It is no secret that I am a supporter of John Edwards in his quest to become the Democratic nominee in 2008. He has pursued, to this point, an under the radar strategy. Rather than trying to create a loud noise in the rarified air of the Washington elites and constant exposure in the press, he has chosen to speak very directly to the early voters - in Iowa, in New Hampshire.
At the moment the big issue seems to be "the war", but which war - the War in Iraq? The War on Terrorism? Or the vague neo-conservative project to transform the world through an endless series of wars? Beneath the issue of "the war" is really a question of what the great project of government is, what the deep and abiding mandate it rests upon is. And from that mandate, comes a meaning - the meaning, from which all activity flows. If you want to know what a candidate is about, in the end, it is in what the greeks would call the doxe that emanates from them.
The Democratic Party is divided, not over issues, but over the fundamental meaning of the Democratic Party. The Republican Party's divisions are less visible, because until very recently, they had a fundamental agreement on the kind of society that had to exist - a top down, authority driven society, where force and threat of force would be used to drive people back in line. The mandate of society was to create and maintain the vast machine which held this view of society in place, and to fight the never ending stream of battles in this never ending war.
In word, Caeserism.
The Democratic Party is divided because there is no single vision of society, nor is there any single idea of the fundamental mandate.
One wing of the party, whose poster child was fringe candidate Joe Lieberman, subscribed to the Republican vision of a top down militarized society, merely quibbling with the details of how it should be implemented. It is a vision that is fundamentally consumerist, and fundamentally retrograde - the idea that the government can simply man the walls, and people inside will go about their business of pursuing life, liberty and the economic disembowelment of their competitors.
Because of the apocolyptic nature of this vision, its supporters vied to out hyperventilate each other in their predictions of Doom for the Democratic Party and the country. Jacob Weisberg is the current reigning champion, but this note of hysteria is common to almost everyone swept up in the vast homeland security boom that is Washington. Like Enron before the collapse, they cannot see that they are living in a bubble, and that the money is rolling out, faster than it is rolling in. Take a look at the trade deficit - it is clear that we are paying the rest of the world for George's trip to fantasy war summer camp, and no the other way around.
A more moderate version of this world view is held by Hillary Clinton, and by Evan Bayh. However, they both realize that fringe candidates cannot be allowed to break the unity of the team for personal aggrandizement, and have withdrawn their support for Lieberman. They have also tried to make it clearer that they are fighting with the Republicans over who would run such an apparatus, and argue that they would be more sensitive to other competing demands.
This world view is fundamentally consumerist - the elites produce politics and produce power, and then consumers pay to enjoy the results. Of course, elites must overcharge, because it is in overcharging between how happy people are, and how much it costs to make them happy, that any system of elites makes its money. If it cost as much to make you happy as you were willing to pay for it, it wouldn't be done, because it couldn't be done at a profit.
This wing would rapidly be pushed out of power, except that there are several other competing visions of how the country should work. There is also a fundamental weakness of confidence among those who don't subscribe to this top down vision. Namely, most of them believe that they would be turned out of office, or laughed off of Fox News, were they to assert that the basic project of defeating terrorism is not the prism through which the rest of society must be seen.
This fear, that hysterical security voters will turn out anyone who is not equally hysterical was never really true. Bush never won the large crushing mandate that he has claimed, and never won an election with a geographically broad base. In effect, Madison's warning has come to pass, a slender majority has voted itself a massive subsidy out of the public chest, under the fiction that it is necessary, and the bare minority has been disenfranchised because of the unity of that transient, temporary majority. Kerry was beaten, but he was not humiliated the way Dukakis, Mondale. Goldwater, Stevenson, Wilkie, Landon or McGovern were.
Thus one wing of the Democratic Party desires to pay lip service to the security state, and the war cult hysteria, but largely redirect resources away from it. An example is James Fallows - who has a long record of being late, weak and wrong in ways of dealing with the war hysteria. I remember in particular a November 2002 piece where he raises frail objections to the Iraq war on the grounds that an occupation is a large project, and feebly asks people whether they are ready. Given that the authorization to use force was 11 October of 2002, it was far too little, far too late.
