Thursday, February 17, 2005

Desperately Seeking Dean

As a lifelong Democrat I almost completely disagree with Lee Cullum's analysis this morning of the election of Howard Dean as DNC Chairman. Mrs. Cullum appears to proceed from the misguided (if conventional) idea that the only function of political parties is to get candidates elected, and the only candidates who will get elected must pander to "centrist" values. This unfortunate view leads her to question the election of Dr. Dean, who she characterizes as "comic" and typecast as a hotheaded Northeastern Liberal. I would point out that if anything it was her colleagues in the media who accomplished this typecasting, seizing on one campaign event (which was in itself perfectly innocuous) and endlessly repeating it as though it were an obvious disqualification for office and advocating swinging support towards the establishment candidate John Kerry. Howard Dean single-handedly brought to life a lackluster Democratic field in 2003; his energy and willingness to take controversial public stands against the administration fired a grass-roots movement that swept him from obscurity to within hours of staking his claim on the nomination. His marginalization by an (unspoken) alliance of mainstream media and establishment Democrats stands as a low point in the political history of this nation. I firmly believe that Dr. Dean would have won the election and would now be President if the party leadership had stood by him.

Getting back to her piece, Mrs. Cullum is also misguided in believing that either Martin Frost or Ron Kirk would have made a better chairman than Dr. Dean. I respect Mr. Frost and supported him in his race against Pete Sessions. The fact however is that Mr. Frost did not possess the public speaking skill (I would say "charisma") to energize Dallas Democrats to support him enthusiastically enough to defeat similarly snoozeworthy incumbent Republican Pete Sessions. Yes, the new 32nd Congressional district was gerrymandered in such a way as to make it almost impossible for a Democrat to win, but I believe that a sufficiently compelling candidate could have defeated Sessions. Mr. Frost was not that man; and since the DNC chairman is the public face of the party, and we need an energetic person who is able to convincingly and persuasively articulate what the party represents, Mr. Frost is not the man for that job either. Former mayor Ron Kirk is not nationally well-known enough to have had much chance of being elected to the national chairmanship, though I don't doubt he might have been an effective one (at least as effective as Frost might have been, if not moreso).

The overall tone of the piece is especially troubling to me. Statements such as "Howard Dean's stance as an anti-war not the answer to winning elections in a country gravely concerned about security" and "It's too late now for Dr. Dean to scamper back to the center, where Democrats must run if they expect to win" indicate her advocating total capitulation to the Neoconservatives. Mrs. Cullum apparently thinks that only a Democratic Party that is perceived as "Republican-Lite" has any chance of national success. While this may be true as far as it goes, it is a sorry commentary on the American civil discourse Mrs. Cullum appears to believe we should be having. Party politics should not be a race to the center; it should be an open and honest discussion of differing approaches to the issues of the day. Cultivating political monoculture is a curious stance for a political commentator to take; if all candidates agreed on the issues, there would be no point in having media commentators like Mrs. Cullum (and no point in having elections). Mrs. Cullum should instead be encouraging the rise to prominence of leaders with strongly-held alternative views; leaders like Dr. Dean.

Finally, I must take issue with Mrs. Cullum's opinion that the election of an opinionated Liberal inevitably consigns the Democratic Party to doom and defeat for as long as Dr. Dean is chairman. Rather than allowing the current success of the Conservative movement to drag the Democratic Party towards the center (thus making it more and more like the Republican Party!), Democrats like Dr. Dean are trying to help the Democratic Party stand up for the the good Liberal ideals it has traditionally stood for. There is endless moaning in the media about how the two parties are becoming indistinguishable from each other, how politicians are (or should be) reluctant to take controversial positions because of the need to curry "swing voters", and how elections are about choosing "the lesser of two evils". Well, here is a DNC chairman who is unafraid to take on the Neo-Conservatives and Republicans; not with partisan acrimony and dirty tricks, but with superior organization and persuasive policy initiatives. I believe that the election of Dr. Dean is exactly what the Democratic Party needs in this time of Republican ascendancy. I will do all I can to help him, here in Texas and throughout the nation, and I believe in the end Mrs. Cullum will be forced to admit that his becoming DNC chairman represented a new beginning for the party, and the end of Democratic soul-searching after the losses of 2000 and 2004.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

David Brin on Modernism

One of my favorite authors, David Brin, has been posting an essay on Modernism over on his blog Contrary Brin. Definitely worth reading. In one section, he castigates the Left (i.e. Liberals) for a multitude of self-defeating elitist actions:
"On the left, dogma-driven romantics warped the natural American suspicion of authority (SOA) into a never-ending list of political axes to grind. The fight for civil rights was such a heady and successful thing - overcoming ages of stereotypes and reflex discrimination - that soon every rock had to be turned over, seeking the next and then the next intolerance to expose, amid a drug-high of indignant fury. [snip]...along the way it became less and less about equalizing basic opportunity and ever-more about creating and stoking a movement."
I don't doubt that this may be true. When you think of Liberalism, the image the Conservatives want you to have is of tree-hugging environmental activists, hippies, draft dodgers, and atheist (or even, gasp, pagan) fanatics who want to go back to living in caves. Certainly they have been successful in pushing this image; it's part of what has made "liberal" such a derisive word and anathema to politicians.

I think it's important to keep in mind that all political movements have their fringe elements. Even Conservatives are afflicted with "neo-cons", the Religious Right, and Rush Limbaugh. Fringe elements represent the energy generated by the core values of the movement; something your movement stands for (or says it stands for) has sufficiently inspired someone that they make it their mission in life to see it come to pass. Thus, I don't consider fringe groups to be in and of themselves a bad thing; they are the almost inevitable consequence of a powerful idea.

The danger comes when the tail starts wagging the dog. If the fringe groups' energy and zeal overwhelm the more rational core of the movement, you've got a problem. And it's all too easy for this to happen; the natural tendency of most of us is tolerance for differing views and reluctance to take action (especially in restraint of someone with whom we actually see ourselves in partial agreement). It's easier to let the more vehement people who have the drive to do that sort of thing run our political organization. We have our own business to attend to.

The challenge (as I see it) facing "mainstream" Liberals today is to take back the image of our movement from the fringe groups who have come to define it. Yes, we opposed the draft; but we are not in favor of abolishing the military, for we recognize that it is still necessary to defend ourselves from others. Yes, we want to protect the environment; but not to the extent of preventing all exploitation of resources. Yes, we want to remove religious dogmatism from our public discourse; but this does not mean abolition of religion. We have to demonstrate to undecided people that Liberalism is the movement of personal freedom and that society should be the engine enabling that freedom; while Conservatism is the movement of paternalistic restriction and curtailment of choice. If we can do that, I think we can salvage Liberalism.