Can the Democrats Be Revived?

Igniting Idealism
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 15 2002 12:30 PM

Can the Democrats Be Revived?

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Dear Joe,

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Constituency? Watch out. Over the next two decades, the Greatest Generation's elderly will be replaced by old boomers, who'll be the largest, noisiest, and most demanding political constituency in American history—you and I among them. Tens of millions of boomer bodies all will be corroding. If you think prescription drug coverage is a big deal now, wait until medical science promises boomers we can look young and have sex like rabbits and party until we drop. Across the land there'll be outcroppings of "Med-Meds" for boomer geezers—think of Club Meds combined with medical facilities. Snorkeling all morning; extra oxygen in the afternoon. Worse yet, most boomers haven't saved a dime for retirement. All the equity's in their homes. And home prices will take a dive when the boomers all want to sell.

In other words, brace yourself. We'll be lucky if the Dems, as well as Republicans, don't sell out completely to aging boomers. Increasingly, a fault line in American politics will be generational. Who will represent the young? Who'll inspire them? Enable them to feel the joy of politics? I haven't seen a Dem among the current crop who comes close.

As to organized labor, my betting is on the SEIU—the service employees. It's the most diverse union in the AFL-CIO. Its ranks are full of Latinos and blacks. Its leadership is young. It's organizing like mad. It's recruiting and training a lot of young people. It's representing just those who are most marginalized in the emerging—hotel workers, hospital workers, workers in large retail stores, janitors. And it's succeeding, with some huge victories over the last few years. The SEIU is the closest we have to a "movement" union. If it can keep growing and show some more political muscle, it could have a major role in transforming the Democratic Party.

Here's something I learned in my own abortive entry into politics this year: Idealism isn't dead. It's just waiting to be ignited (among young people, minorities, the poor) or reignited (among the middle-aged jaded). Millions of people are yearning to get involved and change the way politics is practiced. It doesn't matter whether they call themselves Progressives, Greens, Democrats, Independents. They want the system cleaned up. They want government to work better and for more people. They yearn for political leaders who are authentic, who'll stand up for what they believe in, who aren't afraid to take on sacred cows and tell it like it is, who have new ideas that are common-sensical. They're deeply worried about where the Bushies are taking the country.

All it will take is a match.

I'm diverging only a little from our assigned topic, Joe, because this is much bigger and more important than the future of the Democratic Party. It's really about the future of democracy. Our democracy is in terrible trouble right now. Power is in the hands of a tiny group of people who are using the threat of terrorism to impose their crimped vision of a corporate commonwealth. Large corporate entities are more politically potent than they've been at any time in my memory. We're back to the era of William McKinley.

Truth be told, I don't give a damn about the future of the Democratic Party. Parties are means, not ends. I'm a lifelong Dem and have devoted a huge chunk of my life to the party, but if the party is comatose I'm not going to throw myself onto the tracks to keep it barely alive. The question is: Can Dems turn themselves into a national movement to take back our democracy? Can they give voice to those without a voice? Can they regain their passion, courage, soul?

I hope they've learned something from this election. To me, the clearest lesson is that Republicans know exactly what they stand for and who they stand for. Democrats don't. And when you know what you believe and for whom you exist, you've got a better chance of winning. It's Democrats like Max Cleland and Jean Carnahan who won't survive. Both voted for Bush's tax cuts and for going to war in Iraq. Both were booted out.

If I'm right, and we're back in the era of William McKinley, then we're on the cusp of just the movement I'm talking about. It happened in 1901. Teddy Roosevelt gave it force and legitimacy, but it was already bubbling up. If the Dems see it and feel it, they'll be the party of the future. If not, well, it will bubble up some other way.

Good to hear from you, Joe.
Bob

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