Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Is Connecticut a Liberal Bellwether?

A few weeks ago, I was asked whether I thought Connecticut had become the new liberal bellwether by a reporter (the article he was writing, excluding my incoherent answers, is here). My immediate answer was "No!", simply because we don't seem to fit the definition of liberal. Our government is, by most standards, fiscally moderate (see the 1960s and 1980s for fiscally liberal) and socially tolerant. We are permissive, to a degree, but not to the point of social engineering. Is that the new liberalism?

But the more I think about it, and the more I reflect on the historic 2005 legislative session, the more I start to think that perhaps Connecticut is, in some ways, a new and better standard for American progressivism. Indeed, progressives across the country would do well to follow our lead, as we have taken great steps forward with a minimum of outcry and anger. If this is liberalism, it's common sense liberalism.

The article cites civil unions, the lawsuit against No Child Left Behind, campaign finance reform and mounting irritation with Joe Lieberman as examples of liberal leanings. Yet the two major pieces of legislation this year, civil unions and campaign finance reform, were compromise pieces. Both have flaws, especially from a liberal point of view. Civil unions aren't quite marriage, although in Connecticut they carry all the legal rights, and the bill includes a hastily-added definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman only. Campaign finance reform has plenty of problems, most notably a too-high threshold for third parties and many, many loopholes through which money can sneak.

But these two bills, flawed though they may be, are unprecedented in our country. Civil unions have never been implemented by a legislature without pressure from the courts. Public financing of elections has historically only been accomplished through referenda. Other states have blazed the trail on gay marriage/civil unions and public financing, but Connecticut has showed that these advances can be done quietly and civilly, without court orders, mass demonstrations and a national outcry.

In short, we have taken the cutting edge and dulled it. Positions once advocated by fiery radicals are now thoughtfully debated on the floor of our House and Senate. What were in other states unthinkable social and political leaps ahead are here made commonplace and normal.

That in itself is historic and remarkable, especially considering the times in which we live. The first decade of the 21st century is the conservative mirror of the 1960s and 70s, in which the losers of that earlier culture war try to win back all the bloody ground they lost. This is a time of passion and partisan hatred, fueled by war, fear and uncertainty. It's astonishing that, in such a climate, Connecticut is able to quietly march to the beat of its own drummer.

So to answer the title question again, Connecticut is not quite the "liberal" leader, rather it is the standard-bearer for tolerance, moderation, civility and common sense. When it comes to those virtues, liberals and conservatives nationwide would serve their country well to follow our lead.

19 comments:

Conn-Tiki said...

Historically, there's a lot of precedent for this trend as well. The firebrand Progressive, Populist and Socialist reformers of the 1890s-1910s could never have dreamed that, by 1935, their goals would have a foothold in government in the New Deal.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, there's the word. POPULIST.
They measly mouthed legisltors did what was popular and that did not include ending the death penalty. Connecticut is all about money and power and who throws it around in Hartford.

Chris MC said...

Popular and "Populist" just aren't the same thing.

Is there a capitol anywhere that isn't about capital - financial and political - and who can throw what who's way? Seems to me that the campaign finance reform and attendant issues are attempts to come to grips with the reality of governing and governance and make some progress. You could argue that it is an attempt to liberalize the process.

Here's a nomenclature for Connecticut:
Aggressive Right = neo-cons
Regressive Right = paleo-cons
Liberal = moderates
Leftie = liberal/progressives

And, there is something very conservative about the Lefties, and the Aggressive Right are in part 60's era cold warrior dems run amok.

BC and GC are right, categories are tough to apply in CT. As Kos said in the NYT piece, the state is more of a laboratory than a bellweather for Leftie thinking and activism.

Anonymous said...

Populism is quite popular with populists because it is meaningless. From the dictionary:
"Populism is a political philosophy or rhetorical style that holds that the common person's interests are oppressed or hindered by the elite in society, and that the instruments of the state need to be grasped from this self-serving elite and used for the benefit and advancement of the people as a whole. Abraham Lincoln summed up the populist ideology in his famous Gettysburg Address, when he advocated "... government of the people, by the people, for the people." A populist reaches out to ordinary people, talking about their economic and social concerns, and appealing to their common sense. Most scholarship on populism since 1980 has discussed it as a rhetorical style that can be used to promote a variety of ideologies.

