Tuesday, July 25, 2006

1970 Deja Vu

Or how Lamont-Lieberman reprises Democratic stupidity
I've heard folks trying to equate the present Iraqi conflict with the American Viet Nam War, but historically I don't buy it. But that's a subject for another posting. This one is about how similar I find the political landscape in 2006 to that of 1970. And how I see the Democratic Party once again making the same mistakes that it made back then. It's funny how being in a different generation can change ones perspective drastically. As I listen to the debates, read the op-eds, see the campaign ads, and listen to friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow students, etc., talk about the Democratic primary race between Lieberman and Lamont, I've been struck by how familiar it all sounds. But this time around I'm my mother, not the young radical. She was the one desperately trying to survive in a centrist position while the missiles flew between my stridently hawk father and my own radically dove stance on the Viet Nam War.

Back then I was one of those who helped ruin the party unknowingly. This time around, at times, I find myself more resembling the forces of the status quo. And suddenly I better understand the rationale of those who disagreed with me back in 1970. And the dynamics that led to the creation of a party that nominated the likes of Dukakis when there were other Bill Clintonesque possibilities even before Bubba, like cream, rose to the top.

The last half of 1969 and the first half of 1970 were an incredible period in US history. There was anger, disillusionment, and fear sweeping the population. Politics was energized with a fervor even greater than that which had characterized the elections of the previous year. The nation had been politically charged and polarized right from the New Hampshire primary when Eugene McCarthy won running as a dove, right on through to the general presidential election in the Fall when the vote had been so close that it wasn't until late on the day after the election that the results were known. As the results were coming in, conversation was common over what would happen if no one won the electoral vote and the election were thrown into the House of Representatives. What we saw and heard in 2000 and 2004 wasn't new.

And just as there are those who reject the results of the last two elections, and see them as illegitimate, so, too, there were the radicals of 1969 who believed "Tricky Dicky" had managed to steal the Presidency. And not only did they believe it had been stolen, there were those who believed that the political insiders had sponsored murder to insure an anti-war candidate was not elected! Bobby's assassination proved it. Or so some said. The rhetoric on both sides became hotter and hotter.

Consider how this quote, from a speech by David Hilliard, to students (mostly white and suburban) at the University of Connecticut, would have sounded to a businessman in Middle America:
Not only will we burn buildings, we will take lives. If you want to
break windows, if you want to kill a pig, if you want to burn the
courthouse, you would be moving against the symbols of oppression.
Or this from another Black Panther, Doug Miranda, who had been sent from Boston to New Haven to organize Yale students for the May Day 1970 march to protest the trial of Ericka Huggins, Bobby Seale and other Panthers for the murder of Alex Rackley:
Man, if you really want to do something, you ought to get
some guns, and go and get Chairman Bobby out of jail!

