What we stand for

Matt Bai has written a new book, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, which looks at the movers and shakers who are working hard to remake the Democratic party. It sounds like an interesting, well-written book, and one that anyone interested in American politics should read.

I learned about the book through Dan DiSalvo’s review in Commentary. DiSalvo commented on one facet of the new Democrats that struck me with particular force:

According to Bai, the new progressive coalition is primarily united by what it is against. Its opposition to the Iraq war is ferocious. The person of George W. Bush, who has been described by one activist as a “chicken hawk” bent on instituting a “dictatorship,” elicits emotions of universal fear and loathing. Bush aside, almost any policy initiative associated with the Republican party is regarded as stupid, malicious, or both.

But the new progressives have great difficulty in saying what they are for. Although Bai reports that intellectual circles on the Left have put forth many technocratic policy prescriptions, mostly aimed at extending the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society, the movement lacks any sort of larger vision. A typical statement from the Democracy Alliance proclaimed support for such vagaries as “the highest quality education, affordable health care, retirement security, and the opportunity to earn a living wage.” Similarly, MoveOn.org was able to distill only three goals from a series of tightly scripted “meet-ups” held across the country: “health care for all, energy independence, and democracy restored.”

Despite this paltry output, the new progressives are convinced not only of their intellectual superiority but of their political acumen. They see only two possible explanations for the errant behavior of Americans in the “fly-over” states who remain stubbornly in the Republican column. One is that red-state residents tend to be Christian evangelicals who do not know any better than to “vote against their own economic self-interest.” The other is that they have been manipulated by Republican operatives who, however dim-witted their policies, are cunning masters of electioneering. Some bloggers also complain that establishment Democrats, as the Daily Kos has explained, “don’t care [enough] about winning” to engage in the sort of campaign skullduggery that is routine for the GOP.

With such convictions as the backdrop, debate inside the Democratic party’s “Democratic wing,” Bai shows, is less about policy than about tactics and strategy.

That’s an interesting concept, and I think one that contains within it the seeds for the new Democrats’ eventual destruction. Americans are an essentially optimistic people, and while the angry fringe may be an “against” vote, I wonder how well that plays to the average voter who is simply trying to vote in a way that will most optimize his own life and belief systems. The fact is, though, that the destruction is not imminent and Republicans are so bogged down in a “we’re failures” mentality that they’re not coming up with any affirmative principles to which the average, optimistic voter can cling.

I’ve therefore come up with a few of my own rock bottom principles that I think unite most conservatives, as long as we don’t look too closely at details. What I’d like is for you to chip in which principles, beliefs, values, etc., that you believe are common to the greatest majority of conservatives. And just to give an idea of what I mean — which is that I’m looking for huge, binding issues that transcend Congressional details — I’m starting with the issue that is getting press as the one that most severely damaged the Republican party in the last go round.


Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Conservatives believe that America is weakening itself by allowing illegal immigrants to stream into the country.

Apparent Democratic belief: It’s racist to challenge the numbers of illegal immigrants and to place barriers in their path.

The Supreme Court

Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Conservatives believe that the role of the Supreme Court is to examine state and federal laws and lower court decisions to determine whether they comport with the written Constitution.

Apparent Democratic belief: The Supreme Court is to decide what is right and what is wrong — and it can get help for this by looking to its own private standards of morality, to dominant cultural trends, and to foreign systems — and it should then direct policy consistent with its findings.

(I was going to do an “abortion” heading here, and then I decided not to. I’m looking for a lowest common denominator strand of beliefs and, while the Republicans are more closely connected with the pro-Life movement, there are pro-Choice Republicans. It’s therefore not a lowest common denominator. However, it is affected by the binding conservative view of the Supreme Court, since we all know — as Clarence Thomas articulated — that a strict constructionist Supreme Court will jettison Roe v. Wade and return the matter to the states, where it belongs. Then, the chips will fall where they may, regardless of political platforms.)

The Iraq War

Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Conservatives believe that, whether or not we made the right decision in 2003 to invade Iraq, that is a done deal, and our only responsibility now is to fight wholeheartedly and to win.

Apparent Democratic belief: President Bush got us into the War to satisfy his oil buddies in Texas and, to punish him, we must leave immediately, regardless of the consequences to America, to Iraq, or to world security.

