So. Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.
There’s a great quote somewhere about the problem with intellectuals being that they think most other people are intellectuals too, and as a consequence they aren’t very proactive about getting their messages out. They just assume that whatever they happen to believe is basically self-evident, and they’re always surprised when reality doesn’t reflect this.
Or maybe that quote was about liberals.
Yeah, I know you’re shaking your head now–”No, man, Springsteen went on tour for Kerry, and I pounded the pavement trying to get out the vote, and…” But that isn’t what I’m talking about. Those are brief bursts of activity. Mostly defensive activity, too.
Consider the various heydays of progressivism in this country, and you’re looking at tight-knit, broad-based, grassroots coalitions that adopted innovative guerrilla techniques. They were very, very effective at getting their messages out and heard. Throughout the 20th century, these groups emerged to land a series of powerful blows in defense of workers’ rights, racial and sexual equality, environmentalism, consumer advocacy, and a host of other causes. It took a long time for conservatives to figure out how to assemble an effective counter-offensive. Not only did these movements have popular support, but they also enjoyed moral superiority. It can be difficult to argue against progressive positions without sounding heartless–something Bush more or less admitted when branding himself a “compassionate conservative.”
But trouble was always on the horizon. The Democratic Party was the liberal party, but its Southern constituency was openly hostile to many progressive causes, and as a result, Democratic politicians on the national level had to sit on a lot of fences. JFK is a good example–though he’d be considered conservative by most modern standards, he had to work doggedly throughout the 1960 primary season to disassociate himself from the party’s liberal wing, and do so without losing its votes. The chaos that ensued behind the scenes after he won the nomination–campaign leadership was bitterly divided over whether to name LBJ the vice-presidential candidate–was essentially a microcosm of the Party itself. This situation only worsened throughout the remainder of the decade, culminating with the liberal lockout at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Faced with choosing between playing to its liberal constituency, or moving right in an effort to leech voters from Nixon’s Silent Majority, party leadership chose the latter, and the Democratic Party has never been the same.
While all this was going on, progressive leaders were dying at an alarming rate. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, coming so closely on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, effectively sounded the death knell for the liberal movement. Liberals didn’t cease to exist, but having always been a contentious bunch with sometimes conflicting goals, they were very quick to splinter in the absence of dynamic leadership. The splits had been evident for awhile–whites being expelled from the SNCC, the formation of the shadow Democratic Party in 1968, etc.–but these assassinations had the compound effect of robbing the movement of both leadership and idealism. In the years since, the Democrats have managed to elect just two Presidents: Carter and Clinton.
Carter, arguably, doesn’t really count. After Nixon was forced out of office and Ford pardoned him, the Democrats essentially had an open run at the White House. History has been relatively kind to the Carter presidency, but he wasn’t the charismatic unifying presence the left needed. Sniping between different liberal factions started almost as soon as Carter took office, possibly most notably between the administration and Ralph Nader, who was something of a political kingmaker at the time. Carter’s liberalism alienated a rapidly solidifying bloc of evangelical Christian voters. He struggled with a series of thorny problems of domestic and foreign policy. Even as hindsight and nostalgia have burnished his legacy, he’s still remembered as something of an ineffective leader, and there’s truth to that.
Clinton learned from the mistakes of Carter, and Mondale, and Dukakis; unfortunately, the lesson he learned was that getting elected would be a lot easier if he acted like a Republican. He co-opted elements of the GOP platform for his own, dragging the Democratic Party even further to the right. He hammered through NAFTA, a seriously flawed piece of legislation first championed by Bush the First. He turned a blind eye to taxpayer-funded human rights violations in places like Saipan. When it came to environmental issues–and this is putting it kindly–he talked out of both sides of his mouth. He gleefully turned campaign finance loopholes into gigantic spigots of cash for his campaign coffers. He used the WTO to help big business. He also balanced the budget, making him a better Republican than Bush the Second. The cumulative effect of all this ended up being a Democratic Party that presented itself as not substantially different from the Republican Party. This point was driven home during the 2000 debates, and their chorus of “I agree”s.
