The Role of Political Parties

I almost never agree with David Frum (former speech-writer for George W. Bush) on policies. But ever since he wrote in 2010 that Obamacare was likely to become the Republican Waterloo, he has often been right in diagnosing what is wrong with our political process. As an example, here’s what he said back then:

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination…If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

You’ll not find a more prescient analysis of what led to the presidential nomination of television personality Donald Trump than that.

In response to George Will’s announcement that he is leaving the Republican Party, Frum has written an equally prescient analysis of the role of political parties. As is always the case, when he veers into policy, I find myself disagreeing. But this part is spot on.

But politics in a democracy is inherently a team sport, and parties are the most important of the teams in the game. Team sports never offer the option of playing alongside only people you like. To effect sustained political change, you have to build broad coalitions. Tea Party Republicans invested great energy in the first Obama term trying to drive out of the party all who dissented from their extremist minority program. They largely succeeded. They built just what they wanted: an extremist minority party. Their hope—and Paul Ryan was very much a proponent of this fantasy—was that they could mobilize a majority coalition for a minority program. To their surprise (but nobody else’s), they have failed. The mission ahead for conservative Americans is to open up their closed ideology enough to attract a majority that agrees on some things, but not on everything. Governing parties can never be doctrinaire parties…

Elsewhere in this article Frum makes a distinction between politicians and activists.

Such intellectual movements can change the world, as the environmentalists have done, and the gay rights movement, and gun advocates. Libertarians have won arguments in the past (deregulation of transportation), and they may win arguments in the future (marijuana legalization). But while such movements can shape and bend politics, they cannot form it, because they are inspired by a unitary ideological doctrine and most human beings are not. True parties must be run by politicians, and politicians must make concessions to the refractory and contradictory demands of non-ideological voters.

That reminded me of the distinction Bernice Johnson Reagon made back in 1981 about the difference between “home” and “coalition.” Here is how she described the role of home:

Now every once in awhile there is a need for people to try to clean out corners and bar the doors and check everybody who comes in the door, and check what they carry in and say, “Humph, inside this place the only thing we are going to deal with is X or Y or Z.” And so only the X’s or Y’s or Z’s get to come in…

But that space while it lasts should be a nurturing space where you sift out what people are saying about you and decide who you really are. And you take the time to try to construct within yourself and within your community who you would be if you were running society…

I mean it’s nurturing, but it is also nationalism. At a certain stage nationalism is crucial to a people if you are going to ever impact as a group in your own interest. Nationalism at another point becomes reactionary because it is totally inadequate for surviving in the world with many peoples.

It’s interesting to think about where we’re seeing that kind of nationalism try to take root in our political parties today. Here is how Reagon described coalitions:

Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home!…In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home…

It is very important not to confuse them—home and coalition.

I agree with Frum and Reagon that both home and coalition (activists and political parties) are important – the key is in knowing the difference and not confusing the two.

The one thing I would add is that, with the death of normal (as David Simon described it), women and people of color tend to have a more acute sense of the difference between home and coalition. Living in a culture of white patriarchy, they have never had the experience of conflating the two. Here is how President Obama described that to the young African American men who were graduating from Morehouse.

As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share…

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers…

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table.

What the President is describing is the work of building coalitions.

This is not to say that white men don’t understand the difference. David Frum – a Republican! – certainly does. It’s just that doing so requires empathy – or an expansion of our moral imagination.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .