Election 2004

The Problem(s) with Democrats

The author of "The Right Nation" says the gulf separating Democrats from ordinary Americans can only be bridged with real solutions to real problems.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of interviews that AlterNet plans to publish as part of its "Take America Back" coverage, which tries to make sense of the 2004 elections and put forward the best ideas on how to move ahead.

"The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" offers an unflinching assessment of the sorry state of the Left, the undisputed power of the conservatives, and the future of America – a future, the authors predict, that will be dyed an even deeper red. Reading the book is a bit like going to the dentist after a very long time: the prognosis is always gloomy and it's usually your own damn fault.

Yet "The Right Nation" is a must-read for anyone on the left willing to undertake the soul-searching required to figure out where we are and what went wrong. Its authors, The Economist's U.S. Editor John Micklethwait and its Washington correspondent Adrian Wooldridge, offer a clear-eyed perspective, undiluted by sentimentality or partisanship.

They chart the transformation of America, from the dawn of the New Deal era under FDR, through the triumph of liberalism in the 1960s, to the rise of a powerful conservative movement over the past three decades. The rise of the "Right Nation," the authors argue, is explained not just by the effectiveness of the conservative strategy, but also the failures of the Left, which include top-down liberal policies of the 1970s that went too far, too fast.

Today, the problem, says Wooldridge, is not hubris but intellectual timidity. He points out that the Democratic Party has responded to conservative gains either by turning into LINOs (Liberals In Name Only) or, failing that, by simply opposing the conservative agenda without offering one of its own. His message to liberals: get a grip and, more importantly, a couple of bold, new ideas.

While we may not all agree with Wooldridge's sense of what these ideas might be – given his affection for centrist politics a la Clinton – he does force us to ask ourselves some tough questions. What are the limits of liberalism in a society shaped by individualism and free enterprise? Will traditional liberal policies – more spending, greater benefits – work in an era of global capital? What can we learn from our own history of successes and failures?

Wooldridge spoke to AlterNet from his office in Washington D.C.

In the book, you predicted that a George Bush victory would mark the beginning of decades of Republican hegemony. But even you didn't expect him to do much better than scrape by. So does your prediction hold truer than ever?

I think the fact that he's won, and the circumstances under which he won – a bad war, a stuttering economic recovery, a net loss of jobs – does reinforce the idea that we're in for a period of conservative hegemony. But you shouldn't confuse Republican hegemony necessarily with conservative hegemony. The center of gravity is conservative which makes it much more likely that the more right-wing of the two parties will win. But you could have a Democratic White House and still have a dominance of conservative ideas.

The ruling ideas of our time are conservative, just as in the '60s, when politics was marching in the liberal direction. So even if you had a Republican president, as you did with Richard Nixon, he was pursuing essentially big government, liberal policies.

You're saying it becomes irrelevant which party ...

Not irrelevant ... What you had in the 1960s was a real belief that government was a benevolent force which could help solve people's problem. That belief has gone on much of the left, as well as on the right. So the context, the zeitgeist, if you want to put it so pretentiously, is conservative, just as the zeitgeist in the 1960's was liberal.

The "right nation" is in the driving seat and part of the reason is – as you point to in the book – the failure of the left. You argue that the lurch to the left of the Democratic party during the Johnson administration sparked a revolt among average Americans who are inherently more conservative. Is the message of the book that a lot of ideas of the left are simply too liberal for America?

I don't believe all the policies that one identifies with the 1960s were failures. What I mean by "overreach" is, firstly, pushing against certain basic American instincts, such as belief in hard work, belief in individual responsibilities, suspicion of the government.

I think the civil rights movement was a huge success and it's permanently changed the nature of America. The backlash against the civil rights movement did not stick because it was in keeping with a fundamental American value, which is that you should judge people on their individual abilities rather on their race or creed.

But there's not much emphasis in this country on making sure that people don't fall too far below the average. Once government becomes interventionist in the European sense – tries to be more redistributive and egalitarian – then it's likely to fail because it's pushing against a very fundamental American instinct.

