Guest-blogging over at Ezra Klein’s site (mazal tov!), Dan Munz is suggesting the possibility of a Mfume v. Steele Maryland Senate race as a chance for Democrats to take on and shoot down the GOP argument that Democrats take Black voters for granted. I think Dan’s absolutely right that a concerted, rigorous response from the Democrats is long overdue. I’d say part of the problem, though, is that the Democratic party establishment does indeed take Black voters for granted, in much the same way it takes most chunks of the party’s base – union voters for example – for granted, and in a way the GOP simply doesn’t treat it’s own base. Wherever one comes down on the Katha Pollitt vs. Thomas Frank debate on whether or not evangelicals who vote Republican to erode reproductive choice get their money’s worth, the Republican party makes a serious, year-in and year-out campaign of selling itself to its base while the Democratic party more often treats its base like the weird uncle who always shows up drunk to Thanksgiving (the pundits who complain about how short-sighted the NAACP is for wanting Democrats to swing by when the NRA doesn’t ask the same of Republicans might spend their energies better considering why the parties’ records might leave NAACP members with more concerns about how loyal the candidates they vote for will be).

Granted, President Bush’s appeal to Black voters to better defend their interests by spreading their votes more evenly is pure condescending silliness (I’d like to see him apply the same logic to, say, Enron executives: “As long as you all keep voting for us, what incentive do we have to keep giving you those invisible handjobs?”). More fundamentally, of course, the problem with Bush’s case is the idea that Democrats brazenly push forward with liberal policies they know are bad for their Black constituents. The reality, unfortunately, is that Democrats tend not to do nearly enough brazenly pushing forward with much of anything. The problem isn’t that the Democrats are too far left; the problem (I know I know, I’m the guy with the hammer, and look – it’s another nail!) is that the Democrats are failing Black constituents, as well as White ones, by not offering a program or an approach that’s progressive enough. The Republicans are hard at work rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, while the Democrats, even when they had branches of government of work from, have shown precious little initiative in extending them. Republican national candidates have mastered the art of the coded appeal to racist voters, while Democratic candidates remain anxious about looking like they’re trying too hard to attract Black voters (or, god forbid, “dependent” on them).

What might an aggressive Civil Rights agenda look like? An aggressive push for comprehensive voting reform, including a constitutional individual right to vote, uniform standards for ballot access and machinery, paper trails, and abolition of felon voter disenfranchisement. An aggressive push to transform the crimminal justice system into one which takes seriously the equal protection rights of Americans of different races and classes and which rehabilitates rather than stigmatizing those who pass through it. An aggressive push for drastically increased investment in education at all levels. An aggressive push to raise the minimum wage and strengthen the right to organize. An aggressive push to strengthen anti-discrimination legislation. An aggressive push for universal health care. An aggressive push for real affordable housing. That would be a start. Some of these areas have attained greater prominence in the Democratic party’s agenda of late, to a lot of people’s credit; others are still waiting. As Dr. King observed not long before death, the reforms that will achieve real progress in Civil Rights will cost billions. All of these reforms are changes in which Americans of all races have a stake, and which could be achieved such that the great majority of Americans would benefit. And this summer in Florida, I had infinitely more conversations with African-Americans reluctant to register to vote because of the party’s silence or meekness on continuing the progressive work of the Civil Rights movement than because they wanted school vouchers or felt demeaned by affirmative action or were scared of gay people.

So yes, the Democrats need better answers to the Republicans’ cynical appeals to Black voters, and they need candidates who are better at articulating them. But any message which boils down to “No, Democrats don’t take [you/us] for granted, they care about [you/us] very much” is doomed to fail. What the Democrats need, as Al Sharpton put it several times during the Presidential debates, is candidates who can give the donkey the kick it needs (not something Sharpton accomplished a great deal at). And the most powerful kicks tend not to come from candidates at all. As much as Dan talks about a “traditional” relationship between Democrats and Black voters, the tradition is fundamentally one of tension and contestation, one which envelops both Jack Kennedy’s supportive call to Coretta Scott King and Bobby Kennedy’s call to John Lewis pleading him to cancel the freedom rides. As with so many other cases, the job facing the leaders of the Democratic party is as much about improving its record as defending it.

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A hearty welcome to a few friends and fellow bloggers who’ll be pooling their efforts over at the newly unveiled Bulldog Blue. Go over there, and see Dan highlight some rare candor from a congressional candidate, Alyssa take on media coverage on Iraq, and Matt consider whether Americans value political apologies less than the Brits.

Looking forward to discussing and debating with this gang in the future.

