On Intolerance And Authoritarianism: The Future Of The Democratic Party

Years ago, a Luxembourgese architect and urban design theorist named Leon Krier came on the scene. He was a firebrand. He felt that mainstream architects didn’t understand the nature of cities and were destroying cities all over the world through their naiveté. He actually told architects at his lectures that they would burn in hell for what they were doing to cities.

I saw Krier lecture again, perhaps fifteen years after his worst firebrand period. He had matured considerably. Instead of self-righteously telling other architects that he held the keys to the only truth, he shifted from his binary world view and asked only that he be allowed to build as he chose. If there was value in his point of view, his work would demonstrate that value, thereby convincing some architects of the worth of his ideas. Essentially, Krier moved from an authoritarian attitude toward truth, to an attitude that respected other architects’ freedom to make their own choices.

I was very similar to Krier when I was a young man. I was passionate about my version of the truth and assumed that the older architects, who didn’t approach architecture the way I did, were hacks. Over the years, I got to know a number of those older architects and found out how wrong I had been. Those architects were just as committed to great architecture as I was and the issues they emphasized were often issues I didn’t understand well.

I see a similar dynamic to my younger hot headedness among some younger voices within the Democratic Party. There is a faction within the party that is pushing for greater ideological purity and demanding that the party move farther left. This movement condemns and vilifies Democrats who are either more moderate than the ideological ideal or more willing to move incrementally toward the ideal than they are. The movement is also beginning to emphasize ideological litmus tests, single payer health care, for instance, to establish who should be considered an acceptable Democratic candidate.

I’m writing this essay because, in the opinion of this 63 year old progressive, forcing the Democratic Party farther left and exclusively left is a short sighted mistake that has the potential to be as destructive to the Democratic Party as the Tea Party movement has been to the Republican Party. The problem with the Tea Party movement is that the movement has made it harder for moderate Republicans to survive the primary process. That primary barrier has made it nearly impossible for moderate Republicans to remain a part of the Republican Party. As the two parties become progressively more pure, the ability to craft centrist legislation that both parties have some stake in evaporates. As legislation from the center evaporates, two possibilities surface. The first is governmental gridlock, which we have certainly seen a lot of. The second is partisan legislation that the other party has no stake in. The problem with partisan legislation is that it cannot last and cannot mature. What we have seen in recent years is a pendular dynamic in legislation. The party in power passes legislation that the opposing party tries to dismantle as soon as it achieves power, substituting its own partisan legislation that will in turn be dismantled. I’ve watched nearly sixty years of the progressive disintegration of American society that results from such ideological ping ponging.

Legislation within a functioning democracy is the antithesis of what I have just described. Democracy begins with the idea that solutions are to be arrived at through negotiated compromise involving all factions within the society. The legislation has to be centrist because of its dependence upon consensus. Also, because the majority of the society’s members have a stake in the legislative process, the legislation has the potential for longevity and refinement over time.

The authoritarian tendency of the voices pushing for greater ideological purity on both the left and the right strikes me as fundamentally anti democratic. The goal is domination of the society by a single ideology rather than commitment to a process that is inclusive, consensus driven, and grounded in compromise. I actually am very far to the left compared to the US population as a whole. However, I value democracy above ideology and will tolerate compromise to live in a civil manner within this nation that is so wildly diverse. My whole adult life I have witnessed movement on both the right and left in the US toward a more authoritarian model, a winner take all model that, in the final analysis, excludes both the center of American society and those at the opposite ideological pole from whoever is winning at the moment. The degree of animosity that is building between the two sides is, if anything, creating an ever growing potential for violence in America.

I have written before that we may have come to the point in American society where a reconciliation model may be the only thing that works, a model that says, we of the two opposite sides despise each other but choose to coexist despite our differences. Even that model presumes striving to coexist in a state of mutual tolerance. I don’t believe, at present, that the two political sides in the US even aspire to that degree of community.

While in high school, I met a young man named Lincoln Chaffee. Linc’s a smart, thoughtful guy. As an adult, he became a Republican senator from Rhode Island, and later, the state’s governor. He represented a long tradition of moderate and independent Republican thinking in Rhode Island. His father, also a Republican senator, was one of the first and most outspoken critics of the Viet Nam War. As the Republican Party became progressively more ideologically extreme and ideologically coherent, Linc no longer saw a place for himself in that party. He became an independent, then eventually a Democrat. If the Democrats who are so inclined, succeed in moving the Democratic further and more uniformly left, there will soon be no room for independent, moderate politicians like Lincoln Chaffee in either party. Politicians like Chaffee, who think for themselves, will be primaried out of Democratic races just as moderates have been primaried out of many Republican races by the far right. The Republican Party is impoverished by the disappearance of independent, thoughtful voices like Linc Chaffee’s. If Democrats give into analogous measures of ideological purity, there will be nowhere for people like Chaffee in American political discourse. Despite the fact that I am far to the left of Linc Chaffee, I want people like Linc Chaffee, like Michael Bloomberg, like John Kasich, to have a voice in American politics. These three politicians represent a thoughtful, responsible center, the place that American democratic (small d) process has the obligation to define.  As we exclude candidates like Chaffee, we strengthen the polarization that has created the gridlock and the disintegration of civility that are destroying American democracy. I am far more interested in reviving our democracy than in enforcing ideological purity within the Democratic Party. If we cannot discuss issues without marginalizing each other through catchall characterizations such as “Corporate Dem” or “Republican In Name Only”, all legislative efforts in our democracy will represent the short term ascendance of one exclusive ideology at the expense of its opposite, only to be reversed at the first opportunity by the other side. If we are to pass meaningful legislation that is to have the longevity that allows follow through and maturation, the legislation must emerge from a negotiated center that has too much shared value to be simply dumped with the next pendular swing of the dominant ideology.

In light of the present state of American politics and society, one older, deeply experienced politician’s slogan, “Stronger Together”, though not particularly catchy, actually strikes me as a brave and even radical alternative to the political winds that seem to be growing stronger and stronger despite how destructive they are to American society. I used to see older Democrats who were willing to compromise as sellouts. Now that I, myself, am older, I see the choices, especially of so-called “establishment Democrats”, as brave, responsible, and reflective of a great deal of experience at getting things done. I do see the value of young peoples’ impatience as a provocative conscience of sorts, and as an occasional prod to the codgers’ ability to get lost in process. However, I would suggest to young people that are pushing for ideological purity, that some of the experienced folks who are challenging that idea are challenging it based not on spinelessness, but actually on hard earned experience, experience earned by witnessing the consequences of their own ideological excess earlier in their lives.

When I was the Director of Academic Affairs at Oregon School of Design, I was the classic angry young man. I was a man on a mission to save architecture from the corruption of incompetent older architects. A famous, older architect, who shared my values, pulled me aside one day and said, “Don’t try to do too much, too fast”. I thought he was nuts. Who had the time to waste? However, having watched the entire arc of Oregon School of Design’s history and eventual demise, I came to understand the wisdom of that advice. He was actually saying more than I heard. He was saying, “listen to others, treat other points of view with respect, have some skepticism about your own convictions, take your time.” Of course I couldn’t follow that advice at the time. I was too sure of myself. But had I been able to follow that advice, fewer bridges would have been burned, broader community resources and voices would have been integrated into the program, program growth would have been less rushed, and, as a result, the program might have survived and transcended my immediate, youthful, ideological fetishes. One of the most important things I have learned over the years is that older people and more moderate voices are not necessarily stupid. They may simply be experienced and experience has value.

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