Another way that the left overreached – in a way that has been permanently damaging to its cause – was in its lack of sensitivity to worries about law and order. In the late 1960s early 1970s, the crime rate and the murder rate is soaring, but the courts seem to be on the side of the criminals, in protecting their rights, rather than on the side of ordinary citizens.

It's particularly damaging at a time when the courts are trying to impose liberal enlightened values on a country that doesn't like them. I also mean "overreach" in that if you can't do things democratically through the legislature, then the courts can be summoned in and used to push through these policies. I think that has powered a lot of conservative backlash – the opposition to court mandated notions such as busing, Roe v. Wade etc.

So what you're saying is that they didn't do the hard work of actually persuading people at the grassroots level?

Yes, especially on the abortion issue. Look at Roe vs. Wade, look at the culture war that has surrounded abortion in this country and compare it with other European countries. All of these countries went through a period in the late 1960s-early 1970's, when abortion is legalized in various ways. In every other country, including very Catholic countries, this is something that's been achieved through the legislature, or in referendum. So when abortion is legalized, you can say, 'Look, this is the will of the people.'

In this country, it went from a position that was declared illegal to a position that was declared to be a right on the basis of the decision of judges. You can almost understand why if you move from one position to another position on the basis of a court decision, you're likely to have a culture war. You don't have the legitimacy that comes from democratic decisionmaking.

The conventional wisdom about the outcome of the elections is that the elitist uppity liberals got what they had coming for sneering at good old middle America. So you agree with that argument, in a historical sense?

Well, I think that there is a sense in which the Democratic Party has become disconnected from large numbers of people, especially in the heartland of this country.

You have in the person of John Kerry, a man whose first wife is I think worth $300 million, and his second wife is worth $600 million. And now look at Al Gore. Al Gore was the son of a senator, who, again, had a very privileged upbringing – he went to St. Albans, he went to Harvard. I can tell you that if the Labour Party had put up for its top job someone who'd been to Westminister or Eton, questions would be asked.

It seems to indicate a political elite that is out of touch with a lot of ordinary people. Now do they look down on [middle America]? People are constantly calling me, saying that the problem with this country is that there are too many stupid people in it. Whether that's true or not, it's not a very sensible attitude to have if you want to win power in a democracy.

So yes, it's true – but it's only half of the story. A bigger problem for the Democrats is not so much that they're out of touch with ordinary people, it's that they're becoming an odd alliance of two very distinct groups. There's the professional elites: the university professors, New York Manhattan dwellers, Hollywood creative types. There are a very large number of upper-professional, very, very highly educated people. And that's the group among which Democratic support has been growing most rapidly.

Then, secondly, there's the rump of blue-collar America, the ordinary working-class people in a lot of the Great Lakes states who are Democrats. There is a working class, old blue-collar element in the Democratic Party.

Now how do these two groups of people cohere? The Hollywood people and the Manhattan people belong to the global economy and they want free trade. On the other hand, a lot of the Rust Belt people are culturally conservative and economically fairly protectionist. So this is a party that has two wings that don't have very much in common.

Does this disconnect exist because the Democratic Party has long been running on watered down versions of conservative ideas? You point out in the book that all the big ideas in recent decades have come from the right. The argument put forward by many on the left is that we need to go back to the drawing board and come up with genuinely populist ideas.

Democrats do need to invest as heavily as they can in ideas. What really distinguished the conservative movement was this willingness to invest in all these think tanks, foundations, magazines, all of which develops an agenda, a worldview, set of policies.

Democrats are sitting quite happily in universities thinking up great theories, but they don't seem to be in think tanks, intimately involved in thinking about policy. For example, they should be thinking about what we should be doing about social security, instead of just saying, like Kerry did, that we're going to save it as it is. This is a system that's going bankrupt, and everyone knows it.