Islamic Terrorism

Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Islamic terrorism is real, it is the product of a totalitarian religious ideology that has as its ultimate goal the destruction of non-Muslim Western culture, there is no middle ground given its goal, and we must fight it.

Apparent Democratic belief: Islamic terrorism is the work of a few people angry at the US (and especially at George Bush), and the best thing we can do to placate these people is to (a) leave Iraq; (b) abandon Israel; (c) dump George Bush; and (d) engage in dialogue with the Islamic leaders.


Lowest common denominator Conservative belief: Government is a bad money manager. People make money grow, and lower taxes allow for a livelier, growing economy, with the inevitable result that the government, despite lower taxes, brings in more money.

Apparent Democratic belief: People cannot be trusted to make the right decisions with their money. It’s better if the government takes and redistributes wealth, notwithstanding the fact that doing so slows the economy.


And that’s it for my ideas and my time right now. I’d love it if you guys could take a crack at this in the comments, either editing what I wrote or adding your own. Please keep in mind that I’m looking for big ideas that appeal to the greatest number of people. Gay marriage might be another area to add. I think the vast majority of Americans are tolerant of gays, who are their friends, family and colleagues. They don’t want gays to suffer from violence, public humiliation or discrimination. But they’re pretty sure that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that the rights extended to gays should be limited to civil and legal rights, by statute or contract, provided they fall short of marriage. The question, though, is how to say that pithily, in a way that states the lowest common denominator belief (no gay marriage) while at the same time not playing into the hands of those who would accuse conservatives of being violent homophobes.

So, go to it. Come up with something better than I did, and perhaps we can work this into a real “platform” of affirmative ideas that are unifying, rather than getting bogged down in picayune details that muddy the message and pass the power to the haters.


25 Responses

  1. Let me be the first to say “you got it exactly right.”

    There are a few more but they are not in the political debate yet.

    *Republicans are generally ‘pro-commerce.” More so than Democrats.

    *Republicans are optimistic about the war in Iraq, the war against terrorism and the economic future of America and Americans.

    * Americans are proud of America, its history, its founding documents and its behavior in the world.

  2. Here’s a c-span Washington Journal interview with matt bai from last month..


    “Matt Bai, New York Times Magazine, Contributing Editor, discusses Campaign 2008 Politics and his new book “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.”

    Plug that url into your realplayer for the video.

  3. The weird thing about the democrats that I’ve noticed over a lifetime of watching, is that they never give you a positive reason to vote FOR them. They spend their lives, as noted, telling you what they – and you – ought to be AGAINST. All their energy goes into telling you what’s wrong, but I’m flummoxed to find any of them telling you what’s right about, or why you should vote for them.

    98% of their mileage is achieved via bitching. Maybe as much as 2% is gained by telling us positive things about themselves. They are truly the malcontent party – which is okay; but: what are YOU going to do – about a specific issue – that’s an improvement?

  4. I would add “Role of Government” – Conservatives believe “he governs best that governs least.” The first and foremost role of Government is our common defense;

    Progressives want to inject the govenment into all aspects of our lives – heathcare, education, marriage rites, what we eat, etc etc etc — (yet often acuse Conservatives of promoting a police state). The first and foremost role of Government is to take care of you (whatever that means).

  5. I would go even lower with the Supreme Court lowest common denominator than you did.

    The Supreme Court was originally intended to be the guardian of the Constitution – but the Constitution in its originally intended essentials only applies to federal matters – not state matters. (In this country we have a “federal” government, not a “national” government – which almost every other country has. Think about why for a minute.) It is NOT the job of the Court to look at state laws and decide whether or not they are constiutional, except as they come into conflict with or overlap with the federal context. The Constitution would have you believe that the states are pretty free to govern themselves, according to the wishes of those who reside therein. That this is in fact nbot the current reality is not how it was intended.

    This is the result of what could fairly be called an ongoing 200 year power grab by the Court to get its nose into matters where it has no right to be – and an abrogation of power by the states. The biggest single step along this path was deciding (completely unconstitutionally) that the members of the Senate would be elected, rather than appointed by the states – as the guys who put this country together had decided. This killed the ability of the states to look at the federal government and say: “hold it a minute there, boys…” and was a huge shift of power to the federal government and the not-very-constituionally compliant court. Your ability to govern yourself within your own communities and keep the federal government out of your face has been dimminishing – pretty damn rapidly, too – ever since.

