The power of negative thinking is greatly underestimated, especially in politics.
Leaders often define themselves by what they are against, and political movements often discover their affirmative purposes when they engage in principled battles against ideas and institutions that they believe are wrong, even evil.
Think of three of our nation's most important and effective presidents. Abraham Lincoln defined himself against the spread of slavery. Franklin D. Roosevelt attacked the "economic royalists" whom he accused of plundering the working class. Ronald Reagan stood against communism's "evil empire" and high taxes.
Today we associate all three with positive achievements. Lincoln preserved the Union and ended slavery. FDR (in addition to winning World War II) gave us a New Deal that encompassed Social Security, minimum wages and the rise of labor. Reagan gets credit for the fall of the Soviet Union and the spread of free-market ideas. Accentuating the negative can eventually achieve the positive.
The power of negative thinking is especially important to opposition parties that have little ability to set government's agenda. Which brings us to today's Democratic Party.
In the wake of President Bush's narrow reelection victory, there's much musing suggesting that Democrats are obligated to try to work constructively with the White House. The advocates of what we'll call Getalongism insist that Democrats will pay a price for "obstruction" -- which of course is just another word for standing up against ideas they oppose.
In a world in which Democratic ideas could get the same attention and the same chance for an open vote in Congress as Bush's, such criticisms might have some bite. But that world does not exist. What is actually being demanded of Democrats is that they work with Republicans to pass programs (such as Social Security privatization) that they oppose on principle.
Bush made things perfectly clear two days after the election when he said he looked forward to working with anyone -- anyone, that is, who favored his agenda. Well, sure. And Democrats would be happy to work with Bush if he put forward ideas they agreed with, such as universal health coverage. Dream on if you think that's in the cards.
Moreover, Republicans now pushing Getalongism on the Democrats had no objection when their own party pursued a scorched-earth strategy against the Clinton administration. Remember Bill Clinton's 1993 economic plan that put the United States on the path to budget surpluses? It passed without a single Republican vote. Republicans predicted doom for the economy. In 1994 Republicans went after Democrats who had voted for Clinton's tax increases. They took back the House of Representatives and the Senate, and paid no price when their predictions of catastrophe proved dead wrong.
Remember the 1993-94 battle over Clinton's health care plan? William Kristol, the Republican strategist and editor, wrote a series of memos urging his party to do all it could to block Clinton's plan and not dare think of compromise.
If Clinton got something like universal health coverage, Kristol warned, "it will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will, at the same time, strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government."
Naturally those of us who favored giving all Americans health coverage regretted how much influence Kristol's view had on his party. But can anyone now doubt that as a strategic matter, from his side's point of view, Kristol's shrewd counsel of negativism was proved absolutely right? Republicans stopped health care reform, but Clinton took the blame. A chance to show that progressive government could achieve important objectives was lost.
And now the Republicans are moving to weaken Social Security -- one of the great achievements of progressive government -- in the name of strengthening it. They are willing to borrow massive sums to start private accounts that Republican strategists such as Grover Norquist freely concede are designed to create a new generation of stockholders -- and Republicans. Kristol's now irrefutable logic suggests that Democrats would be fools to be complicit with putting the country further into hock to undercut a program that works for the purpose of creating more Republicans.
The same logic applies to other issues, including battles over the judiciary. Republicans did all they could to obstruct Clinton's judicial appointments. Their punishment? More vacancies to fill with right-wingers when Bush became president. Some punishment.
At the heart of Getalongism is the view that Democrats should not dare do what the Republicans did. Could it be that Getalongism is an ideology designed primarily to maintain the Republicans as our nation's permanent governing majority?