There's a massive problem in this country with meritocracy. This is a country built on the idea of upward mobility, and yet upward mobility in this country is in trouble. There's greater inequality. Most Americans are not unhappy with inequality, as long as there is a chance for people to get from the bottom of society to the top of society. That is getting much, much more difficult now.

And it doesn't mean going back to economic populism, which is a disaster. The idea that Republicans have won through cultural populism and so we need to fight back through economic populism is a recipe for catastrophe.

It's partly because, I think, those policies are foolish policies – sort of 1930s' Depression policies. It's also partly because the Democratic Party is a coalition between two groups, one of highly paid professionals intimately involved in the global economy, and one of blue-collar workers. As soon as you move toward economic populism, you're going to alienate the professional side – you alienate a lot of the money and a lot of the potential ideas. So you need to have a set of policies that will keep both these groups on board.

I also think this notion that there's some sort of clear and obvious antithesis between economic populism and cultural populism is nonsense. The easiest way for people to fall into poverty is to split up. Keeping families intact is a matter of economic survival for someone in the working class. So economic populism is not a way to go.

There is a perfect example of what the Democratic Party can do to become a party of government, and that is to look at what Tony Blair did. When Tony Blair took over the Labour Party, it was completely without ideas, without organization, without hope of ever winning an election – people use to joke that every Labour Party political conference was like one giant infomercial for the Tory Party. Now, Tony Blair is the most successful politician in Western Europe. He has completely marginalized the Tory party. The way he's done that is by being a successful version of Clinton – having very centrist policies.

I think that the Democratic Party needs to take leaf out of Tony Blair's book. And I don't think that is just a matter of being Republican Lite. It's a matter of producing new ideas – just as Clinton tried to do in 1992. He talked about how we're not going to be like the old Democratic Party, we're not going to be like the Republican Party, we're going to find distinctive solutions to these problems.

If the system of social security doesn't work, does that mean we're going to do exactly the same thing as George Bush? No, we have our own ideas. If the education system doesn't work, does that mean we're going to privatize the education system? No, we'll do something else.

The Democratic Party has to present itself a) as a centrist party that is in tune with the values and beliefs of ordinary people – people in Peoria – and b) as the problem-solving party. We're on the side of ordinary people and we're going to try and solve the problems that they face.

That sounds good, but the fear is that we'll end up ceding basic ideas about egalitarianism, about social justice, in the process. We can rethink the role of government, but liberals are liberals because they do have a certain set of values.

No, no, it's not necessarily about becoming like Republicans. In terms of managing the economy, being more like Republicans at the moment would be a matter of building up a gigantic deficit. I think you have to be bold. You have to be willing to work out what your desires are and design policies that reach them.

One of the things that's gone wrong with liberalism is that instead of being very clear about what your ideals are and working from your ideals to a set of policies, you start off with a sense of what the interest groups are in your party and then tailor your policies to fit those interest groups. I personally think that social justice matters and meritocracy, social mobility, matter hugely. Any party that's seriously concerned about improving the life opportunities of ordinary people and is unwilling to stand up for testing and accountability, for standards and choice in education, is shooting itself in the foot.

If your will is social justice and if you accept, I think most people do, that the most important thing people can have to compete in this economy is a good education, how can you justify giving those teachers unions a veto power over your education reforms, You can't. You have to be clear about what your ideals are and be willing to confront interest groups in order to pursue those ideals.

We have a dramatic increase of social inequality in this country, at a time when the education system is, for the poorest people, getting worse, at a time when the ladder of opportunity is getting worse. In every previous period in American history – when you have this dramatic rise in inequality – you've had progressive movements that come along to try and change that through a huge expansion of the universities or the creation of public schools. That's the sort of thing that the Democrats ought to be seizing on and addressing.

Let's talk about George Bush's second term. Bush is already claiming a mandate and the evangelical base is becoming incredibly vocal. Do you see a similar danger for the Republican Party in terms of overreaching? As you point out in your book, they too have a coalition of two separate wings: anti-government conservatives and religious conservatives. Now that the religious conservatives see themselves as the architects of the Bush victory, what perils lie ahead?

