Monday, August 14, 2006

DLC-ism as Unfalsifiable Theology

David Sirota has yet another must read, this one detailing the ways and standard operating procedures of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), home of the so-called "moderate" or "centrist" Democrats. Bill Clinton is their patron saint and with the defeat of Joe Lieberman, their posterchild, in last week's primary, they've been going a bit off their collective nut.

Sirota does a fantastic job setting out very clearly the degree to which the DLC -- and the major players in the Democratic party who are part of the movement -- have prostituted themselves and the party at large to the interests of big business.

As the American Prospect detailed a few years ago, the DLC is funded by huge contributions by some of the largest and most powerful multinational corporations in the world - companies like Chevron, DuPont, Enron, IBM, Merck and Company, Microsoft, Philip Morris, Texaco, and Verizon Communications who eagerly forked over the $25,000 entry fee to be on the DLC's "executive council." As the Prospect noted, the DLC's "revenues climbed steadily upward, reaching $5 million in 1996 and, according to its most recent available tax returns, $6.3 million for 1999." Said the organization's executive director: "Our revenues for 2000 will probably end up around $7.2 million."
This money has led to Democrats like Lieberman and Biden in the Senate, to support corporate-friendly/people-unfriendly legislation like the bankruptcy bill and oppose people-friendly/corporate-unfriendly moves concerning reforms in health care.

Sirota then works out three central tenets of "DLC-ism,"
DLC-ism's fundamental tenets preach that Democrats should 1) never frontally challenge moneyed power; 2) unquestioningly embrace Washington's distorted definition of national security "strength" as being a politician willing to indiscriminately bomb/invade foreign lands regardless of how that weakens U.S. security; and 3) deliberately distort the concept of "centrism" to make it mean "well outside the mainstream of American public opinion."
Now, there is no doubt that large segments of the party are cult-like followers of these axioms and that this wing has been in control of the party and overseen the loss of control of all three federal insitutions and many, many governorships across the country.

So, is DLC-ism a political theory or a political theology? DLC folks themselves will claim that it is not only a theory, but a well-confirmed theory at that. The DLC folks do believe -- despite every indication to the contrary from recent political history -- that they hold the keys to Democratic reascendance. The central piece of evidence they will point to is the way that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton won their presidential elections. Both, they argue, captured a large bloc --the same bloc, they claim -- of centrist voters.

Let me be a philosopher here. What analytic philosophers are trained to do is approach any set of propositions and tease out the underlying pre-suppositions in order to see whether they are likely to be true. And, indeed, lying beneath Sirota's three tenets is what is believed by DLC-ers to be an inviolable, a priori truth which is a pre-condition to the possibility of DLC-ism: There are three groups of voters in American politics: activists on the left and activists on the right who are not going anywhere politically and a large group of voters between them who often vote as a bloc and determine the outcome of elections. They are comprised of working and middle class white suburbanites (the so-called soccer moms and NASCAR dads).

This underlying presupposition has actually been bought into by both the DLC and the more liberal wings of the Democratic party. The liberals believe that these voters, amply informed, will vote according to what is in their best interest and if Democrats would only get behind policy benefitives that benifit the large majority of Americans, then people over profit politics would carry the day. DLC-ers, on the other hand, are deeply convinced that these voters will vote according to their beliefs and that their Donnie and Marie approach to politics (I'm a little bit Democrat, I'm a little bit Republican) is actually perfectly in line with the beliefs of this group. After all, that is why they overwhelmingly supported both Reagan and Clinton -- they are a little bit Democratic and a little bit Republican. The trick is not to oppose the Republicans, but to triangulate and appropriate Republican views and give them a happy face, to be the real compassionate conservatives. By not offering an alternative, but a variant, they contend, will put voters in a place where they see their own views reflected and this will lead to victory.

In addition, by appropriating Republican stances, they make themselves more attractive to Republican moneymen. The one advantage the GOP has had is in cash and they have been able to clobber Dems by outspending them. If Democrats were to champion the pro-corporate agenda as well, they could get part of that take and neutralize the advantage. This is exactly what we have seen happen and why the Democratic party has become willingly and increasingly tied to corporate paymasters. The corporations, of course, love it -- now, if the Democrats win, they win, if the Republicans win, boy-oh-boy do they win.

Further, it is believed that this move comes without a price tag. Adopting the pro-corporate agenda which opposes the interests of voters does not cost votes in the end because (a) these voters vote according to their beliefs not their interests, and being pro-corporate is being pro-American since these corporate logos are the stuff of daily American life, and (b) their interests are better served indirectly, anyway, by having more profitable corporations and getting the trickle down benefits of lower prices.

These two together, the usurping of Republican positions and the need to court corporate cash, are at the heart of the DLC belief that liberals (who oppose both) are the death of the Democratic party. I believe that it is a sincere belief, not some sort of cynical power game where they put these claims up as a smoke screen. I think they really do believe these foundational propositions and, based on them, adhere to Sirota's tenets.

