But is that as true as it appears? Certainly, today’s Democrats can’t simply return to the philosophy that was defeated in the late 1970s. But at the same time, let’s recognize a new historical moment when we see one: Today, for the first time since 1980, it is conservative philosophy that is being discredited (or rather, is discrediting itself) on a scale liberals wouldn’t have dared imagine a few years ago. An opening now exists, as it hasn’t in a very long time, for the Democrats to be the visionaries. To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently — to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era. ~Michael Tomasky, The American Prospect

Via Rod Dreher

Big Ideas can be fun to talk about, but very often it is the Big Ideas that lead to ludicrous social engineering programs that, on one side, destroy entire communities, lock whole classes of people in poverty and undermine the integrity of families (LBJ’s gifts to posterity) or, on the other, explode federal debt, cause the deaths of tens of thousands of people, bog down the military in a pointless conflict and subvert any and all legal checks on executive power (some of Bush’s greatest hits). It is therefore hardly consolation for the rest of us that Democrats are getting back into the Big Idea business. It makes great copy for political junkies, but it fills me, a non-GOP conservative, with the same dread I would feel if Mr. Bush were allowed a third term.

Electorally it is also a bad plan for them. The Democratic Party’s strength has always been that it is a congress of feuding petty special interest groups with no common vision except a shared goal of banding together so each group can get what it wants. That’s democratic (and Democratic) politics for you. Thus the immortal remark of Will Rogers: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Clinton made it work by convincing the party to be less shrill and marginally less redistributist to appeal to the middle-class, which would get the party in power to the point where it could try to carry out the big payoffs his voters expected. Certainly a cheery disposition has never hurt anyone in an American election, and Clinton (like Obama today) had that in abundance, where cheeriness is next to godliness.

If there have been liberal theorists chatting pleasantly about balancing the needs of the whole and the parts of society, so much the better for them, but what has held the Democratic coalition together from FDR to now is the benefits each of the feuding petty special interest groups got from the Big Ideas of various forms of redistribution and government support. They bring the whole array of diverse interests, some of them competing, under the same banner with the general promise that all of the benefits will come, as an old New Mexico Legislature representative once wrote in a campaign letter years and years ago, “at no cost to you.”

It would be great if progressives turned to thinking about the common good, and even better if their understanding of the common good was not inextricably wrapped up in the administrative welfare state that conservative friends of koinonia abhorrent. But why am I not exactly heartened when I read Mr. Tomasky describe liberal governance like so: “This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves.” There’s the rub.

Consider the rhetoric and ponder why it goes over like a lead balloon with those conservatives, for instance, who speak in terms of the common good, commonwealth and res publica rather than those who speak in terms of opportunity, choice and democracy. The common good is not a “project”–the language of projects conjures up a whole engineering and technocratic lexicon suited to the administrative managerial state, and replaces the natural priority of the existing community with a concept of a community cooked up at a think tank to which we “contribute” to finish the “project.” This is not an accidental phrase: project and contribution are uttered numerous times throughout the text. Frankly, the kinds of people with whom the Democrats ought to be trying to connect (disaffected centrists and conservatives) are not going to conceive of meaningful projects on the national scale and, short of something like a new CCC (which no one would actually vote for), you will not have a benefit that is tangible and local that is seen as benefiting the local common good. Mr. Tomasky can indulge his fantasy that the glory years of 1933-66 were based on a “reciprocal” relationship between state and nation, but the reason why liberalism has hit a snag over the last 12 years is that no one is fooled anymore by the claim of reciprocity: in any such arrangement, the state takes and the nation gives, and the state takes some more.

Conservatives have a hard enough time using the language of the common good among ourselves, in no small part because there is the assumption (justified by past liberal uses of the phrase) that “common good” is a code for centralised state planning and subsidy. Properly speaking, it is no such thing, but it is an extremely difficult rhetorical burden to have to overcome. Nothing Mr. Tomasky says in his article disabuses me of the idea that this is how he is using it.

Mr. Tomasky and I do agree on something:

All Americans are not Bill O’Reilly fans or Wall Street Journal editorialists. While they may not call themselves liberals, many of them — enough of them — are intelligent people who want to be inspired by someone to help their country.

When Mr. Tomasky writes things like this, it is clear that the people he thinks the Democrats need to be able to reach with their new “civic republicanism” are all the disaffected conservatives and Republicans who find the present administration and the present state of the movement appalling and extremely dispiriting, and yet everything he says rubs these “intelligent people” the wrong way on every level. Starting with all the prattling about “diversity and rights” and going downhill from there. It is articles like this that convince me, in spite of my own points of agreement with my green friends on a great number of things, that all the imaginary left-right tactical alliances on this or that issue are just pipe-dreams.

