The Democrats Forget How to Play Politics


They continue to blindly romanticize their commitment to truth, which may contribute to their fall from power

Lamenting the fact-free illogic of Republican extremists that's driven the debt ceiling talks, among other domestic debates, (and run over a passive president) Democrats take sorrowful pride in relying on reason: The trouble is, we focus on policy, Democratic leaders routinely confide in their supporters, while Republicans focus on politics; we care about the country, while they care about regaining power.

Your opinion about the merits of this perspective will likely reflect your own political allegiances, but, for now, for the sake of argument, imagine that it's at least partly true and consider its consequences for Democrats. If their self-assessment is accurate, then Democrats suffer from what George Soros calls the "enlightenment fallacy," a "lingering attachment to the pursuit of truth" and the belief that democratic discourse aims for "a better understanding of reality." Republican operatives "knew better ... Karl Rove reportedly claimed that he didn't have to study reality; he could create it."

The temptation to boast of their presumed commitment to truth is hard to resist, but the pride Democrats take in it hastens their fall. Clinging to a belief in their superiority as reasonable beings, Democrats risk romanticizing their political ineptness and advancing their own irrelevance, until the policy goals of this stubbornly reality-based community are as divorced from reality as Michele Bachmann's understanding of history. Winning, after all, is everything.

Besides, Democrats flatter themselves when they attribute their political weaknesses to their intellectual strengths and blame the Republican Party's manipulative irrationalism for the nation's economic and existential decline. If the Bush Administration drove the country into a ditch, too many Democrats went along for the ride--and not in pursuit of the truth. Out of cowardice or blind conviction, they helped establish (and continue to extend) the costly and repressive national surveillance state, authorized the Iraq war, and voted for or enabled the Bush tax cuts.

Of course some liberals and civil libertarians stood in opposition, and today some are deeply frustrated by what is commonly regarded as the President's failure to harness public opinion and lead on the economy (while he expands executive power and conducts an arguably illegal war). Serious Democrats are seriously worried about the long-term effects of a short-term deficit deal that, notwithstanding his new-found combativeness, Obama may feel forced to cut with Republicans. But, as a party, Democrats handed Republicans the guns with which they now hold the economy hostage.

It's too soon to tell if or how far Republicans will advance in 2012, but at the moment Democrats seem more likely to regain the House than to hold the Senate. And it's not too soon to predict that if they do lose the Senate, Democrats will prove a relatively accommodating minority: Like victims of Stockholm syndrome, they will fail at effectively obstructing the Republican agenda, and the consequences will be nothing to brag about.

Image: REUTERS/Jim Young


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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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