After Conservatism -- Piecing Together the New Majority
If you haven't already, check out the excellent trio of articles at the American Prospect on US politics "after the failure of conservatism." Start with Robert Borosage's piece
on a subject dear to my heart: why the disaster of the Bush administration has been a failure not of execution, but of conservatism itself. He doesn't go into the tensions surrounding "compassionate conservatism," but he does provide a wonderful reality check for those whose reaction to Bush's misrule is to slip into Reagan nostalgia.John Judis and Ruy Teixeira
, meanwhile, revisit their thesis of an "emerging Democratic majority" -- a majority they argue was only temporarily derailed by 9/11 and the politics of war and terror:
What one sees in the 2006 election is not simply a revolt against the administration's conduct of the war but a return to the political perceptions of the two parties that was inclining the electorate before September 2001 toward a Democratic majority....
In the 2006 election, all the groups that had been part of the emerging Democratic majority in the late 1990s came roaring back into the fold.
Judis and Teixeira suggest that not only have the original building blocks for the new majority -- women, minorities, and professionals -- returned to the Democratic camp, but the coalition has been further enlarged by the addition of young voters ("millennials") and independents. But their analysis comes with a couple of warnings for Democrats. The best way to cement a majority would be to pass "landmark" legislation, a modern equivilant to Social Security -- national health insurance is an obvious possibility -- but, while we may be entering a more progressive era, we're not experiencing the sort of crisis that has, in the past, proven a prerequisite to overcoming the serious institutional obstacles to substantive new legislation (though I wonder if the mid-1960s, which gave us Medicare, Medicaid, immigration reform, and other ambitious progressive legislation, can be counted as a period of crisis -- civil rights movement aside).
Their other warning concerns tensions withing the emerging coalition over social issues and attitudes about the role of government. In particular, they remind us that those independents who helped fuel last year's victory may be socially liberal, but they are resistant to tax increases and skeptical of big government programs. These voters remain susceptible to the appeal of a hypothetical Republican party that might distance itself from religious extremism.
I'd love to break down the numbers on those independents a little further. I suspect that, while they might be "libertarian-leaning," they are far removed from the Milton Friedmanesque orthodoxy of the conservative movement. While I certainly don't disagree with Judis and Teixeira about the challenges involved with holding together a new progressive coalition, there might yet be a more coherent way forward for Democrats than for the conservative coalition. Part of this is to do with another element of their analysis of the independents: "they are particularly wary of 'special interests' in Washington (including the parties themselves) and often favor reforms in lobbying and campaign finance."Stanley Greenberg's article
, while it doesn't break down the electorate like Judis and Teixeira's does, nonetheless provides a useful supplement to their analysis by reporting on a broader trend: how conservative failures have so discredited government that it will be difficult for Democrats to use government effectively. The key finding seems to reflect a curious schizophrenia: by overwhelming numbers, Americans want government "to be more involved on a range of issues including national security, health care, energy, and the environment." Americans prefer the values of solidarity and community to individualism and self-reliance, they believe -- overwhelmingly -- that government should help those who can't help themselves, and they even favor a Canadian-style national health care system.
Yet, by the same overwhelming numbers, Americans think government is wasteful, inefficient, and indifferent to the needs of ordinary people. They think it wastes their tax dollars and they disapprove of its performance in nearly every area (they're evenly split over its performance on national security).
A conservative analysis of these results -- I've seen this before -- would be that Americans might like the idea of government "goodies," but they know on a more visceral level that, as Reagan said, "government is the problem, not the solution." Greenberg's more plausible take is that Americans believe that government has an important role to play in solving the problems of modern life, but they're disgusted by the corruption and incompetence they've seen in Washington over the past six years.
This is why, for Greenberg, it's critical that Democrats be seen as the party of government reform and accountability -- "not just in the spending of tax dollars ... but also in politicians' behavior." And while Greenberg's polling helped guide Bill Clinton's decision-making -- a history that might tempt progressives to mutter darkly about "triangulation" -- the fact is he lays out a convincing case for the fact that advocating for reform doesn't mean accepting the conservative "government=bad" frame, but simply upholding progressive values. Greenberg's list of recommendations includes:
- Advance a strong fiscal-accountability agenda to cut waste and make government spending more efficient and results-oriented. This includes auditing every federal department and agency to make sure funding is going to meaningful projects and to people, not the bureaucracy; eliminating no-bid contracts; creating an inspector general for Iraq to oversee US spending there; and reducing energy costs by requiring all federal buildings to meet modern energy-efficiency regulations.
- Go much further on anti-corruption, ethics, and lobbying reform. Institute new whistle-blower legislation to protect government employees from retribution if they report waste or corruption.
Again, six and a half years of Bush administration cronyism and corruption have done much to remind people just how antithetical government reform really is to the conservative project. Those independents who mistrust government are a part of the progressive coalition whether they realize it or not, and Democrats can take advantage of this -- and expand their freedom of movement when it comes to the use of government -- by embracing a reform agenda (and here's where the recent Democratic failure to follow through on ethics reform really galls) and by making the case that it's precisely the conservative anti-government mentality that leads to
corruption and wastefulness, since it fosters cynicism and contempt among those entrusted with the federal purse.
I'd like to see that last point made a lot more often -- returning to the notion of framing, it seems to me that linking the anti-government mentality to corrupt and incompetent governance offers progressives a way to build on their ties to those socially-liberal but fiscally-"conservative" voters who will be so important to that emerging Democratic majority.