Friday, February 03, 2006


On Tuesday I published a link to the votes on the cloture motion in the Senate in the matter of Samuel Alito. There were quite a few Democrats voting with Republicans to close the debate on whether Alito is appropriate for the Supreme Court. You know that the final vote on confirmation (58-42) contained enough "no" votes to sustain a fillibuster. I urged you to consult the list and raise hell if your Senator was among the disloyal.

The bloggists and pundits all over the place (including here, yesterday) have described the Democratic Party as a shambles after losing on the Alito confirmation. National political parties are something quite different from other kinds of human associations. The Democratic Party is even more different, if that makes sense. The Democrats are more loosely organized, more diverse, and very much more a coalition of disparate interests than are the Republicans. This is not to say that Republicans are not also a coalition of interests or that they are not a diverse group of people, but it is to say that they are much more tightly organized than the Democrats, and that has been key to their successes recently. What is it that makes possible the herding of Republicans past their internal differences, when Democrats act like they are a party in name only and more like several hundred alley cats left on the doorstep of the Capitol?

Maybe it would be instructive to examine a Senator like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose vote for cloture was one of several decisive breaks with Democratic Party "leadership." What's going on in Louisiana (or elsewhere) that would push Mary (or a colleague) out of the coalition and into the position of standing on her (his) own? I think it is obvious but complicated. Louisiana is in the South, you know, and is the state with a legendary history of corrupt politics antedating the Longs, but not ending with them. It is a conservative, Dixiecrat state with racial boundaries you can cut yourself on. People are slow to change, because the social environment is toxic, whether you are black, white, cajun, or carpetbagger. In other words, if politics is always local, it's more so in Louisiana. Mary owes her political life to the system in Louisiana, and she is bound to respect it, even if she does not like it all that much.

But, today in the reality of Louisiana the sweaty good-ol'-boy networks that make up the infrastructure of Louisiana politics have much to contend with these days. There is more damage from hurricanes than anyone could have imagined and the help of the federal government is absolutely necessary. Mary Landrieu understands this and she is not going to jeopardize the recovery of her state for the intellectual problems her fellow Democrats in Wisconsin and Massachusetts perceive. Anyway, even if she cared, she could never explain this to her constituency, who could give a damn about legal theories when their homes and towns have been destroyed.

The Roman Catholic pressure on abortion is relentless, and in a heavily Roman Catholic, conservative state, the Roe v. Wade proclivities of Sam Alito are not at issue. Mary may think otherwise as a female, but in general her constituency answers to a different standard, and Alito is not a problem for that standard. Of course, there's a lot of hypocrisy in all of this, and the state of Louisiana medical and social services can ill-afford to deal with thousands of black and white unwanted pregnancies. Their answer is that they will not deal with them.

Behind it all is the pressure of Republican organizers waiting on Louisiana street corners like one-whore pimps for some Democrat to screw up so he can add more territory for his own politicians. Democrats have been dumped throughout the South. The present Governor of Texas is, in fact, a former Democrat. Mary Landrieu understands that her political fortunes depend very much on holding together the conservative side of the Democratic coalition and refusing to let the Republicans acquire it by some kind of stupid default.

And, while we're on that point, I guess it should be obvious, too, that Democrats in Massachusetts and elsewhere are more than a little unwilling to press Mary too hard. She could turn turtle, like many have already done, and take her needs over to the Republicans who would surely treat her "mighty fine" ... for a while. It's not that Mary blackmailed the rest of the Democrats; it's just that she needed them to respect her special circumstances.

Party discipline, if you are Bolshevik, is paramount. The contribution made to politics by V. I. Lenin is that the party is the truth, and one accepts that truth whether it fits you personally or not. At the other extreme is the 21st century Democratic Party, where party discipline competes with local political realities and personal grudges and prejudices every minute of every day. The Democrats are riven by ideological differences that span from parlor-socialism to rampant racist conservatism, with Liberalism—which would normally be the center of the Party—playing hang-dog because of the rhetorical offensive of the Republicans confusing of the electorate over Bill Clinton and his "libertine" morality.

While we are on this subject, let's be candid. Rank and file voters out in currently "conservative" America are rejecting Democrats for one simple reason. That reason is that they do not trust Democrats. They think that Democrats are dirty, lying, immoral, licentious, untrustworthy scoundrels. They believe these things because of the way they size up a person. They do it on the basis of that person's moral character. If they are selling a car and think the person might buy it from them, they look for certain signs of eagerness and ... um ... gullibility. If they go to church with them, they look for signs of hypocrisy. If they read about the person's sexual exploits in the paper and watch it on television, then they think the person is a goddamned fool for getting caught by the press. Ted Kennedy, Gart Hart, and Bill Clinton all got caught, pilloried, and, yes, smeared. The problem is that the Party did not disavow these men. No, instead, when the smears started the Party fell in behind these men and cried "foul." Horsecrap! All three were morally at fault and should have apologized profusely and backed out of politics for a while to perform a visible act of contrition. Until the Party learns how to disavow immoral and corrupt behavior, it will be the party that millions of borderline social conservatives cannot abide and will not listen to.

Since the Clintons will not go away of their own accord, and since the mood of the country has, as a matter of fact, shifted away from the change and improvement doctrines of progressive liberalism back toward a breath-catching but less morally tolerant conservative posture, the Democrats in touch-and-go states like Indiana concocted a strategy of appeasing the conservative backlash by playing as if they held the American political center. The Democratic Leadership Council is the vanguard of this particular strategy, but it rests on very flimsey support, for the rank and file can see that the windsock values of the DLC are to keep getting elected, rather than vigorous fighting for social and economic justice. The DLC plays to the very issue that blacklists Democrats—smarmy me-too-ism.

Here is the question: is it better to drive the DLC's "so-called centrists" out of the Party now before the elections in 2006 and 2008 to purify it ideologically and programmatically, hoping that a more consistently liberal and progressive party will be more attractive to the electorate?

If so, then you have to ask: is it possible to drive them out? Who will do it? If they go over to the Dark Side, what then?

Or, should the progressive liberals in the Democratic Party leave? What would happen if all of the liberals and progressives formed a new Progressive Party with doctrinal and party discipline, leaving the conservative Democrats (like Landrieu) to figure it out for themselves? The obvious answer is that you take a minority and split it into two or more parts, each piece will be an even smaller minority.

But wait, if each piece could guarantee its own discipline, then could the pieces agree to a new form of party-level coalition with an "umbrella discipline?" I think not. First, pieces and chards cannot win presidential elections. They might be successful in local contests, but would need to have a clear sense of massive revolution supporting their abandonment of the two-party system. That just is not going to happen.

I think that, given the current assemblage of personalities and issues and lack of time, Democrats will just have to wait until November to know what their fortunes are. They should concentrate on assuring themselves that the elections will be open, free, and honest. They can run on the Republican culture of corruption and win, in my estimation. Remember, this is all about character!

If they pick up seats to form a majority in the House based, probably, on local political realities, then the Speaker will change (and impeachment of both Bush and Cheney will be possible). Nancy Pelosi might become Speaker, but maybe not.

In the meantime, though, despite the unlikelihood of it coming to pass, I think it is healthy to propose a Progressive Coalition and do some recruiting. This will force the hand of the DLC, and I sincerely doubt it is ready to bolt to the GOP.

James Richard Brett