Friday, December 16, 2005

Courage and Cowardice

"Politics is the art of the possible,' said Otto von Bismarck back in the 19th century. John Kenneth Galbraith a century later said that it is not, but rather "consists in a choice between the disastrous and the unpalatable." Like most aphorisms, Bismarck's begs several important questions, and Galbraith's negativity may or may not be realistic.

The reality of contemporary politics is that only one of the major American political parties welcomes Liberals nowadays, whereas only a few decades ago one might find Liberals in both. Accordingly, both parties also contained "conservative" principles and practitioners. In the Democratic Party the conservatives were for restraint on the power of trade unions and restraint on the civil rights of minorities, particularly Blacks and Hispanics.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw a realignment of interests and principles, brought about as much by the failures of Johnson and Nixon as much as by the perceived successes of Reagan and Clinton. The Republicans absorbed the racists of the Dixiecrat variety (including their cousins in the northern cities), but the organized labor issue has not yet resolved itself.

It seems plain enough to most Liberals and Progressives that labor and its issues belongs in the Democratic Party by tradition and according to guiding principles. However, without a healthy organized labor pushing from within the Party the economic and social interests of working class people, the lower and middle classes, the Democrats are left with a perilously small base in the "apparatchiki" of the economy. These are the educated technocratic "classes," which are habituated to logical as opposed to emotional responses to national issues, which favor expansion of its own kind, but which are willing to compromise with corporate power to achieve short- and mid-term economic ends.

Aligned with the apparatchiki and their close friends are the rich elites on the east and west coasts. These elites are undoubtedly clear about principles and ideals, but seem no longer to understand the urgency of action because they are both insulated from the rigors of fashioning a decent existence in the contemporary economy and have often romanticized their brief earlier encounter with economic and social reality.

Orbiting around the elites are a group of corporate-minded individuals whose affiliation with the Democratic Party is more a matter of electoral convenience than anything approaching ideological purity. And, a subgroup of these are the Machievellian element whose ride to political success has been a struggle from the bottom of the ladder, but always in terms of the ladder, rather than constituency.

If this is a fair two-minute taxonomy of the main elements of the Democratic Party at the end of 2005, then the question that is bedeviling various parts of the constituency across this troubled land begins to make some kind of sense. The question is: "Where is the courage of convictions among Democrats?" You see, now, that the question can been seen and read as if by the eye of an insect, that is, in a compound and multifaceted way. There is no single answer.

The courage of Rep. John Murtha to come out against the continuation of the losing strategy in the Iraq War (see our blog Closing in on the War) represents a kind of courage which we hope develops parallel expressions from other Democrats in government. But, you see, Joe Lieberman does not believe in what John Murtha sees. Joe is worried about appearances to the exclusion of logic; John is worried about lives and reputation. Neither one expressed himself oblivious to the people who elected him, but in a certain way each led their constituencies to a conclusion ... Murtha to a new choice to change strategies and tactics, Lieberman to resist changing lest others misjudge and take change for weakness.

For most Liberals and Progressives Lieberman's position is transparently conservative and responsive not to the wide range of Liberal and Progressive issues and ideals, but to a notion of machismo that appeals to the unreflective in society, people whose imaginations do not easily comprehend the nature of political coalitions, people for whom you are either For or Against them.

Murtha's position is not to withdraw so much as to reorganize the force into strike groups that can be called into action from locations that are not a daily stick in the Iraqi eye. He sees a necessary draw-down of force strength accompanying this reorganization, which he sees the U.S. Army so desperately needs that this amounts to a major national security issue.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi surprised some by joining forces with John Murtha, proving that she can see the larger picture as well. Scores of Democrats have come along since, more slowly not because they have no courage of their convictions, but more slowly because they needed to "frame the question" and their intended answer to their constituents. Some have done a poor job of expressing the Murtha position, some have tried to make hay out of the momentum and to have laurels settle on their own brows, but most have seen the complexity of change for what it is—complex and needing explanation in the face of machismo rhetoric from the Bushite opposition.

This so-called "anti-war" movement in the Democratic Party threatens to splinter the party, of course, but it can be dealt with by teaching Change rather than imposing fear. But the Iraq War is just one of several major issues over which Democrats have the opportunity to appear lacking convictions and integrity.

The most important issue of our day, campaign financing, is such an issue, one where closely-focused Machiavellians like Rep. Steny Hoyer (Minority Whip) seem unable to hear the burgeoning discontent of Democrats (and some Republicans) over the relationship of lobby money to government and the constituency. The rule is that, if there is any one issue that will catch the attention of elected officials, it is the funding they seem to need to get and stay elected. More to the point, however, there is nothing that stands between a representative and his constituency like private interest money. It utterly disenfranchises millions of voters and sells their representatives to private interests. It sells out democracy!

The Democrats face an opposition that cannot possibly defend its use of corporate money on principle. There is no defense for it. But, that is not enough. At the same time Democrats must have the courage to stand against the outrageous slide into oligarchy that the current system represents. As the next election looms, look at campaign finance as the test of convictions. Ask the terrible questions. Demand an end to the plunder of our Democracy and those who have no courage to try.

James Richard Brett