it work on a talkshow? Does he think the Republican will turn around and say, "Why, I must disagree with my opponent here, what this country needs a weaker families, more dilapidated communities, and a wimpier nation."?

Of course not. The reason "family values, low taxes, strong national defense, and smaller government" work as the prototypical Republican definition is because they actually define something. They are things that, for the most part, Republicans believe and Democrats do not. Sure, we'd argue over strong national defense (doesn't just mean big) and family values, but we're not for smaller government, not for lower taxes, not for endless military spending, and so forth. It defines the Republican party because it couldn't define us. Hunter's definition does define us as well as them. And while we can argue endlessly over who it really defines, on first read, it's so vague that anybody can lay claim to its embrace.

I'm all for defining the party, but we need to do it right. And that means nothing that requires five paragraphs of explanation on why it actually characterizes us rather than our opponents. Definitions should speak of actions, they should be, in a real and basic sense, little policy platforms that signal what we believe by explaining what we'll enact. Think "national health care, governmental reform, regulated corporations, a living wage, and a revived American image abroad". I'm not saying I have the perfect set of proposals, but at the least, they need to be policies, places the Republican party can't follow. That's how you define yourself, by saying what you are that they're not. And if the definition is going to work, you have to be able to simply say it, not need to explain it.

October 3, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


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I have the beginnings of a Democratic response to the GOP bumper sticker. It's still a bit unwieldy, but it's a start.

The key is to define yourself as something your opponent can't define himself as and look credible.

I think portraying the Dems as the party of responsibility will go very well.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 3, 2005 1:19:33 PM

I spent a long time thinking about this a while ago and never came up with anything really good. But I did realize *why* I couldn't come up with anything really good.

Conservatives, by definition, dislike change. Liberals are open to change. *Not* changing is pretty well defined, but what to change to is quite open for debate. Details matter.

(I know it is far more complex than this, but this is the starting point of conservatism and liberalism. You then have to consider who's allied themselves to change/no change debate and how all that plays out to get the complexities. But still, I think this where the "problem" lies for liberals.)

I believe a true liberal fundamentally, deep down in his soul, believes it is our responsibility to pass on to out children a better world than we received from our parents. That is the duty of every generation. More to the point, we believe this kind of improvement is possible.

But the rest is details. This is why we look like a bunch of special interest groups; we *are* a bunch of special interest groups, each trying to make the world a better place.

This is why we sometimes come across as negative; we are actively looking for things that can be improved, for things that may be broken and can be fixed.

But we aren't the true pessimists, we are the optimists because we are the ones who fundamentally believe we *can* make things better. It is possible. In fact, the sin is not trying.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 3, 2005 1:27:05 PM

I'm reminded of Paper Chase (the movie) where the Harvard Law professor opens the class by telling the students that their brains are MUSH. Hunter's formulation strikes me this way.

Yes to meaningful policy directions, No to pablum.

Part of the Dems problem seems to be that not only do we not all agree upon what we stand for, but we are loath to talk sense to the people because we fear that our ideas will not be popular or can be demonized.

Example: the US fiscal deficit. We pay more in interest of the US debt than a considerable part of our entire discretionary federal non-defense budget. Clinton showed that a budget that is balanced over the economic cycle is good for the country and good for the Dems. We get to spend money on reality-based programs that do good for the nation instead of paying national and international money lenders for the use of their money.

So why can't the Dems make it clear that we should pay our own way, balancing the budget by keeping or creating both good policies and programs that 'fix things' while not paying interest to the money lenders (over the economic cycle)?

We don't have the courage of our convictions, it seems.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Oct 3, 2005 1:36:35 PM

"Conservatives, by definition, dislike change. Liberals are open to change. *Not* changing is pretty well defined, but what to change to is quite open for debate."

This is one of those places where the shrill folks at BOP are right. Conservative is a good word. It invokes conservation, a desire to preserve the good things about our current way of life, etc.

Use "reactionary". The Bush platform includes radical changes to the social contract such as the gutting of Social Security, a return to stand-on-your-own health savings accounts, and any other number of things.

Many things about the Democratic platform -- most notably, the desire to make small rather than large changes to social security -- are conservative, in the "slow change" sense of the word.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 3, 2005 1:56:13 PM

I just discovered Christopher Lasch. He would say that while Dems might try to talk a good game about families and communities, a large and very vocal part of their coalition has long been people who've spent a lifetime rejecting any perceived fettering of personal desires*. Since family and community necessarily require some diminution of individual impulses, the sudden Democratic embrace seems a little, ahem, forced.

* Republicans have their equivalent in their libertarian, devil-take-the-hindmost nutjobs.

Posted by: sglover | Oct 3, 2005 2:53:08 PM

"Family Values" means one thing and one thing only, Ezra: "Kill the Fags!"

Let's not mince words about this -- that's what it means. And the craven cowardice of the Democrats when it comes to defending the rights of glbt citizens is indicative of the party's failure overall to stand up for anything that hasn't been taste-tested by a Republican pollster like Frank Luntz.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Oct 3, 2005 3:31:22 PM

"Family Values" means one thing and one thing only, Ezra: "Kill the Fags!"

I have to disagree. It also means "Punish the Sluts!"

But back to the topic, if I had to boil down what Democrats stand for that Republicans don't, I'd say the following: A Strong Social Safety Net, Equal Protection, and Privacy.

