Tuesday, April 05, 2005

False dichotomy alert: Institution-building v. fostering debate

David Brooks gives us an interestingly wrong column today. It's interesting because he points out two intertwined factors that help to explain the rise of rightwingers as an intellectual and popular movement: one is the rise of a network of foundations, think tanks and media outlets (the infrastructure behind Hillary's famous "vast rightwing conspiracy"); the other is the undeniably vibrant arguments among rightwingers about core principles and philosophy.

The column is couched, however, not so much as an assessment of Republican success, but rather as advice to Democrats about not drawing the wrong lessons from that success. Brooks argues that Democrats should worry less about building a competitive institutional network, and instead look their time as the party of opposition as an "opportunity to have a big debate about the things Thomas Paine, Herbert Croly, Isaiah Berlin, R. H. Tawney and John Dewey."

Personally, I love getting coaching advice from the other team's cheerleaders.

But seriously, Brooks is right that progressives need to surface more actively the philosophical or theoretical underpinnings of their beliefs. He's right that it would do the Democrats good to talk and think a lot more about principles, and a lot less about plans. More focus on strategy and less on tactics, in short, would provide a belated antidote to Bill Clinton's political habit of tactically outmaneuvering of opponents by giving them almost everything they want.

Brooks is fundamentally wrong (and perhaps pernicious in intent), however, in claiming that the Democrats' need to sponsor greater debate about core principles is in any way at odds with their need to engage in institution-building. Indeed, part of the mission of these institutions is and should be to sponsor such debate and disquisition about core values (ugh, there, I used the word).

Brooks is also fundamentally wrong (and perhaps pernicious in intent) in suggesting that the Democrats don't need to work harder on enforcing Party discipline and unity. I buy Brooks's implication that the right's effectiveness as a governing coalition is indirectly a result of the vibrant debate that exists on the right on many social, political, and economic topics -- but that's true only because part of the point of political debate is performative: it helps convince the debaters that they form a common discursive community that should respect and support the in-members when confronted with out-members. But this is a subtle point. The immediate source of the right's effectiveness as a governing coalition is that when it comes time to make policy, all the rightwing factions put aside their differences and salute the partisan flag. In short, Tom DeLay is the true face of the party. Fostering philosophical debate may help get the debaters to salute the partisan flag, but that's argument about how to achieve partisan unity, not an argument against partisan unity.

In practice, this rightwing partisan unity on policy has meant that Republican Party leaders have been effective in harnassing the movement to achieve policies that matter most to them. In the first four years of the Bush regime, this has meant that economic rightwingers have gotten a great deal of what they have wanted, while social reactionaries have gotten almost nothing.

This de facto practice has led many on the left to regard the social reactionaries as dupes of the economic rightists. Whatever the fairness of that judgment, there is simply no doubt at all that the governing effectiveness of the rightwing coalition is predicated on the different factions holding it together whenever in comes time to vote -- both as individuals at election time, and as members of Congress enforcing the "27 percent is a majority" principle.

To suggest that the Democrats can successfully govern without mimicking that kind of electoral discipline is idiotic. And since Brooks isn't an idiot, it suggests that he may have other motives in proposing this.

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