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Thursday, January 20, 2005


Michael J. Totten

There haven't been a whole lot of new ideas on the left lately, but I wrote about what I think is a great one a little over a year ago in a post called "Socialism Without the Socialism."


I chose that title carefully because it is, I think, the left's new challenge. Come up with a new socialism to replace the failed socialism of the past. Capitalism is great, but it isn't enough.

Green Dem

"All of this reminds me of so many people I have met over the years who aspire to become writers. They spend endless amounts of time putting together an office or studio. They buy file folders and cabinets to hold their research; whiteboards to map out their storylines; ergonomic chairs for those all-night scribbling marathons; wireless laptops ready for service in a Starbucks; even expensive and gimmicky software guaranteed to help them generate, organize and elaborate their ideas. Only catch is, the ideas never seem to come and nothing actually gets written."

Isn't it funny that it took a kazillion dollar infrastructure of think tanks, magazines, and Branson Missouri retreats to tell the Republicans what they already knew believed in, less government, a bigger military, a punitive criminal justice policy, regressive taxation, and so on and so forth.

Democrats today, like Republicans thirty or forty years ago, already know what they believe in. It isn't very imaginative, but wake me up when America is ready for imaginative. The Democrats' problem is self-confidence. Soros should spend all that money on a dime bag of speed for every single Democrat in the country, and refills for candidates. It worked for the blitzkrieg.

Marc Cooper

ROFL... a dime bag of speed, eh? Might do the trick. The paranoid posture of many dems is definitely undercutting their effectiveness and outreach, I'll go along with that!

Green Dem

"ROFL... a dime bag of speed, eh? Might do the trick. The paranoid posture of many dems is definitely undercutting their effectiveness and outreach, I'll go along with that!"

Actually, what I really think is that my response (America isn't ready for imagination) is evidence of my thesis (Democrats lack self confidence), which is a roundabout way of saying you were right in the first place. Democrats need vision, big thoughts.

Off to sleep.

jim hitchcock

Aren't you guys forgetting the first step? Read once where it was the acid heads who imagined the castles in the sky, and the speed freaks that built them.

So, instead of think tank shindigs vying for C-Span coverage, I propose regional Electric Acid Koolade Test Centers, with coupons fot free samples of Starbucks new Ephedra Plus blend included in the price of admission.

John F. Opie

Marc -

Went and read your column.

Completely and totally on the mark.

What the Democrats really, really, really don't seem to understand is that Republican success to a large extent is based on really well organized grass roots campaigning by people who are willing to go out and do the tedious work of persuading folks one by one of voting for their candidates.

It's not something the Democrats appear to be terribly interested in: it's not glamorous, it's not financially rewarding, it means lots of hours spent doing tedious things, it's **work**.

And having Soros and Co. throw money at the problem will make it only worse, except for the fatcats who run the party, who will enjoy spending Soros' money.

In a lot of ways, it's a shame: there are enough political issues where Democrats could mobilize a base, but not enough Democrats who would be happy enough with that. Comes when the activists find that making politics successful is a lot of hard work and it's a lot easier to spend the energy involved in getting funding instead of even trying to win local elections.

Great work. I don't agree with you on a lot of things, but you're the gem among the gravel of liberal thinkers. And that really is meant as a compliment.

Best regards, keep up the great work.


too many steves

Is it really ideas they need or simply a more honest strategy for presenting and implementing their ideas?

I think it is true that many on the Left believe in the basic United States principle of pursuing Life, Liberty, and Happiness. So the vision is a point of agreement not dispute. What is in dispute is how to get there for most people in the most efficient and effective way.

At a more objective level they believe in:

Economic fairness (at least in terms of opportunity, to the extent they want guaranteed outcomes there is room for argument)

Opposition to the war in the middle east on the basis of no demonstrated imminent threat to us.

Elimination of isms (racism, ageism, etc.)

Support for a woman's right to choose (pro-abortion if you prefer)

Opposition to the death penalty

Support for a wide variety of social services to account for the folks who need help (elderly, medical, financial)

Support for the idea that government, at all levels, can and should be active in our daily lives and, while acknowleding it is not a perfect solution, believing it can be a force for good in our lives.

Within in each of these broad categories there are lots of detailed programs and tactical items to review, discuss, and vote on.

Take, for example, the discussion brewing over Social Security. President Bush is publicly on record making the case that the system is deteriorating. He says, based on various government agency reports, the system is losing its ability to function properly and will be in a crisis in a relatively few years. He offers as evidence the rapidly rising number of people seeking benefits, the legislature's recognition of this problem by raising tax rates and the age at which you can begin to collect benefits, and the evidence that those retirees that are living by relying exclusively on SS benefits are not living particularly well.