It isn’t just that those of us on the right can’t get past some of the rhetoric of the Tomaskys of the world, but that as much as Mr. Tomasky would like to pursue the common good in a “post-ideological” way that incorporates more beyond the narrow special interest politics of the current Democratic Party he cannot do without poking us in the eye with remarks about the “darker view of human nature” we hold. Given what history shows us about man’s capacity for corruption, I tend to think that most conservatives still have a surprisingly sunny outlook on the inclinations of the human will. But then perhaps I was wrong–perhaps he assumes that there are no conservatives among his “intelligent people.” Which is one reason why the Democrats will remain trapped in their blind alleys for the foreseeable future and perhaps forever; they have repeated the tropes about the other side so often, without even inquiring into what they mean, that they cannot help but repeat them.

I would suggest that the Bush Era will not be remembered for rampant individualism as such, as Mr. Tomasky supposed, but rather for its bizarre forays into different forms of collectivism (entitlement programs) and collective action (war and nationalism) that rely on a mass of alientaed individuals to be compelling and meaningful but do their utmost to abuse both people and large sections of the commonwealth. Mr. Bush is asking Americans, or at least some Americans, to “contribute” to his “project,” which is so much larger than them that it claims to encompass the fate of the world. This is the so-called “conservative philosophy” that is today discrediting itself before our eyes. A Democratic imitation of this spirit will not revive a republican spirit, but very likely commit us to new and costly domestic boondoggles and new unexpected foreign wars.

When Mr. Tomasky begins talking about Rousseau-esque civic republicanism, we should be worried and remember that Rousseau’s social contract, invoked favourably here, is an important source of the very plebiscitary democracy, to use Prof. Ryn’s phrase, whose demons have figuratively possessed the GOP leadership and sent them on their grand and glorious higher callings to save the world from evil and eliminate tyranny. Moreover, if Mr. Tomasky believes that the Bush Era is too individualistic, goodness knows what his version of the “common good” will mean. The myth of New Deal empowerment and “ennoblement” of Americans requires a good deal of ignoring the ongoing depressive effects of the New Deal’s egregious levels of taxation that ensured the prolongment of the Depression. I wouldn’t expect a columnist at the Prospect to be thinking in these terms, but that the New Deal is remembered as some moment of national solidarity, rather than the stupendous failure and burden that it was and always has been, tells us a good deal about what Mr. Tomasky’s “common good” entails. It entails sacrifices for “universalist purposes,” which is hardly reassuring to those of us who have seen quite enough American wealth and blood spent on “universalist purposes” in Iraq; directing this same misguided idealism to the home front will hardly have desirable results.

Mr. Tomasky states that “diversity and rights” are the only things uniting all Democrats, and he is probably right, all of which makes his appeal to some kind of civic republicanism all the more strange as a strategy for the Democrats. Civic republicanism might tell the Democrats that they cannot blithely endorse immigration amnesties and might even actively oppose them (indeed this would be a kind of civic republicanism that could steal a lot of GOP territory if it seemed credible), but basic political calculus tells them that if they do endorse such a policy and an amnesty passes they have just brought in millions of future voters and a huge boost for the demographics of the party.

The Democrats have hit a bump in the road lately (it is difficult to distinguish yourself from a center-left president whom you have spent six years castigating as a right-wing looney while still appearing credible), but they know their long-term interest is in the “diversity and rights” mantra for two reasons: an ever-expanding realm of rights is an ever-expanding realm for the state, which means sinecures and payouts for them and theirs, and the idea of diversity can succeed both in terms of divide et impera and as a vehicle for defining American identity in terms of “values” (in this case, liberal values), which is eminently flexible and adaptable.

Under normal circumstances, this formula might be a winner with the contemporary semi-educated electorate, except that the Democrats have tacked far too far into the realm of cultural radicalism over generally irrelevant questions (”What do we want? Gay marriage! When do we want it? Now!” is not the deeply moving battle cry of the common man), and this provides the GOP with easy targets to mobilise indignant, scandalised voters whose fundamental beliefs are routinely mocked or dismissed by the Dems. If the Democrats were wise, they would scrap most of this shrill and confrontational radicalism (which may too deeply ingrained in the activist base to be stamped out), present themselves as a relatively stable and sane alternative to the reckless children currently in charge (they have never had a better chance than now to appear as the party of relatively more grown-up people) and stick to what they know. If they want to win back Congress, they would have more candidates like Patricia Madrid and Harold Ford, Jr., and fewer like Barney Frank and Jesse Jackson, Jr.