Can the Democrats Be Revived?

Where's the Party?
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 13 2002 8:50 PM

Can the Democrats Be Revived?

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Dear Joe,

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Look, I can't stand all this Democratic hand-wringing and moon-howling any more than you can. We went through this in 1980, then again in 1988, then again in 1994. And it's always the same crap: Should Democrats move rightward to the Republican-Lite center, or move back to FDR? We attend endless-blather conferences about "The Future of the Democratic Party." And then go off and do whatever they want to do.

Joe, your criticisms of the Democratic Party presuppose the existence of a Democratic Party. But the fact is, as Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, there's no there there. Millions of people call themselves Democrats, and several hundred thousand show up at Democratic state and national conventions. A Democratic National Committee raises money. But there's no real Democratic Party. Nothing like what the Republicans have. They have a network of conservative think tanks, a boatload of money to market the ideas that emerge from them, and spokespeople to sell them. They recruit and train prospective candidates. And they have discipline. My God, do they have discipline. They decide on a party line and stick with it. They even have oligarchs—the Republican Powerful who gathered together in 1996 and decided George W. Bush was going to be their candidate in 2000. What do Democrats have? Conferences on "The Future of the Democratic Party."

The only time there's even a semblance of a Democratic Party is when Democrats come up with a presidential candidate, but if you look closely you'll see that Democrats don't actually come up with a presidential candidate. Instead, several dozen men who call themselves Democrats come up with themselves. Thirty months before Election Day they let it be known that they're considering running. Each starts endless rounds of visits to New Hampshire and Iowa, talks to all the interest groups you identify (trial lawyers, unions, teachers, AARP, Washington environmentalists, identity organizations), chats with Washington-based columnists, meetings with prospective donors in Hollywood, Massachusetts, and other bastions of Democratic money. Twenty-four months before Election Day, a half-dozen such entrepreneurs are still running. At this point, the 100 Washington-based Democratic political consultants, pollsters, and marketers decide who they want to place their bets on. And the race is on. Meanwhile you and I are still sitting in some "The Future of the Democratic Party" conference.

So, the first thing we need is a real party. Something with grass roots, with the capacity to think new ideas and market them. We need a movement that embraces all the people who have been left out, who have been screwed both by big corporations and big government—people who are working their asses off but aren't earning much more than they did a dozen years ago, who have grown cynical about every institution in American society but still love America with all their hearts.

But we can't have a movement unless we also have conviction and courage. Democrats used to have these things. Republicans have no monopoly on being tough against tyranny or hard-headed when it comes to domestic policy. For almost a century it was Democrats who waged war (Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson), and it was mostly the kids of Democrats who fought in and got killed in wars. And for 60 years it's been Democrats who have managed the economy well—spending more than revenues and cutting taxes when the nation needed these things done to prevent the economy from sinking, and cutting deficits when they get out of control, as in 1993.

It takes no conviction and no courage to move to the Center. You want to be president, you campaign from the Center. But if you want to be a true leader, you define the Center. You don't rely on pollsters to tell you where the Center is, because you can't lead people to where they already are.

If I hear another pundit say 40 percent of Americans vote Democrat and 40 percent Republican so the real action is with the 20 percent "swing" in the middle I'm going to puke. Most Americans who are eligible to vote don't even bother most of the time. The party of non-voters is larger than either Republican or Democrat. And even those who do vote have no strong party loyalty. They watch three months of attack ads on television and on Election Day end up voting for the person they despise the least. In this last campaign season, Republicans outspent Democrats 3-to-1. So, it's not surprising Republican candidates seemed marginally less despicable.

The big differences in American politics today are between those with courage and those without it, those who can inspire and who can't. Among the former are the late Paul Wellstone and John McCain—politicians with deeply held views and who are passionate about what they believe. They don't care too much about the polls, they love this country, and they have a fair degree of contempt for Americans who are powerful but who don't really give a damn about America or about most other Americans. On the other side is a large group of hard-boiled poll-watchers and ass-kissers who spend most of their time raising money from people and groups with a lot of it.

Finally, Democrats have to have fun and do their politics with a sense of humor. I agree with you about this. All the negativism and anxiety is a bummer. Who wants to join a funeral procession? We need a new generation of happy warriors. The world is not going to hell. In fact, we're far better off than we were 20 years ago, 50 years ago, a 100 years ago—largely because of reforms Democrats championed. I'd hate to be a Republican because Republicans hate government, and now they run it. Can you imagine being in total control of something you detest? That's a real bummer.

So, let's celebrate what we can be: Let's have a tax cut for working families (paid for by repealing that portion of Bush's giant tax cut going to the rich). Also universal, affordable health care. And, yes, a vigorous environmentalism based on renewable energy. I like your notion of a call to altruism; college students are already doing way more community service than their parents did in the 1960s. But mostly we need a real party, the courage of our convictions, and a sense of humor and optimism. What we don't need is another conference about The Future of the Democratic Party.

Robert B. Reich is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and author ofSupercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life.

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