Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 24, 2006
POLITICS: The General Interest
Taranto points us to this essay by Michael Tomasky in the American Prospect returning yet again to the question of What Do The Democrats Stand For? Tomasky argues - correctly - that the Dems have become increasingly effective as an opposition party, but that when it comes to retaking a majority:
What the Democrats still don't have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society. Indeed, the party and the constellation of interests around it don't even think in philosophical terms and haven't for quite some time. There's a reason for this: They've all been trained to believe - by the media, by their pollsters - that their philosophy is an electoral loser.
This is old hat by now, even from Tomasky, but this time he offers up a solution:
[New Deal and Great Society] liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.
Leave aside for now the correctness of this characterization of the New Deal and Tomasky's arguments about where and when the Democrats lost their connection with the common good and the general interest, and how Ronald Reagan appropriated that theme for the GOP. I'm not that familiar with Tomasky's writings in general, but he does make a good faith effort, as New Republic neoliberals like Peter Beinart and Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan have been doing for years, to get to the heart of what is most reactionary and illiberal about today's Democrats, and his essay is worthy of reading at length. But the simple fact is that placing the general interest above special interests runs so completely contrary to the core of how today's Democratic Party operates that suggesting that the Democrats become champions of the general interest seems like a crude parody of the party. Tomasky gravely underestimates the difficulty of breaking the habit of casting issue after issue in terms of how it affects the concrete interests of particular subgroups of voters. A quick tour of issues vital to bedrock Democratic constituencies only underlines this:
1. Racial Preferences. There is no more glaring example of a policy that rejects the notion of the general common good than the use of racial classifications to give preference to some individuals over others in education and employment. Yes, there are pretextual, fig-leaf "diversity" justifications for using such preferences four decades after the death of Jim Crow and extending them in perpetuity into the future, but try arguing with any supporter of preferences and you will very quickly cut through the pretexts to what remains the core justification, and the only one that could support explicit state-sponsored race discrimination: the idea that African-Americans and other minority groups are owed a debt by the rest of society that justifies transferring benefits to them at the expense of other citizens along racial lines.
Tomasky does make an effort at finessing this question:
[T]here exist powerful common-good arguments for affirmative action. In addition to the idea that diversity enriches private-sector environments, affirmative action has been the most important single factor in the last 40 years in the broad expansion of the black middle class, which in turn (as more blacks and whites work and live together) has dramatically improved race relations in this county, which has been good, as LBJ would put it, for every American.
On closer inspection, this argument collapses. Yes, diversity in and of itself is a good thing, and yes, that justifies some mild forms of affirmative action, from outreach and mentoring programs to a general posture of inclusiveness in considering candidates for jobs and schools. But that's not the issue - the issue is formal or informal practices of giving one man a leg up on another by virtue of the color of his skin. Pointing to the fact that this has brought benefits to African-Americans as a group just underlines the fact that the argument for preferences is the strictest of special interest arguments. Whatever the merits of that argument, you can't with a straight face present it as anything else.
2. Anti-Competitive Economic Policies. Few things get Democrats more exercised than the constellation of issues that, at their core, amount to efforts to protect particular workers or particular businesses from competitive pressures that could drive down the wages of some workers and cut prices for consumers. The list goes on and on - just a few examples:
*The minimum wage, which props up the wages of some workers at the expense of retarding the growth of low-wage entry-level jobs.
*Opposition to free trade and "outsourcing", on the grounds that competition from low-cost foreign producers would put downward pressure on wages.
*Hatred of Wal-Mart by businesses that compete with Wal-Mart and unions that see Wal-Mart as a threat to unionized competitors.
*Farm subsidies and other programs that keep food prices artificially high.
*The Davis-Bacon Act, which drives up taxpayer expenses for public works - a public good if ever there was one - to benefit construction unions.
You know by heart the responses in favor of these policies, which amount to the idea that the interests of "working people" (i.e., distinct subsets of people who work for a living) trump the general interests of consumers and the broader interest of the economy. Indeed, Democrats mock as "trickle-down economics" the notion of doing things to benefit the economy as a whole rather than to benefit particular subgroups within the economy.
3. Public Sector Unions. If the Davis-Bacon Act is a glaring example of preferring the particular special interests of certain workers over the general interests of taxpayers and those who benefit from government services, the same philosophy operates writ large throughout the Democrats' approach to public sector workers: the insistence on above-market wages and job protections and benefits unavailable to comparably-skilled workers in the private sector, and the support of strong unions that exist in opposition, not to particular capitalists, but to the taxpayer and the citizenry at large.
4. Targeted Tax Cuts. A classic example of preferring special to general interests can be seen in tax policy - the Democrats are constantly arguing that this or that sub-constituency, behavior or activity is deserving of targeted tax relief, rather than taking the Reagan/Bush approach of cutting taxes for everyone who pays them. Whatever else may be said about those arguments, they are classic special interest arguments.
These are, I should add, just a few of the clearest examples, but you can spot your own examples of appeals to the interests of narrow groups in almost any speech of any length by any Democrat. None of this is to say that Republicans are immune from the temptation to pander to special interests, nor to suggest that special pleading on behalf of particular special interest groups is always illegitimate. Sometimes, some people do have special claims on the public. But the identification of Republicans with policies that apply the same rules and distribute the same benefits broadly to benefit the general interest, and of Democrats with a collection of policies narrowcasted to particular constituencies, is neither an accident nor simply bad P.R. The style of special pleading and the belief in the moral primacy of special interests over the general common good is so deeply ingrained in today's Democrats, and so central to the way in which the most faithful voters, donors and organizers are rallied in election after election, that it is simply inconceivable (and yes, I know what that word means) to imagine a Democratic Party built around the theme that Tomasky envisions.