You may figure that I'm using extremes, and painting a picture that distorts reality. But think about this, quotes like those were found underneath posters of Che, and the Black Panthers, and Marx, and Mao, and other revolutionary symbols tacked up on the walls of white suburbanites' bedrooms all across the country. Or if they weren't on the walls, they were in the dresser drawers. Inflammatory papers that called for The People to rise up against the Pigs and other oppressors of AmeriKa (with the K shaped like a swastika) were distributed not just in the cities and college towns, but could be found even in the small, hick towns. I grew up in Nowhere, CT and that stuff was readily available and widely read by youth. Yes, it was most prevalent on the East Coast and the Left Bank of the country. But remember, Iowa and Minnesota were two of the leading centers of anti-war activity in those years. McCarthy was the senator from Wisconsin.
Blinded by a romanticized vision of revolution, or a nearly pathological hatred of Nixon, for a significant portion of the population rational thought disappeared. In an article by Paul Bass and Doug Rae in Yale Alumni Magazine about the May Day protest in New Haven, they write, "Students for a Democratic Society had once drawn tens of thousands of committed activists to organize thoughful opposition to the war in Vietnam and support for civil rights. Now, no one had the time or the interest or the energy to worry about facts any more." Proving their point they quote Tom Hayden, the SDS leader, a member of the Chicago 7, and one of the most prominent student activists of the time, speaking about the murder trial:
"Facts are irrelevant in this case in Connecticut, as facts are irrelevant about Vietnam and whether the Vietcong commit terror. A lot of educated people are going to have to be convinced that the facts are irrelevant! "
So what does all that have to do with 2006, and Lamont-Lieberman? Opposition to the Iraqi war is combining with a blinding hatred of Bush to generate dynamics within the Democratic Party a lot like those in 1970. As the party prepared for the elections in 1970 and 1972 The War became the lens through which everything was viewed by an increasing militant wing of the party. As this group became louder and louder in their demands that the party only field certified doves as candidates others began to take the opportunity to push the party toward a fully radicalized posture. Nuance became tantamount to accommodating Nixon.
Extreme socialist positions suddenly were portrayed as being the heart of the party. I can remember thinking in 1972 that a guaranteed income and total employment was as American as apple pie. And that a command economy was compatible with capitalism. (Of course I was 19 at the time, and we all know the axiom about how if one is not a communist at 19 then one has no heart, and if you're still one at 25 you have no brain!) And those who advocated such positions became the power brokers in the party leadership.
Cast aside as lackeys to the Nixon Republicans was the leadership that had guided the Great Society into existence. LBJ was portrayed as a devil. It seemed like the only Democrats who survived the 70's with their reputations intact were those who had been early converts to the opposition to the war in Vietnam, and JFK. A revisionist reading of his presidency declared that he had never supported military intervention in southeast Asia and that LBJ had strayed from the path of Camelot when he escalated the US presence there. To be Democrat was to be pacifist, socialist, and in favor of legalization. And elitist. Privileged young folks dressed in work boots and denim, romanticized themselves as working class heroes in the mold of the Stones, and looked down their noses at the Archie Bunkers of the world. You can see now how easy it was for Reagan to capture the hearts and minds of labor and the average American.
The democratic party is in danger of heading down the same path in 2006. Think about all the various signs you saw at the rallies prior to the invasion of Iraq. The majority had nothing to do with the proposed military incursion. They were Pro-Choice or anti- WTC or anti-NAFTA and a host of other causes that weren't necessarily shared by those who were against invasion. But the proponents of these positions were using the anti-war sentiment in support of their other pet issues. Even when that sentiment wasn't shared by other protesters. The party was hijacked in the 70's by the polarized edges. It's in danger of being hijacked for good.
Lieberman is definitely one of the more conservative Democrats in office. But a reasoned consideration of his whole record and his overall political perspective shows he is NOT a conservative in the general populace. I can understand those who have concern with positions he has taken on the war in Iraq, free trade and government regulation of music. Or who believe that Lamont is a better choice to provide a vigorous opposition to Bush. But compare Lieberman's record with that of Republican senators, especially those considered moderate Republicans. If Lieberman and similar thinking Democrats need to be purged from the party as too far to the right then we need to consider where that puts the conservative edge of the party. The Clintons would no longer be centrist Democrats, but in danger of falling off the right edge. Especially Bill, if you considered his actual performance as president.
Is that the party we want? It's the kind of party I helped create in the early 70's. And almost immediately I discovered I had pushed myself out. A party whose idea of a big tent was a three person backpacker from EMS! And that's where we're headed once again if we decide that only those who support immediate withdrawal of our troops are worthy of the name Democrat.
My colleagues in Texas who tow the Republican line have convinced me I will never be comfortable in the GOP. Now the Democrats are telling me I don't fit their image of the party faithful. For a decade I've been fed up with both major parties and looking for an alternative. When Paul Tsongas and others explored the possibility of a new centrist party I thought there might be some hope. When they were crushed by the forces of incumbancy, I began to look once again to the so-called fringe parties for one that might gain enough power and influence to become credible players on the political stage. The Libertarians, the Greens looked like they were becoming more centrist for a bit, then both moved back to the extremes. Other parties were too fragmented, disorganized, to be considered reasonable alternatives to the Dems and GOP. Maybe the CT Democrats firing Joe, and then his subsequent re-election as an independent will be just the spark needed for the creation of a legitimate centrist party in the US. But then again, we've had that hope before.
Looks like it's deja vu all over again.
The quotes I used are from The Panther and the Bulldog by Paul Bass and Doug Rae and published in the July/Aug 2006 issue of Yale Alumni Magazine.
The following link will take you to an op-ed from the July 25, 2006 NYTimes by Peter W. Galbraith. It's one of the few articles I've seen that actually offers a solid alternative to our present policy in Iraq. There is no lack of books, articles, etc showing what a disaster the present policy is. And it's easy to find things that show the arguments for the invasion were wrong, and how, after we invaded, the occupancy was bungled. I have to agree with the President when he says that people are doing a good job of Monday morning quarterbacking. (Hey, when a guy messes up everything he does you have to give him credit when he does manage to get something right!) Of course, his logic fails him once again when the President then assumes that since the critics don't offer a solution, only point out the problem, that his policy is right by default. And yes, I know there are folks who say they are offering an alternative policy, like Rep. Murtha, but when I look at what they propose it lacks specifics, or ignores the consequences of what they advocate, or is just the President's policy stated another way (example: plan for troop withdrawal at the first possible opportunity as the Iraqis take responsibility for their security, and start moving towards that right now. What do they think we've been doing?) So, if you want to direct me toward some other analysis that deals with reality, including recognizing that simply withdrawing is possible but has dire consequences, and offers a plan, let me know. I'd like to check it out.
Our Corner of Iraq
Published: July 25, 2006


