Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Racing to the Common Good (Blair’s Lessons, part II)

I wrote last time about how Tony Blair reformed the Labour Party before using it to take power. Today I want to go a little deeper into why the party needed to change, and what lessons our parties can learn from Blair’s example. To briefly recap, Blair called for a reexamination of the party platform:
In my view, we needed a complete, top-to-bottom reorientation of our programme and policies. In particular, we needed to separate conceptually a commitment to our values (timeless) from their application (time-bound).
I think there is a direct parallel to our politics today. Both parties need to undergo the transition that Blair pushed Labour through. Labour was largely irrelevant because its ground had shifted out from under it. This was typified by its reliance on union support. But the unions themselves had become stagnant.
[A]ll progressive movements have to beware their own successes. The progress they make reinvents the society they work in, and they must in turn reinvent themselves to keep up, otherwise they become hollow echoes from a once loud, strong voice, reverberating still, but to little effect. As their consequence diminishes, so their dwindling adherents become ever more shrill and strident, more solicitous of protecting their own shrinking space rather than understanding that the voice of the times has moved on and they must listen before speaking. It happens in all organizations. It is fatal to those who are never confronted by a reckoning that forces them to face up and get wise.
What struck me particularly about this was that the stagnation was a result of success, not failure. The success—in his case increased worker rights—created a new world in which calling for increased worker rights was no longer as important. Political success removes issues from campaign platforms.

Both of our parties need to take this to heart. For the left, there is no war on women or campaign to ban contraception. For the right, the fall of the Berlin wall did largely mean the end of communism and homeschooling is legal and mainstream. While those victories need to be celebrated, and the ground should be protected, pretending as if they have not been won makes both parties sound, well, “shrill and strident, more solicitous of protecting their own shrinking space rather than understanding that the voice of the times has moved on.”

I suspect that this country is ripe for either of the two parties to make this transition; to address the problems of today rather than continuing to fight the battles of yesterday. The nation is closely divided not because both parties offer such compelling alternatives but because neither party does. So I predict that whichever party can pull off this adjustment first will be the party of power over the next several elections. Roosevelt did it for the Democrats; Reagan did it for the Republicans. But it is a lot of work.

It means overcoming the pull of backwards special interests. True leadership, to return to Blair one last time, “is whether, in the final analysis, you put the country first. I don’t mean that you do something people agree with or even what is objectively right, if there is such a thing in politics. I mean that you are, ultimately, prepared to put what you perceive to be the common good of the nation before your own political test. Very few leaders pass it.”

To pursue the common good first requires an assessment of where we are and what today’s challenges are. Yesterday’s common good is not today’s, and today’s is not tomorrow’s. Our principles remain, but their application changes because society changes.

So I ask you. What are some of the successes that our parties need to recognize to better pursue the common good?

Also in this series:
Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)
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