Can Dems Find Their Mojo?

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American History, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism

There were a couple of articles in Tuesday’s newspapers that underscored, for me, how far the Dems have fallen. One was a Washington Post column by E.J. Dionne:

While Republicans believe in their party and in the cause of building its organization from bottom to top, Democratic sympathizers tend to focus on favorite causes and favorite candidates, notably in presidential years. …

… a political party needs to see itself — and be seen by those who support it — as a long-term operation, not simply as a label of convenience at election time.

The other article was a New York Times story by Robin Toner, “Fathers Defeated, Democratic Sons Strike Back.”

In the history of the Democratic Party, the election of 1980 looms large: the year the party lost the White House, the Senate, a generation of Midwestern liberals and, in some ways, its confidence that it was the natural, even inevitable, majority party.

Now, that election has a sequel.

Call it the return of the sons: Chet Culver, the Iowa secretary of state and the son of former Senator John C. Culver, is running for governor of Iowa. Senator Evan Bayh, son of former Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, is organizing and testing the waters for a possible presidential bid in 2008. And Jack Carter, the son of former President Jimmy Carter, has decided at the age of 59 to run an uphill race for the Senate in Nevada, his first foray into electoral politics.

All of them had their political sensibilities shaped, to some extent, by the election that defeated their fathers and began a generation of conservative dominance.

OK so far. But the article goes on to describe the sons as “careful” centrists who run away from the dreaded “L” word — Liberal. For example:

While Birch Bayh was known as a classic “Great Society liberal,” as Evan Bayh has put it, and as a champion of causes like the equal rights amendment, the son has long been a careful centrist, a former chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and a founder of the Third Way, a centrist research group.

Visiting 22 states over the past year, he has argued that the way for Democrats to win is to reach out to the middle class, demonstrate credibility on national security and show respect for faith and values issues.

Conclusion: Evan Bayh is a eunuch.

The past couple of posts focused on how the Democratic Party lost itself. This post discusses how the Right, through a long campaign of “hysterical charges and bald-faced lies,” undermined the Democrats’ credibility on foreign policy. The last post looks at how white middle- and working-class voters bolted to the Right when Democrats took a stand in favor of racial equality. Further, the old New Deal coalition was fatally undermined by the New Left. But the New Left did not create a new coalition to take the place of the old one. Instead, for almost forty years American liberals and progressives have been caught up in discrete issues — civil rights, reproductive rights, gay rights, the environment, etc. — that compete with each other for money and attention.

Meanwhile, the Right built an infrastructure of think tanks and media that by the 1980s dominated the nation’s political discourse and agenda.

This is a complex history, and I’ve only touched on a few main points. I’ve left out Ken Starr and the Clinton impeachment, for example, and the pernicious influence of the Christian Right. And then there is the problem of fundraising. With no broad-based coalition to support them, the Dems came to depend on a small pool of wealthy donors for campaign money. Now, E.J. Dionne notes, Dems argue whether they should wage a 50-state campaign or strategically focus on 20 or so “blue” states, conceding the remainder to the Right.

The result: In recent years Republicans have ruled national politics like lords, while the Dems cringed about like court eunuchs being careful not to offend. While the Republicans pushed for broad and radical change in domestic and foreign policy, Democrats attempted little more than minor, incremental tweaks. And when George W. Bush became president, and as we leftie bloggers and other liberals screamed our virtual heads off at the Dem Party to get a spine and stand up to the Right, at first Washington Dems either ignored us or ran away from us.

Dems in Washington are so insular they barely know what to make of demands from the grassroots. At first they seemed to think that if they ignored us, we would go away. Now some of them are catching on that we’re not going away, and they’re becoming more responsive. But conventional wisdom tells the Dems to stick with the Clinton triangulation approach, because we liberal activists have burned the party before, in the 1960s and 1970s.

There’s a lot of distrust and estrangement here. We liberals of the base don’t trust the party to work for our issues, but the party doesn’t trust us, either.