This orientation, more understandable in 2004 than in 2006, bedeviled Kerry's campaign. How to be strong in meeting a threat that doesn't really exist? It would be like invading all of South America to deal with America's crank problem. Because the threat has been blow up to epic proportions, there is no way to prove you have defeated it, simply because any cell of a few disgruntled marginally mentally stable people can "prove" all over again the threat. Without a Big Brother state, and even with it, there is no way to outlaw insanity.
But even taking the entire question off the table, there is a divide that remains in the Democratic Party, one that is framed by both what government should do, and how it should do it.
The divide is a rolling aftershock of the great earthquake in American politics, where the public lost faith in Government's ability to solve problems and deal with the pressures of the modern world. There was the rise of political free market fundamentalism, which finally swept into power with Thatcher in 1979 and Reagan in late 1980. Since then to be center-left, meant to be a bleeding heart Reaganite.
The other side of the divide was, until recently, a kind of unreconstructed old liberalism, a faith that the present was a short term aberation, and that, eventually, its internal contradictions would pile up and lead to the kind of era ending economic and political meltdown which leads people to engage in an about face.
The first found faith in what is called "Free Trade" and in "education", hoping that America would be the center of symbolic manipulation. The idea was that as factories ebbed overseas, that Americans would produce the packaging, design and software for the rest of the world, and hence be able to charge a premium for services even as the general level of physical technology did not advance considerably. It was embodied by politicians such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
However, it had a fatal weakness, and that is that while some people are, in fact, capable of shifting for the world of physical work to the world of symbolic work, others are not. I say this not in an elitist sense - to be gifted with ones hands is as much a mental gift as to be gifted with symbols - but it is not the same gift, and it is not destined for the world of artificial carpet on cubicle walls. Something had to be found for the people whose talent lies in shaping the world, rather than describing or modeling it.
Here is where the right wing had a wedge into this kind of soft techno-left: something had to be found for this wide swath of the public. The right had an answer: prisons, wars and housing. The reason that techno soft left could never translate Clinton's personal popularity into a governing majority is that the hinterlands wanted to be sure that any surplus that the "new economy" generated was then spread out through the country. Clinton lost the south, in no small part because he couldn't get the second part of FDR's progressive message - pump money out into the hinterlands.
Eventually the techno soft left's hold over the party began crumbling because it had to spend more and more of its time go along to get along. Lieberman, Hillary Clinton and others had to give away trillions to Bush to squander, in order to get the odd billion to spend on some small side project. The Republicans had perfected the art of offering people pennies on the dollar for their vote, and the techno soft left fell into the trap as fast as the Reagan Democrats had.
However, what kept many politicians "in" was there didn't seem to be any place else to go. There was a protectionist populism, but this had the double disadvantage of strongly alienating many of the big donors in the financial community - which exists by running development arbitrage, and therefore understands that opening global financial markets is, for them, a matter of life and death - and not having a narrative of where the money was going to come from. In its most extreme form it found expression as the Green Progressive Paradox - where the party platform simultaneously called for massive reductions in pollution, while keeping all the old polluting factories open to provide good union jobs.
However the pressure to leave began forcing politicians to make hard choices, the results of globalization and getting a war wedgie at the polls clearly indicated that if the battle was over who could waste more money on useless wars, the public would pick the Republicans every time. More over, the disinflationary effects of globalization, which is what allowed the government room to manuever in the 1990's have clearly ended, every dollar we save from cheaper manufacturing from China or other countries now comes back to bite us as a dollar of resource costs.
One example of late are Senator Byron Dorgan, with is book Take This Job and Ship It blasts the status quo in Washington. On the surface Senator Dorgan would be a strange candidate for being a populist icon, a generally socially conservative member of the Democratic Caucus, he is also known as one of the budget mavens in the Senate. He and his colleague Senator Kent Conrad have been described as voices of fiscal sanity for their constant pressuring for a balanced budget and better tax policy. Dorgan isn't anyone's picture of tax and spend, even though he has made his mark pointing out if that if you are going to spend, then you must have the revenues to pay for it.
Democratic representatives from rural and exurban districts around the country have come to similar conclusions - that globalization is gobbling up their livelihoods, and that while others are seeing the benefits of military pork and war without end, their constituents are not.
