I largely agree with Rick Perlstein’s argument about the need to focus Democratic energies on building voter support for the long term. My own sense is that we need to put more weight than Perlstein does on the importance of building a movement rather than an organization to which people are loyal. But rather than quarreling with what he says, I will present my own view and leave it to readers to decide whether the differences are subtle or substantial.
Even if John Kerry wins this November, right-wing conservatives will remain largely in control of America. Democrats have almost no chance of winning back the House or the Senate. Most state governorships and legislatures are also in the hands of Republicans, which gives them power to draw the lines of future congressional districts and thereby keep hold of Congress. Right-wing conservatives now claim most of America’s airwaves, in full command of “talk radio” and “yell television.” They run most Washington “think tanks.” They inhabit some of the most influential positions on Wall Street and in American corporate boardrooms. Radical conservatives are, in short, America’s new governing elite.
A little over a decade ago, it looked as if Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” were in firm control. Although Clinton was elected with only a plurality of votes (Ross Perot ran as an independent third-party candidate, taking votes away from the first George Bush), once in office Clinton appeared to enhance his standing as a “new kind of Democrat” by eschewing stands associated with the traditional left. He signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, embraced “fiscal austerity” and deficit reduction, and called for an end to the dole. It seemed as if a new Democratic era had begun. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. The country seemed solidly behind us. (I say “us” because I was Clinton’s secretary of labor.)
But within two years, Clinton’s ambitious health-care plan was defeated. In the fall of 1994, Republicans took over Congress. Clinton was reelected in 1996, but his second term was mired in scandal, and the country appeared to veer to the right. In 2000, with the country enjoying unparalleled prosperity, George Bush won the presidency (although Al Gore just barely won the popular vote). What happened?
We failed because we failed to build a political movement behind us. America’s newly ascendant radical conservatives do have such a movement, which explains a large part of their success. They have developed dedicated sources of money and legions of ground troops who not only get out the vote but also spend the time between elections persuading others to join their ranks. They have devised frames of reference that are used repeatedly in policy debates (among them: it’s your money, tax and spend, political correctness, class warfare). They have a system for recruiting and electing officials nationwide who share the same world view and who will vote accordingly. And they have a coherent ideology uniting evangelical Christians, blue-collar whites in the South and West, and big business—an ideology in which foreign enemies, domestic poverty and crime, and homosexuality all must be met with strict punishment and religious orthodoxy.
Democrats have built no analogous movement. Instead, every four years party loyalists throw themselves behind a presidential candidate who they believe will deliver them from the rising tide of conservatism. After the election, they go back to whatever they were doing before. Other Democrats have involved themselves in single-issue politics—the environment, campaign finance, the war in Iraq, and so on—but these battles have failed to build a political movement. Issues rise and fall depending on which interests are threatened and when. They can even divide Democrats, as each advocacy group scrambles after the same set of liberal donors and competes for the limited attention of the news media.
As a result, Democrats have been undisciplined, intimidated, or just plain silent. They have few dedicated sources of money and almost no ground troops. The religious left is disconnected from the political struggle. One hears few liberal Democratic phrases that are repeated with any regularity. In addition, there is no consistent Democratic world view or ideology. Most congressional Democrats raise their own money, do their own polls, and vote every which way. Democrats have little or no clear identity except by reference to what conservatives say about them.
Self-styled Democratic centrists, such as those of the Democratic Leadership Council, attribute the party’s difficulties to a failure to respond to an electorate grown more conservative, upscale and suburban. This is nonsense. The biggest losses for Democrats since 1980 have not been among suburban voters but among America’s giant middle and working classes—especially white workers without four-year college degrees, once part of the Democratic base. Not incidentally, these are the same people who have lost the most economic ground over the last quarter century.
Democrats could have responded with bold plans for jobs, schools, health care, and retirement security. They could have delivered a strong message about the responsibility of corporations to help their employees in all these respects, and of wealthy elites not to corrupt politics with money. In the wake of the 9/11 attack, the Democratic Party could have used the threat of terrorism to inspire the same sort of sacrifice and solidarity that it did in World War II—including higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for what needs doing. In short, they could have turned themselves into a populist movement to take back democracy from increasingly concentrated wealth and power.
But Democrats did none of this. So radical conservatives eagerly stepped into the void, claiming the populist mantle and blaming liberal elites for what’s gone wrong with America. The question ahead is whether Democrats can reclaim it.
The rush by many Democrats in recent years to the so-called center has been a pathetic substitute for talking candidly about what the nation needs to do and for fueling a movement based on liberal values. In truth, America has no consistent political center. Polls reflect little more than reflexive responses to what people have most recently heard about an issue. Meanwhile, the so-called center has continued to shift to the right because conservative Republicans stay put while Democrats keep meeting them halfway.
Democrats who eschew movement politics point to Bill Clinton’s apparent success in repositioning the party in the center during the 1990s. Clinton was (and is) a remarkably gifted politician who accomplished something no Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt had done: he got reelected. But his effect on the party was to blur rather than clarify what Democrats stand for. As a result, Clinton neither started nor sustained anything that might be called a political movement.
This handicapped his administration from the start. In 1994, when battling for his health-care proposal, Clinton had no broad-based political movement behind him. Even though polls showed support among a majority of Americans, it wasn’t enough to overcome the conservative effort on the other side. But George W. Bush got his tax cuts through Congress, even though Americans were ambivalent about them. President Bush had a political movement behind him that supplied the muscle he needed.
In the months leading up to the 1996 election, Clinton famously triangulated—finding positions equidistant between the Democrat and the Republican—and ran for reelection on tiny issues like the V-chip and school uniforms. The strategy worked, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Had Clinton told Americans the truth—that when the economic boom went bust we’d have to face the challenges of a country that was concentrating more wealth and power in fewer hands—he could have built a long-term mandate for change. By the late ’90s the nation finally had the wherewithal to expand prosperity by investing in people, especially their education and health. But because Clinton was reelected without any mandate, the nation was confused about what needed to be accomplished and easily distracted by conservative fulminations against a president who lied about sex.
As we head into the 2004 election, Democrats should pay close attention to what Republicans have learned about winning over the long run. First, it is crucial to build a political movement that will endure beyond particular electoral contests. Second, in order for a presidency to be effective, it needs a movement that mobilizes Americans behind it. Finally, any political movement derives its durability from the clarity of its convictions.
A fierce battle for the White House may be exactly what the Democrats need to mobilize a movement behind them. It may also be what America needs to restore a two-party system of governance and a clear understanding of the choices we face as a nation.
Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum “How Can the Democrats Win?”
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.
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