For all the noise about the supposed fallacy of the “no difference” argument (Gore wouldn’t have invaded Iraq!), in overall terms, the two parties are distressingly similar. The Democrats have ceased to run on positions or ideals; their campaigns have become mainly about getting elected. This goes along with the overall shift toward cult-of-personality politics in this country, which produces campaigns like the one we just endured, where both candidates studiously avoid anything resembling an issue, relying on operatives to mount whisper campaigns and sling half-truths. Candidate handlers sand down their rough edges until they’re stiff and mannered beyond all reason, to the point where stumping without a tie is a topic of discussion for news networks.
And the Democrats haven’t been able to address this. Not at all. Where the Republicans have found wild success by openly catering to core constituencies–the fundies, corporations–the Democrats have willfully ignored their own. Their overtures toward minorities, the poor and the working class, gays, and even women are clumsy, qualified, and half-hearted. They refuse to champion issues people care about. Where the Republicans have forged a lockstep army, the Democrats have…well, what have they done, really? They rolled over on their voters after 9/11, meekly going along with legislation after legislation. Tom Daschle’s repeated cry of “I’m voting for this even though I don’t agree with it” didn’t make anyone feel better about the ballots he cast. All the while, they blamed Ralph Nader for stealing their votes. Such arrogant entitlement in the face of such fundamental problems with the party only served to deepen the cracks in the left.
As many of you know, I have loudly supported Nader’s platform and his right to run, and pointed out many times the incredible hypocrisy and stupidity in the “spoiler” argument. This is despite knowing that Nader is an awful politician, and would not make an effective President. As a voter, I feel a responsibility to spend as much time as I possibly can researching the candidates, then choose the one I feel best represents my worldview. Some of you were along for the ride this spring as I took in-depth looks at Kerry’s position papers, the few questions they answered, and the many they raised. In the end, Kerry had nothing to say to me. Nader did. I don’t believe the hysterical rhetoric about THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIVES!!!–and I didn’t think the “anybody but Bush” crowd did themselves, or anyone else, any favors. I believe it’s your job to cast an informed vote, and it’s the candidate’s job to earn that vote. Kerry’s chief virtue, even to most of the Democrats I spoke to and argued with this year, is that he isn’t Bush.
I tell you this not so you’ll know about me and how I voted, but to personally illustrate the deep, jagged schism in the left. The Democrats seem to think it’s the progressive’s job to align himself with the Party, not the Party’s job to reach out to the progressive. And by “reach out” I mean “speak to issues that people believe in,” not “try to scare the hell out of them with lots of hooha about what will happen if Bush is re-elected.” There are a lot of voters like me. Even the most fervent Democrats I have spoken with have expressed deep misgivings about the Party. Such lukewarm support doesn’t elect leaders; it submits candidates. Candidates who find it difficult to inspire potential voters.
Bush should have been easy to beat–even easier than beating him should have been in 2000. No candidate in recent memory has presided over so much turmoil, done so much to exploit the differences between Americans, or expressed such open and utter contempt for democracy. For all the talk you’ll hear about Kerry running a solid campaign, being a good closer, winning the debates–he should have blown Bush right out of the water. Bush not only shouldn’t have won, it shouldn’t even have been close. But Kerry decided not to speak to America. Instead of being John Kerry, for better or worse, he was content to simply not be Bush. It wasn’t enough–nor should it have been.
So where does the Party go from here? Will Democratic leadership reverse the course it has set for itself over the last 36 years? Will the platform be opened to include progressive leading lights like Kucinich? Will the Party actively build bridges to the Greens and other progressive groups? Or are they content to continue being the punchline to Lewis Black’s joke:
The Republican stands up in Congress and yells, “I’ve got a shitty idea!” and the Democrat stands up and yells, “I can make it even shittier!”
The sense of entitlement to liberal votes has got to stop. Capitulation to, and outright courting of, corporate interests has got to stop. A focus on issues, grassroots networking, and coalition-building must begin. The Democratic Party has been content to be merely the voice of progressives by default. This is not enough to build voter rolls, to inspire leadership, to win elections. Yesterday, all over the country, Democrats lost. What about now? What about tomorrow?