Some progressives argue in favor of a third party. The Dems, they say, are hopeless. Why work to elect them when they’re going to let us down, as they have in the past? This argument suffers from two fatal flaws. First, since the emergence of the first “third” party in the early nineteenth century, in national campaigns third parties at best have been spoilers. This has to do with the way we run elections in the U.S. and is not going to change no matter how sincere and earnest we are.

But the other flaw is even more fatal: Until we heal our toxic political culture, and until we liberals and progressives pull together to create a unified coalition with infrastructure to rival the Right’s — any third party we create will end up being just like the Dems.

The national Democratic Party came to be the way it is in response to the nation’s political environment, which has been so fouled by the Right that real political debate and discourse are damn near impossible. And it came to be the way it is because no coalition of citizens and interest groups support it and defend it, the way the New Deal coalition supported the Democrats from the 1930s until the 1960s. Instead, our myriad single-issue advocacy groups hang back until an election is looming, then issue endorsements. Like anyone cares. And the rest of us tend to focus on favorite issues and candidates, as Dionne says.

I cannot emphasize enough that the Democrats in Washington won’t change until we change. That’s the whole point of the netroots uprising, and I believe we’re having an effect.

Those who advocate abandoning the Dems for a third party are thinking too small. They are looking for the Magic Candidate who will get elected and go to Washington and make it all better. But this ignores how Congress works and how agendas are set in Washington; in fact, individual politicians are only as strong as their parties. Going the third-party route, IMO, would make progressives even more marginalized than we already are.

This is a feeble analogy, but let’s say you have a big aquarium, but your fish are sick and dying because there is something wrong with the aquarium environment. There’s not much point in replacing dead fish with new ones if you don’t fix what’s wrong with the aquarium.

Healing the political environment is not going to be easy. Media reform, which I’ve ranted about in the past, is critical. But I’ve got a couple of other ideas.

First, we absolutely must re-build a strong and broad coalition that will work together to support the Democratic Party and liberal/progressive politicians and issues all the time; not just when elections are looming. This coalition will not necessarily look like the New Deal coalition. It would include unions and minorities, but it should strive to include small business owners, who have been pretty much shafted by the Bush Administration, and workers, and not just workers who belong to unions. Everyone who lives on a paycheck and hopes to retire with a pension or 401K is being hurt by Republican policies these days. Retirees, also, should be our natural partners.

The single-issue advocates should think hard about whether it’s in the best interests of their causes to put all their effort into maintaining big nonprofit organizations that can’t actually do much but make noise, or instead work together through the Democratic Party. I say that if the advocates — for the environment, reproductive rights, civil rights, health care, etc. — could pull together and focus their efforts on strengthening and influencing a single political party, eventually they could have the power to effect real policy changes instead of settling for tweaks. Or, as in recent years, just trying to blunt the damage being done by Republicans.

As commenter JHB pointed out, 1970s-era changes in campaign finance law, which were supposed to make campaigns more democratic, had the effect of empowering pro-big corporation PACs and gave rise to single-issue groups pretending to be bipartisan, but who demagogue on one or two inflammatory issues to help Republicans get elected. It seems every time campaign finance gets “reformed,” new sets of problems arise. And, oddly enough, those problems tend to help the Republicans and hurt the Dems. I am more and more convinced that public finance of campaigns is the way to go. But if we can’t get public financing, we must fight any “reform” that would hinder our efforts at coalition building.

In short, liberals and progressives must completely re-think our way of doing political business. All the time. Not just the way we run election campaigns.

My advice for the Washington Democrats is to figure out who they are in their own right, and stop allowing themselves to be defined by the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Dems are so cowed they’ve come to believe rightie revisionist history — that the Democratic Party destroyed itself by their mushiness on foreign policy and association with 1960s hippies and radicals. And that the only way they can prove themselves to be worthy is to be like Republicans. Bleep that. I spent the last two posts explaining why the GOP version of Democratic Party history is bogus. Further, I sincerely believe a majority of voters are sick to death of the Republicans’ act and would respond well to something else.