    I put the court back to its lowest common denominator (or, parsed correctly: back to what it’s damn JOB was supposed to be) of examining matters federal, andleaving the rest of us pretty much alone.

    Yes – abortion would become a state matter again – which it should be. If a state votes for term limits – that’s it: local, state and federal representatives from that state are limited – period. If a state wishes to celebrate Christmas in its “public square” well, it’s their damn square: the Supreme Court is not constitutionally invited to have an opinion. If a state’s “community standards” are different than every other state’s – tough. So be it – in that state. (As long as it isn’t detrimental to federal matters, like interstate commerce, etc.) It’s their community, it’s their standards. (The Court did get the phrase “community standards” right – though they’re probably sorry they ever said it and left the door open even that much – and they’ve been trying to forget they ever said it ever since.)

    Lowest common denominator? The Court does its constitutional job – and ONLY its constitutional job.

  6. Gun Control

    Conservatives believe that a free people have a God given right to defense.

    Democrats believe that people are subjects and not trustworthy. The peoples needs can only be met by the state.

  7. I can’t imagine that the issue of marriage and family is not an over-arching issue!

    Lowest Common Denominator Conservative Belief : that marriage is not about the rights of adults because rights are all about me – rather, marriage is about the transcendant future of a stable society for succeeding generations. The one right that marriage IS about is the right of every child to have a mom and a dad.

    Democrat Belief: they want it both ways – the government should stay out of their bedroom but it is obliged to approve of gay marriage, thank you very much.

    As much as I value life at each and every point in the spectrum, I could never support a candidate that James Dobson’s group comes up with. To run a third party is to commit political suicide, lose the Supreme Court for a generation, but feel oh so good about myself because I was true to my single-issue pro-life cause.

    I like that you used the term Islamic Terrorism – after reading Melanie Phillip’s ‘Londonistan’ and Mark Steyn’s ‘America Alone’ I realize it was a big, politcally correct mistake to call it the more gauzily neutral War on Terror.

  8. Nice list and it’s pretty much all there. I also liked JJ’s essay on the Supremes. Nice! Too damn many people think the government has a Constitution that limits the people’s rights. It’s the opposite. Our Constitution restricts what the federal government can do. That it exceeds its powers is only because we have allowed it.

  9. BW – I’ve been thinking about this for a while. If we are going to worry about saying anything about gay marriage – or anything else – for fear of the animus of the left’s taunt of homophobe, then maybe we should take our marbles and go home. They have won when people are silenced by themselves without a bleat from the opposition.

  10. It’s not just the Left, Marguerite, although they are the problem I identified. I’m also thinking about the gay people in all our lives (family and friends), and about gay conservatives who share our beliefs about American security, the 2nd Amendment, the War in Iraq, etc. Trying to find the lowest common denominator belief also means trying to make it a big tent for core issues, without being offensive to people with whom, politically, we are fellow travelers on lots of big issues.

    As I recall, it was the non-inclusive frenzy of the 1992 Republican Convention that scared off a lot of moderate voters and helped propel Clinton to the White House (that and Ross Perot, of course).

  11. I don’t want to sound like a broken record (and _there’s_ a simile nobody will even understand in another decade), but I’m convinced that the liberals’ opposition to America is the _origin_ of their politics, not the result. They don’t like the society in which they live, so they are drawn to any movement which presents itself as an opposition.

    And hence the complete incoherency of their positions — feminists supporting Islamist terrorists who kill American women soldiers; liberals opposing the death penalty for murderers but supporting abortion; technophobes claiming to be “scientific”; etc.

    Liberalism has at its root a profound alienation shading into outright pathology. But because this pathology is well-entrenched in the “intellectual” segments of society, they have persuaded themselves and the rest of us that _they_ are sane and moral, while _everyone else_ is corrupt and deluded. The inmates haven’t just taken over the asylum, they’re trying to get everyone committed.

  12. What an interesting topic! Excellent posting on a critically important subject that strikes at the core of what and who we are. Here are my two-cents:

    On the nature of human beings.

    Conservatives believe that human nature is a combination of good and bad and that the role of society is to check people’s bad impulses through checks and balances that permit people’s good sides to flourish.

    Leftist Democrats believe that humans and society are products of their environment and, therefore, perfectible. The role of society is to mold people into better individuals and, ergo, better societies.