But these presuppositional propositions are problematic on a number of counts. First, as Sirota points out, empirical data repeatedly shows that the DLC-backed positions are neither moderate, nor popular. On many, many counts, they do not reflect the actual views of the majority of voters or of the supposed swing voters.

Second, even if there were a vast number of Republican-lite voters up for grabs each go-round, I contend that these voters do not vote based on the relative similarity between their own views and the positions put forward by a candidate. Let's play that old game from Sesame Street..."One of these things is not like the other, two of these things are kind of the same..." Ok, which of these names doesn't belong...Ronald "morning in America" Reagan, Bill "a place called Hope" Clinton, and Joe Lieberman. Hmmmm. Two are politicians who were incredible speakers, extremely charismatic, unbelievably telegenic, and the third looks like Droopy Dawg, comes across as a nasty, petty little man, and has a voice that makes you want to shove something sharp deep in your ear canal to make it stop. Maybe, just perhaps, it isn't a matter of policy at all that motivates these folks at the polls, but that voters who are not strongly party identified tend to vote for personable politicians who know how to tell them what they want to hear. Maybe, just maybe, Bill Clinton is incredibly successful because he was Bill Clinton and not because of his DLC-friendly politics.

This proposition seems like it should be open to an empirical test. If we could find someone who holds the same DLC-approved positions as Bill Clinton, but without his personal charm and then put this person in the national spotlight, say in the Senate or in the position as presumptive favorite before the Democratic presidential primary, we could see whether he or she would be equally popular. It would have to be someone immediately connected with Clinton, someone who has the same positions and maybe even have the same name in order to hold an independent variable constant, but someone not as warm, someone who you don't think feels your pain. Hmmm. Where would we find such a person? This is why experiments in political science are so hard to come by.

This claim that the DLC position is in line with swing voters is also belied by many corporately funded advocacy ads on tv for policy initiatives. Average voters don't know what they believe about complex issues related to health care, telecom, or financial issues. These things are complicated and unless you have the education, the inclination, and the time to really sit down and read, you won't be able to figure out which side is on your side. The corporations know this. The ads they run are not meant to convince anyone -- all they want is to muddy the waters. As long as the normal person who is stressed out by work and family sees the whole thing as a food fight, they'll remain cynical and throw their hands up, ignoring the whole thing because "both sides are nothing but spin." Under this fog, they are free to do as they please because most voters will not have any position at all.

But thirdly, even if both of the points above are wrong, the very existence of these voters is not at all clear. Sure, they existed back in Reagan and Clinton's times, but I forget who said, "the times they are a-changing." The Republicans were perfectly aware of what happened in the defeat of Bush I and the lesson they took away from the Reagan to Clinton move was not that the swing voter needed to be won, but that the swing voter needed to be eliminated. GOP strategists made the calculation that if this group were split and the swing group eliminated, leaving a completely polarized electorate, that they could win the turn-out battle using legitimate, gray, and illicit means. Eliminate the uncertainty, the swinging of the pendulum, and make it all a matter of get out the vote and they believe that the Republicans have the advantage. So they have been working for the last decade at polarizing us, at eliminating the very swing voters that the DLC has predicated its entire strategy upon.

So the foundational claims of DLC-ism are not quite as they would have you believe. Add in the major losses that the Dems have suffered while the DLC has called the shots largely unimpeded and the success of non-DLC Dems in places like Montana that are supposedly unfriendly to anything capable of being branded as liberal, and DLC-ism turns out not to be the rational, empirically it is marketed as being. Despite the appeal to the Reagan/Clinton phenomenon, reality worked against them...repeatedly. Yet, no amount of empirical discomformation will ever serve to shake this belief. It turns out that DLC-ism is not science, but theology. Indeed, the move they make is one reminiscent of Creationism.

If a DLC-affiliated candidate wins a position, say, Stephanie Herseth in South Dakota, then it was DLC-ism that deserves the credit. If a DLC-affiliated candidate loses, then it was the lack of support or the undermining of the liberals that is to blame. If a liberal candidate loses, it is because of the lack of adherence to DLC-ism and if a liberal candidate wins, then it is only a matter of time until there is any set back to the Democrats and that can be blamed of the victory of someone who does not buy into DLC-ism. Since there will always be liberals in the Democratic party, they can always shift the blame. All DLC victories and DLC losses are explainable in terms that support DLC-ism. It becomes unfalsifiable and this makes it worse than false. This makes it meaningless.

Consider the sentence "I have a brother or I don't have a brother." It is true if I do have a brother and it is true if I don't have a brother. Since I have to either have or not have a male sibling, it is always true. But, despite its truth, it tells you nothing about my family -- indeed, it turns out that it is always true precisely because it tells you nothing about my family. It is always true because it says nothing despite its appearance to be a meaningful statement about my family.

In the same way, DLC-ism is vacuous. It says nothing about the world, but is a set of tenets that only serve to justify themselves by seeming to say something about American politics. Like it's cousin neo-conservatism, we can consider DLC-ism to be empirical, in which case it has been undermined by reality, or we can consider it to be non-empirical, in which case it is vacuous. So, like the DLC's friends at FOX news say, "we report, you decide."