Blogger Kurt said...

good thoughts here, boss. i agree with the sad notion that the Democrats may move themselves too far to the left, and the GOP will be continue its servitude to a minority of their members. The void both create leaves us ripe for an opportunist to take away many liberties in the name of security. Wait a sec....did I just wake up? It is 2003, isn't it? What do you mean the liberties are gone already?

2:58 PM  
Blogger Wake of the Flood said...

It's not so much the leftward shift that worries me, even though it would be embracing a philosophy of governance I don't accept. What worries me more is that we're allowing the first adopters of what is clearly going to be a defining position for the party (opposition to continued military intervention in Iraq) to set the whole platform. And these early adopters are generally proponents of a socialism that is strongly anti-capitalism. And of a communitarianism that promotes social principles shared by only a minority wing of the party (and if not the party, definitely the electorate). It happened to the Democrats from 1967-1972, and is happening again in 2002-08.

Think about what happened then. The more corrupt and elitist wing of the Republican Party was emboldened by the collapse of the presence of credible opposition leadership. Needing only to deal with men like George McGovern, who they easily portrayed in the most extreme light, the insider group around Nixon had free rein to abuse their positions of power. Then when the average American recognized the abuse, and eventually decided to throw the bums out, they threw the baby out with the bath water.

Also, the Democrats were in total disarray. They had lost any true sense of what they were as a party, having become a single issue coalition when they had adopted platforms that did not represent the voice of rank and file Dems, and being the voice of the doves became the only glue holding them together. When American military involvement in Vietnam ended, they had no common platform. Except throw the bums out. And so Jimmy Carter as an outsider, and squeeky clean, truly did represent the message of the party in 76. And I think history will be much kinder to Carter than the voters and pundits have been. But by 1980 what he and the Democratic party stood for was no longer relevant to anything. And 4 years later was even worse. The Democratic Party was in such disarray that in the presidential election of 1984 you and I, Kurt, stood in line in Texas waiting to cast our ballot listening to commentators explain how Reagan had won the election. That was bad. But I could rationalize that they were just making "best guesses" based upon early results and exit polls and that there was a possibility they were wrong. What I couldn't deal with was the interviews with top aides from the Mondale campaign that were in effect voicing Mondale's concession while I had still not even cast my vote!

We Democrats need to realize that the party's success in the 1990's was less the party's success, and a whole bunch more the INDIVIDUAL success of Bill Clinton. And if we follow his political trajectory from his days at Yale back to Arkansas and then on to Washington we see that he worked extremely hard at corralling the forces of the leadership that were pushing left of center agendas (including keeping his own wife in check while still partnering with her politically), and making space for the right of center elements, insuring that they felt heard and valued, even if he did not champion their causes. Just consider his own stances and party stances on abortion politics to get a sense of how well he did this.

What Clinton does as a natural extension of his personality and his political acumen the Democrats need to do on some level in their policy papers. To presume that narrow positions, not espoused by the majority of folks, are big tent positions simply because they are aimed at the common good, belies an arrogance and elitist mentality that will not be embraced, and actually works against being "the party of the people." How can we expect people to accept the voice of the Democrats as their voice when what that voice tacitly expresses is that the average person is an idiot who can't help themselves, is easily deceived, and needs an intelligent, insightful person like us Democratic party leaders to show them how messed up their choices have been (read electing Republicans), that they really don't know what's in their best interests, and that government bureaucrats under our (Democratic leaders) guidance know what's best for you, and know how best to arrange your lives. From the center, folks, the voice of the Democrats sounds no less arrogant and elitist than the voice of the Republican moralists.

10:01 AM  
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12:26 PM  

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