Friday, May 12, 2006

Communicating Liberalism

In his Wednesday "Rant" at Capitol Hill Blue Doug Thompson delivered "the Pox" on "both their houses" again. (It is not worth reading, so I have not linked to it.) This time he slurred Nancy Pelosi, painting her with the same brush he used on a corrupt Democratic Representative from Florida. But, friends, isn't it enough already! Of course we know that there are (also) corrupt Democrats, and of course we depend on a non-corrupt leadership to put them in their place until the voters in their home districts come to their senses. It is tough to deal with corrupt people because you can never be sure they understand you.

This nation was established in the full face of the idea that power corrupts and, more importantly, that civilized men and women can nevertheless perform to high standards, if they constantly remind themselves of the truth of corruption. It is important to point out corruption, but it is reckless and stupid to give up and call them all whores.

But, Doug was not the only vituperator Wednesday. My Slate was delivered with yet another sophomoric attack on Minority Leader Pelosi, accusing her of being a double agent for the RNC! Slate is produced by the Washington Post Company and Newsweek, in case you had not noticed.

It seems to me that half the problem is that writers write too much and too often. At the American Liberalism Project our essayists have only a once a week responsibility. They are not pushed day after day to write something. They have the opportunities of reflection, distillation, editing, simplification, clarification, and common sense. Once or twice a week is enough. I think Doug Thompson should consider writing less, backing out of the barrel he now wears, and giving us the benefit of his truly interesting experience and MUCH less of his disappointment with the human species and its politicians. As for the dude at Slate, I can only say that I read ten percent of what they send me and then only to see what direction they are going.

Communication to the populace is tricky business. Often you cannot say exactly what is on your mind and then at other times you cannot say it often enough. In an open society (which ours still is in many respects) one communicates to the public not with a forked tongue, but with multiple purposes. When you say that Bush made a mistake you are telling your operatives to take advantage of that mistake, and you are telling your opponents that they have be uncovered ... all with the same words.

When Bush says that he is "the decider" (re Rumsfeld) he is interpreted by the Democrats as being ego-driven, with a decidedly strange view of his office. What Bush was saying to Republicans ... for whom the stakes have become extremely dicey ... is that he, George, not Dick Cheney made the decision (in the face of press commentary that week that the Cheney-Rumsfeld team could not be cracked by George.) Whether this was to deceive Republicans or not, that's what it was about.

Of course we all know that Nancy Pelosi has discussed the strategy of the Democrats with everyone in the Party of sufficient experience and intelligence to contribute, and THEY have decided to tell the country's Democrats that when they vote this coming November they will be voting for a civilized plan that leads toward impeachment of Buch and Cheney and perhaps others. At the same time, of course, they are ("inadvertently") telling all the Republican voters out there to get their ugly butts to the polls in November or their house of cards will come tumbling down. It is a calculate risk, no doubt about it. The way you play this game is that "the truth will out."

Democrats are very angry these days while Republicans are very stunned by the endless ineptitude of their party and its standard bearers. Usually what happens in a situation like this is that the people with the self-righteous anger are more apt to act, while the stunned are apt to just let whatever it is happen ... namely, let the Republican Party purge itself naturally (at the polls) of the inept and stupid.

We come to the not very surprising conclusions in all of this that (1) some people are better at communication than others, and (2) that those in the audience receiving the range of political communication they can stomach often misunderstand what they hear and read. Getting it wrong leads, of course, to anger and frustration, to confusion and paralysis, and inevitably to the old saws about the bottomless pit into which all politicians are headed. Yes, it is true that people often give up trying to understand politics because they do not have a real clue how to listen.

Those of you who have bothered to watch the rogues gallery on the front page of the American Liberalism Project website will have noticed that in some respects the gallery is something like the fabled Kremlin Wall. Bill Clinton has not been a member of the gallery since the very early days of the website. Hillary has never been. Biden is gone. John Kerry is about to depart. Barack Obama "finessed" himself right off the wall recently as did the senior Senator from California, whose name eludes me at the moment. Steny Hoyer, the Minority Whip will never get into the group, nor will the foul-mouthed DCCC Chair from Illinois. Each of those people, whom you might expect to see but do not, have committed atrocities against Liberal principles by turning their backs on them or violating them or by inconsistent practices. In a word, they are not leaders.

I bring this up to point out that one cannot measure a man or woman by the deeds of one day. To be political means that you have to attend to a myriad of facts and perceptions every day and be able to condense and distill from these judgments a coherent and consistent response. Most Americans do not have a clue how to do this because they have no idea about their own ideology, the set of principles upon which their politics is based.

A recent outside commenter on an American Liberalism Project essay ranted on at length about the benefits of competition in an economy. Inevitably he got to the position that competition is the anvil of truth and justice, but he did not understand that anvils are just hard objects that require someone to act on them with purpose. The critic's philosophy was impoverished on the subject of "purpose," for he was trapped in a social Darwinist paradigm that promotes the idea of survival of the economic fittest, as if that had anything to do with the intrinsic worth of people! He knew some of the phrases and key words, but he did not understand how his thoughts are arranged in his own head. He does not have an ideology, only slogans and pat dogmas.


Liberals judge their politicians on their promotion of Individual Liberty. They can do this by standing up for people whose liberty is clearly at stake or by using their own liberties to serve as role models.

Liberals judge on politicians Humanity, their promotion of humane treatment for humans and the planet. They are environmentalists, nurturers, creators of programs for those who cannot help themselves.

Liberal politicians must be Progressive and show a strong sense that improvement of our lot is not only possible but mandatory. Key to the progressive spirit is the idea that over time more and more people will attain individual liberties and more and more will be able to take full responsibility for themselves and the planet.

Liberal politicians must have personal Ethics, consistent principles that restrain the individual from egomaniacal quests for power and celebrity, yet balance a mature respect for one's office and encourage leadership.

Liberal politicans must demonstrate a solid commitment to the Rule of Law, effacing their own interests to promote the concept and reality that we can only survive if we are a nation of laws.


Politics is not taught in public schools. It would be almost impossible to do so. It is taught at home by emulation and by direct instruction. It is taught in bars and talk radio and now talk television. It is piped-in subliminally in news and novels and movies and a variety of other formal ways.

But politics is taught best when it is overt and both teacher and student can interact with one another. The best place for this is within a political party, where no one is ashamed or self-conscious about the subject. The next best place is the neighborhoods when parties are proselytizing for candidates, for during this act of politics everyone is both on guard against being duped or insulted, there are special social rules for neighborhood politicking.

Before one gets involved in a party, though, the person has to know what the sum of his or her basic values is. That's why at the American Liberalism Project we lead off with the statement of John Fitzgerald Kennedy:


"...if by a liberal they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, their civil liberties—if that is what they mean by a “liberal,” then I am proud to be a liberal." -- John F. Kennedy


James Richard Brett

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