A Back to the Future Jeffersonian Liberalism

How the Democrats can thrive in the Information Age


Hopes dashed by the first-year bumblings of Barack Obama and three big GOP victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, Democratic campaign strategists, policy-mongers, and populist fire-breathers are touting formulas for party renewal. Nothing new here. Re-branding has been a cottage industry for Democrats since Lyndon Johnson dashed liberal dreams of wealth redistribution with his war in the 1960s, and mush-mouthed Democrats abandoned the toxic "L" word and started calling themselves "progressives" in the 1970s and 1980s.

While short-term thinking, focused on the November election, will dominate Beltway chatter about re-tooling Obama's legislative agenda, Democrats desperately need a new informing ideology to replace the 19th and 20th Century brand of statist programmatic liberalism rejected by the political center, in a choice-demanding information age.

Bill Daley, the smartest of Democratic icon Richard J. Daley's seven children, a few months ago wrote that the party needs to "plot a more moderate, centrist course or risk electoral disaster." In his first Washington Post column of the new year, democratic socialist Harold Meyerson did just the opposite, yearning for the "legislative torrents of the New Deal and the Great Society…templates that fire the liberal imagination." And lefties on the Hill will be beating up on bankers to save themselves from their health care debacle.

Daley's advice was good—for the devastated presidential Democratic Party of 1984. A near perfect distillation of economic left-liberalism admired on college campuses and in Latin America, Meyerson's vision might have been relevant in 1964, when party policy wonks demanded "Complete The New Deal!"

Strangely, these pearls of wisdom come just a few years and months after Democrats took back Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. Why the panic? You'd think it was 1972 or 1984, when Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan defeated George McGovern and Walter Mondale in 49-1-state blow-outs.

I spent the latter year of those two historic drubbings working as press spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, in the mid-1980's. We were crushed by the middle of the electorate that included a lot of apostate "Reagan Democrats." They had fought the good war. They understood gay to mean a happy state of mind. They believed a guy should marry the girl he got in trouble. And they thought one-size-fits-all elderly entitlements bestowed from Washington central authorities made sense for men who had factory jobs for life, laboring for central authority corporations, against whom they were represented by their own "international" (workers-of-the-world-unite) unions.

Democrats were losing many of our working class fathers and mothers in 1984 from the backlash against left-liberal Cold War, social-cultural, and identity politics, plus decades of tax-and-spend excess by congressional Democrats. The party sure needed to move back to its parents' center—conflicted as it was about "big government"—because that's where the votes were. And it did, resulting in two terms for centrist President Bill Clinton, who Daley served as commerce secretary.

Ironically, Bill Daley's "moderate, centrist course" is exceedingly good advice in 2010 for the other major party, the one that got its ass handed to it in both the 2006 mid-term and the 2008 national elections, because it fell into a narrow failed state of war-mongering and gay-baiting big conservative governance, under the influence of neo-con artists and TV preachers. The grand old militarist, Christianist, Republican party of the South, and a few of the corn and snow belt Midwest and mountain states, definitely needs to find its way back to the middle of a big tent.

Also filled with irony, Harold Meyerson's musings are a left-liberal echo of the political Puritanism you can hear every day on Fox News, from uncompromising GOP stalwarts of the type who wanted to pass a resolution last year calling on Democrats to rename themselves the "Democrat Socialist Party" and who demand policy purism from Republican candidates.

But a "centrist course" for the Democratic Party touted by Daley is less than half-right, because it ignores important passions of the party's base that were the motive force for winning back the House speaker's chair and securing the Senate majority leader's seat in 2006, and the Oval Office for Barack Obama in 2008. And a statist, wealth-redistributionist ideology like that advocated by Meyerson is mind-numbingly reactionary. It would turn off the American center faster than you can say Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales.

Let me explain.

We have met the new center, and it is us, the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll baby boomers and our younger Gen X siblings and children. Because of our advanced age, we are the "most likely voters" that pollsters and their political clients focus on.

The new center tilts liberal on social issues, like gay rights and abortion. It zigs left on national security, having seen two really bad elective wars in our lifetimes: Vietnam and Iraq. But it zags right on economic questions, empowered with the democratization of information, technology, and finance, eschewing one-size-fits-all fixes from Washington. The new center embraces individual choice in the marketplace.