Another group came from a place which would seem, on the surface, to be as unlikely a group of rebels as any group could be: the metropolitan suburbs of the coasts and inner heartland. These voters backed Reagan, and gave Clinton a chance. They are generally not the people that you would look to to upset the apple cart, since they are the apples in it. Successful professionals, with comfortable houses and growing retirement accounts - they are not the downtrodden of the inner cities, but, instead, the only class of people outside of the very wealthy who have seen any kind of real income gains over the last 30 years.
But it is precisely this that has made them politically volatile. The housing boom has been great for developers and for the people who build homes - one reason that yuppie retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Starbucks have been hammered is that their psychographic is not doing well financially, while the redneck chic of Dunkin Donuts has been exploding, well that and Dunkin Donuts charges less for a bad latte than Starbucks does - it has been murder on the people who live in them. Rising home prices have pushed up insurance, property taxes and repair and remodeling costs. Gas prices have torqued their budgets, and the jobs drought in the technical fields has crimped their plan of being dual income savers to a comfortable early retirement.
Republicans, like Healey of Massachusetts, trotted out the old "a tax cut is a pay raise" routine. But this has fallen largely on deaf ears, because these same people know that their home values are determined as much by infrastructure - roads, schools and hospitals - as by the homes themselves. Telling this public that the road to prosperity is to slash investment in their communities would be like telling their companies to slash IT budgets to save money. They've already seen how badly that works.
What was lacking, until recently, was some kind of unifying theme through which both of these groups could gather around. An idea of how, exactly, the country could create the social surplus that would be capable of funding improvements in social policy.
To drill a tunnel, one starts at both ends and meets in the middle. One end of this is in the area of political economy - finding a principle of creating efficiency and surplus that will replace the discredited notion that tax cuts pay for themselves, and the rapidly tarnishing value of globalization.
The other side of this tunnel however rests in the mandate of government itself. If the mandate of government is to generate body count of xenomorphic invaders - whether Arab terrorists or Mexican workers - then there is very little that will prevent politics from centering not on whether to be reactionary, but how reactionary we need to be. Not whether, but how often, to go to war.
The Iraq war's fiasco offered an opening, but it is the two ur-issues of the two cores of the progressive movement that are the fundamental drivers. For the working class wing, Iraq represents a cost in blood and jobs which cannot be sustained. For the second the frenzied war boom is producing inflationary pressures which are depleting savings and closing options. With the housing bust, the loop is closed - for the last 3 years we have seen expansion based on the upper middle class buying homes, and the working class building them. That the housing bust is accelerating is seen in economic numbers, that the Iraq War has become the Iraq Civil War is admitted by generals and visible in the footage from Baghdad.
The result is that many people who once supported the Clintonian consensus of a smaller government and free trade as being economic engines which could provide better conditions for all have walked out. One of the most public examples of this is John Edwards. The reason is as simple and compact as any reason can be: the mandate of the goverment is not to build high walls, but to tall stairways to opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. Edwards' decision to focus on poverty was the first step to building a new mandate for government.
There is intense competition to be the standard bearer of the message of a new mandate for government - from, for example, Russ Feingold, who has made his steadfast standing as a progressive and vote against Iraq the centerpiece of his case for being the Democratic nominee. It is part of the Gore boomlet as the unHillary of the 2008 race.
But each of these figures has grasped the central idea that there is, somewhere ahead in the future, a different direction. It includes Gore's focus on global warming, Feingold's focus on money in politics, and Edwards' goal of opportunity and dignity. It combines a demand for a world which is not hostage to oil - with a country that has a body of labor and capital which is being left fallow because of the bottleneck of oil supplies. This change of mandate implies the narrative of prosperity, the way to pay for the benefits that people desire to have from the society.
What links the two halves, and makes them a politically coherent vision rests on three essential demands that have become more and more often the focus of progressive campaigns. They are universal health care, sustainable energy, and rising economic opportunity in the form of jobs. What makes these three demands fundamentally liberal is that it leverages the basic idea of modern liberalism - that the government is the world's largest insurance company and investment bank. That it takes on the risks of the modern world, and by lowering the cost of risk, frees up more and more effort for progress. In short, the "free market," because of the time horizons and size of the players over pays for risks, and by forcing individuals to pay for that risk, reduces the total productivity of society. Risk arbitrage is at the heart of the liberal theory.
