Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party

If you want to understand why Democrats often pursue a timid, fear-based strategy in their attempts to get elected, Glenn Hurowitz’ Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party is an excellent starting point. From the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council to the early months of the 2008 Democratic Presidential primary season, Hurowitz gives a detailed look at the shortcomings of the typical Democratic strategy of playing a game stacked against them, the politics of fear.

In the preface, Hurowitz explains the frustrations he encountered while working for various state and national environmental organizations. It soon became clear that the main obstacle preventing Democrats from voting their conscience was fear.

When Democrats voted against us, it was rare to hear them say they disagreed with us on the merits. Instead, they’d tell us they were afraid: afraid that their constituents wouldn’t support a pro-environment position; afraid of defying President Bush and the Republican noise machine; or they’d even admit they were afraid of angering this or that corporate lobby and losing campaign contributions to the Republicans.

Hurowitz goes on to explain nearly all electoral problems faced by Democrats as symptoms of a deeper problem: a severe lack of courage.

In the chapters that follow he takes many Democratic standard-bearers to task, excoriating them for their lack of convictions. He explains how having the courage to take a principled stand against Republicans would have not only been the right thing to do, but also would have lead to greater success at the ballot box. This theme, the central idea of his book, is shown from the another perspective as well. By profiling a politician and an organization, Paul Wellstone and Move On, who did tend to display political courage, Hurowitz shows that there is hope for the Democratic party after all, if only they’d stop being so afraid.

Among those taken to task for falling into the trap of the politics of fear, few key figures in the Democratic party are left unexamined. There are sections devoted to Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The heap of his critique, however, is aimed at Bill Clinton.

The chapter on President Clinton, which is particularly brutal, describes him as the gutless wonder. Here is an excerpt:

Even evaluated on his own terms, his accomodationist strategy was a disaster. His constant shifts and capitulations played right into the Republican caricature of him: that he would do anything to get elected. It was a portrait that damaged him inordinately on independent voters’ critical judgement of whether or not he was a strong leader.

Of former Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Hurowitz concludes, “He looked craven, he looked cowardly, and in the end, he just looked ridiculous.”

Want further evidence of the salience of Hurowitz’ argument? Look no further than the March special election in IL-14, in which Democrat Bill Foster won in a very red seat by being bold and courageous. Further evidence of the fact that Hurowitz’ point was ahead of the curve is demonstrated by the fact that Matthew Yglesias and Eric Alterman both released books after Hurowitz which touch on similar arguments about the electoral strategy Democrats often pursue.

If you haven’t yet, the time has come to read Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party. It is likely to change the way you look at both electoral politics, and the Democratic party.

You can read more about the book at the official website, http://www.dcourage.com.

5 replies »

  1. Has anyone ever been in a relationship with or had a parent who was a rageaholic? If you don’t have the stomach for conflict, your whole life is dedicated to tiptoeing around and letting the sleeping dog lie (at those rare moments when it’s actually sleeping).

    It takes a monumental act of courage to stand up to that person once, never mind on a repeated basis. Nevertheless, failing to is cowardice. Thanks, Josh.

    Jamie: Even though you send the same message to a variety of blogs, thanks. Your site’s impressive, too. Like the way you’re not afraid to tackle the big subjects.

  2. It’s nice to have some systematic treatment of what I think a lot of us have been saying for awhile. Americans have a hard time voting for gutless, regardless of the issues, because we hate – HATE – any suggestion of weakness. Dems, oddly, seem not to get this all too often.

  3. I covered politics in the ’70s and ’80s. Back then (well, at least until the early ’80s), Democrats had backbone. Thanks for the review, Josh.

  4. It sounds like an interesting read. I think that Hurowitz comes down on Clinton so hard because if he didn’t make the mold for the Democrats being so spineless, he certainly wasn’t a calcium supplement.

    The question is, will anyone stand up and put an end to the Battered Spouse Syndrome Party? Some of us stopped believing that the black eyes are all the result of walking into doors like it’s a compulsive habit a long time ago.

    You guys do have a great template/format…