Democrats certainly need to understand the composition of today's centrist cohort, if they want its support for the re-election of a Democratic Congress, which requires winning a few dozen moderate swing districts that remain after state legislatures segregate voters into conservative and liberal enclaves. And the party certainly needs to divine the will of the center to put together an electoral college strategy to keep the White House for a second Obama term.

But Democrats must also pay attention to the passions of their base voters, who believe Eric should be able to marry either Ed or Edith, and that our enemies are no longer big bad nation states, but rather a couple of crazy guys in a garage anywhere in the world, as columnist Richard Reeves noted in a recent essay.

Moderate, mainstream, middling messages, crafted by media consultants and pollsters, can take a political party only so far in putting together electoral victories, one election cycle to another. It's just as important, in fact more so, to fire up the base if you want to build party dominance over the long haul—but not with flaming economic left-liberalism advocated by Progressive Era throwbacks like Harold Meyerson.

A formula exists for Democratic Party resurgence similar to the dominance Republicans enjoyed in national politics from 1860 to 1932, when they held the White House for 56 of those 72 years. It's in the party's Jeffersonian and Madisonian roots. The government that governs least governs best. No entangling foreign alliances. And a commitment to individual liberties embodied in the Bill of Rights.

In other words, Democrats need to free themselves from the AFL-CIO, K Street, DuPont Circle, share-the-wealth wing of the party and run to the center on money matters, while passionately playing to their base on social issues and vigorously pursuing a non-interventionist foreign policy.

That is precisely the opposite of what happened in the first year of the Obama administration.

The president disappointed the center with an ill-advised attempt to substitute government health care mandates for marketplace accountability on one-seventh of America's economy. And he diss'd his party's base with a neo-con lite escalation  of another elective war, while soft-peddling on passionate individual liberty concerns like gay rights and the drug war.

To appeal to individualist, Information Age voters, both center and base, Democrats need to replace their intellectually spent, statist Progressive Era vision, spawned by the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, with a back-to-the-future Jeffersonian liberalism. First cast in the self-reliant Agrarian Age that informed our individual liberty-centered republic, the messages of Thomas Jefferson's Democratic Party of the 18th century can attract desktop-empowered voters of the 21st, who want to be free to make more choices in their lives than iPhones have apps.

Director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, Terry Michael is a former Democratic National Committee press secretary (1983-1987). His opinion writing is collected at his "libertarian Democrat" web site, www.terrymichael.net.

NEXT: Briefly Noted: An Anti-Authoritarian Odyssey

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  1. Are you serious?

  2. You know who else needed to free himself from share-the-wealth wing of the party and run to the center on money matters, while passionately playing to their base on social issues and vigorously pursuing a non-interventionist foreign policy? Hitler.

    1. Not sure what you’re saying here. Hitler gained popularity by offering to expropriate the Jews’ wealth and redistribute it to the middle class, who he believed had been taken advantage of by the upper classes. Also, there is the famous saying that the measure of Germany should be by the poorest German. Also, people often forget that his state was printing money it didn’t have to pay for its redistribution schemes (sound familiar?). Only the “great robbery” of the Jews and Eastern and Western Europe hid the fiscal disaster that was Nazi Germany. Oh, and never forget the 90% taxes his corporations were paying.

      1. Yeah, I considered correcting the statement to more closely match Hitler’s actual policies, but that wouldn’t have been as funny.

        1. Ha, well, if Tarantino can do it, then I suppose you can.

  3. The “partisans need a new brand of snake oil” thing is becoming so tedious. Democrats are douchebags with no principles. Republicans are douchebags with no principles. Any questions?

    1. Any questions?

      Is there any decent poutine served in Seattle?

      1. Why do fools fall in love?

      2. Actually, kinda. Quinn’s has these amazing frites with duck fat demi glace and some kind of cheese melted on top. Awesome.

        1. I’ve heard tales of this place. Delicious.

        2. The menu is fantastic. Humbolt Fog… oh, cheese nirvana.

          1. Humboldt fog is disgusting. Your taste in food, as in all else, is suspect at best and downright reprehensible at worst..