To which the Democrats shout: He's Lying! Does that make them ostriches? I don't know. The more cynical me sees this as a tactic reminiscent of the chicken in every pot approach to winning votes.

There are enough ideas and difference of opinion to have a substantial debate - there just doesn't seem to be anyone willing to take on that particular task in any serious way. And by "anyone" I mean the Democratic leadership: Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, etc.


You're quite right Too Many Steves.
Totten writes, "There haven't been a whole lot of new ideas on the left lately,"

Totten plainly doesn't read much that is written from the left:



Marc Cooper

Too Many: Or the Republicans either. ThEIR problem is that the engage in scare tactics to stampede ordinary people into voting for the interests of the very wealthy. But that's another blog :)


Excellent article, Marc. Is anyone listening? Can you hear me now?

I read they outspent the Bush campaign by $100 million. And they think getting the message out is the problem? It's out; we said no thanks.

Trouble is, even when they lose, their leadership wins. McAuliffe walked away from the chair a jillionaire. All the consultants will get other jobs. There's really very little downside to losing for the apparatchiks. All the lower level guys I worked with on Dem campaigns hoped to move up the ladder by flattering the money men. Losing was a given--and they never listened to any of us when we said, hey, we have the registration, we can win.

too many steves

I think to be fair to Totten, the ideas I listed aren't exactly new - so he's probably right on the new/old argument.

If, like me, you went to Kerry's web site during the campaign you would've found a shockingly detailed accounting of his views on just about every possible policy area. I didn't agree with many of them and so voted for the other guy, but they were there if you wanted to make an informed choice. Yet you heard very little of those positions during the campaign. I know that has something to do with news reporting but I think it says alot about the approach to the campaign that Kerry chose.

As Marc has said in previous posts, Democrats seem to be confusing tactics with strategy. And here they go again. What's that old story about Nero fiddling while Rome burned?

the other josh


Read your column and generally agree with your argument, especially about the need to develop a 'Southern Strategy.' I think that many liberals, out of a mixture of prejudice and ignorance, cannot possibly conceive that there are working/middle class people down there who would be amenable to the Democrats' message.

I say this based upon the trip my wife and I took over Christmas to Texas to visit family. Ran into plenty of middle-age white guys who, when the talking got to politics, were quite aware of the corporate bias of this administration. And they were pretty ticked about the favoritism and privilege that big business has in this country and most of all the Republican Party. They cited examples of how the tax code is rigged, how illegal immigrant labor holds down wages and profits business, and so on.

Now, the problem is that these points were peppered with statements like "Them Mexicans need to learn our language." The type of stuff that gives liberals the vapors (and for good reason). Anyway, I just say this to point out that the potential is there for victory. The main obstacle is finding candidates down there who can connect with culturally conservative Southern voters without engaging in the divisive slimery that Republicans have perfected. Methinks, however, that liberals and Democrats are too weak, tone-deaf, insular and disorganized to do this.

Can't remember if I ever posted this here but I wrote an article a while back - "How Democrats Can Win Every Election Ever" -http://www.acidlogic.com/democrats_can_win.htm containing a number of (relatively) new ideas for the Dems (many of which have appeared in like minded articles at this point.) Unfortunately these ideas seemed to get floated and vetted but never really go anywhere.

Sample (on reclaiming religious voters):
"At the very least, don’t allow the impression that The Republicans “own” this group. (Remember a guy named Martin Luthor King? I’m pretty sure he would have voted against Bush.) There’s a very viable (albeit, often pro-life) religious left that could use some more face time at the Democratic conventions. If the secularist urbanites in the room (like myself) start to complain about the sudden influx of religion, tell them to shut up – it’s for the good of the party."


Sorry - that was me above.

In addition, I'm not as pessimistic, as you Marc, about this Soros cash infusion. Part of getting a message a creating ideas, is about thinking and disussing them and getting them discussed by the general public. Presumably that's what a think tank will do. You could argue, perhaps, that dems will mismanage the opportunity, but on the surface I consider it a step in the right direction.

What I see as a major problem for Democrats is that there's real two schools of thought within the party. There's an anti-capitalist far left school, then a more modern Third-way Clintonista school. And they really can't trace their roots back to anywhere near the same place, thus creating a degree of competiveness within the party.

Mavis Beacon

Great article. I’m not so certain that there’s no use for think tanks (though I definitely see your point). I agree completely with the idea that the Democratic Party needs to make economic issues a priority. But my favorite part of your essay is when you throw out, “Not that I’m opposed to "infrastructure." The question is, what kind of infrastructure to do what?”