In the last post I said Dems should “reconnect to the best of the core principles that made the party strong in the past and reaffirm those principles in the present.” Take, for example, this passage from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address:

For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

    Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
    Jobs for those who can work.
    Security for those who need it.
    The ending of special privilege for the few.
    The preservation of civil liberties for all.
    The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Whenever the Republicans go off on tangents about saving endangered stem cells or starting more wars in lieu of an actual foreign policy, Dems should be saying, look, here are the basic things government should be doing, along with national defense and homeland security, and government controlled by Republicans isn’t doing any of them. Instead, we’ve been distracted by fringe issues, most of which amount to government interfering with matters that people could better decide for themselves. Republicans believe in fairy tales — such as starting wars in the Middle East will spread democracy, or cutting taxes increases government revenue, or unregulated business and markets will improve everyone’s standard of living. None of these fairy tales have come true in the past, and they aren’t coming true now, yet Republicans still believe in them. If you’re tired of fairy tales and want government that works, government that does the job government is supposed to do, vote for Democrats.

Is that so hard?

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16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. zmulls  •  Aug 17, 2006 @10:05 am

    My favorite phrase to discuss “supply-side economics” was that the Magic Revenue Fairy does not come down to make more money appear. You cut taxes, revenues go down. Period.

    The Republicans have extened this Fantasia thinking to every corner of governance. Bush keeps waiting for the Magic Democracy Fairy to fix Iraq.

    Na ga happen.

  2. someRaven  •  Aug 17, 2006 @11:48 am

    “Political sensibilities shaped by the elections that defeated their fathers” eewww – too spooky. That can’t be good.

  3. justme  •  Aug 17, 2006 @12:46 pm

    The Culver/ Nussle race has been an interesting one, and to some extent makes your point.Besides the Culver family history politically, the Culver name is one of the most well known in Iowa.They have a fast food/custard joint in almost every town state wide…their commercials run non-stop on our airwaves”Culvers… taste how much we care!”..The culver family enjoys near rock star status in Iowa….

    And then there is Nussle, OMG what a first rate piece of crap. Don’t even get me started…Iowa needs Nussle about as much as we need Grassley’s rainforest….And how is Culver stepping up to save Iowa from Nussle???He isn’t.

    Nussle was on the buget committee that helped throw the nation into massive debt, and now he wants to bring that same thinking to Iowa.Yet Culver has not even pointed this out to voters. We in Iowa are humble folks. We pay our bills and live on a budget. While folks like Nussle have been busy in D.C selling out our country.

    The Culver family has spent their lives here in Iowa building a fortune.While Nussle has spent the last several years in DC destroying our countries treasury.

    Another good example is a small town here in Iowa that was leveled last Dec by a tornado.Nussle, our voice in Iowa, told the people he would go to DC and ask for help.FEMA came, and promised to help folks, who less then a week after the tornado were trying to cover whatever they had left in the ruins to protect it from heavy snow….and they waited for their FEMA checks.In july of this year ,, some 7 months AFTER Nussle promised to get help for these folks and AFTER FEMA’s visit they were told via tv news they wouldn’t be getting any help from FEMA after all.

    Nussle did NOTHING to help these folks, he just helped FEMA stab them in the back. I am sure he knew all along FEMA never intended to help the people , he only helped FEMA string folks along.He helped bring false hope to his own people. Yet Culver has forgotten to even mention these folks who still have no resolve.
    I sure hope Culver steps up to the plate at some point,,,Iowa is doomed with Nussle.

  4. Paul  •  Aug 17, 2006 @1:26 pm

    We need Democrats to step up and start talking straight (and not in a McCainian way), but that won’t be enough. You are right that we will need media reforms as well. So far when Dems start to talk plainly about common sense, like Lamont, the message gets dismissed, either as “platitudes” or as “simply anti-Bush negation”. The Democrats don’t have the luxury of being timid with their message, because they’ll need to punch it through a lot of signal jamming.

    So far, Dems seem mainly to be benefitting from the fact that the Bushites are SO bad it can be spun away anymore.

  5. maha  •  Aug 17, 2006 @1:49 pm

    We need Democrats to step up and start talking straight (and not in a McCainian way), but that won’t be enough.

    They will do it when they know there is a big, solid block of citizens who have their backs, and who will support them and reward them for it. In recent years straight-talking Dems get smacked down pretty hard, and they don’t see any reward.

