Friday, February 23, 2007

What Is A 'Strong-Party" Democrat?

If you read my posts here or on other forums you know that I often refer to myself as a "strong-party" Democrat. What does that mean? And why is it important?

Simply put, strong-party refers to a political philosophy or model based on the belief that you generally get more votes by clearly differentiating yourself from your opponents through taking strong stands on values and issues. This motivates and brings out your base, attracts independents who prefer strong leaders, and advances your political agenda, although at the risk of driving away voters who don't agree with you.

The opposite of the strong-party model is the cautious-party model, which is the dominant model in the Democratic Party today (although that's starting to change). This model holds that the path to political success is to blur the distinction between you and your opponents by taking vague general positions and avoiding controversial issues. The goal is to get as many votes as possible by not offending anyone. The main drawback is that you tend to be seen as weak, so it's hard to motivate your base and you lose independent voters who value leadership above ideology. It also makes it harder to advance your political agenda, and increases the risk of a third-party challenge.

Notice that all this has nothing to do with ideology. It isn't about left verses right, but rather two very different strategies for political success. John Kerry is a cautious-party liberal, and Joe Lieberman is a cautious-party moderate. Dennis Kucinich is a strong-party liberal, and Howard Dean is a strong-party moderate.

Despite the fact that I'm a liberal who is often at odds with moderates, I believe that the real fight within the Democratic Party is philosophical, not ideological. What is generally perceived as a left/right division is actually a fight over fundamentally differing views of what the Democratic Party is, and what we must do in order to succeed.

There are valid historical reasons why the Democratic Party is dominated by cautious-party politicians and leaders, but politics in the US has fundamentally changed over the last thirty years, and we as a party haven't kept up. It's time to have this debate and start moving our party forward.


proletariat said...


Here is where your reasoning does not hold up for me. There are issues where Dems do take clear distinctive positions such as gay marriage and stem cells. One could fairly argue those positions are calculated and seem as winnable issues.

I would argue it is much less of a tactical weak or strong position on values and more about what particular values one is talking about. Neo Democrats are perfectly willing to take strong stances on cultural issues they identify with such as stem cells, abortion, and gay marriage but less so on economic ones.

This is of course a struggle for "true" progressives (everyone is one today) who tend to agree with Dems on cultural issues but have a fire in the belly over economic issues. Just like how the Cons bring in the righties with cultural issues, the same holds true for the Dems with progressives.

Russell Wallace said...

Hi Proletariat, I think you may have partially missed my point. I'm talking simplified models, not particular behaviors. Nothing is ever black and white, and I recognize that the Democratic Party contains a wide range of people acting in a wide range of ways.

But the dominant culture within the Democratic Party is one that encourages the inherent conservatism of the cautious-party model, and discourages the risk taking necessary to adopt the strong-party model. Witness how Howard Dean was regarded by the party establishment. Success is always a balance between risk and caution, but where you start on that continuum has a big effect on how you act and where you end up.

Anonymous said...

"A Kiddie" Hi russell. :)

proletariat said...

I tend to agree with you. Even the cultural issues where they take a stand are ones where little is expected of them or government (stem cells, gay marriage).

But... there is still the question of what base, what values? The Clinton Compromise which is the father of the politics you're critiquing deliberately took worker / class issues off the table. Is this the base? What about those upper middle class liberals who are comfortable economically but are concerned about the cultural issues of the day. Is that the base you're referring too. The Clinton Compromise was nothing but replacing the proletariat with the capitalist as the agent of society. Akin to what Siroto calls the money party.

My point here if you're part of the money class the Dems have not necessarily been a weak party. If you're base is the upper middle not much is expected except talking civil rights, gay marriage, abortion every now and them (dubbed some might say). Talk Liberal Serve Corporate Masters. Yet, if your base is the proletariat, people, workers etc it is quite a different picture.

You see strong / weak as philosophical, not ideological, I see both very much into play. The weak model that we see today is a direct result of the ideological move of the abandonment of class in the Clinton years. It was not the Neo Democrat cautious message that got Tester, Brown, and Sanders in the Senate but the old gospel of economic justice.

I don't think being a strong or weak 'party member' is all an issue of tactics. You got feel it in the fire of the belly. The Sander's and Brown's of the would certainly do, the Kerry's and Gore's certainly don't. Its not just philosophy but something much deeper.

borges said...

I like that...Fire in the belly Democrat. Stronger than strong.