            1. You know that the dust in the bottom of the Cheetos bag is not all there is to cheese, right?

              1. How would any of us know that, as fast as you hoover the bag empty?

                1. IT’S A GLANDULAR CONDITION!

      3. This is a family thread, Sugarfree. Put a lid on that.

        1. Never! I’ll even talk about kumquat jam if I want!

          1. Mmmmmmmm, kumquat jam.

      4. If you want Canadian cuisine, you must go to Canada.

    2. Just as bad as the socialist-paternalist-statist democrats and republicans with no principles are the “independent” “swing voter” idiots who can’t make up their fucking minds about the role of government.

      1. Maybe they’re just trying to weigh which is the lesser of two evils?

        1. That’s a pretty pathetic way to go through life.

  4. If the advice is for Democrats to become individualists, then why not just advise them to forget the Democrat party and become libertarians?

    1. “The Jeffersonian Party”

      That has a good ring to it.

  5. To appeal to individualist, Information Age voters, both center and base, Democrats need to replace their intellectually spent, statist Progressive Era vision…

    Shhhh — don’t you know you’re not supposed to interrupt your enemies when they’re making a mistake?

  6. libertarian Democrat Terry Michael,

    Does not compute.

    Democrats need to replace their intellectually spent, statist Progressive Era vision…

    That would be, what, 90% of their platform?

    For the Dems to take his advice would like Kelloggs buying GM. They could keep the logo, sure, but they wouldn’t be a cereal company any more.

    1. Yes, can we please drop the idea of left-libertarian now? I don’t see any real exceptions to the state-loving on the left, which makes the label impossible. There aren’t all that many libertarians in the Republican camp, either, but at least there’s the possibility of right-libertarians.

      1. Have you read the Libertarian entry in Wikipedia? Apparently Libertarian-Socialism and Left-Libertarians are a big part of your movement 😉

        1. Hey, you can say anything. I could say that you aren’t a commenter but are instead an intelligent bicycle.

        2. Thus proving, yet again, that Wikipedia has to be taken with appropriate amounts of salt.

          1. I don’t deny that some people go around talking about being left-libertarian, but, of course, it’s the highest order of nonsense. I suppose the Germans had Nazi libertarians, too.

            1. If such a thing EVER existed, I would fucking INVENT a time machine JUST to hear it EXPLAIN such a pretzel logic philosophy to me. I’m pretty sure I’d never stop laughing after I performed an emergency hot lead lobotomy on this pitiful creature. Hells’ bells, just thinking about it brings a smile to my face!

    2. Statist libertarians?

      1. I always thought the bulk of libertarians were “minimal statists” recognizing some role for the state?

        1. By this meaning, all who believe in some sort of government is, at the very least, a “minimal statist.” That kind of ignores what is being discussed here though…

  7. Nice sentiments from Terry Michael. But it seems to me Harold Meyerson and his ilk have a stronger hold on the D’s than these much vaunted centrists.

  8. It’s in the party’s Jeffersonian and Madisonian roots. The government that governs least governs best. No entangling foreign alliances. And a commitment to individual liberties embodied in the Bill of Rights.

    Would that be the Jefferson and Madison of events like the First Barbary War, the Embargo Act of 1807, and the War of 1812?

    These guys were far from the early 19th century Ron Paul clones that Michael seems to believe they were.

    1. When a foreign power is press-ganging your private citizens into their navy, that might be grounds for war; even in Libertopia.

    2. Not to mention the very statist Louisiana Purchase.

      1. I’m kinda on their side when it comes to that one.

  9. Forswear playing on class envy and redistributionism?

    I’ll be over here, holding my breath.

  10. Come on, you REALLY think that the majority of the country is ready for gay marriage? It’s pretty much lost every time it’s been on the ballot.

    Stick with civil unions for right now, this is a loosing issue for the Dems.

    On the other social issues, I think the Dems are pretty confused, are they going to nanny state us (tabacco) or free us (marijuana).

  11. …our enemies are no longer big bad nation states, but rather a couple of crazy guys in a garage anywhere in the world..

    Is there some reason you’ve decided I and myself should be the new national enemy?

  12. The Democrats are like the Soviet CCCP circa-1978 or so, full of ideological baggage and personnel from the “revolutionary” days that they can’t get rid of.