Spanish Prime Minister-Elect Zapatero Thursday announced his commitment to push for gay marriage and full gender equality in Spain. As Dan Munz sarcastically observes:

More separation between religion and the state, freedom for gays, and equality for women written right into the Constitution. Somewhere, Bin Laden is dancing and singing around his cave, using a hairbrush as a microphone.

I know it’s been said here and other places before, but if Bush was really opposed to giving Usama Bin Laden what he wants, Bush’s domestic agenda (as well as his international one) would look much more like Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s and a lot less like Jerry Falwell’s.

Turns out that, as I posted my thoughts, (scroll down) in the early hours of this morning, on why Nader would be wrong to run and why the Democrats would be wrong to respond to a Nader run by Sister-Souljah-ing the left, my classmate Dan Munz had, a mere forty minutes earlier, posted his (brilliantly titled) thoughts on why Nader would be wrong to run, and why the Democrats would be right to respond by Sister-Souljah-ing (his reference) the left. It’s a small shtetl after all, eh?

Dan and I disagree, like many registered Democrats who fall into this debate, on both a tactical level and an ideological one, and given that we apparently both lost sleep last night setting forth our visions for the party, I won’t rehash that debate except to say again that I believe the Clinton years and the Gingrich revolution are only the most recent demonstrations of the danger in seizing the center and the power of offering a choice rather than an echo. It’s not surprising, of course, that Dan and I are each largely convinced that a party more in line with our respective ideology would also be more effective at building a governing majority (that, of course, is part of the weakness of the “electability” discourse).

Dan is right, of course, that to argue that there’s no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is a weak straw-man argument, and one that hurt Nader’s case. I would add on the one hand that it’s an argument that’s particularly easy to make from a position of relative privilege, in which the comparatively progressive reforms that Clinton accomplish – the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Earned Income Tax Credit, more progressive NLRB nominees, and others – make relatively little impact on one’s life. I would add on the one hand, however, that relatively few of those who condemn the two-party consensus in America would argue that there is, in fact, no difference between the parties (some of course do for rhetorical effect).

Dan goes on, however, to make an equally unfounded claim: that there’s no difference between the Greens and the Democrats. While Dan’s right that Nader’s agenda is “certainly more in alignment with Democratic than Republican values,” that isn’t saying much. It’s hard for me to imagine many of the sixteen issues Nader lists as the core of his campaign as the centerpieces of a Kerry Presidential run. “Full public financing of public elections with the necessary, broad changes for a more fair and representative election process, replacing present charades?” “Universal health insurance — single payer embracing prevention, quality and cost controls”? “A redirected federal budget for the crucial priorities of our country and away from the massive waste, fraud and redundancy of what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex,” as well as the massive costs of corporate welfare”? Dan may not share these as priorities – or even as goals – but I think it’s disingenuous to argue that Nader doesn’t stand for anything the leadership of the Democratic party doesn’t.

Dan argues that “when I see an organization I don’t like, I try to join and persuade it to change. I don’t bail and get all distructive.” I’d argue that social change depends on having folks on the inside and the outside of institutions – be they the Democratic party or, say, the State Department. The system needs to be both kicked and dragged (I’ve tried to act this out with my arms and legs a few times, and I’m told it’s been amusing, if perhaps not enlightening). Dan argues that

These days, a lot of the major battles have been settled, and largely in Democrats’ favor. Both parties now admit we need civil rights, we need social security and other entitlement programs, we need better health care, we can’t be completely isolationist, &c.

To which I’d respond, along the lines I alluded to in my earlier post, that today neither party is proposing the kind of ambitious, radicial, structural change – in areas from public school funding to healthcare to the crippling effects of the drug war – demanded before we could really talk with a straight face about “starting gate equality” for Americans of color, and those who do find themselves labelled “race-baiting demagogues” and are candidates for the Sister Souljah treatment; that neither party is articulating reforms like raising the income ceiling on the payroll tax to make social security a more secure entitlement and a less regressive tax; that neither party is offering the kind of healthcare reform that has saved costs, saved lives, and saved millions from healthcare insecurity in most industrialized nations; and neither party has offered an comprehensive alternative to the use of unilateral military and economic power as American leadership in the global community. As Dan said, “One man’s homogeneity is another man’s consensus…”

Dan and I agree that Nader would be wrong to mount a 2004 Independent Campaign. And we agree that the way for the Democrats to respond to a Nader challenge would be to illustrate the real differences between them and the Republicans. The difference, maybe, is that I think to so compellingly would require more than just a shift in rhetoric.