Signs of Decay: The Democratic Party Has Outlived Its Best Ideas. What's Next?

The choices: centrist cynicism, "progressive" pabulum, or...?

Here are four recent news items about the Democratic Party:

• A new labor-backed group called the Partnership for America's Families, which was created to turn out nonunion voters in next year's election, named a new board after its old board fell apart over a dispute between two labor leaders.

• The split within the labor group could damage the effort to build a larger alliance of liberal organizations that includes the Sierra Club, naral Pro-Choice America, the naacp, the Human Rights Campaign, and Emily's List.

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• Gay-rights activists, children's advocates, and anti-war organizers are criticizing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for failing to stand up for their issues.

• The Campaign for America's Future's "Take Back America" conference in Washington, billed as "the biggest gathering of progressives in at least 20 years," featured booths promoting environmentalism, vegetarianism, abortion rights, and an end to the drug war.

The heart sinks. Even as you try to figure out the politics and personalities behind the feud in the new labor group and decide whether to root for Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO, or Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the heart sinks. The heart sinks at the rift between Hillary Clinton and the Children's Defense Fund -- not because you care intensely about one or the other, though you might, but because the rift is the kind that afflicts calcifying movements. The heart sinks at names like Partnership for America's Families or Campaign for America's Future. They have the air of futile calculation, like a losing basketball franchise changing its name from Bullets to Wizards. Like the word "progressive" (as opposed to "liberal," the term used by most of America's families). Because these groups, coalitions, and alliances are so obviously missing an ability to speak to Americans as a whole -- as Americans.

Nor are they particularly progressive. The four items above suggest that their mental outlook is in fact reactionary. They seem to lack altogether the imagination and daring and intuitiveness that characterize forward-thinking political tendencies. Maybe the dispute between the labor leaders involves core values of unionism in America. Maybe the advocacy groups have good reason to be unhappy with their erstwhile champion. Maybe the "Take Back America" conference will set the agenda for the Democratic Party in the coming year. But regardless of the merits, and taken together, these stories are undeniably symptoms of political decay. In some future era they will strike historians as byzantine indicators of an epoch's end, the way accounts of internal feuding among left-wing factions in the '40s now sound to us. In fact, the item about the "Take Back America" conference immediately reminded me of something George Orwell wrote in another age and context: "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England."

The nature of the decay is not hard to see. The four news items all exemplify the same thing: that the party's activist base is made up of small-minded, turf-conscious groups, that these groups see politics as a checklist of "their" issues, and that by some historical process that has long since outlived its own vitality, they have ended up under the same label because they are all somehow "progressive," though no one can say exactly what that means beyond enumerating the checklist of groups and issues.

Everyone knows that the Democratic Party has lost its way. The Clinton years once seemed to have ended a long-term decline -- but they only slowed it, and that only temporarily. Clinton's political genius was to convey an adherence to liberal values while abandoning liberal positions. This served him very well, but it didn't serve his party. It was an entirely personal achievement. Since then the party's decline has picked up speed, with the low, ominous rumble of a landslide. These days one has the sense of having leap-frogged the Clinton years backward and landed in some sunless late afternoon of the Mondale-Dukakis era.

There's a standard response to the standard topic of Democratic decline, and it amounts to a choice between the self-described centrism of the Democratic Leadership Council and the self-described progressivism of the party's base -- a choice between cynicism and inertia, moral nullity and intellectual collapse. If the Democrats' two available electoral strategies are either to make the party acceptable to 50 percent of Americans plus one, or to tap the knee of a smaller number and get a violent reflex, it ought to be clear that the problem is more than strategic.

In moments of despair it helps to take the long view. The long view of the Democratic Party shows this: At some point over the past quarter-century, its political identity -- its constituent groups, its issues, its vocabulary -- was overtaken by history. The machinery has kept working long after the organism's core energy died away. It's a normal political process, though in this case abnormally prolonged by the Clinton years. In the past half-century the Democratic Party has gone through the cycle twice. In 1952, after two decades of continuous Democratic rule, the early idealism of the New Deal had hardened into established institutions of government. When Adlai Stevenson emerged that year as the party's leader, sensitive observers were quick to see that he represented something new. He didn't talk like a New Dealer. He seemed to go out of his way to irritate the members of the Democratic coalition -- the unionists, the Southerners, the party bosses, the civil-rights activists. He let them know that they didn't own him, and whatever the merits of his positions, he managed to shed the necrotic political skin of an era that was already ending. "I get so sick of the everlasting appeals to the cupidity and prejudice of every group which characterize our political campaigns," Stevenson said. "There is something finer in people; they know that they owe something too."

