Backbone and the moral high-ground

As a Canadian I am sitting back, wondering whether Barack Obama will be re-elected or not, and what impact if any, we’ll see from these events north of the border in Canada. It makes great television, a dramatic pageant ritualistically enacted every four years.

Last week at the Democratic Party’s national convention, there were several moments that have been touted as the highlight.

  • San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro’s charismatic presentation
  • Michelle Obama’s appearance
  • Bill Clinton’s stirring speech
  • …and of course there was Obama’s own acceptance speech.

These and several others are still present in my mind, yet one phrase keeps coming back to me.  It came from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.  The phrase, as soon as I heard it, jumped out precisely because it’s not like the usual polite language from the Democrats.  Oh no, this sounds more like the kind of language used by the GOP to attack the Democrats.

You can hear the whole speech if you missed it.

Roughly five minutes into it, Patrick said the following:

If we want to win elections in November and keep our country moving forward, if we want to earn the privilege to lead, my message is this.  It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe.

That’s the phrase that I can’t stop thinking about, can’t stop using in my conversation.  Democrats need to grow a backbone.


While I don’t really question their resolve, this is the party of civil discourse, the ones who, if confronted with a rude and irrelevant question, have typically answered politely even when it was insulting or stupid.  In the process the Conservatives easily seized the initiative in almost every instance.

As I remember it, the big change was with Ronald Reagan.  Before that time?  Democrats stood on the moral high ground, proud of their alliance with labour and unashamed of their legacy of big government via FDR’s New Deal.  These were proud achievements…!

But Reagan changed all that.  Big government came to be a sin. The mythology of big government and spending was created at this time and seized the public imagination.  Being “liberal” went from being a synonym for being caring or trust-worthy, to being the ready insult, hurled by conservatives to defame liberals.

We saw a generation of liberals falter, suddenly apologetic about the things they thought they believed, suddenly hearing silence or even jeers where a few years before, they’d heard cheers.  And so they dithered and became indecisive, seeking someone who might lead them because they lacked conviction and certainty.  They strayed from the true path, while the Conservatives found their way.

Where Reagan or either of the Bush presidencies were firm against criticism even when they were caught red-handed, on the Democratic side?  With the single exception of Bill Clinton, liberalism had lost its mojo.

In actual fact the only Democrats who broke through since 1980—Clinton and Obama—were more conservative than Canadian conservatives such as Harper or Mulroney, two Prime Ministers who never dared challenge the sanctity of our social safety net or our national medical plan.  It’s sad that the only way Democrats could win was by becoming ersatz conservatives.

And what good is that, really?

No, things seem a little different this time.  The language at the convention last week was no longer apologizing for the achievements of government and the rationale for taxes and cutting the deficit.  At last I heard Democrats willing to stand up for what they believe in.

This is the payoff for the downturn in 2008: that capitalism has a lot of explaining to do, that the GOP rhetoric has less and less conviction.  For once, the Democrats don’t have to be just another version of conservatism.  They can actually move a bit to the left for the first time since George McGovern.

The idea that the Democrats can stop apologizing and actually be brazen and arrogant about their beliefs is still a new idea.

What does a Democrat with backbone sound like?

  • Calling trickle down a fantasy, rather than politely discussing it.
  • Ridiculing the lies of their opposition

And here’s my current favourite from Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings.


Left to right: Chris Kluwe of Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr

If this is what Deval Patrick calls “the election of a lifetime”, one needs to be ready.   Whatever side you’re on, a backbone is going to be handy.

Canadian conservatives have long had role-models in the USA.  I have to wonder whether liberals (and the NDP) might also pick up some tips from south of the border.

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1 Response to Backbone and the moral high-ground

  1. barczablog says:

    Ha… and of course as it turns out, Burns is himself a Democrat.

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