That’s a great question and I don’t think you really answer it. I agree that we don’t want emulate the Republican structure. It is aristocratic or autocratic or something non-democratic. You only need to watch their manipulation of language (privatization or not privatization) to grasp the tremendous control the “idea men” have over the party. We need to find another kind of structure, one that welcomes the democratic exchange of ideas.

Blogging may be a partial answer. Certainly blogging is special because of its democratic potential – DailyKos is great participatory democracy. The problem, and what you have regularly criticized Move-On for, is that the people who choose to participate aren’t a good representation of the Democratic Party coalition. And they aren’t good at reaching out and finding/describing the issues that resonate with potential party members. They are, in many ways, very good echo chambers.

So how do we make discussion communities more inclusive? How do we get more voices involved in the conversation? In that way, even this blog isn’t very successful – the knowledgeable and/or confident tend to eclipse voices with less certainty. Yet those are often the people that policy makers and Democratic true believers need to hear from most. (While debate with our right-wingers is worthwhile, I don’t think they’ll be voting for a democrat any time this century. But maybe that’s my shortsightedness.) Increasing participation isn’t exactly a structural change, but if you incorporate DailyKos’ system, you have the beginnings of your “message infrastructure.” Perhaps instead of spending all that cash on think tanks they could use it to try and build a ground up messaging infrastructure. Instead of telling everyone what we think, or what the party heads think, we could learn (and learn to respect) the different views of Democrats across the nation. [Cue anthem and grainy footage depicting the first Continental Congress]

Marc Cooper

Mavis.. good questions and thoughts. One thing for sure, building more Washington-based think tanks run by beltway Clintonistas is a great job-creating program for Yale graduates in earth shoes but will do nothing to advance the "porgressive" cause. In any case, Im not really that interested at all in winning peple over to the current Democratic Party because I dont think it has much to offer.
So im more interested in bottom-up infrastructure-- organizing unions and community groups seems like a good start. They improve the lives of ordinary people no matter who's in the White House. But bottom line, I dont pretend to have the answers. I just know non-answers when I see them.

jim hitchcock

Mavis' great comments made me think (in my normally haphazard and `flight of fancy' sort of way) about the way the system itself has broken down over the decades. I realize the following is naive as can be, but I yam what I yam: Take the big money out of politics.

How about REAL campaign finance reform. Put teeth in the laws to make all campaign contribution singular. That would mean outlawing corporate AND union contribution. Get rid (if at all possible, and including 527's) lobbying that functions by greasing the skids. What if contributions were limited to, say, a check box on you're tax return? Distribute it relative to party, or not; you'd just have to figure out the criteria for a candidates eligibilty to receive funding (that would be tough). And allocate FREE advertising on the airwaves. That's awful idealistic, I realize, and what a huge fight you'd get from broadcasters over loss of the cash cow, but the hell with them. The licensing fees they pay for the airwaves that WE own are ludicrously low. What would be the result of all of this? Imagine. Elections more about ideas than money.

Marc Cooper

Well, Jim, I totally 101% agree with you. Problem is the Supreme Court Buckley ruling that defines paid political advertising and contributions as protected first amendment speech. It's a tough call, and certainly we would not want to outlaw people, or groups, from spending resources to support a politician or a campaign. That said, there are plenty of Clean Money and Free TV ideas around to solve about 95% of the problem. Just no motivation for politicians to do so.


I like your analogy Marc. It reminds me of a descriptive I read somewhere on the net that compared the Stupid Party (Rep) to the Nothing Party (Dem). I think the real problem that the Dems are having is that they lack a consistent ideology. This ideological void makes it very difficult to predict what the Democratic party would do with power in Congress, or the Presidency. It comes down in large part to risk assesment for me, and I surmise many others.

The Republicans have some ideas I wholeheartedly agreee with, and many I thoroughly detest. But even running a candidate that is not so bright or innovative, I can divine what his basic style of governance is going to be outside of campaign promises which I think most people dismiss out of hand. The Democrats offer me no such predictive ability. All I have to go on is campaign promises, disestablishmentarianism, and some vague meme that I should trust them because they are "smarter" than the other guys.

This simply isn't cutting it any more. Campaign prosmises are thrown away, hating the other guy ain't enough for me, and I've met plenty of smart people that I wouldn't trust with power over me. Until the Democrats can offer voters a guiding and predictive general philosophy of goverment they will continue to lose votes that they could be winning. It will always come down to choosing the devil I know over the one I don't. These parties, especially amongst people of my generation, hold no magic.

I don't care about the history of either one. Who started what war, who made this mistake or that twenty, thirty, or a hundred years ago. What I do care about is which I think will do the least damage over the course of their hold on the reigns. And at present I can predict what kind of damage the Republicans will do and come to terms with it. The Democrats have to become something more than a lottery ticket to the Republicans' blackjack table.


