Tag Archives: Democratic Party

Cultural Combat

David Brooks is one of those pundits who just drives me bonkers. Half the time, he comes across as  self-satisfied pedagogue. Other times, he can be uncommonly perceptive. You never know what you’ll get.

In a recent essay, both elements were present..

Brooks begins by quoting (approvingly) a conservative writer who faults “progressive elites” for their presumed inability to understand the battle over social issues in American life as “anything other than a battle between the forces of truth and justice on one side and those of ignorance and bigotry on the other.” He takes several subsequent paragraphs to lecture readers on the legitimacy of Republican cultural views–a lecture that  would have been defensible “back in the day,” when most Republicans were conservatives rather than  White Supremicist QAnon believers.

Brooks’ introductory paragraphs are barf-inducing:

Many progressives have developed an inability to see how good and wise people could be on the other side, a lazy tendency to assume that anybody who’s not a social progressive must be a racist or a misogynist.

This framing carefully avoids defining either the “other side,” or the enormous amount of credible research confirming the transformation of what used to be a normal political party into something very different–and very dark. Pretending that transformation didn’t occur–ignoring the fact that “good and wise” people are leaving the GOP in droves, appalled by what it has become, is simply dishonest.

It’s one thing to criticize strategy–to point out, as Brooks does, that much of progressive elite discourse comes across as preachy as Brooks himself, and can be distinctly unhelpful politically–is fair enough. Insisting that fair-minded, moral people must respect what the GOP has become, however, is to bury one’s head very far down in the alternative-reality sand.

In the second half of his essay, however, Brooks does a very good job of summarizing the rival moral traditions that undergird our culture wars, and summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Here is how he describes the “moral freedom” ethos:

It is wrong to try to impose your morality or your religious faith on others. Society goes wrong when it prevents gay people from marrying who they want, when it restricts the choices women can make, when it demeans transgender people by restricting where they can go to the bathroom and what sports they can play after school.

This moral freedom ethos has made modern life better in a variety of ways. There are now fewer restrictions that repress and discriminate against people from marginalized groups. Women have more social freedom to craft their own lives and to be respected for the choices they make. People in the L.G.B.T.Q. communities have greater opportunities to lead open and flourishing lives. There’s less conformity. There’s more tolerance for different lifestyles. There’s less repression and more openness about sex. People have more freedom to discover and express their true selves.

However, there are weaknesses. The moral freedom ethos puts tremendous emphasis on individual conscience and freedom of choice. Can a society thrive if there is no shared moral order?

He then describes the countervailing position.

People who subscribe to this worldview believe that individuals are embedded in a larger and pre-existing moral order in which there is objective moral truth, independent of the knower….

In this ethos, ultimate authority is outside the self. For many people who share this worldview, the ultimate source of authority is God’s truth, as revealed in Scripture. For others, the ultimate moral authority is the community and its traditions.

We’re in a different moral world here, with emphasis on obedience, dependence, deference and supplication. This moral tradition has a loftier vision of perfect good, but it takes a dimmer view of human nature: Left to their own devices, people will tend to be selfish and shortsighted. They will rebel against the established order and seek autonomy.

Brooks recognizes the weaknesses of this tradition: it often leads to “rigid moral codes that people with power use to justify systems of oppression” and facilitates “othering — people not in our moral order are inferior and can be conquered and oppressed.”

He also recognizes that the United States has opted for autonomy–legally and culturally.

This is the ultimate crisis on the right. Many conservatives say there is an objective moral order that demands obedience, but they’ve been formed by America’s prevailing autonomy culture, just like everybody else. In practice, they don’t actually want to surrender obediently to a force outside themselves; they want to make up their own minds. The autonomous self has triumphed across the political spectrum, on the left where it makes sense, and also on the right, where it doesn’t.

Nor is he entirely blind to the threat posed by Rightwing Christianist politics:

Consumed by the passion of the culture wars, many traditionalists and conservative Christians have adopted a hypermasculine warrior ethos diametrically opposed to the Sermon on the Mount moral order they claim as their guide. Unable to get people to embrace their moral order through suasion, they now seek to impose their moral order through politics. A movement that claims to make God their god now makes politics god. What was once a faith is now mostly a tribe…

So is there room in the Democratic Party for people who don’t subscribe to the progressive moral tradition but are appalled by what conservatism has become?

I’d rephrase that last question: will American politics ever return to the era of the “big tents,” when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans overlapped? The answer to that hinges on another, more critical inquiry: will today’s GOP either (1) return to sanity or (2) implode and be replaced by a sane political party?