    On the relationship between the Individual and Government:

    Conservatives believe that the individual is supreme, endowed with God-given rights to pursue their journey in life as free citizens. Government is an artifice that can only legitimately govern with the consent of the governed. Conservatives also believe that individuals are smarter with respect to their own interest than the collective wisdom of government.

    Leftist Democrats believe that society (i.e., government) is supreme and that individuals are measured by their contribution to society (“the greater good”) in well-defined roles as subjects of the State. Leftist Democrats also believe that the collective wisdom of the State (led by Plato’s Philosopher Kings) about the interest of the individual is greater than that of individuals.

    On Gratitude:

    Conservatives can say “thank you” for all the blessings that they have been given in life, the freedom to pursue opportunities as they see fit, and for the sacrifices made by others, including their ancestors, to make all this possible.

    Leftist Democrats…don’t get it!

  13. I do see what you mean and do agree about the big tent (you always see the big picture) but does it only work one way?

    The gay conservatives and gay people in our lives know us, and therefore why would they think we were anything but in favor of fairness and toleration? (I don’t mean the ‘toleration’ of the left, which has been blandly redefined to mean embracing everything as equal, but the toleration of good will that allows differing ideas because we all share the same planet and are all human beings with hopes and dreams that are different.) Does toleration only work one way? Why shouldn’t all parties in the big tent be expected to be tolerant? Infants cannot be expected to be tolerant, but voting-age adults can.

    If someone is offended when I say that every child deserves a mom and a dad then we will just have to differ in the big tent, and that IS toleration.

  14. BTW – it has been great to read all the thoughts expressed so well on this topic!

  15. Multiculteralism: Conservatives believe in the Melting Pot, that people who want to come here should buy into our basic systems of values and history, learn to speak English, and enrich our culture with their background while merging with the whole. Progressives believe that every other culture is superior to American culture, so immigrants and ethnic enclaves should be encouraged to remain separate and distinct; also that we should learn precisely what their cultural hot buttons are and tiptoe around them as we are enlightened.

    Environment: Conservatives believe that businesses are getting cleaner, and that climate change is a concern but not necessarily something that we can do a helluva lot about, especially considering the policies of India and China. Progressives believe that climate change is an impending catastrophe that could potentially end our way of life unless we take drastic measures, YESTERDAY.

  16. W/ regard to sexuality and “other minorities”, here’s another one:

    Conservatives believe that sexual preferences, race and ethnicity are private matters that do not define who we are as individuals and how we stand as equals under the law. Conservatives certainly don’t believe that people should wear their sexual habits on their sleeve.

    Leftist Democrats believe that sexuality, race and ethnicity define “victim” constituencies and voting blocs that should be granted special dispensations to be granted by Leftist Democrats under the Law…UNLESS such defined minorities stray from the Liberal Democrat plantation, whereupon their sexuality, race and/or ethnicity should be waged as a cudgel to destroy them for their apostasy.

  17. “It’s not just the Left, Marguerite, although they are the problem I identified. I’m also thinking about the gay people in all our lives (family and friends), and about gay conservatives who share our beliefs about American security, the 2nd Amendment, the War in Iraq, etc”

    Every so often, but rarely, I bring up in these comments that I am gay. It’s a part of my life but not a significant part.

    Everybody MUST be allowed to speak up and express every single opinion they have, on this subject, and on any subject. I don’t want anyone to hold back. Don’t let anyone convince you to repress your own beliefs. Make THEM oppress YOU; don’t do their job for them. Fight them every step of the way. I hope conservatives will always stand for total free speech. The Democrats have certainly abandoned the concept in favor of misguided enforcements of buzzwords such as sensitivity and tolerance.

    I think the controversy over gay marriage actually affects three core conservative principles:
    – Encouraging traditional values
    – The definition of a family: meaning a father and mother who raise their children AND HAVE CONTROL OVER the direction of their children’s lives
    – Opposing judicial tyranny, putting control over making law back in the hands of legislatures

    One of the largest problems in defining a core conservative platform is that libertarians and religious fundamentalists are often opposed. Common ground exists among conservative-minded libertarians, and individualism-oriented fundamentalists.

    For libertarians who favor absolute social freedom in every way – including public and legal use of drugs of any sort, public nudity, public sex – and for fundamentalists who favor rigid theocratic federal laws controlling all aspects of our lives – including total environment-based federal regulation of our economic system so that we will more effectively serve as Stewards of the Lord’s Earth – there’s little common ground.