I would note that Totten's 'moderate' 'alternative' health care plan is exactly that which all god fearing and non-god fearing free market ideologues adore, privatization of health care accounts. How advocacy of something that would drive health care costs up [nota bene it's where health care is least privatized that it's most cheaply admnistered], since the bureaucracy needed to cover payments from numerous different health care companies would be a nightmare for doctors and patients alike time wise and financially, and the so-called 'vouchers' would be drawn from public accounts that would be minimized since they are for the least important among us, i.e. the unemployed-working poor,officially working poor, etc. During a major recession or depression god forbid, Totten's idea would do little but funnel public funds into private coffers with little left to deal with health care crises that emerge with high rates of unemployment...
And with the increased spending on military budgets that the "war" on "terror" requires...the financial mess only gets aggravated even more.

What is most amusing about Totten's health care plan [I mean the one from the 'moderates' at Reason that he likes] is the romantic and ideological belief in the benefits of competition and small business. Utterly naive, just check out Doug Henwood's well written critique of such naivete:

Romantic myths of capitalism, the stuff Doug was criticising among those on the left that, apparently, Totten clings to no less faithfully. I'm afraid Marx, Weber, etc. were quite right about the reality of competition, it tends toward concentration of wealth and ownership. How could it be otherwise, except in the free market romanticism found in rightwing journals like Reason and associated thinktanks like Heritage, CATO,...

Michael J. Totten

Steve: "Totten plainly doesn't read much that is written from the left"

You plainly have not seen my library. It takes up two rooms and is packed with "left" books.

Try another angle.


Marc, as usual, great post, even better article. However this statement: "The Democrats have become a party too dominated by social issues, lifestyle posturing and politically correct cultural sensibilities, and not enough by old-fashioned class-based economics." reeks of class-warfare. Is that what we want? Or do we want a truly a classless society?

Here's an idea or two for the folks you are lambasting. Everybody, including Soros become a Republican and change the party from the inside (always an easier job.) Also, quit imagining that throwing money at a problem solves that problem. If it did, we would have a public school system that would be the envy of the world. Lastly, consider some ideas that don't involve demonizing your political opponents. If the conservatives and/or Republicans (not always the same thing) want to demonize the Democrats, in time the Dems will be the good guys for many more Americans.



Class-warfare is a non-partisan affair. It's more a matter of "which side are you on" than anything else. Hopefully some sort of rational compromise will eventually play out, but frankly I don't see much incentive for this on the Republican side. They are getting what they want, and want to keep on getting what they want.

Also, the idea that eventually if Republicans demonize Democrats enough then magically more Americans will vote Democratic is sort of ... pollyannish? It doesn't jibe with my experience (admittedly less than yours - both in terms of age and profession ) of human nature.

Green Dem

There's really no disputing what you say Marc. The Democrats can open as many lavishly funded think tanks as they want, but as long as they're staffed with the same old Beltway hacks who haven't so much as set foot outside the Washington/New York/Boston corridor anytime in the last 25 years, they'll remain in the wilderness for a long, long time.

Brian Schweitzer out in Montana has clearly proved the DLCish corporatists wrong about the efficacy of economic populism in red America. He swept into office on a campaign of anti-corporate, anti-corruption, pro-small business and small farmer/rancher, pro-sportsman sentiment that (gasp) for the most part ignored social issues, and focused on bread and butter stuff.

What you say about Democrats and social issues is true not just in red America though. The urban areas of the bluest of the blue states have become feudalistic fiefdoms with a small white, (often) liberal, white collar, property-owning elite, and a vast servant class of clerks, waiters, maids, nannies, customer service people, who live from paycheck to paycheck, and can barely afford rent, let alone dream of owning their own place, as self-described "progressive" in places like San Francisco do everything in their power to prevent any new housing from being built anywhere. The Democrats have little or nothing to offer even their core voters.

But leftists deserve criticism here too. The vision of the Democrats has always been fed by the left, and even fifteen years after marxism breathed its last breaths the left hasn't entirely moved on. The future of the left isn't in the nineteenth century, and has little to do with industrial capitalism. The future of the left is eco-centric, deep ecological, and not avowedly secular. Somewhere in the muck of early twentieth-century eco-leftism are the seeds for the end of post-industrial capitalism, the end of Judeo-Christian religion and culture, and revolutionary new political, economic, and social arragnements and relationships.


It seems to me that not only do the dems lack self confidence but they are in identity crisis mode. I think if the dems are going to change they need new blood and to move the old party establishment out. Dean was a great start but got shut out. He had great energy and said things that needed to be said. He reached out to the grass roots over the internet and wow what a response he got. It obviously doesn't start with the billionaires and money, it starts with the willingness of the democrats to figure out who they are.

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