Our slogan could be "Government that works for the people" or just "Government That Works". It would be a good slogan for 2006. The latter formulation would highlight the federal response to Katrina as Republican government not working. The former could encapsulate our response to all the corruption scandals that emerge from Tom DeLay selling off the country to corporations.

Posted by: Greg | Oct 3, 2005 4:07:47 PM

" 'Family Values' means… 'Kill the ---s' "

Don't be absurd. The average person really couldn't give a damn about homosexuals so long as their noses aren't being rubbed in the whole issue. The biggest worry for most people is the staggering rate of illegitimacy in America, now approaching 40% of births. Illegitimacy is worrying because it directly leads to criminality, ignorance, and social parasitism.

The Democrats have been happy to ignore the whole problem, since criminality, ignorance, and social parasitism are all excellent reasons to expand state power. The Republicans, unfortunately, have not been much better for the same reasons. But within the RP is a sizeable wing that is scared stiff, and itching to do something about it.

Posted by: Mastiff | Oct 3, 2005 4:09:05 PM

"The average person really couldn't give a damn about homosexuals so long as their noses aren't being rubbed in the whole issue."

You mean if you're gay you can't be average? Of course you do! As for the "nose rubbing" charge that occurs every damned time a gay or lesbian person so much as open's their mouth -- so can the "couldn't care less" crap. On the All-Time Lies Top Ten it's right up there with "The check is in the mail" and "I promise not to come in your mouth."

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Oct 3, 2005 5:54:39 PM

Amen on the anti-pablum.

One thing I would sure like to see be true:

"Democrats: the mind-your-own-damn-business party"

That's privacy AND anti-kleptocracy: "Those Reactionaries spend too much time worrying about who's marrying who, and not enough time doing what we pay them to do - running the government. When keeping a braindead woman on life support is enough to get Bush hurrying back from vacation, but a hurricane wiping out an entire city isn't, that has to tell you something."

Posted by: tatere | Oct 3, 2005 7:27:59 PM

Democrats: the mind-your-own-damn-business party ---
WRONG - Dems have always believed in gov't intervention both in the economic and social/personal sphere. We are pro-choice not because we think 'it is none of your damn business' but instead because otherwise we consign 1/2 the population to 2nd class citizenship. We are pro-gay rights not because we believe a person's sexuality is none of your businses (though we do) but because we believe in equal rights and opportunities. Dems have championed much of the legislation that intervenes in what once was considered either a private contract/agreement or solely the purview of the family. Libertarians are the mind-your-own-damn-business group.

Posted by: ghost of RFK | Oct 3, 2005 9:09:39 PM

"Family Values" means one thing and one thing only, Ezra: "Kill the Fags!"

David Ehrenstein is just as bad as that insurance goober Ezra ran off who saw every fucking issue through the tinted lens of insurance. I don't see much difference here. Every issue is defined as a queer issue. Give it a rest, Homer.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 4, 2005 9:21:10 AM

national health care, governmental reform, regulated corporations, a living wage, and a revived American image abroad

I like this because 4 of the 5 have direct policy prescriptions. You can simply present the policy to backup that theme. That last one though is a little tricky. Sure you can come up with things that we'll start (or stop) doing, but I'm curious as to whether any of that necessarily is guaranteed to increased goodwill.

I'm also curious to know how many Democrats actually are for a national health care system. Are the numbers a guaranteed majority of Democrats? I don't hear all of them pushing national healthcare constantly and consistently.

Posted by: Adrock | Oct 4, 2005 9:55:37 AM

The average person really couldn't give a damn about homosexuals so long as their noses aren't being rubbed in the whole issue.

If that were true, then there wouldn't be swaths of the American public voting to restrict civil union rights for gays. While many of these people don't want them hung, they certaily don't want them to have the same rights as you or I.

Posted by: Adrock | Oct 4, 2005 10:03:10 AM

By the way, I personally wouldn't define single parenting as "illegitmate." So yes Mastiff, you have pointed out a difference between conservatives and liberals.

The difference in policy is that liberals want to make it easier for single parents to live and work. Conservatives act to make it more difficult. You can pussy foot around the idea of reducing single parents homes, but then that would be butting into people's personal lives, wouldn't it?

Conservatives are just as split over the idea too. Your libertarian wing wants nothing to do with them. They certainly don't want to use the government to decrease the conditions of initial poverty and education that lead to less than idea social actions. And your Christian wing wants to restrict access to condoms.

Posted by: Adrock | Oct 4, 2005 10:10:53 AM

"Give it a rest, Homer."

Fuck you, Fred.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Oct 4, 2005 12:27:47 PM

I've got a bumper sticker slogan for you:

Democrats: We spend your money like its ours!

Posted by: Frank DiSalle | Oct 4, 2005 2:45:19 PM


For a debt free, healthy, and peaceful America.

Posted by: media in trouble | Oct 4, 2005 4:45:37 PM

And I've got one for you --

Republicans: We spend your money so you won't be able to.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Oct 4, 2005 4:51:50 PM

Here's another one--

Queer Up America, vote Democratic

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 5, 2005 11:04:50 AM

"Tax Cuts Kill"

Posted by: coturnix | Oct 6, 2005 11:06:41 AM

I like it!

The natural corrolary would be:

"Raise Taxes, the life you save may be your own"

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