Like many of my fellow Democrats, I follow the midterm election prospects quite closely these days. This is probably the first midterm election of my life for which I’ve been quite this interested. Perhaps like many of my generation, nearly every election I can remember either being involved and interested was a Presidential one, even back in school. I can remember even the strange third party candidacies of my younger life — John Anderson’s strangely Naderesque performance against Carter and Reagan in 1980, for example. But I don’t remember most midterm elections directly: it seems that all of my knowledge of 1994’s key midterm, for example, comes from reading done well after the fact.
So this midterm election is quite different, in my experience. Although I follow Electoral-Vote.com near-daily right now, I still think it’s too early to say whether Democrats will retake either house of Congress (either that, or I just don’t want to jinx it by admitting optimism in writing…). I’ll repeat the mantra one reads so often this week: turnout is everything. So rather than talking about how we are going to win, I’d like to say a few things about what happens if we were to win one or both houses.
There has been a lot of punditry lately on this subject, so I’m not going to repeat the usual things about investigations, impeachments, and the like. Impeachment is not going to happen and arguably the Democrats shouldn’t be within 100 yards of anyone saying it should. Much as a serious attack on President Bush might serve as catharsis for many committed Democrats, it doesn’t really deliver the one thing Americans actually want: effective, efficient government that doesn’t overstep its bounds or become embroiled in scandal. Believe it or not, Democrats want this as much as do Republicans. And we always have (we just differ on what we think is included in the scope of "effective" and what goals are "within legitimate bounds"). Investigation will likely occur, and should, but arguably it must be focused on policy, not people; achieving results, not holding witch hunts. Not only will witch hunts play into the hands of Republicans for the 2008 election cycle, but they would merely demonstrate that we’re no different than the politicians we oppose.
So let’s talk substance instead of revenge. Let’s talk about the things that matter not over an election cycle or two, but for decades. If — maybe just if — the Democrats retake one or both houses of Congress this November, what should dominate our agenda, and shape our discourse?
I make no claims to having the "best" or "true" answer to this question. Many readers will disagree with the list I present below, possibly because I focus more on structural issues rather than specific policies. In my view, this is necessary because I think we have a duty, and maybe an opportunity, to create an agenda that addresses deeper structural issues that cause some voters to be afraid for the future of democracy, and many others to simply be apathetic about the relevance of politics to their lives. Clearly the specifics of our policy are important, and I expect Congress to attend to these in the course of legislative business, but here I’m talking about framework — the major messages our representatives communicate with their constituents, how we set priorities, and what overarching principles should guide the work of Congress going forward.
If Democrats attain control over one or both houses of Congress, and if — just if — we capture the Presidency in 2008, we’ll need to remember the feeling many of us have today: the feeling that aspects of our political culture are badly out of control and need fixing. When we regain some measure of power in Washington, it’ll be all too easy to slip back into business as usual, as our feeling of powerlessness and outrage fades. But we need to remember how we feel today, so that we can stay focused on the right things, for all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike.
So here are three agenda items which are simple, BIG, and clear. Other things we care about should, I hate to say it, either be derived from these three somehow, or temporarily taken off our agenda. Anything that isn’t clearly derivable from these three will just have to take a back seat. That doesn’t mean we don’t deal with routine governance, of course, it just means that we can’t let a laundry list of isolated issues colonize our message and our agenda. That’s going to anger some folks who think in single-issue or "hot button" terms, but so be it. If we want a government that we can be proud of, as activists we have to get beyond thinking that our issue is the only issue of consequence. There are times in history when we have to step back and attend to fundamentals. By analogy, there are times when you can’t justify remodeling the kitchen — much as you might want to — because this year you need to fix the cracks in the foundation.