Because we can’t consider and/or debate Brooks’ philosophical arguments while the barbarians are at the gate..




The Problem With A Two-Party System

What do you do in a 2-party system when one party goes off the rails?

Americans tend to view European multi-party systems with incomprehension, if not disdain; how do the representatives of different parties form coalitions to support particular policies? Isn’t the electoral competition of multiple parties an invitation to chaos? We Americans prefer our Manichean dualism, the “either/or” of “right or wrong” (or actually, the tribalism of “us versus them.”)

It’s time to recognize that two-party systems have considerable downsides, too. 

In reality, our two major parties have always been collections of not-necessarily-consistent factions. They haven’t always been really big tents, but each party has historically encompassed a variety of philosophies. When I was much younger, the complaint was that the tents were too commodious–that having to choose between Republican and Democrat didn’t really provide the voter with a way to declare a clear policy preference, the way a Brit voter for the Green Party could, for example.

As the GOP has become far, far more monolithic, we can see the downside of that once-desired clarity. For one thing, there’s currently no political home for sane, principled conservatives, many of whom are appalled by what has become of a once-traditional party. (Remember when many Republicans were “fiscal conservatives and social liberals”?) 

To the extent that some of those homeless conservatives have reluctantly become Democrats, the Democratic Party faces a huge challenge.

Democrats have always had a bigger tent than Republicans, and have accordingly  had trouble enforcing anything that looks like party discipline. (What was that old saying? I don’t belong to an organized political party–I’m a Democrat.) With the addition of disaffected former Republicans, Democratic strategists find themselves  trying to herd cats–trying to achieve something approaching consensus among legislators and voters who come from very different places on the political spectrum.

It’s one thing to note that the devolution of the GOP into a conspiracist cult is a huge headache for the Democrats. A much bigger worry is what that devolution means for American democracy. As Jennifer Rubin has written,

A new survey from Bright Line Watch, an organization that monitors democratic practices, provides some interesting insights but little solace about Republicans’ commitment to democracy. They might say they support democratic principles (e.g., “All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights”), but they fail to embrace the most fundamental democratic principle: acceptance of election results and the peaceful transfer of power.

The most basic disconnect from reality (and democratic values) remains the 2020 presidential winner. The survey reports, “94% of Democrats say [President] Biden is the rightful winner compared to just 26% of Republicans — a split that has also remained remarkably stable since Biden took office.” As a result, only 42 percent of Republicans have confidence in the outcome of elections compared to 80 percent of Democrats. That raises a question that was so prominent throughout the Senate runoffs in Georgia: Why vote if you think the whole thing is rigged?

Rubin notes that political scientists “are especially alarmed” by the number of  GOP candidates who do not accept the results of the 2020 election–not just those running for Congress, but at least 10 GOP candidates for secretary of state in five battleground states. Putting partisans who endorse Trump’s “Big Lie”  in charge of administering elections  poses a huge threat to election integrity from within.

The transformation of one major party into an illiberal, authoritarian movement is the greatest threat to democracy we face. It manifests itself in the “anti-fraud” measures (when there is no fraud) to restrict access to the ballot and to put partisans in charge of election administration; in the GOP’s decision to rally around House members who spout virulent racism and depict violence against Democrats; and in the real potential that the John Eastman memo becomes the 2024 post-election game plan for Republicans.

Unless and until all 50 Democratic senators realize that “bipartisanship” on voting and democracy reforms is impossible with a party infected with anti-democratic impulses, they will fail to install the guardrails needed to protect the country from these authoritarian forces.

In multi-party systems, members of a Green Party can find common ground with legislators from a Labor Party or a Conservative party on a number of issues. In today’s U.S.,  however,”bipartisanship” requires lawmakers who are trying  to enact reasonable policies to work with people who are steeped in racist conspiracy theories and are clearly untethered to reality.

Research confirms that there are many more sane voters than the Trumpers who control today’s GOP, but they need to vote and those votes need to be accurately counted. When the Whigs disappeared, they hadn’t gerrymandered themselves into positions of power disproportionate to their numbers. Today’s Republicans have.


Note: like most of you, I am watching–with fear and disbelief–the Russian assault on Ukraine. I have no foreign policy expertise, and there are numerous sources of genuinely informed news available, so I don’t intend (at this point, at least) to post about it. That said, I will make two observations: first, President Biden has spent much of  his career immersed in foreign policy, and I have confidence in his leadership at this very perilous moment; second, the Trump party’s reflexive support for Putin isn’t simply on the wrong side of history, it is reminiscent of the Americans who sided with Hitler and the Nazis at the outset of WWII.