< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: Principles

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Our first mission is to understand the core principles that we need to advance. Our second mission is to articulate those ideas in the most effective ways. Whether we Progressives think of ourselves as a party, as a political movement, or as a cultural force (and I think we must aspire towards being all of those things), we must identify at least some shared principles -- some "values," if you will -- that we believe in and that we are fighting to advance. Let's use Amendment Nine, at least in part, to spark a broad discussion about what those principles are and should be, and about how to fight for them most effectively. (Several days ago, I laid out one general theme in a post that seemed to be pretty well-received (http://amendmentnine.blogspot.com/2004/11/our-way-of-life.html))

But first off, Progressives need to spend some time making sure they comprehend the pragmatic political value of having clearly-defined core principles. I am not talking enforcing about ideological purity. I am perfectly prepared in appropriate situations to support and even defend some compromising of even core values in the short-term if it will advance our agenda in the long-term. What I am talking about is understanding the way people make decisions -- about which candidate to support, about which brand of computer to buy, about which store to shop at, or about which political party to line up with. They hardly ever make those decisions based on discrete, particular, issue positions -- e.g., whether you support or oppose stem-cell research. What they do base their decisions on is -- (a) what principles/ideas/"values" are evident from the things a candidate or party says and, more importantly, does, (b) how comfortable am I with having those type of people running things?

Think, for example, of the following principles: patriotism, support for the troops, law and order, respect for life, preserving our way of life. Which party comes to mind first? I, of course, would argue strongly that the Democratic party, and Democratic issue positions, advance each of those principles far better than the Republicans (obviously on terms different from those that the Republicans/Conservatives have been allowed to set). But does anyone doubt that a vast majority of Americans -- probably even many people who regularly vote Democratic -- would identify the Republican party most closely with that list of principles? Democrats will never become the majority party they rightfully should be in this country until more Americans associate the Democratic party with the principles I've listed (and I'd be interested to hear others weigh in on what other principles we're losing on when we should be winning).

By contrast, what principles come most readily to mind when you think of the Democratic party, of John Kerry, of John Edwards? Takes a little while to think of them, doesn't it? Issue positions (e.g., stem-cell research) come to mind far more easily than principles. And that is, paradoxically, with two people who are in my view two of the most principled and honorable people who have topped either party's ticket in a long long time. But we didn't run a principles campaign. Instead we ran a positions campaign. And it didn't work. And it never works. A clearly understood set of principles on one side, even if those principles are undercut (even to an outrageous degree, as happened this year) by the reality of what those people are doing with that power, has a huge advantage over a hodge-podge of positions and a difficult-to-discern set of core principles.

So my point for today is, being right on policy simply does not cut it. Having the issue positions that most people agree with just doesn't cut it. In order to get our message through, we have to link our policies together behind a core set of principles that are easily emotionally understandable. Having the right issue positions is good governance, which we certainly should aspire to as well, but we'll never get to put our good governing skills and policies to use unless and until we have a core set of principles that everyone -- everyone -- understands.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn right!

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo FedFarmer, this is good. I liked your earlier post too. You guys should get a new comment utility though.

7:15 PM  
Blogger FederalFarmer said...

We're working on it and I think it'll be up soon (although I'm not the techie in the group).

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good points FF, but two questions:

1. Americans disagree sharply about fundamental principles. So how do you paint a broad vision without looking like your shoving controversial ideas down people's throats?

2. Is the center-left/Democratic coalition too diverse in its fundamental principles to be brought together behind a core set of ideas that's powerful enough to move anybody?

10:16 AM  
Blogger FederalFarmer said...

Excellent questions. On #1, the answer is simple. It takes vision, and leadership. Just because it's hard doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, or that we don't have to do it. A similar argument has been going on for the last few decades in social philosophy between the latter-day "liberals," such as John Rawls, who think the best you can hope for is some kind of "overlapping consensus" of core principles that individuals hold, and the more communitarian-minded folks like Walzer or Sandel who think you actually can fashion some kind of coherent set of common beliefs even in a pluralistic society.

Regardless of the philosophical ins-and-outs, however, my point is that it is just simply ineffective politics not to have a clear set of core principles. The power of clearly stated core principles (think of it as a "brand identity" if you want, but disregard the crass connotation that has to some) totally overwhelms a hodge-podge of issue positions linked together by nothing but a "to each his own" approach to core principles.

11:01 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home