Populism is often used derisively against appeals on behalf of the people in opposition to the interests of elites, or against distrust directed at either the political elite or the prevailing political system.

Individual populists have variously promised to stand up to corporate power, remove "corrupt" elites, and "put people first." Populism incorporates anti-regime politics, and sometimes nationalism or racism. Many populists appeal to a specific region or a specific social class such as the working class, middle class, or farmers. Often they employ dichotomous rhetoric, and claim to represent the majority.'

ctkeith said...

Conn is rejecting Reaganism,

"Greed is Good" is what Republicans have been about since the 1980s and Ct.is the first state to totally reject that very bad idea.

Anonymous said...

CTkeith must be kidding. Greed abounds in that state but if he can't see it I won't light it up..

Aldon Hynes said...

Well, I must say, this is the first time I've heard someone suggest that one of the most quotedlines of the Gettysburg Address is meaningless.

Chris MC said...

"Anonymous 10:55":

Curious reply. Did you read the definition?

Most scholarship on populism since 1980 has discussed it as a rhetorical style that can be used to promote a variety of ideologies.

Specifically, the Republican party has systematically co-opted the language of Populism to produce a rhetoric designed to make their elitist agenda look and sound like the opposite.

Populism is often used derisively against appeals on behalf of the people in opposition to the interests of elites, or against distrust directed at either the political elite or the prevailing political system.

Textbook neo-con rhetorical tactics as practiced and purveyed by Karl Rove, et al: Damn that liberal media! Damn those Washington elites with their social engineering and nation building!

Ooops. Now we're in control. Well, social engineering might not be all bad, if it's the right kind.

Individual populists have variously promised to stand up to corporate power, remove "corrupt" elites, and "put people first."


And most famously, to "get government off our backs". You do remember that phrase, don't you?

Read some history of the development of the right wing since WWII, for example Kevin Phillips' The Emerging Republican Majority, and you'll see why that phrase was used and why is was so potent.

To wit:
Populism incorporates anti-regime politics, and sometimes nationalism or racism. Many populists appeal to a specific region or a specific social class such as the working class, middle class, or farmers. Often they employ dichotomous rhetoric, and claim to represent the majority.'

As in "the silent majority" in Nixon's time (Phillips was John Mitchell's wunderkind in the '68 Nixon campaign), and thirty years' development since then, until now if anyone dares question, must less challenge, the prevailing "wisdom" of the neo-cons, they are downright un-American.

"You're either with us, or with the terrorists."

Thanks for posting that definition. Substance matters.

(BTW, Phillips? - can't stand the Bushes)

Anonymous said...

There were 3,000 people in front of the state capitol protesting the civil union law a few days after Rell signed it and 100,000 had signed a petition calling for a DOMA earlier. You folks are assuming that the legislature's liberalism is a reflection of where the people are. But how can you be sure, in a state where 70-something percent of the legislative races are not competitive thanks in part to gerrymandering? Also, recall what just happened in CA, where that legislature's pro-civil union vote was a direct contradiction of what CA voters had already decided in a referendum. As CA shows, the legislature does not always reflect--and sometimes flatly contradicts--where the people are. CT is less a liberal bellwether than a U.S. version of the E.U.--a place suffering from a "democratic deficit" governed by bureaucrats who don't care what the people want because, so far at least, they know they can get away with it.

Genghis Conn said...

A Quinnipiac Poll in April showed a majority of voters supported civil unions. That number will climb as civil unions become more normal.

Anonymous, don't let fringe groups like these fool you into thinking that there is some sort of "silent majority" against civil unions. There isn't. Christian fundamentalists, especially the Dobson-style fanatics, are a very small minority in New England, I'm glad to say.

Chris MC said...

Anon -

It isn't as if the neo-cons are reflecting public opinion. Essentially your argument boils down to this: if I agree with it, it must be good, if not, not.