  6. felicity smith  •  Aug 17, 2006 @3:42 pm

    It’s true that third parties are ineffectual when it comes to changing the political landscape for the good. But how about 4 parties? There are a lot of very disenchanted Republicans out here – Buckley’s comment on Bush that any decent individual would have stepped down long ago if he’d made as many mistakes as Bush has comes to mind. It’s going to take a mega-upheaval in American politics to correct what has become a sorry excuse for a democracy. Dems will easily drift to a third party. The question is how to motivate all the disenchanted Repubs to create a party of their choice. Taking up your fish tank analogy, Maha, you throw out all the fish and all the water and scour the tank. Radical measures are necessary even if it means throwing out some very expensive fish. The people who argue and will continue to argue against a multi-party democracy are the entrenched hierarchy of the two parties in power. It would be unnatural if they didn’t. And as long as we buy their specious arguments, nothing of any consequence is going to change.

  7. maha  •  Aug 17, 2006 @4:04 pm

    But how about 4 parties?

    Ah, yes, reminds me of the good old days and the election of 1860. It was a four-way brawl. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas. Southern Democrats nominated John Breckinridge. There was a new party called the Constitutional Union Party that nominated a fella named John Bell. And then there was another new group called Republicans who nominated some guy named Abe Lincoln. Yeah, that election had some aftershocks, I tell you.

    The interesting thing about that election is that it was the only time since the 18th century there was only one long-established party running a candidate. The earlier “second” party, the Whigs, fell apart in the 1850s.

    Seriously, it baffles me why anyone would talk about other parties. The way we hold elections, with the winner-take-all outcome instead of runoffs, makes third, fourth, fifth, or whatever parties irrelevant. And hopeless.

    If we fix the political culture, the Dems ought to be able to be the party they used to be. Better, actually, because they won’t be shackled by the Dixiecrats. If we don’t fix the political culture, no other party is going to be able to do the job for us, either.

    Dems will easily drift to a third party.

    No, they won’t. I’ve heard that one before; they won’t.

    The people who argue and will continue to argue against a multi-party democracy are the entrenched hierarchy of the two parties in power.

    I’m fine with a multi-party democracy, and as soon as we change the winner-take-all system, then I’ll listen seriously to talk of third parties. Until then, it’s foolish.

  8. Ian  •  Aug 17, 2006 @4:12 pm

    Of course the REAL SOLUTION ™ is to change our voting system. The one we have is antiquated in the extreme, and there are lots of better ideas out there.

    Will never happen, tho, because it would have the effect of severely reducing the money and power available to the present two major parties, and it’s the present two major parties that would have to vote a new system in … catch-22 there if ever I saw one…

    -me

  9. Che Pasa  •  Aug 17, 2006 @4:59 pm

    They will do it when they know there is a big, solid block of citizens who have their backs, and who will support them and reward them for it. In recent years straight-talking Dems get smacked down pretty hard, and they don’t see any reward.

    Hm. Interesting point. However.

    “Dems” — straight talking or mush-mouthed — get smaked down pretty hard all the time — by media and the Rs and a whole lot of other Dems, whether or not anyone’s got their back as it were.

    As for rewards, well. It looks like Lieberman gets rewarded for his backstabbing, betrayal, and hypocrisy (to mention a few of his character traits) with gigs on FOX News, invitations to the White House, kisses from On High, and endorsements from Ann Coulter. Life is good, isn’t it? And just look how tenacious and back-boned this straight talking (ex-)Dem is! Wow!

    And when straight talking (real-)Dems fight through instead of caving in the face of the shit storm that is bound to happen whatever they say or do, for that’s the way the world works, they are rewarded with, oh, the DNC chairmanship, gigs on FOX News (ie: Wes Clark) and loud praise from the roots.

    It’s when they vacillate or cave in the face of the shit storm they know is coming, no matter what they say or do, or when they push each other out of the way to get on camera to denounce one of their own (as Big Dems used to love to do to Howard Dean) that they run into major problems with the folks.

