The Southern poet Donald Davidson, aghast at the centralizing thrust of the New Deal, complained, "It is a queer sort of liberalism that proposes to abolish the evils of the chain-gang by putting everybody in chains." Half a century later, Davidson's remark is no less apposite. The debasement of American liberalism, so tenderly chronicled by historians Vernon Parrington and Arthur Ekirch, has reduced an optimistic philosophy upholding the rights of man to a cynical Great Barbecue at which organized interests impale thee and me with a great pious spit.
What America—and the Democratic Party—needs is a rekindling of the old liberal spirit of its founders, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren. The traditional Democratic coalition—workers, farmers, racial minorities, and the elderly—badly needs the admixture of youth and the middle class.
One needn't be a shaggy nostalgist to regard the Democrats as a worthy vessel for a radical, popular liberalism. As recently as the 1960s, several Democratic factions carried the decentralist gene of our forefathers: the conservatives could boast Sen. (later folk hero) Sam Ervin, with his scrupulous defense of constitutional rights; liberal Eugene McCarthy was a brilliant critic of presidential power; Dwight MacDonald and Norman Mailer led a revolt of the literary class against the LBJ-HHH complex; and leavening the counterculture left were the hinterlands chapters of Students for a Democratic Society, drunk on the anarchistic wisdom of Paul Goodman and Henry David Thoreau.
Twenty years later…The Democrats' '88 crop is uniformly dreadful, and it shall not be improved even if one of the shrinking violets (Nunn-Cuomo-Bradley) works up the stamen to enter the race. The Bourbons who control the party have learned nothing from 1984—Harry Hopkins's dictum to "spend and elect, spend and elect" remains their doxology. And the unctuous voices from the right counseling "moderation" really mean that they want two Republican Parties, thus doubling opportunities for right-wing job-seekers.
Yet scattered patches of decency persist, wispy legacies of Ervin, McCarthy, MacDonald, and the SDS. From them one can cobble a nonstatist mosaic that could satisfy the traditional Democratic desiderata of social and economic justice and entice the young and middle class away from their GOP suitors.
Herewith, then, a fragmentary program for Democrats who take seriously their proud pedigree. Note that each plank bears at least one set of modern footprints.
• The great philosopher of the early Democracy—John Taylor of Virginia—taught that a widespread distribution of property, particularly land, is vital to a stable republic. To encourage property ownership in our great cities, enact "urban homesteading" legislation of the sort sponsored by Democratic Reps. Robert Garcia (N.Y.), Walter Fauntroy (D.C.), and Richard Gephardt (Mo.). Allow public-housing tenants, singularly or in co-ops, to purchase their abodes at a discount. Alternatively, just give them the damn things.
• Foster worker ownership of the means of production. And by this I mean control, not just festooning the board of directors with a Savile Row union boss. Ex-senator Russell Long and '88 candidate Bruce Babbitt are employee stock-ownership plan (ESOP) enthusiasts; a more radical model is the astonishing network of private co-ops in Mondragon, Spain. (Employee ownership is also the key to unloading state enterprises.)
• Relieve farmers of the crushing burden of local property taxes. Open the heretofore closed export market of Cuba, as Rep. Bill Alexander (Ark.) and American Agriculture Movement leader Wayne Cryts propose.
• "Fight for the right," as the band Green on Red preaches, "of free speech and assembly, and honky-tonk Saturday nights." That is, refrain from enacting morals legislation: let the GOP reign as the party of the Meese Commission, urine tests, and the 21-year-old drinking age. Republican strategists fear that the party's censorship faction will drive America's youth into Democrat hands: spread the welcome mat.
• Defend traditional American liberties as well. Protect the right of the people to keep and bear arms, which populists ranging from Wayne Cryts to the Black Panthers have recognized as the palladium of liberty. Prevent state harassment of religious schools, as Jesse Jackson has demanded.
• Empower the individual; castrate the bureaucracy. Adopt a taxpayers' bill of rights championed by Sens. David Pryor (Ark.) and Harry Reid (Nev.). Revive ex-senator Jim Abourezk's amendment to create a national initiative and referendum mechanism.
• Seek justice for racial and ethnic minorities. To recompense American Indians for centuries of carnage and theft, cede federal lands to aggrieved Indian tribes. (Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) is exploring this option.) Remove racist immigration restrictions and allow Mexicans and others to freely enter this country, with the proviso that they will be ineligible for government social services.
• Abolish occupational and licensing laws. Emancipate cabbies and vendors, yes, but also strip the arrogant priests of the medical and legal professions of their monopoly status. Liberating midwives, nurses, and paralegals, as former California governor Jerry Brown attempted, is a genuinely proconsumer act.
• Slash corporate welfare. Not only the obvious targets—the Export-Import Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the $20-billion space-station boondoggle—but also the pork-barrel waste of the military-industrial complex. And ask Wisconsin's Sen. William Proxmire if a Democrat can win on a populist antispending platform.
• Bring the boys home: abstain from foreign entanglements that don't directly threaten American liberties. Withdrawing from expensive and counterproductive involvements such as NATO and Central America can save upwards of $150 billion and forestall the trek of poor, rural, and working-class kids to the abattoir of war. Rep. Pat Schroeder (Colo.) has done yeoman work reexamining our foreign commitments.
A painfully incomplete list, yes. But it is a far sight closer to the Democratic main current than the Gore-Biden-Simon gruel or the declamations of the most prominent party reformers: the technocratic neoliberals and the hawkish disciples of the departed Scoop Jackson. Their common concern is reviving the draft, a good way to lose a generation.
The tragedy of American politics is encapsulated by historian Richard Hofstadter's question: "How [did] the laissez-faire ideas that seemed so radical in some of the left-wing Jacksonians" turn up as reactionary apologias for the status quo just decades later? The task of modern Jacksonians—who see liberty not as a license for greed but as the great leveler and guarantor of opportunity—is to refurbish the grand old Democratic house; to kick out the charlatans and wastrels who've run the manse into the ground; and to unfurl anew the inspiriting Jefferson-Jackson banner, "Equal rights for all; special privileges for none." Any takers?
Next month: Bob Poole on the Republicans.