Here are the cracks in our national foundation:
1. Clarifying the "war on terror"
2. Restoring confidence in the democratic process
3. Recreating the safety net
This list is going to be controversial, I’m sure. It doesn’t name big hot-button issues like civil liberties and post-9/11 erosion, abortion, and Iraq. But stay with me for a second. Above I said that some of our hot-button issues will be "derived" from the the "Top Three." Clearly, one cannot clarify and bring under democratic control the "war on terror" if we aren’t addressing Iraq, nor will we be able to mount an effective defense of civil liberties post-9/11 without a discussion of the overarching effort. It is possible that defense of current abortion policy isn’t covered by any of the Top Three, but I justify its omission because (a) currently this is more a judicial issue than a Congressional one, as long as Roe v. Wade has effect, and (b) social consensus via polling seems to indicate that the public at large is far more moderate on the issue than are activists on both sides. Thus, for the moment, abortion rights aren’t on my "Top Three" list.
Clarifying the "War on Terror"
Democrats should move immediately to clarify the "War on Terror" both within political discourse and in communication with voters. Over the past five years, the rhetoric and positions surrounding Iraq, the "War on Terror," and terrorism have hardened into cariactures on both sides. We talk past each other, not with each other, and because most Americans have little real knowledge of some of the countries involved, their politics and history, and the terrorist groups involved, it’s all too easy for both sides to use the "War on Terror" in ways that obfuscate, rather than clarify, the issues we face. While Republicans have been guilty of raising the WOT in "bogeyman" fashion all too often, Democrats have clearly been guilty of minimizing the issues in order to oppose themselves from the Administration. We do the country and ourselves a disservice by continuing in this fashion.
Democrats should lead the way to a rational, informed discourse on terrorism, Middle Eastern foreign policy, and the war in Iraq. We don’t have to stop saying that we opposed starting the conflict in Iraq, but we ought to stop making that our only message on the subject. Everyone gets it. What the public is actually waiting for is to understand where we go from here. Neither party has an answer to this question today. I don’t have one, either. But then again, we don’t yet have the political conditions conducive to figuring it all out. So first things first.
Clearly, we need to change the way we think and talk about these issues. In particular, the first steps in getting our arms around the War on Terror are to:
- Demystify it: as long as the War on Terror is a vague, unbounded initiative, we cannot hold our leaders and representatives (on both sides of the aisle) accountable for their policies and conduct. We cannot tell whether we’re making progress or not. We can’t tell whether alternative policies or proposals might work better. Opacity is bad for the health of a democracy, just as lack of information is bad in business when decisions need to be made. While respecting sources and confidentiality, we need to throw the light of day onto the WOT and start talking about it clearly and rationally.
- Measure it: once we start being clear about objectives and targets, we can measure our progress. Vagueness about our situation and progress is only useful if it’s protecting somebody from oversight, hiding screwups, or protecting a hidden agenda. The vast majority of public servants, intelligence agents, and military personnel who are working their butts off to keep up safe should welcome clarity and measurability. After all, both they and we would like to know that their efforts are working, and in many cases we have folks that would eventually like to go home and pick up their lives again. They especially deserve to know whether we’re making progress and where we stand.
- Limit it: once we can understand and measure our efforts, we can rationally discuss how to put boundaries around them. When the situation is vague, and the public can’t measure our progress, we have no way to legitimately judge whether the War on Terror is being conducted within proper limits. When we hear claims that a limitation on our liberties is required in the name of security, how can we judge whether the tradeoff between liberty and security is appropriate? Naturally, much detail on sources and methods may have to remain obscure in order to protect our intelligence-gathering abilities, but much of the information voters need to make judgements about progress and policy are well-known worldwide by scholars, politicians, and specialists. And since so much information is already available, if we choose to organize, communicate, and debate it, wider possession and discussion of it by the American public is unlikely to "tip off" any terrorists, who presumably already track what is publicly available.
It’s simply not true that we can’t safely discuss, measure, or place limits on the "War on Terror" without endangering our collective ability to fight or do police work. And we need to insist upon this principle.
