“The best lack all conviction,” Yeats might well have written for today, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” That passionate intensity, always so near the crusader’s soul, is a far different thing from genuine conviction rooted in principle, history, and moral purpose. Though there is often a fine line between them, in that difference rests the integrity of a democratic republic.
Like pride, conviction is one of those rare qualities resisting excess. It is possible to have either too much or too little of both. In the mind of the dictator, too much conviction is the source of tyranny. In the mind of the democrat, too little conviction is the source of drift and calculation.
Courage may be defined as a beneficent act against self-interest—risking one’s life for another; risking one’s career for a principle; taking an unpopular stand, particularly against powerful interests; saying what needs to be said when others remain silent. It means standing for something larger than oneself and one’s own interests. America’s founders complimented those who were “disinterested.” Then, the disinterested citizen was one who placed the common good, the collective interest, above his or her own interest. Today we confuse being disinterested with being uninterested.
In the political arena the enemies of courage are calculation and careerism. The warmest friend of courage is conviction based on principle. Conviction requires a moral base and compass, for the world’s worst scoundrels often proclaim the strongest conviction.
This is a meditation, perhaps a long essay, a series of connected short essays, or even a sermon, on the themes of courage and conviction, especially as they are required now for a twenty-first-century Democratic Party renaissance. In the fall of 2005, I was shocked to be told by a Democratic United States senator that the Democratic caucus in the Senate was going to take up the question “What do we stand for?” In the Senate of the 1970s, in which I served, such a question would never have occurred to us. We all knew what we stood for, and there was remarkable unanimity on many issues.
What has happened? Why do people in small towns, in large cities, and on college campuses ask, “What do the Democrats stand for? Why are the party leaders so quiet?” These questions have become more frequent and more intense as the war in Iraq drags on into its fourth year with no resolution in sight and no definition by President George W. Bush of the “course” we are to “stay.” Yet Democratic leaders, including most of those preparing to seek the presidency in 2008, and especially those who voted for the war resolution in October 2002, find protection and anonymity in silence.
What do we stand for, indeed? It has become painfully apparent that the great Democratic Party, the dominant party of the twentieth century, the party that led America through two world wars and much of the Cold War, has become mute. The best Democrats lack all conviction, or at least all courage to state what those convictions are, while the worst conservatives, those full of passionate intensity, fill the vacuum in governance.
This book seeks to explore when, where, why, and how the Democratic Party lost its way—and its courage. But it also proposes a manifesto for the future, a manifesto constructed of the best of our twentieth-century heritage, a manifesto based upon the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Without that heritage and legacy there would have been no Carter or Clinton presidencies. And without that heritage and legacy there will be no Democratic presidencies or Congresses anytime soon.
Finally, I challenge all in my party, the Democratic Party, who dispute the manifesto proposed here, or the roots from which it springs, to state as specifically and concretely as possible what they believe the Democratic Party stands for and why they believe it deserves to lead our nation once again.
The purpose here is not to propound a declaration but rather to stimulate debate and reflection. At its best the Democratic presidential nomination process leading to the national election in 2008 can and should be a debate over the party’s core beliefs and purposes. If the next presidential race devolves, as it traditionally does, into a mere contest for money, interest group endorsements, transient poll numbers, media advisers, press courtship, and commercial television advertising, then it will excite no broader interest than among full-time political activists, and it will leave the American people still in grave doubt over who the Democrats really are.
But if the 2008 contest for party leadership should become the occasion for a serious discussion about the Democratic Party’s core beliefs and principles, and the policies those principles dictate, then it will be the occasion for restoration of the party and the proof of our qualification for national leadership.
Political parties must continually justify their existence. They do so not merely by the policies they propose but more significantly by the principles they stand for. It is not an easy thing for the Democratic Party, a coalition political party, to identify and coalesce around agreed principles. But once it forces itself through the difficult process of self-examination and self-definition, it is in much better condition to present itself to the public at large as the institution prepared to guide the nation forward.
That self-definition has not taken place since the end of the New Deal era in the late 1960s. Indeed, if anything, the Democratic Party has become more diffuse, more ill-defined, and more confusing to the American people.
In an age of ego, celebrity, and personality, there has been an overpowering search for a leader on a white horse, an exciting new candidate who will lead the Democratic Party out of the wilderness. This search has become a substitute for thought, for purpose, for conviction. Twenty-first-century Democrats cling to the hope of a messiah in the vacant centrist venue where messiahs never appear.
Instead, the Democratic Party must decide what its core principles are and then, and only then, decide which national leader or leaders best embody those principles. No politician can save a political party that does not know what it stands for.
It is well beyond the scope of this book to propose detailed domestic and foreign policies. The author’s efforts to provide policy “beef,” for those who appreciate the reference, are contained in a number of previous works.* This present effort is directed rather at reconstituting a governing manifesto from the rich Democratic heritage and culture of the previous century and seeking to apply its principles to the new realities of the twenty-first century, a century of international integration, failed states, information tsunamis, and urban warfare.
This base of Democratic conviction must be the foundation for the courageous promotion of a renewed internationalism founded on new international institutions and alliances, the restoration of principles of equality and social justice at home, and the reminder essential to all republics that we must earn our rights by performance of our duties.
It is our duty to our nation to prove that the best have not lost all conviction.
Copyright © 2006 by Gary Hart