    To the extent that libertarians and fundamentalists agree to allow States to serve as the laboraties of laws and regulation, I think we can find a LOT of common ground. That would include returning abortion law to the States; not in creating a federal law banning all abortions. It includes finding a way to have State to pass laws concerning homosexual union, not in using the power of the national government to either force homosexual marriage upon – or to deny it to – all citizens of all States.

    As you might guess, I’m a libertarian States-law guy, living in an age when the national government has taken over control of regulating every aspect of our American lives. Most conservatives these days seem to actually favor big-government spending, so long as it’s “our” kind of big- government spending; they favor judicial tyranny whenever they like the kind of judicial fiat imposed; they often favor abrogation of individual rights in the pursuit not of happiness but of daily safety and security.

  18. Danny Lemiux is spot-on with his entry about human nature, and Marguerite states well the situation re: marriage and family.
    I sort of wonder if there’s not some sort of way to incorporate the point on taxes into an overarching statement about the free-market economy. It still sets my teeth on edge that the first thing the Democratic congress did (and the only thing, good or bad, of any substance it’s been able to accomplish so far) was hike the minimum wage. All the Barney Frank-type obsession with corporate CEO pay falls under this heading as well.

  19. […] in American hearts and minds Posted on October 12, 2007 by Bookworm A week ago, I did a post that sought to find issues common to the greatest number of conservatives — and I got a lot of wonderful help from you guys in the comments section. I still hope to […]

  20. […] usually wins and wonders where the GOP’s went. Bookworm suggests that getting a handle on what the right stands for, anymore could help. James Taranto takes a look at the very different tone Columbia University takes when […]

  21. Mike Devx,

    Hear! Hear!


    If I may cordially disagree, I don’t think children have a “right” to a mom and a dad. Certainly, all children naturally have a male and female biological parent, and of course they should be allowed by right (and indeed encouraged) to live together as a family, but sometimes those parents die/leave/get divorced, leaving the child with only one parent. How will the government then secure this “right” for the child? Will it find a replacement for the missing parent? If so, how will it accomplish this–by persuasion? Bribery? Force? Of course, this thought exercise is leading down the path of plain silliness, but it’s unfortunately a logical extension of a “right” to a mother and father.

    I think rather that what is implied is that if a child has two moms or two dads, that this is somehow depriving the child of something he or she would have otherwise had. Au contraire! If the situation were different, it’s likely the child would simply have a single parent. And I think we can all agree that a single parent is less optimal than having two parents. If the child in question is adopted, then why not praise gay couples who want to love and raise a child who would otherwise have no parents at all? There are certainly more children to be adopted than there are people willing to adopt–there can be nothing gained by denying a child a loving, two-parent household simply because it is not viewed as “optimal”.

  22. Taking a political PR tack, it might be worth emphasizing that conservatives deny and resent the claim of liberals to have the skills and moral authority to shape and guide their lives. Did you read the retrospective by the ex-BBC producer, who traced the rise of leftist dominance there? He noted that the opposing viewpoints were top-down (conservative protection of the institutions and traditions of the society) vs. bottom-up (all the little hoi-polloi had to be protected against the dominance of institutions and the wealthy, at all costs and in all circumstances, up to and including dismantling of the state and economic structures that permit such distinctions in access to wealth. [Note the “extremes approach their opposites” aspect to this vs. the current situation.]
    He goes on to note that leftists are disassemblers of structure, and having won control have no clue about what to do with the machine they now direct; disruption and resistance are not good schools for building and using constructively. OTOH, pure control by institution-loving conservatives leads to statis and blighting of upward mobility or societal reform. So the competition and tension between the two is best left in the middle ground, with institutions evolving to fend off attack by cutting some slack for those without ready access to policy levers.

    For another and fascinating take, check out YourMorals.org. Heidl is researching tempermental moral inclinations, and finds — surprise — conservatives to be nuanced, liberals monomaniacal and simplistic. Or SLT. Do his survey, then read the analyses of results to date.

  23. […] as I wrote here, even those close to the Democratic Party concede that it’s a party in search of ideas. Other […]

  24. […] as I wrote here, even those close to the Democratic Party concede that it’s a party in search of ideas. Other […]

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