Friday, January 27, 2006

What Democrats can learn from Hamas

With what is by most accounts a surprising and overwhelming victory by Hamas in the Palestinian elections held earlier this week, I couldn’t help but think about all the hand-wringing being done by Democratic strategists as their party tries for what seems like the umpteenth time to find its voice. Now, let me state, straight out, that this is not a post about the Hamas Charter, or about their avowed belief in the destruction of Israel. No, instead, this is a post about a party that, with a grassroots strategy, won an electoral battle with an entrenched but corrupt governing party.

I have been reading up on the history and tactics of Hamas in an attempt to be as accurate as possible here, and, while there is much that is open to debate, something that comes up repeatedly (again, outside of their connections to suicide bombings in Israel) is that Hamas grew as an organization in large part through its connections with social services and institutions. Granted, Hamas has an ideology that appeals to many, as well, and it has benefited from the missteps of the ruling Fatah party, not to mention Israeli governments, but it has cemented its connection to its base with its presence in their everyday lives.

In a place where basic services were just not available to large numbers of its people, Hamas saw the obvious vacuum and stepped in, establishing schools and hospitals, funding civic charities and labor unions, and providing what amounted to welfare for the vast underclass. Hamas was also an alternative “police” presence to various and often corrupt Fatah militias. True, Hamas also became a presence in the mosques, but they tied their preached values to palpable social aid. Palestinians trusted Hamas in the mosque because they could count on them in the street.

Hamas also campaigned against the widespread corruption that has so weakened the Palestinian Authority—corruption that can be linked directly to the ruling Fatah party. That Fatah was ridiculously corrupt was an easy sell, that Hamas was a definitive alternative to that corruption came from years of delivering benefits to Palestinians that the mismanaged PA could not.

Now to the American Democratic Party: Much has been made by its leaders (such as Nancy Pelosi) of the Republican “culture of corruption” that has taken over the Capitol—and, indeed, there is much to be made of it—but it is not enough to just repeat a nice phrase. What does “culture of corruption” mean to voting Americans and their families? How have Abramoff, Scanlon, DeLay, Ney, Burns, Frist—the list is a mile long—made life harder? What changes for the worse can be tied to the Republicans and this corruption (Medicare, anyone? Bankruptcy? Energy prices?)

In addition, it is not enough to be against the corruption—you have to be for some beneficial alternative. Part of that might be proposing minor repairs like “lobbying reform,” but a bigger part of that needs to be something much more.

Lobbying reform is inside-the-beltway bullshit that just doesn’t really fire up anybody. As many have pointed out (like David Sirota), unless the fundraising is taken out of the electoral equation, with public campaign financing, no band-aid will really bust up the K Street Kops. US Representatives David Obey (D-WI) and Barney Frank (D-MA) have proposed legislation that would require all House races be financed only with public funds—and that’s an idea that not only provides a leverageable point of difference with Republicans, it separates Obey and Frank from several Democrats.

But even campaign finance reform seems, to me, to be a two-stage argument. No, if Democrats want to connect with voters in the fall, they need to connect directly to their lives right now. They can talk values, but values without benefits will fall, clunk, on the floor.

Rather than talking values, I’d like to see the Democrats regain their position as the party of big ideas. Social Security was a big idea. Medicare was a big idea. The Voting Rights Act was a big idea. All of these were Democratic-lead initiatives, and all had measurable effects on citizens’ lives.

Learning from, yes, Hamas, the Democrats need to work for better schools, better access to healthcare, better deals for workers, and better rights for all Americans. Democrats need to become virtually synonymous with the good that government can do, and by doing so, they can become responsible for rooting out the bad that government has done.

Maybe with that strategy, Democrats, too, can begin to win against an entrenched and corrupt governing party.


Blogger [Lily.] said...

Hhmm..I suppose you could ask Alito VERY nicely to make you a pie!

Oh, and if he agrees, save me a piece! =)

Thanks for the comment. Let's hope Alito stays away. Far, far away.

9:27 AM  

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