Not only does clarifying the "War on Terror" have obvious benefits for the proper protection of civil liberties, but it ensures that we can deliberate in an informed manner about funding, troop levels, and many other issues. Of course, clarification might be opposed by our representatives, who have to seek frequent reelection. After all, if the public can actually measure how well our leaders and representatives are doing, not all of them are going to pass muster and some may lose their reelection bids. That’s just tough. We need to insist on clarification, measurability, and limits because the country belongs to all of us, not just the folks that work in Washington, D.C.
Restoring Confidence in Electoral Democracy
In the long run, restoring voter confidence in our democratic processes is even more important than the War on Terror, but of course it’s often the case that acute diseases must be treated before chronic illnesses. Lack of voter confidence in democratic process — elections, campaign finance, districting, voter enfranchisement, etc — is both chronic and destructive, and we should expect that fixing it will take a long-term, concerted effort. The level of effort required will only be possible if consistent pressure is placed on Congress by the public, otherwise we’ll quickly slip back to "business as usual." But if any issue deserves concentrated focus by all Americans, this is it.
Regardless of whether reforms lead to a more even sharing of power between Democrats and Republicans, or longer-lasting majorities of one party, fixing the justifiable lack of confidence in voting systems, electoral fairness, and other aspects of choosing leaders would be an enormous contribution to future generations. In terms of tools for citizenship and democracy, this may be the most important thing we could do for our children and grandchildren. Those moments in our history when Americans come together and "fix the foundations" by creating a fairer, more inclusive democratic system have impacts that reverberate for generations: Reconstruction (civil rights for blacks), the Progressive movement (voting rights for women, direct election of Senators), and the Civil Rights movement (the voting rights act, extension of voting to 18 year olds due to war). So no matter what comes of this in terms of party politics, this is something we can be proud of. It’s worth doing whether it results in more Democrats being elected in the short term or not.
Some of the items that should be on our agenda:
- Basic election trustworthiness: regardless of what steps need to be taken, we need to be able to trust that elections are fair. I see nothing fundamentally wrong with electronic voting machines, for example, although the current generation are terrible, whether this is from poor engineering or intention. Clearly we can do better, and probably without going back to antiquated systems that are barriers to many Americans with disabilities, Americans voting while serving overseas, or those who find it difficult to use traditional polling places. We can do better both on technology and on process. Regardless of whether one is an "originalist" in constitutional terms, it’s hard to imagine that the Founders would want us to stop innovating ways to create a fairer, more trustworthy way of electing our leaders.
- Recognizing the effects of money and media: we need to go beyond the simplistic measures of "campaign finance reform," which seem to center around whether we can constitutionally limit the amount of individual contributions to political campaigns. Our discourse is impoverished, and this causes us to ignore more fundamental issues. For example, how has the development of large, highly centralized media outlets changed the way we deliberate on issues? "Campaign reform" needs to include more than just contribution limits — we ought to be deliberating on what "fairness" means in choosing and selecting leaders in an environment where communicating on a mass scale can cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. "Ordinary" Americans face an enormous barrier to being elected in this country, and that deprives us of valuable perspectives and opportunities for leadership, and creates a defacto "aristocracy" despite our traditions and the wishes of our Founders. Democrats should lead the way to real reform on this issue.
- Depoliticizing districting: we need to recognize that both parties have used the districting provisions of the Constitution to their electoral advantage. Given the current Republican majority in the House, much of the discussion centers around Republican manipulation of redistricting, but we need to remember that Democrats can and do play that game as well. And it’ll be hard to wean everyone off manipulation of redistricting, but voters must insist upon it. Incumbents simply were not meant to have the advantage they currently enjoy, and we have to force change. Again, I have no idea whether truly fair redistricting would favor any specific party — more likely, it’ll favor one party in some places, and another party in other locations. But we shouldn’t be motivated by short-term results here: the net result will be a "more perfect" democracy, and that’s a good thing for everyone.