    This is important distinction between the Dems and Republicans. For all the talk of Republican implosion and wingnuttery and what not, the net effect over time seems to be a culling of lumber so-to-speak…reinventing themselves and getting rid of their baggage. The Republicans also inadvertently cleaned house after Nixon.

    The Democrats have never had such a reinvention. They’re still rolling with the Great Society baggage train and such. Even after the Democrats were cast out into the wilderness in ’94, they remained surprisingly intact – both ideologically and in their pantheon – when they showed back up in 2006.

    I think that staid internal dynamic is why the Democrats “feel” older as a social movement than the wingnuts, despite being the college-campus party with hipster Barack running things.

    The Democrats don’t need to find Jefferson, they need to discover a Gorbachev amongst their ideologically tired ranks.

    1. Considering the fact that Gorbachev’s policies led to virtual end of the Communist Party, I’d take it.

    2. How about a Boris Yeltsin?

      Too in control to let anyone do anything without his say so and too drunk to tell anyone to do anything beyond getting him more drunk!

      They just don’t make democrats…err…commies like that anymore…*sigh*…

  13. I think the Democrats should all surrender their seats to the LP, making the LP and the GOP the two major parties. In the many decades of third-party status to follow, the Democrats can wander in the wilderness, seeking understanding and a more consistent and sane platform.

    1. You’re a sick man, ProLib. Sick indeed. K-street will only have jobs for religious pressure groups and flag manufacturers.

      1. I think the drug legalization lobby might have a larger presence in this scenario.

  14. I expect that Jefferson and Lincoln spends their days in the after life bitching and moaning about the collapse of their respective parties.

  15. I have asked “libertarian-socialists” (or anarcho-socialists) if it would have to be completely voluntary for individuals to participate in the socialist economy in the absence of a state. They can never give a clear answer about how there could be no state while people are still being forced to participate in socialism.

  16. ^could should probably be would^

  17. 15% turnout among young voters in the Massachusetts special can be traced directly to Coakley’s crusade against the 2008 marijuana decrim initiative, which pulled 65% overall. Weren’t going to vote for any fuckin’ Republican, so stayed home.

    Yes, I’m agreeing with Terry.

  18. I like most the reason.tv articles, but this is fairly hollow.

    It could be summarized as:

    Step 1. Democrats need to abandon their entire platform and rush to the “center.”

    Step 2. Republicans need to abandon their entire platform and rush to the “center.”

    Skipping over the fact that neither would abandon their platforms anyway, what is the “center?”

    If you gauge the center by popular opinion, not supporting gay marriage (an R view) is the center. If you look at incremental nationalization of the financial system (a D view) as a means of punishing bankers, well that is the center too.

    The article seems to assert that the center is really a Jeffersonian oasis. I’m not sure how one could come to the conclusion. The Jeffersonian Democrats had a hard enough time against the Federalists when they still had Jefferson to lead them.

    Neither party believes anything remotely like a Jeffersonian world-view, but more importantly, there aren’t, unfortunate as it may be, but a remnant of people in the entire country that subscribe to it. All those that do are well on the margins, and have a hard time seeing the center, much less comprising it.

  19. Incisive and well-argued article, but the real “new center” aren’t Boomers and Xers, but rather those actually in the center (ie. in-between) of the Boom & X: Generation Jones. GenJonesers were approximately a third of the 2008 electorate, and pivotal. This page has lots of video and prose from top pundits about the importance of GenJones voters: http://generationjones.com/2009latest.html

    If you haven’t heard much yet about this, google “Generation Jones”, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report chose the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. And most analysts now see generations as getting shorter (usually 10-15 years now), partly because of the acceleration of culture. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978

  20. Terry Michael is wrong. The national debt changes everything. Major Democratic favorites such as Medicare, SS, and education will need to be privatized if we are to prevent societal collapse.

    Those are things Dems will never do.

  21. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  22. I don’t got your point. But thank you all the same.

  23. In the same way awful because the socialist-paternalist-statist democrats do auto repair yourself in addition to republicans without key points will be the “independent” “swing voter” idiots which are unable to constitute its fucking intellects in regards to the purpose regarding govt.Finnish Lapphund breed

  24. The government that governs least governs best. No entangling foreign alliances.

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