The legendary humorist Will Rogers once said, "I'm not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat."
He said this in 1935.
That has been the history of Democrats. Democrats do eat their young. By contrast, Republicans tend to live by what Ronald Reagan referred to as the GOP's 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Criticize No Other Republican. Indeed, both statements speak to the heart of each party.
And it all points to what we have seen swirling around today in the health care debate, and more. But we'll get to that in a moment. First, let's step back a moment.
At its most basic, liberalism (which is the core of the Democratic Party) is about challenging standards to improve conditions for the future. As such, there are few sacred cows. When something isn't supportable, you criticize it. You challenge the normal standards when those norms are harmful. You don't blindly accept My Country, Right or Wrong. If your country is wrong, you make it right.
It is this attitude which sometimes gets Democrats sniping at themselves to their detriment, but it is an attitude which far more often brings about a vibrancy of thought and a richness of action.
It's what looked at working conditions and changed child labor laws and created a 40-hour work week. It's what looked at a failed banking system and created the FDIC. It passed the Civil Rights Bill and created Social Security and Medicare. When dire conditions in the rural South were "the way things are," it fought to bring electricity through the TVA. It battled for equal rights of women, voting rights for minorities. And all of these advances -- which all went against normal conventional standards -- have become entrenched parts of the American Life, none of which the nation would readily give up.
This required a philosophy that at times is confrontational among even themselves to bring about such advances. But it is a philosophy that has moved the country forward.
It is also a philosophy that allows the Democratic Party to be made up of a wide panoply of beliefs. That's why there are liberal Democrats, moderate Democrats, even conservative Democrats. And so they disagree. And sometimes fight.
By contrast, that Republican philosophy against criticism within the party, while seeming solid, is far more problematic. The reality is that this is really less a Republican attitude than a conservative one.
At its most basic, conservatism is about protecting what was good and strong about the past. And that's a respectable, responsible belief. The problem is that it ignores reality. Life doesn't regress to the past. It is always pushing forward to the future. Always. So, while having conservative beliefs as part of one's political philosophy is healthy - having them as one's total philosophy becomes isolating and limiting.
We see this in the Republican Party over the past 30 years or so, which has dismissed views other than conservative. This wasn't always the Republican Party. Its founding father Abraham Lincoln would be out-of-place into today's GOP. Same for Theodore Roosevelt. And Dwight Eisenhower. Time was when the Republican Party had its share of other voices. That time is long gone.
And so we see the Republican Party circling the wagons with one voice, one mind, one lock-step position in obedient unanimity. You regularly see "Zero" in the Republican column of votes. It is an attitude that gives up the right of the intellectual thought process for the paternal guidance of A Leader. Tell us what to think, tell us what to say, tell us what to do. Such an attitude is dangerous under the best of conditions. When that leader is a George W. Bush, it brings about an Iraq War, collapsed economy, a national debt of $12 trillion, and dismissing the U.S. Constitution as "just a goddamned piece of paper."
Which brings us to today.
Unlike Republicans, Democrats will challenge anyone when conditions aren't right, even when that "anyone" is their own party leader.
For all the improvements, Barack Obama has still not been everything every Democrat has hoped for. He's only been in office 11 months, but that's no defense for a Democrat. The job is to do right, and if you're disappointing in some things, you will get criticized until you do all of it right.
In many ways, this is infuriating -- because given the horrific problems left behind by the previous administration, President Obama has done impressively in a great many ways. In less than a year, he stabilized the economy, banned torture, released the torture memos, begun withdrawing troops from Iraq, signed the eventual closing of Gitmo, allowed stem cell research, acknowledged climate change, reversed the ban on funding overseas family planning clinics, returned the U.S. back as a world partner, and much more. And make no mistake, bringing the first-ever healthcare bill to near reality is a major accomplishment, whatever its flaws. (Remember: the first Civil Rights Bill was watered down to a flawed voting rights act).
But in many ways the sniping from Democrats is wonderful -- because there have been disappointments, and the totally valid criticism to push President Obama to do better is not only what the Democratic Party is about...but it is the sort of thing that will get him to do even better. As it would get anyone to do better.
And so, amid all the praise and Nobel Prize, as we see news stories of Democrats criticizing President Obama for not doing enough, I gnash my teeth -- and smile. Because it means all's right with the world. As we head into 2010, Democrats have gotten their soul back, lost for eight years under the fear perpetrated on America. And when Democrats criticize - even themselves -- it means problems are being addressed, and not safely dusted away into a protective bin.
Democrats screw up on occasion. Republicans sometimes do things wonderfully. But when we challenge what is wrong, America prospers.
Here's to a prosperous 2010. Happy New Year.