Rick Perlstein addresses a question that has vexed many left-of-center Democrats since the triumph of Reaganism. Why does the Democratic Party persist in a national political strategy that seems to play into the Republicans’ hands?
Perlstein’s diagnosis is clever and persuasive, as far as it goes. That elite Democratic discourse remains haunted by Vietnam-era debates meaningless to increasingly large numbers of Americans is interesting and plausible. It seems to me that much of the New Democrat sensibility—especially as articulated by the Clintonistas—has been shaped, at least rhetorically, by specters of “the excesses of McGovernism” or the supposed error of 1968, when Hubert Humphrey’s commitment to continuing the war led many on the left to boycott the presidential election. This unhappy nostalgia culminated in the insane fear in 1996—expressed from the Baby Boomer in Chief himself down to Mayor Richard M. Daley—that the Democratic convention in Chicago might become a replay of the debacle of 1968. Perhaps as a metaphor for the Clinton presidency, the DNC and the Daley administration responded preemptively by squashing free speech and freedom of assembly inside and outside the convention and marginalizing left protestors in a small, tightly guarded “protest pen.”
It is equally plausible that elite Democratic strategists have become myopic, lurching from election to election, trying to engineer a message that might successfully appeal to each season’s magical, mythical swing constituencies. This fetish no doubt reflects a retreat from a politics based on popular mobilization and is bound with increased dependence on inside-the-beltway political consultants.
Perlstein’s explanations match the experience of those of us who have complained about the Democrats’ ineptitude in national politics, their acceptance of the Republicans’ view of the American electorate and its concerns, and their willingness to permit the Republicans to define the terms of political debate—both the range of acceptable positions on the key issues and even the key issues themselves.
From this perspective, continued adherence to a failing strategy looks rather like the institutional equivalent of a mental disorder. It may succeed in a given election, as with Clinton in 1992 (though with the asterisk of Ross Perot’s help) and 1996, but occasional success only masks the more fundamental dysfunction. Perlstein describes eloquently why this syndrome is destined to fail.
In principle his proposals for how the Democrats could break out of this cycle and recapture the initiative in political debate are sound and reasonable. Yet his argument raises a question: if we assume that elite Democratic strategists are not mentally ill and are at least as intelligent as we are, why have they clung to their inadequate approach? Why haven’t they come on their own to perspectives and proposals like Perlstein’s, which are lucid and sensible, if not obvious?
Consultants don’t much care, of course: they get paid win or lose, and they have a product to sell—which in this case is partly the idea that their services are a better alternative to political mobilization. To that extent the apt medical analogy may be iatrogenic disease. Not only does pursuit of a technicist, consultant-driven strategy beget electoral failure; each failure becomes evidence for the need to depend even more on the presumptions of the failed strategy. Nevertheless, incumbent officeholders, candidates, and aspirants are pragmatic to a fault, and their main concern is with winning elections. After nearly two decades, it’s not likely that they continue to follow this course mainly out of habit, ignorance, or misjudgment. We must assume that their strategy is the product of rational calculation based on the same knowledge we have.
It’s not the DLC point of view that needs explaining. Its response to every election cycle, win or lose, is a commitment to the proposition that the party should move farther to the right. Proponents of the DLC’s strategy are not primarily misguided, misinformed, or made purblind by an ideology whose strictures they can’t throw off. The DLC is a faction within the national Democratic Party that functions like the Club for Growth within the GOP, that is, a self-consciously organized element whose mission is less to restore the Democratic Party as a force in national politics than to reshape it as the Republican Party lite, essentially disfranchising everyone except the investor class. But what of the other Democrats who could be in a position to alter the party’s direction? Why can’t they break with what my son characterizes as a “Me too, but not so much” response to the GOP’s program?
I think the problem is that the national Democratic Party is torn between two constituencies whose interests are fundamentally incompatible. And, no, this doesn’t concern race.
Mobilizing the kind of popular electoral base necessary take back political initiative would require that the Democrats, as Perlstein argues, propound a compelling alternate vision of what public policy should look like and how the country would be governed if it were governed to reflect the interests and concerns of the vast majority of people who live here. That would require sharply differentiating themselves from the Republicans on class grounds. It would require mobilizing around issues such as real national health insurance (eliminating the travesty of corporate health care), restoring and strengthening workers’ rights, providing access to high-quality education through college for all, or renegotiating NAFTA and the WTO trade and investment agreements to assert some controls over disinvestment.
The Democrats can’t make that kind of appeal because they’re no less beholden to corporate and Wall Street interests than the Republicans are. Perstein’s proposals are fine, but they’ll fall on deaf ears. The Democrats will by and large continue to cater to those interests and palliate the rest of us with rhetoric. Already they’ve become the party of fiscal responsibility. Both parties are fundamentally committed to paving the transition to a social regime that is the equivalent of a modern enclosure movement—one that subordinates public functions to the market (including the idea of public good itself), drastically reduces social wage protections, and enforces a draconian social policy. The Democrats favor a more gradual transition, with softer rhetoric than Republican zealots. And as the current election campaign shows, that difference isn’t always trivial. A Kerry presidency no doubt would do less irrevocable harm than another four years of Bush. But not only has Kerry already tied himself to repeating the “me too, but not so much” approach, the tensions inherent in the Democrats’ message will make it more difficult than it should be for him to win.
As we look past November, though, it’s most important to try to mobilize popular support around realizable policy objectives that can speak broadly to people’s needs and concerns—and their real fears and anxieties. That’s how we can best attempt to shift the terms of political debate, with or without the Democratic Party. Puzzling over how to take back the party from corporate and financial interests and political consultants seems a bit like trying to reform the Catholic Church’s homophobia. Our time would be better spent articulating the contours of the world we want and fighting for it. Meanwhile, we can expect the Democratic Party to melt down under the weight of its own contradictions, like the Whigs in the 1850s. The really interesting and exciting questions concern the alternatives that might replace it or emerge from its ashes.
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Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.