Fixing our basic democratic machinery is important because we need to trust that we actually are being represented. All of us. Sometimes that may not lead to the substantive political results we might individually favor, but we simply have to trust that we have a much better shot at eventually convincing our fellow Americans of our viewpoint if the system isn’t biased in any particular direction. I also suspect, though I can’t prove, that political participation would rise if we knew that the "system was fair." And frankly, I’d be a lot happier losing on substantive issues if I didn’t have plenty of history telling me that the deck was stacked to begin with. I suspect that’s true on both sides of the fence.
Restructuring the Safety Net
With the exception of pure libertarians, most people within a big swath of the "center", regardless of party affiliation, believe there should be some kind of role for government in helping deal with basic economic security. We can differ on how extensive this is, but let’s be honest, mostly Americans believe there’s at least some justification for a people to solve certain "safety net" problems collectively rather than leaving them to pure individual luck, individual charity, and personal initiative. And given this broad consensus, we can’t morally justify letting the safety net unravel. Even if we differ across party lines about extensive it ought to be, or how much we’re willing to spend on it, we should be united in ensuring its solvency. Democrats created the safety net we currently enjoy, and we should take the lead in fixing it, not just defending its continued existence.
Beyond this, it’s time for us to have a serious conversation about the role of the market versus the role of government in modern society. If for no other reason than the fact that the basic economic structure of society has fundamentally changed since the safety net was pioneered in the New Deal, and later enlarged in the Great Society era. Both events occurred prior to the effects that the globalization of capital, and the computer revolution, have had on how economies, businesses, and even individual careers are structured. So given all the change, it’s time for us to have a "performance review" of how safety nets ought to work in our economy, and stop assuming that what worked in 1937 or 1967 will still be best today. And that means acknowledging how markets have changed, how companies, careers and thus society have changed, and how these changes affect the split we expect between the role of the market and the role of government. Libertarians and economic conservatives seem to assume, without explicit modern evidence and relying mostly on Friederich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Gary Becker, that the ideal split between markets and governments is the same as it’s always been: small government, markets do almost all the work. Democrats, various stripes of "progressives" and other New Deal liberals, on the other hand, seem to have a death-grip on the New Deal solution: the appropriate split is the same as it’s always been, with big government and tightly controlled markets. Is it just possible that things have changed, that stasis on either opinion is not the best way to proceed? We talk past each other because each side is working from diametrically opposed assumptions that share one feature — neither side ever questions our own assumptions.
Democrats need to take the initiative and stand firm: the social safety net is not negotiable, we must have one, but we’re open to good faith discussion about how best to implement it. The only reason that serious discussion about Social Security is so difficult is that supporters are convinced that all discussion of changing the system is a veiled attempt to destroy it. As a result, Social Security turns into the "third rail" of politics, and is virtually unreformable — debate is limited to the level of taxation we will accept to float the current structure. The net result is that supporters are justified in their "bunker" mentality, given recent political history. But those who oppose the current implementation are also justified, because the "third rail" phenomenon leads them to the position that destroying Social Security is the only way to fix the obvious flaws in the way we implement it.
Getting beyond this will be difficult, because small-government conservatives and libertarians are convinced that Democrats are obviously committed to "socialist" views on economics, and progressives are convinced that "conservatives" sees any critique of market economics as tantamount to disloyalty. I suspect that fundamental progress will require Democrats to demonstrate some serious thought about the balance between markets and collective action, without hysteria, before we can expect the other side to "join in." But the effort is well worth it, and could yield more lasting results than current calls to simply make "alliances" with libertarians on a tactical basis.
I don’t claim that these are the only three, or even the precisely right three, issues that Democrats should focus upon should we regain some measure of power this November. I’m merely trying to communicate my sense that our years out of power, and the overreach of the Republicans during the last five years, have given us a golden opportunity: to "rise above." Not necessarily above partisan politics, which in fact is a good thing (see Federalist No. 10), but above our recent history of single-issue politics. To focus on issues of foundations and basic democracy, and focus on the issues that the country truly needs us to focus upon. Fidelity to ourselves, to the best aspects of our history and traditions, demand no less. Failure to rise to the occasion, and to instead slip back into "politics as usual," would be to squander the opportunity we may be given, starting next Tuesday.