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