This reverse the reactionary war wedge. The reactionaries argue that terrorism represents a risk that only the government can handle. In doing so, it undercuts the fundamental assertion that the free market can do anything better than government. Once this admission is made there is no end - suddenly the free market is no longer a force of physics, but merely a means to an end, whose efficiency must be examined, not assumed.
It also reverse the libertarian wedge. Suddenly liberals are arguing that they, not the reactionaries, want a society driven by market forces - because they want a government that removes the distortions of risk, leaving people freer to pursue their own interests. In short, the liberal argues that government has to be big enough to get out of its own way, balancing the distorting effects of military commitments with economic policy that pushes effort back to where it would be in the absence of that military spending.
By joining a mandate to build stairways rather than walls, with a means, risk arbitrage - there is the outline of a governing idea, from which more specific ideas can grow. Once upon a time the right wing had this position - find government program, privatize it, give out the savings as a tax cut - find government regulation, repeal it, assume the market would pass the savings on as lower prices - find job, outsource it, assume the market would lower the cost of goods. However each of these schematics for ideas has broken down. Inflation is rampant, because as off-shoring has expanded, people have rationally fled competitive industries for non-tradeable protected ones. Why compete with China building computers, when you don't have to building houses? The attempt to privatize the occupation of Iraq has turned a disastrous mistake into a catastrophic blunder. And tax cuts paying for themselves hasn't been the effect of the last 6 years. Instead, Bush will have doubled the national debt by the day he leaves office, and it is only by bracket creep and putting Iraq off budget that he can manipulate deficit numbers. Finally, while Televisions are cheap, gasoline is now expensive, and you can't put off paying for gasoline.
The results of 2006 show that we are nearing a new political moment - 2008 will, in all likelihood, have the "Nixon-Kennedy debate moment" where two equally matched political forces will have the outcome decided by the use of the internet. Part of the reason is the growth in power and size of the internet as a producer of politics - according to Micah Sifry the blogosphere is basically doubling every 200 days in size. The other part of the reason is that the balance of power is shifting. The internet dominates the people who make up their minds early, for example in Connecticut Lamont won the people who had made up their minds more than a week ago 56-44. Given that for much of the time he was trailing this is an even larger edge than it looks. Lieberman won the people who made up their minds late - but not by enough, and there were not enough of them.
This is a similar pattern to 2004, where Dean won the Iowa and New Hampshire voters that made up their minds early, but lost those who made up their minds late. The difference is that he lost the late deciders by a wider margin, and there were more late deciders moved by broadcast media in the pool of voters. This means the power of ideology is going to continue to grow, as the electorate is made up increasingly of people who know what they want and look until they find the candidate who has it. There will be fewer and fewer voters as a proportion of the total who will tune in late and see what Monty Hall is offering them in exchange for their vote.
This combines with the shift in progressivism. Since the question is no longer about how to spend a surplus that is of a fixed size, but of two radically different visions of where the money comes from, protecting the goose that lays the golden eggs produces voters who decide early, vote in every election, and persuade their friends to do the same. Having a different mandate for government means that the siren song of debt driven "tax cuts" will fall on deaf ears, because voters will increasingly see a reduction in revenues, and therefore an increase in risk. When voters see government revenues as being theirs, rather than being taken away by some distant "them," they will fight to keep taxes in place. When voters see an increase in social risk as a cost - as they now do because it has hit them in their wallets - they will fight to prevent risk from being dumped on top of their heads.
The progress of this pattern - of a different mandate producing a different meaning, and reaching voters through a different medium - is going to dominate the Democratic Party for some time to come, until the decisive political moment arrives, and a singular politician is able to sweep into power a majority of representatives willing to move a very different agenda in government.
It is not clear that 2008 is that year, but it might be. 2004 was not, and could not have been that year, but was, instead, the last gasp of trying to hold on to the Clinton Compromise with Reaganism. Hillary Rodham Clinton might win the nomination, but it will only be by coöpting a movement which, so far, she has attempted to oppose. However, she and her advisors can read the tea leaves and the polls extremely well, and the picture they show is no longer a donkey with an elephant's trunk.
If you need to know why there is hysteria among the 'phants this week about Lamont, and among the bleeding heart Reaganites in the Democratic Party, it is because their roll as the dominant partner in the Democratic coalition is under the most clear and present threat since they ascended to power in the 1980's.