To Ralph Nader,, and many political activists and observers, the remedy for the faltering Democrats seems obvious. Rick Perlstein identifies it as a return to a finely honed version of economic populism—finely honed because he seems to endorse Bill Clinton’s second-term shift to fiscal responsibility (read balanced budgets achieved through cutting social programs, especially income support for the long-term unemployed, and slashing more than 200,000 federal jobs). Look at the polls: most Americans want universal health care and do not object to government programs directed toward fulfilling the long-deferred dream of increased equality. Perlstein’s argument goes a step further to suggest that the Democrats abandon their incessant short-term strategies, especially pandering to the so-called swing voters, who are, in his view, not predominantly centrist.

The main problem is not the solution but the audience. Apart from its social liberalism—often uttered in a backhanded, embarrassed rhetoric—since the 1990s the Democrats have become a party of moderate conservatism, against the radical rightist Republicans whose national administration, following Ronald Reagan’s playbook, has adopted a policy of military Keynesianism. In its pursuit of global dominance, the Bush administration has rolled up astounding deficits, chiefly for military spending; in the guise of Medicare reform, it has sponsored a massive giveaway to private pharmaceutical companies. The Democrats have consistently voted for these programs in great numbers even as they howl about the accumulated red ink. More to the point, after a stunning come-from-behind presidential primary victory, in spring 2004 a loyal Democratic Leadership Council member, John Kerry, could not find a surefooted way of addressing the disastrous Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Iraq policy, since he had been complicit in approving the Congressional resolution mandating the invasion. Nor was Kerry prepared with a bold job-creation program to deal with the growing structural unemployment in the economy. Instead, he followed a DLC-like course, promising tax cuts to corporations that did not outsource jobs abroad, and creating domestic jobs.

Can the Democrats return to their liberal traditions? Can they replicate the economic populism that animated William Jennings Bryan’s three losing presidential races, which, with the help of the labor movement’s 1930s upsurge and a terrified but visionary patrician president, contributed to fulfillment of the progressives’ 30-year dream? I would not be so foolish as to predict that it is too late for the Democrats. After all, from Roosevelt to Kennedy they rode to victory on the basis of a solid, segregationist South. Then, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson capitulated to the black freedom movement’s demands for an end to the legal basis of Jim Crow. This act of political suicide helped defeat the Democrats in all but a single presidential election for 18 years.

Yet unlike Bryan, whose rise was propelled by a vigorous agrarian populism, save for movements for sexual freedom, the post-1960s Democrats have not felt the heat from below. Owing to a national policy that favors big business, small farmers are virtually extinct, and the civil-rights movement suffers from very selective success. Affirmative action has swelled the ranks of black professionals, but few look back at the masses of urban blacks wallowing in poverty, especially the millions of black men who are permanently unemployed. The labor movement, which still accounts for 24 percent of the voters in national elections, is too scared and scarred to make significant demands. Instead it pours tens of millions of dollars into Democratic Party coffers and millions more into attack ads that help the party during election campaigns. In April 2004 the leading feminist organizations were able to turn out a million marchers for abortion rights, many of them young, independent voters. Kerry greeted the march with his usual “I’m personally opposed to abortion but . . .,” and, in the same month, he went out of his way to announce his opposition to gay marriage. Kerry and the Democrats are constantly looking over their shoulders to the ghost of social conservatism.

It may be that, in the closing weeks of the election, Kerry will heed the warnings—not the least of which emanates from Nader’s independent candidacy—that unless he opposes the administration’s militarism and moves toward an aggressive economic populism that promises universal health care and real jobs, he risks defeat. Conservatism, as Perlstein points out, cannot mobilize the discontented. To be sure, Bush will lose some conservative voters because of his profligacy. But to sacrifice the chance of bringing millions of new voters into the electorate for ephemeral conservative gains corresponds to the deep-seated reserve of the centrist strategists who run Democratic campaigns. The trick is to hold on to the centrists who, after all, have no place to go while reaching out to Americans (perhaps a majority) who have serious doubts about U.S. foreign policy and are feeling the cold wind of economic insecurity, whether they have a job or not. For the new feature of the current malaise is that the growing army of knowledge workers, as well as industrial and service workers, know they are subject to outsourcing, technological displacement, and wage stagnation. Some may vote for Democrats out of sheer frustration. Hearing no answers, others may stay at home.

Then there are the 20 million full-time workers who earn wages at or below the ridiculously low poverty line. The tacit policy of both political parties has been to ignore this large segment of the adult population. Some are immigrants who cannot vote. But most are eligible to register. If they are mobilized to go to the polls it would be a signal that the Democrats intend to reverse direction. If only 20 percent of this group—largely black and Latino—actually votes, the party’s candidates would win handily in November. The downside is that in platform and rhetoric the Democrats would need to acquire a class line. And herein lies a conundrum. The 2004 Democratic Party is still committed to a swing-voter strategy that implies a distinctly corporate and upper-middle-class constituency. Unless the Democrats seriously try to attract the largely unorganized working poor, they are doomed to fight within the narrow compass of the fraction of the adult population whose economic station is toward the top of the social structure. And that is not the stuff that dreams are made of.

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Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.