Author's note: This is the third entry in a three part series on the major party players in the 2012 presidential election. For the whole series, you can also read The Irony of the Tea Party here, and Is the GOP Losing Faith? Now for one evangelical Christian's take on the Democratic Party.
"Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up." That's the sort of thing you learn while growing up in small Kansas town. Robert Frost is reported to have written this sentence, but I like to think he cribbed it from a Midwest-hayseed at some point; after all, Frost did die on Kansas Day in 1963. "Don't make love by the garden gate. Love is blind but the neighbors ain't," is another helpful dictum. I don't think Frost wrote that one, but I digress.
The Democratic Party would do well to remember fancy sayings like these -- the one about fences mostly, but either one would do. Progress is important. Societies need to change and grow and this means some fences will have to be torn down to make way for what's next. Yet, not all fences should be targeted for removal. Liberals and conservatives will always fight over which fences should stay and which should go, and you know what? Maybe that is OK.
The root of liberal is the word "liberate." Some people are simply liberators; it's in their blood. The root of conservative is "conserve." Some people are conservers; it's just who they are. Any healthy society will make room for both kinds of people. We need liberators who say "yes" before the rest of us are ready to, thereby helping us tear down the fences which bar the way to a just society. We need conservers who say "wait a minute" and force us to think about our history and our actions before we make a mess out of things by chasing progress for the sake of progress.
Progressives have played an important role in the formation of our society. Yet, all progress doesn't involve tearing down fences, nor is a fence-less society something we should desire. Sometimes the path to progress will involve listening to the conservers as they remind us why certain fences are in place.
One of the fathers of the progressive movement, Walter Rauschenbusch, was not all about tearing down fences in order to satisfy every human appetite. He pursued the noble vision of a just and virtuous society. He was decried as a socialist or communist, especially by the conservers of his day. Yet nearly everything Rauschenbusch championed so long ago has become a normal part of our political and economic life: parcel post, public parks and recreation, public transportation, municipal housing programs, social security, occupational safety standards, progressive inheritance taxes, child labor laws, the right to organize labor and so on. His view of progress wasn't just about liberating, but the right ordering of a just society.
The glaring issue that faces the Democratic Party today is that they've put party before progress. They've forgotten that we will always need conservers in order to make progress and live to tell about it. Sometimes I think the difference between a progressive and a Democrat is that a progressive wants to press forward toward a just society; a Democrat just wants to beat the Republicans. Democrats have forgotten that the enemy is not the conservatives, the enemy is injustice itself. This most certainly cuts both ways. Republicans have done their best to make "progress" a dirty word. Not only that, the laissez faire capitalists need to remember that common sense regulation of commerce is essential to stave of the new and growing crop of robber barons. Conservatives can just as easily turn into regulation-cutting fence-busters.
Of all the critiques which one can levy against President Obama, we can't legitimately say he is unwilling to compromise. He takes as much heat from his own party on this as he does from Republicans. However, the Democratic Party itself no longer seems to appreciate the role of the conserver. Granted, contemporary conservatism can be shrill, but the value of preservation, the appreciation of historical perspective and the importance of setting up boundaries is essential to progress. We cannot expect a society to last when it is ruled by unlimited desire and the satiation of very appetite. Limits are a healthy thing. The conservers bring to the table a sensibility which the liberators must learn how to recognize.
As a Christian who grew up in the rural Midwest, I sometimes feel as though I'm a progressive trapped in the body of a conserver. I desire to see progress, and not just for rich white people. I am willing to work for social and economic justice. I want to see immigration reform, to defend against wealth concentrating in the hands of the rich while the poor suffer and the middle class continues to shrink. I find myself sympathetic to much of what the Democratic Party is doing, yet they can make it really hard for a natural-born-conserver to be a part of the conversation.
Here are three areas in which the Democrats need the conservers:
Size of Government
By any assessment, the growth of the federal government over the past century is staggering. As conservative Bill Kristol noted recently in The Weekly Standard, the problem concerns not only big government, but also big labor and big business -- all of them have grown beyond any sustainable level. We need to erect some new fences in order to reign in the expansion.
Recognizing Natural Limits
We can't have everything we want, whenever we want it. We can't cut taxes and increase spending. To become a more virtuous people we have to learn how to say "no" to some things and not be afraid this makes us closed minded or bigoted.
Democrats need to work to accept more nuanced views on abortion and find a way to bring moderates back into the discussion on reproductive rights. A huge number of voters are up for grabs for whichever party will begin to allow those who are not in favor of abortion without limits to talk about common sense ways to reduce the number of abortions without swelling every conversation toward one absolutist position or the other.