If you were as willing to critique the enormous efforts at social engineering by the right wing at the federal level - legislative, executive, and judicial - you'd be more credible.

Whether you agree with the civil unions legislation or not, and it might be a bit out in front of public opinion, complaining about legislation that liberalizes the rules and provides equal protection under the law by saying "the people" don't agree with it is, for you, a bit hypocritical.

It is exactly the kind of ersatz-populist outrage that passes for conservatism in the perverse political culture that twenty five years of increasing right-wing domination of the media and national politics has produced.

BTW, CA stopped being a bellweather for the rest of the country a long time ago. Now it's just big. And you know what killed it? Again, right-wing ersatz-populism.

Recall/referendum politics is an unmitigated disaster for California. Your side did it. The Golden State was once the Gold Standard for education. Today? The Pits.

California's referendum/recall-em political culture has produced three Governors in quick succession that nobody thinks were any good. The last is a man I've personally admired for twenty years, but who has no business being Governor, has nothing but celebrity to explain his opportunity to pursue that office.

You may have a point about legislative districts, and you might find some strange bedfellows cuddling you on that one.

DeanFan84 said...

Which is scarier? The fact that not only George W. Bush, but also Ann Coulter came from our state...

Or the fact that Elton John is getting married!

With the real problems facing our country, I am surprised that anyone could care about either. But I tell you what, I long for my grandfather's GOP, where the talk of the day was lowering taxes and fiscal responsibility.

Could we imagine an America in which Republicans weren't dividing us with fake cultural issues, such as flag-burning amendments, a contrived "War on Christmas", intelligent design, and the "defense of marriage"? Wouldn't that be nice!

Anonymous said...

It seems lost on the posters here the juxtapostion of "liberal bellweather" and "lagging in job growth"

All this time and effort on liberal social issues isn;t balancing our books or brining in jobs. But those issues only become important when the great unlightened masses might be involved say in the last few moths before an election.

And don;t blame Rowland and Rell. A Democratic Governor and a Demcrat legisalure almsot bankrupted the state in the late 1980's and would promptly do so again. Unfortunately, veto and compromise only limits the damage, it doesn;t fix it.

And once the career legislators get past the little formality of an election, the social interest group activism and self dealing can start all over anew, while the rest of America economically jogs again.

Anonymous said...

between Rell, Amann, Williams, Looney, and Sullivan, it's no wonder we aren't bringing in the jobs.

we need better transportation, tax reform, better regional cooperation, and aggressive policy.

but more than anything, we need better Leadership. Either Malloy or DeStefano. The status quo sucks.

Anonymous said...

liberal states with aggressive Dem Govenors and Dem legislators

Mass. 1990
California 2003

Hiring Democrats to fix a state economy is like using a Glock to fix a sinus headache

Aldon Hynes said...

Anonymous(6:55) Which issue that is cited as Connecticut being "liberal bellweather" do you believe is most responsible economic stagnation? Do you think that allowing same sex civil unions is driving jobs out of the state? Or is opposition to unfunded mandates that is hurting our economy the most?

I do agree with you that the lack of real competition in state legislative elections is part of the problem. I believe that campaign finance reform is a move towards addressing that problem. Do you have other suggestions on how legislative races could be made more competitive?

You are also right that "veto and compromise only limits the damage". We need real leaders who can do more than simply be reactive. We need leaders who will provide a proactive vision for a better Connecticut.

It is truly sad that Rell doesn't provide that sort of leadership and only seems capable of "veto and compromise."

Anonymous said...

Aldon. Let's answer your question

"Look for the union label. when you are trudging through Manhattan's snows"

The fact is what the Democrats want doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

Oh Chris McC: what you say about populism can be applied to the Democrats, the whigs and Labor too. Get over it. Populism is popular and your guy, Howard Dean, was popular until about the third date.

Anonymous said...

Connecticut, a liberal bellweather? Your're kidding right? Show me one conservative writing for any newspaper in the state. Cohen in the Courant doesn't count; he's not on staff.