What the Hell Are Democrats So Afraid of?

Like many progressives, I’d heard all the explanations for Democratic failings, and they all boiled down to this: a lack of smarts or competence. But was that realistic? After all, we’re the egghead party, the party of science, the party of the PhD. Could we really just be as stupid as we say George Bush is? What I’ve seen is something quite different: a lack of courage that makes Democrats afraid of implementing the strategies that work. It’s why even when Democrats win, they lose.

After Democrats took back Congress in 2006, Republicans still manage to bully Democrats and the media into controlling their agenda. It seems like Democrats forgot James Carville's basic lesson of political summer school "It's hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth." Unfortunately, too often, the Democrats are the ones coughing up fingernails. What follows is an excerpt from my new book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party (Maisonneuve Press), which illustrates this debilitating weakness in the Democratic Party.


"The senator agrees with you, but he's not sure about the politics," the senior Democratic Senate aide told me. "But if the politics changes, the senator would definitely like to vote your way -- so good luck; we're behind you." The aide was explaining to me why his boss, a Democrat who represents a rural, Republican-leaning state, hadn't supported higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks in a recent vote. The aide told me that though the senator agreed with the environmental group I was working for that increased auto mileage made sense, he was afraid that his constituents might not support his stance, especially after being bombarded with auto industry ads on the airwaves.

It was a response I would hear over and over again from Democrats as I went from leading local and state level environmental campaigns to helping direct those campaigns on the national level. When Democrats voted against us, it was rare to hear them say they didn't agree with us on the merits. Instead, they'd tell us they were afraid: afraid that their constituents wouldn't support a pro-environment position; afraid of defying President Bush and the Republican noise machine; or they'd even admit they were afraid of angering this or that corporate lobby and losing campaign contributions to the Republicans.

To be sure, on a basic level, I found their explanations infuriating: shouldn't leaders do the right thing, even when doing so might entail some political risk? But even when I put myself in their shoes and tried to see their positions from the perspective of a purely self-interested politician, these rationalizations still didn't add up: polls consistently show strong support in all parts of America for stronger environmental protections -- it's one issue that unites grassroots Republicans and Democrats. What's more, in my experience, politicians who were willing to confront powerful interests in tough battles came out of those battles more, not less, popular.

When I looked outside the environmental movement, I saw the same thing. Starting with President Clinton, through the 1990's, and down to the present, Democrats shied from a full-throated campaign for government-financed universal health care, not because they disagreed with experts' assessment that it was the best and most affordable way to provide health coverage to the greatest number of people, but because they were afraid of taking on the HMO's and insurance companies. Many Democrats supported President Bush's tax cuts for the ultra-rich, not because they thought giving billionaires a tax break while the working and middle classes were feeling economic insecurity was a good idea, but because they were afraid of opposing President Bush, no matter how worthy the cause.

And of course, dozens of Democrats failed to speak out against Bush's rush to war in Iraq, not because they thought George Bush would bring peace and democracy to the Middle East, but because they were afraid that Republicans would paint them as weak. Again, I found their explanations morally and politically bankrupt: not only were they the wrong decisions, they also served to empower the very corporations and special interests out to defeat Democrats.

There has been no shortage of explanations for these Democratic failings. But they're all based on the notion that Democrats are at some level stupid; that they lack the knowledge or expertise to practice politics effectively. This book takes a very different line: that the problems diagnosed above are not themselves the source of Democratic failings, but rather symptoms of a deeper problem: a lack of courage. It is not a crisis of competence that we face, but rather a crisis of confidence. It will be impossible to implement any of these solutions until Democrats gain the backbone to do so.

Let me explain: it's not so much that large numbers of Democrats suddenly swallowed the free market Kool-Aid and overnight started believing in Republican Voodoo economics; rather, they became afraid that voters would no longer support a populist economic agenda. It's not so much that Democrats lack the ability to communicate effectively or are ignorant of basic political psychology, but that they are afraid that using the hard-edged messages that work will turn off some small group or another. It's not so much that Democrats lack the smarts or tactical expertise to build an effective party infrastructure, but that they shy from deploying that infrastructure with the aggressive, confrontational spirit necessary to beat an opponent as ruthless as the modern Republican Party. And it's not so much that Democrats lack big ideas, but that they are afraid that actually articulating those big ideas will provoke big enemies.

Here is the basic problem of any politician who allows their rhetoric to be guided by their fears of failure. You can't spread the gospel if you're afraid to speak it. Until Democrats everywhere are willing to stand up and articulate progressive values, all the advice in the world about how to do it effectively won't be worth a Harold Ford campaign button. Democrats have got to be willing to speak their values even when they're down in the polls. As I discuss in the book, it's hard to win independent votes without projecting courage and it's hard to do the key work of engaging liberals in electoral politics without fighting hard for their values. But it's also impossible to create new progressives unless progressives and Democratic leaders articulate and defend progressive values. Indeed, the political history of the last decade is a history of Republicans taking unpopular positions and using their media machine and clear messaging to convince the American people to support them, or at least to make other issues a higher priority.

It's how they were able to build, over the space of two months, supermajority support for the war in Iraq. It's how they passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement over the opposition of more than 60 percent of the American people. It's how they were able to move the number of Americans favoring the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico from less than 15 percent to a majority as high as 80 percent at the key moment right before they voted on the fence (support has declined since then). Democrats and progressives have also shown an occasional ability to rally public opinion to their side like when they maintained public opposition to President Bush's Social Security privatization scheme.

That's the kind of effort required to beat back a bad proposal with powerful backing. But what about creating real long-term change in public opinion? 50 years of public opinion polling shows one thing -- almost all big shifts in public opinion on issues come slowly and in a similar way: when a determined group with a compelling message that doesn't much care about the polls say, says the same thing over and over and over again. And then says it again. This is true even on issues on which there have been the biggest national changes in sentiment. At no point did public opinion on civil rights undergo a sudden, dramatic shift -- despite titanic national showdowns like Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Instead, it changed slowly over time as civil rights advocates on all levels explained their positions in the media and in personal interactions. Between 1942 and 1985, for instance, the percentage of people favoring black and white students being allowed to attend the same schools rose from 31 percent to 93 percent, with an almost constant, uniform rate of change of 1.4 percent a year. To be sure, persuasion wasn't the only force at play -- the rising popularity of racial integration had a lot to do with old racists dying off. But as civil rights advocates became the dominant voice, young people coming of political age in the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's grew up in an environment in which legalized racism was increasingly unthinkable -- and so was electing its advocates.

That kind of courage is what's needed for Democrats who want to create not only a progressive future, but also a lasting Democratic majority. Every time Democrats stand up to polluters, to HMO's, and to banks, they're making the case for a politics where corporate interests and their Republican lackeys aren't the ones determining the fate of our nation. And if they do it for long enough, with enough confidence and a dash of spunk, they just might make a return to Republican rule as unthinkable as a return to Jim Crow.

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