Winter of Malcontents

In the absence of a dynamic political movement with democratic values, the electorate can use magnificent institutions to make inhumane decisions.

—Michael Harrington,

Towards a Democratic Left

The election was bad but the Wednesday-morning quarterbacking was worse. John Kerry should have had a program, defined himself, stayed off the slopes, counterattacked, embraced his base, denounced the war. The Democratic Party needed to rediscover the black vote, tell gays to chill, nominate Howard Dean. Locating culpability won’t change things, however — you can’t sue history. Besides, Kerry, despite his flaws, was a decent and honorable candidate and in normal times would have likely won. The problem is that we do not live in normal times and might not again for a long time.

Instead, we’ve fallen down a black hole of cynicism and can’t get up, our political language is drenched with sneering innuendo that turns every act of good will on its head and challenges the most self-evident facts. Kerry is a war hero? You mean, Kerry says he’s a war hero. The Democrats support the war on terror? No, the Democrats "support" the war on terror. This Pravda-ization of news and analysis is a powerful weapon, and the Republican Party owns it — along with all three branches of government.

Ah, the GOP. The party of Lincolns (and Cadillacs), blog cabins and snake handlers. There is some silver lining in the party’s dark triumph — the more victorious it is, the sooner it might split and collapse into its constituent factions of far right, center far right and extreme far right. And at least individual Republicans have been much more critical of the war, the looting of the treasury and the ignored warnings about al Qaeda than the Democratic Party as a whole. The sad thing is that for four years we’re going to have to look to a few maverick conservatives to lead congressional dissent.

There are already sketchy ideas diagramming how the Democrats can come back in 2008, but the party will be sunk in Pearl Harbor before they’ve even started their engines unless they figure out how to brush off and bounce back the Republican insinuation campaigns. One 2008 scenario, for example, envisions a Hillary-Barack ticket, but you can already imagine the Republican strategy for peeling off the two senators’ base supporters, women and minorities: Hillary Clinton says she doesn’t believe in witchcraft, but then why is she for teenage abortion? Or, "Obama" it rhymes with "Osama." Why won’t he change his name aren’t American names good enough for him?

It’s conventional wisdom, so to speak, to say that senators never get elected president and that the Democrats must now return to nominating governors from swing or Southern states — harmless, unworldly centrists beloved by their states’ voters. But November’s election has shown that the electorate is moved far less by personalities (a majority of polled Americans disapproved of Bush and the job he’s doing) than by ideas — or rather, emotions. That is why the party must identify and address the hopes and fears of Americans — not to demagogically twist them into votes, but to fire "the base" into believing their party means something and has the will to represent it. When Americans think a candidate or a party believes in something, they believe in that party — and on Election Day don’t require a college volunteer to drive them to the polls.

Commenting on the Democrats’ loss 37 years ago, also suffered during wartime, the political scientist Michael Harrington predicted that when the new Republican president and his conservative Congress ended their terms, the war would be over but "the United States is likely to have more problems than now, more racism, more urban deterioration." Harrington saw in that fact opportunities for a new democratic left. Instead, the party got Jimmy Carter, one of those benign Southern governors. The Democrats have four years to figure out if they want what Harrington described as "fanatics of moderation" or to stake out new territory in a radically reconfigured Democratic Party.

In the meantime, while we await the Republicans to devour themselves, there are some things we can do:

•Never forget the last two elections. November 7, 2000, was the original sin after which the GOP’s army of flying monkeys was allowed to steal the vote in the courts and in the tallying rooms of Florida. The Democratic leadership cravenly caved in, setting the stage for this year’s debacle. (Rest assured that had 2000's result been reversed, George W. Bush would still be withholding his concession speech as his minions continued their legal efforts.)

•Admit that while the Red(neck) states chose for their leader a man who was inferior to his opponent in virtually every category, at least they were honest in their feelings. The left is so mired in political correctness and paralyzed by social allergies that we cannot even laugh like the majority of Americans. Our sense of humor is not what makes others laugh — ethnic accents, jokes about size or ugliness are not in our public vocabulary, the way pet is verboten for animal-rights fanatics. We’ve got to learn that speaking like the rest of American is not always a hate crime.

•Get used to the fact that the great majority of Americans loathe the idea of gay marriage — and probably individual gays as well. Christopher Bowman, a San Francisco Log Cabin delegate to the Republican National Convention, predicted in August that Bush’s anti–gay marriage stand would cost the president 4 million votes of angry gay Republicans, their friends and relatives. But it wasn’t necessarily 4 million evangelicals who made up the difference for Bush — just 4 million people who hate gays. (This is why the Democratic Party was so afraid to embrace black civil rights after WWII — it would’ve cost them the Deep South.) Start thinking about how much it would bother you if the Democrats come out against gay marriage in 2008. Maybe it’s not your party after all, and maybe gays will be better off fighting for their rights in the streets the way blacks and suffragettes did before them.

•Recognize that this was the most important election of our generation and we lost it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, or that these bad times will pass, the pendulum will eventually swing the other way, etc. Because the pinball machine is rigged to stay this way for a long while now, and in the meantime it’s going to get a lot hotter and dirtier down here on Planet Earth. Ever wonder what would have happened if Herbert Hoover had been re-elected? Or how you would have behaved during the McCarthy era or the reign of Jim Crow? You’ve now got four years to find out.

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