Thursday, 5 June 2008

What Hope Means

I've been meaning to try and pin down in words just why it is that I see the strong generational divide between Democrats as being not just demographic but ideological - and why I think it is a good thing. Matthew Yglesias puts it very well in this post when he writes:

It's a fundamentally bold, hopeful brand of politics. And I think it's no coincidence that that theme's been at the center of his campaign. Relative to Clinton, you see two people with similar policy agendas. But Clinton comes from a school of politics that says liberalism can't really win on the questions of war and peace, identity and authenticity, crime and punishment. It says that we live in a fundamentally conservative nation, and that the savvy progressive politician kind of burrows in and tries to make the best of a bad situation. It's an attitude very much borne of the brutally difficult experience of organizing for McGovern in Texas and running for governor in Arkansas at the height of Reaganism. Relative to McCain, Obama thinks it's possible to accomplish things in the world. He thinks the United States faces a lot of serious international challenges, but doesn't see them as primarily driven by menacing and implacable foes. Obama thinks that a combination of visionary leadership and shrewd bargaining can greatly improve our ability to tackle key priorities without any great expenditure of our resources.

All in all, the pessimist in me sees it as an approach to politics designed to set us up for a hard fall when it fails. But in a deeper sense I find it incredibly appealing. To me, it's incredibly frustrating to hear that ideas "can't be done" not because they won't work, but because people know -- just know -- that they're not politically possible, even though they're things that have never been tried. I think almost every worthwhile accomplishment of progressive governance -- from the UN and NATO and the NPT to Medicare and Medicaid and Title I school aid to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to the ongoing feminist revolution that's completely transformed American society in a generation and a half with no sign of slowing down -- is the kind of thing that before it happened, a lot of people would have said that it couldn't happen. And of course sometimes the pessimists are right, but unless you sometimes assume they're wrong then nothing's ever going to happen.

Essentially, the Party need people who can say "hang on a minute, sometimes these big ideas don't pay off, be sensible and focus on what you can get done," but they ALSO need the idealists who say, "I will keep pushing for what I believe in no matter what." Ultimately politics is always a difficult balance between these two forces, but I think Democrats recently have been in danger of worshipping at the altar of pragmatism as, ironically, it's been the Republicans who have been willing to go hell for leather to push their (very bad) ideas. I'd be happy to see that change, partly because I think that's what America is looking for right now - real leadership.

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