    The Big Solid Block of Citizens is ready and willing and able to act the minute the Dem establishment quits squabbling and unifies. But as long as Dems are fighting among themselves or triangulating themselves to death, the Big Solid Block of Citizens is gonna have to go after them with hot pokers and cattle prods.

  10. sisyphus  •  Aug 17, 2006 @5:46 pm

    Maha,
    I like your analysis. I was around when FDR came to power.
    Two things stick in my mind
    1. He was running against Hoover, a bumbler much like Bush.
    2. He was strong in his own right. Not a eunoch.
    As you have pointed out, the current flock of Dem hopefuls are eunochs.

    Suggestion: let’s run maha

  11. maha  •  Aug 17, 2006 @7:27 pm

    severely reducing the money and power available to the present two major parties

    Yeah,that’s a problem. People don’t understand that in countries with lots of functioning parties, a runoff system sees to it that, for example, two progressive candidates don’t split the majority vote and allow a conservative to win who was the voters’ third choice. And that allows a strong third party to win some elections and slowly build a base.

    Here it just doesn’t happen, even though since the 1840s or so many, many people have worked very hard trying to establish national third parties. It’s going to be a whole lot easier to reform the Democrats.

    I still say a third party is an illusory solution, anyway. We’ve got to stop looking for the Magic Candidate to come and rescue us, and instead reform our political processes and institutions from top to bottom.

  12. maha  •  Aug 17, 2006 @7:30 pm

    The Big Solid Block of Citizens is ready and willing and able to act the minute the Dem establishment quits squabbling and unifies. But as long as Dems are fighting among themselves or triangulating themselves to death, the Big Solid Block of Citizens is gonna have to go after them with hot pokers and cattle prods.

    OK; the point is we go after them. We make noise. We get their attention. We punish them when they’re bad and reward them when they’re good. We haven’t done nearly enough of that for many, many years, and that’s partly why they’re such wusses.

  13. John O  •  Aug 17, 2006 @9:06 pm

    My posts are far less lengthy than Maha’s, but the point being made is essentially the same. It takes different message deliveries to get across the message to different constituencies.

    Feckless Dems.

    Read: Democrats Are Stupid At Politics.

    http://jonorato42.wordpress.com/2006/08/17/democrats-are-stupid-at-politics/

    The posts above expand the point.

    This is it, folks. 2006. An off-year election.

    And I almost hope the Dems lose, for the reasons I state in my own blog. They’ve done a terrible job preparing us for the future.

  14. janinsanfran  •  Aug 18, 2006 @8:52 am

    A Californian perspective:
    Rebuilding the Dems requires getting serous about noticing the demographic earthquake in this country. The base of the Democratic Party today is NOT WHITE. About 35 percent of our vote comes from people of color. Given that the Republicans are actively courting the racist white vote, Dems should continue to get most of the non-white vote. By 2050 the majority of the population will not be white. (That’s not the majority of the electorate, a much slower transition.) The Reps will continue to be the party of the old and the white. They will continue to create stuctural obstacles to popular democracy that would boot them out of power (for example, cut backs to funding for college education serve this purpose.)

    We are dealing with unspoken racial terror in the political system.

    Dems have to be the party of the emerging majority. Our leaders show next to zero understanding of this elementary numerical fact, nor do they yet reflect this shift in their persons. But they’ll learn. California is ahead of the national curve on this, both in the expression of the racial tensions and on the poltical remedy. And we’re pretty reliably Democratic.

  15. felicity smith  •  Aug 18, 2006 @5:07 pm

    Maha, . (By the way, changing our electoral system, in fact our presidential system of government, is an understood must, and yes I’m an optomist) you made my point. That’s exactly what we need, a good old-fashioned brawl and some major after-shocks. 4 parties, 10 parties or anything else to shake up this mess is better than staying in this pit and rearranging the snakes. The average American is getting shafted big time by his government – Democrat and Republican. and nothing is going to change that government short of a revolution. Tell me how you’re going to stage one, and I might follow.

  16. c u n d gulag  •  Aug 20, 2006 @9:38 am

    I know I’m a bit late to this, but here’s some hope:
    http://www.citizen.org/congress/campaign/links/



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