The economic basis of the New Deal coalition had run out of juice in the postwar boom. Stevenson, with his wit and detachment and quiet fervor, spoke to a new kind of liberal: middle class, high-minded, unwilling to be defined by ethnicity or income, driven more by moral and social issues than by the old bread-and-butter concerns. His campaign had the freshness and energy of Roosevelt's first run 20 years earlier. And though Stevenson lost twice, he made the Kennedys possible. He was the first '60s liberal.

The cycle occurred in conservatism as well, not so long ago. The business-class, Protestant, northeastern Republican Party remained the visible face of the GOP well past its expiration date. But eventually the party's strategists and thinkers were shrewd enough to see that the future lay in the harder-edged Sun Belt. Starting with Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964, over a long period of further defeats and partial victories, they shifted the party's center of gravity to where it is today under George W. Bush and Tom DeLay. In doing so they constructed a philosophical spinal cord of deep hostility -- economic and moral -- toward government. Signs of intellectual atrophy in the GOP have been apparent for several years, but Republicans are such relentless organizers and skilled fighters, and the anti-government message remains so contagiously simple that, as with the Democrats of the late '40s, the party's power has outrun its vitality.

"The ideas of one generation become the instincts of the next," D.H. Lawrence wrote in an essay called "Making Love to Music." He was talking about sex, but it's also true of politics. The instincts of the Democratic Party today are basically to defend the achievements of the last generation. And with a Republican administration ruthlessly bent on undoing most of them, it's important to make such a defense. But defending Medicare lacks a certain quality of inspiration -- and anyway, the issue is too easily co-opted by the other side. The party today is the political carcass of the last great liberal surge, from the '60s and early '70s. It's been ready for the taxidermist for some time now. Perhaps Howard Dean will turn out to be the Adlai Stevenson of the 2004 election, or perhaps it will be John Kerry, or someone else (the most obvious candidate for the job, unfortunately, is a Republican -- John McCain). But thus far no one has emerged with the imagination and intuition to apprehend what might be the new shape of the American electorate -- to articulate its buried feelings and, in doing so, to create a new politics.

If I had to propose an organizing theme -- one big enough to encompass a range of issues and constituents -- it would be that of the national community. We will be living for a long time in the shadow of September 11. Rather than avoiding the changes it brought, and the questions it raises, Democrats should never stop pointing out the many ways in which the administration has betrayed the sense of unity that followed the terror attack -- with cynical manipulation, and sham patriotism, and grossly unequal sacrifice, and a humanitarianism that seems to apply only to people living under Muslim tyrannies. Changing the subject from national crisis to prescription drugs might make short-term tactical sense, or it might not. But it will absolutely not touch a deeper chord capable of moving people who didn't attend the Campaign for America's Future's "Take Back America" conference. The public knows that we've passed from an era of irresponsibility to one of heavy responsibility. The division of its burdens, among Americans living today and between this generation and the next, should be fair. And the benefits of security -- not just in being protected from sudden obliteration, but in jobs, in health, and in quality of life -- should be shared. A desire for such things might still lie untapped beneath the nation's apparent unity behind Bush's war on terror.

Adlai Stevenson is a dubious, if not perverse, political role model. He lost twice. I hope the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she will be, wins in 2004, because the policies of the Bush administration are vicious and ruinous. But there is something worse than losing, and that is losing pointlessly, which is how Al Gore lost (or, as you might have it, how he won). The way for the party not to lose pointlessly is to proceed incautiously. The most attractive candidate will be the one who airs ideas that risk alienating a constituent of the alliance -- not, in Clinton's manner, for tactical reasons, but because the ideas might be good ones and might catch the public pulse as Stevenson did half a century ago, making future victories possible. n

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