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The Goal at the End of the Tunnel

Jun
3
2004

My new best friend Micah Sifry writes in to nicely give me a hard time about Tuesday’s post about the lack of good ideas in the Democratic Party. “There’s no thesis or theme uniting Democrats anymore, and no one seems to be looking for one, either,” I said.


“I agree with the first part of that sentence, not the second.” Sifry writes and points to a smart piece he did over at TomPaine last year. Here’s Sifry’s stab – a pretty good one — at a few unifying themes that could gather Democrats together in face of Grover Norquist’s “leave us alone,” one-stop political shopping.
To counter “Leave Us Alone” I suggest “We’re All In This Together.” Its rationale might go like this:
We must protect the environment because its degradation threatens us all. We must invest in universal health care because disease observes no boundaries — gated communities won’t protect you from SARS, AIDS, asthma or anthrax. The benefits of democracy are not reserved for the wealthy, they belong to everyone — we fight for an equal voice for all Americans and to protect politics from the distortions of big money. We are only as well off as the poor, elderly and disabled among us, and there but for the grace of God go I — we need a viable social safety net. We believe every person has the same intrinsic worth, that society’s health depends on everyone having an equal stake, and that there is strength in diversity — we want an inclusive society that values everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Money is not the measure of all worthwhile things — markets left to their own devices will not care for the poor, educate our children, create public parks or seek justice for all. Those who benefit most from what democratic society provides have a greater obligation to give back to it — we believe in progressive taxation. The multiple crises facing the world require multilateral cooperation, not go-it-alone imperialism.

Well done. I couldn’t have said it better myself. And I probably should have tried.
But here’s the counterbalance and it worries me. Much of the energy – the new energy – that I see in politics is coming not from the old Left (once known as the New Left, my how time flies) but by a moderate, at times conservative group that I call Progressive Libertarians. I’m getting more and more company as folks start picking up this growing phenomena. In a recent post on the make-up of the political blogosphere – data from a long reader survey (hint, hint) of web log readers – Political Animal Kevin Drum notes the strong Libertarian sensibility at work among those who like their politics on-line.
The Libertarian party’s current vogue is due to its philosophy and its neutrality. It’s very much Norquist’s “leave us alone.” And many people – particularly the new tech rich – don’t want to be affiliated with any political party. They think of themselves as independent – fiercely independent — operators who had done it themselves. Belonging is for the same sort of poeple who have jobs and careers, not investments and companies. They think Democrats are lazy and tax-crazy and they think Republicans are sexist, racist warmongers. Within this small but quickly growing movement, there is some respect for the Liberal precepts Sifry outlines but I’m not convinced it’s a commitment.
The Progressive Libertarian focuses not on the common good that Sifry emphasizes but on the ROI: The return on investment. The world of the new young, tech-savvy rich is a world – and Silicon Valley is its heartland — where most people spend a lot of their time talking about money. Making it, investing it, raising it, cashing it in, etc. Because they believe themselves to be self-made, they believe themselves to be independent operators – entrepreneurs – and they are often very slow to see the connection between their success and a society built on mutual aid. On top of that, the usual Progressive pablum – the stuff regularly dished out by the Left – drives them crazy. This heady cocktail is served regularly in California where local government is something between an odd joke and an incompetent mess and where nostalgia for the good fight is as thick as summer’s Marine layer fog.
Progressives Libertarians apply a very narrow set of standards when they think about helping others because they really don’t know what Liberals mean by “we’re all in this together.” It’s a foreign concept when it’s applied to people who aren’t just like them. (I don’t want to diss Sifry, Andrew Rasiej or their Personal Democracy Forum but this was one of the problems at that gathering which, like the Dean Campaign and the blogosphere had a lot of white people, particularly white men).
This homogeneity creates – in a kind of deadly combination with what’s going on within the political parties — political apathy (“they’ll never change”) and naiveté (“we must change everything.“). If you believe nothing will change or that everything must change and that absolutely everyone has an ROI, then you’re less concerned with the common good and more concerned with doing enough to get by. And I worry about who’s left out of that cold calculus. We need more than words, Micah. We need deeds. Actions, after all, speak louder.

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