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A Goldwater Moment 

It’s 1964 all over again, but this time for the Democrats

Thursday, Jan 20 2005
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Listen: You can already hear the sound of a thousand conservative axes sharpening, and not just in the national forests. We’ve already seen Alberto Gonzales and heard about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge going on the block, but that’s kid stuff. Starting with Social Security, the conservative movement hopes to finally undo as much of the 20th century’s political progress as it can in the next four years — and slip in a right-wing social agenda while they’re at it. With a continuing grip on the House and the largest Republican majority in the Senate in years — even Daschle got sniped! — they just might get their way.

But let’s not retreat from the storm into melancholy. There is a lot to be learned from the other side’s success. The reason conservatives are getting their crack at the top is because they patiently plotted their way there. 2004 was the successful reward of careful planning begun 40 years ago, when conservatives realized that they had to package and sell their Idea, and they began building a network of well-financed educational institutions, think tanks, nonprofit organizations and media outlets to turn out armies of legislators, leaders and activists to do so. This is Hillary Clinton’s "vast, right-wing conspiracy" or what Rob Stein at the New Democrat Network more precisely calls "The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix" in a Powerpoint presentation that maps it all out with graphs and flow charts, from the Heritage Foundation to the 700 Club to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. This network is real; it works; and the Democrats need to stop complaining about it and get one of their own.

It was Tucker Carlson whom I first heard suggest that the past election might be a "Goldwater moment" for Democrats, and difficult as it is to take seriously a young man wearing a bow tie on television in the 21st century, I hope he’s right. Because that was when conservatives took the long view — and that’s what we need to do now.

Recall that Barry Goldwater, backed by a new breed of conservatives, won only six states — one of the worst defeats in history. How did those conservatives respond? Not by soul-searching or compromise or blaming each other. They returned quietly to the drawing board and figured out how to win — not next election, or even the one after that. Instead, they set sights on a distant future when compromise would be unnecessary because their Idea would have grown deeper roots. This is what Pat Buchanan meant when he described politics as a culture war. Conservatives understood that they would lose the battles of that war in the cultural landscape of 1964, so they set about to change the landscape altogether. Now, those conservatives control the Republican Party and much of the government.

Democrats must assimilate this lesson. Individual storylines and characters are meaningless compared to the master narrative. The $600 million each candidate spent this year trying to tell his story to the voters was mostly wasted, as only 16 and 15 percent, respectively, of Bush and Kerry voters later reported that they ever considered switching their allegiance. But on the Republican side their money is essentially a write-off, a financial feint to fool the Democrats into putting their chips into a losing game. Because the political investment that pays Republicans real dividends is the $300 million that steadily churns through the conservative money matrix each year, framing the debate, honing the Idea and promulgating their master narrative with an avalanche of superior ad copy.

We should try to match this budget — and put it to proper use. With great promise, 2004 was the first time progressives raised the kind of money conservatives have long had available to them. Sadly, these vast sums went to one-shot efforts like candidacies (and losing ones at that). If we can continue that participatory and fund-raising momentum, however, and use it to lay the foundation for our own network of institutions, we’ll be able to hone the progressive Idea, and start to frame the debate ourselves to make it stick.

Because what the conservatives have demonstrated since 1964 is that the heavy machinery of modern politics is long-term marketing. All the conventional wisdom about Democrats’ flaws, including their supposed lack of a message, is just part of the relentless Republican message. It’s not that the Republican message is any more consistent, by the way — they just say it is. And they’ve been on it, uniformly, for 30 years. This is how Bush can turn Clinton’s balanced budget and surplus into the largest public debt in history and still label Democrats as the big spenders. Or install a special revolving door in the White House for giant corporate cronies and still be seen as the friend of small business. The lesson: Control language, and you can control the political culture.

Which is why the hubbub about Howard Dean at the helm of the DNC or Harry Reid’s nominally pro-life politics is largely insignificant. To even talk about "the center" is to have the wrong conversation, because what that center means is not being defined by us. The right’s key insight in 1964 was not to play to the center, but to pick it up and move it — and all Democratic politics will be following rather than leading until we do the same.

Yes, we should fight the short-term skirmishes and try to win them. But Democrats need to escape the trap of looking at politics as a series of campaigns and trade tactics for strategy. "The fight for 2008 starts today," said the leftie blogs on November 3, 2004. Good hustle, people! — but it will be better directed toward building a long-term progressive majority over the next several decades.

 

If that sounds far-fetched it’s because the Republican messaging matrix wants it that way. Despite GOP advances this year, we’re in a pretty good position to get started. First off, the national political split is still about even. And in addition to the widely reported red-shifting exurban counties and softer Democratic support among white males and Latino voters, there were many positive signs in this year’s demographics. Montana has a Democratic governor, the first in 20 years. In the red state of Colorado, Ken Salazar beat Pete Coors, scion of the charter member family and primary patron to the vast right-wing conspiracy. Kerry also performed better than expected in both states. Further east, in Minnesota, as the GOP salivated over Bush winning the Wellstone state (he didn’t), the regional Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party erased a 28-member GOP majority in the statehouse.

In all these instances, there was strong rural and suburban support, where average folks were tired of moralizing ultraconservatives overplaying their hand. This is where the long-term weakness lies, because the Republicans have created a patchwork party with the slimmest majority, and the Democrats have the opportunity to formulate themselves as an opposition for those who are disappointed with the conservatives’ arrogance of power.

And behind the story of high evangelical turnout is that 20 percent of them voted for Kerry. We often forget that religious people were naturally progressive before the conservatives spent 40 years and a lot of money convincing them otherwise. It will take a long time, but progressives need to embrace and recapture religion. With an institutional framework in place to capitalize on latent progressive sentiment there and elsewhere, we could build a permanent majority in much less time than it took conservatives to come this far. Remember: Democrats aren’t anywhere near the conservative nadir of 1964, and we have the chance to be well-funded from the start. Rove wasn’t even a college Republican yet when Democrats predicted his party wouldn’t survive 1964. Now he’s gleefully predicting the Democrats’ demise. Let’s hit the drawing board and give the guy a run for his money.

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