The biggest danger for this party is to overreach on the whole issue of morals and values. The party Reagan formed has always kept a very nice balance between the libertarian wing and the social conservative wing. There was a sense then that Reagan's real half was in the tax-cutting, anti-government side of things, but he made a lot of gestures to social conservatives so that they wouldn't complain.

Since then the center of gravity in the party has swung dramatically toward the social conservatives, partly because parts of the country have been experiencing a religious revival, and partly because social conservatives have moved from outside the Republican Party to inside the Republican Party. The number of evangelical Christians within the party hierarchy has increased. And partly because the center of gravity of the country has moved further away from the West to the South – there's a huge southern lock on the Republican Party.

As for the role of the evangelicals [in the elections], the numbers overstate it. It's more about organization and intensity, where the churches certainly played an important role.

So if you combine that with that fact that we have one or two or more Supreme Court appointments and the fact that this is Supreme Court issue is non-negotiable for them, that's difficult.

And it's a difficulty for them if you look at the fact that they won by three and a half million votes. That's quite a big victory, but voters can swing. The Republicans won 55 percent of married women. A lot of those people are not all card-carrying evangelical Christians. A lot of those people would shift if they thought that the Republican Party has become too much of a socially conservative party.

There are all these interest groups in the Republican Party – the business people, the intellectuals, social conservatives, the libertarians, anti-gun people. You have to give them enough to keep them fed, but not so much that they terrify the rest of the country. It could easily go wrong. You can get an overreach – exactly the way that LBJ overreached – that could lay the foundation of a Democratic revival.

What about terrorism? Do Democrats have a fundamental problem in that they are perceived as weak on law and order at home, and therefore cannot be trusted to protect the nation abroad?

Republicans always go into debates about the use of force, about the use of the military, with an advantage. Because ever since the Vietnam War, and ever since McGovern, people have been very, very suspicious of the Democrats when it comes to protecting the nation.

Many people also buy the argument that we cannot fight terrorism just by sitting here waiting for the next group of lunatics to hijack airplanes. While there are misgivings about Iraq, it's in the character of Americans to want to fight back when they're attacked. The idea of taking the war to those people and putting them on the defensive persuaded enough people for it to be a factor in the election.

So in a post 9/11 era, it looks pretty gloomy for the Democrats and liberals. If the issue is always going to be about military strength, even if there is another terrorist attack, it would just reinforce the Republican advantage.

Well, that's partly why I believe that we are in a conservative hegemony in which the balance of advantage lies with the Republicans when it comes to winning elections.

Then again, I would point to Tony Blair. Tony Blair had this brilliant idea that he came up with when he was Home Secretary: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. We'll deal with criminals but we'll also deal with the underlying causes of these crimes. We're not the Tories, just putting criminals to prison. But we're not just social workers, saying it's all society's fault. We're tough on both, we're problem solvers when it comes to both.

What the Democrats need to do is to produce some sort of similar combination: tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism. It means that they're doing more than just dropping bombs on these people, but they're also not just making excuses for them.

One last question and it's about language. There's a lot of soul-searching about our inability to communicate our core values. So it's not just about having good ideas, but being able to speak about them in a persuasive way. What do you say to that?

What the party needs to do is make sure that they don't sneer whenever they talk about evangelical Christians. I think that's a huge mistake in a very religious country.

They need to learn to put themselves on the side of ordinary Americans, who are aspirational people. What ordinary people want is a good family, a good job, and a chance for a better life. Once the Democratic Party starts talking to those people in the language of aspirations then it's surely got a very powerful selling point. That was the selling point of FDR, of JFK, of Johnson, of Clinton – that they were the side of ordinary families who play by the rules and want to get ahead. And given the huge stagnation of income, that ought be something that Democrats can capitalize on.

Don't forget: Bush won by three points, and he was extremely lucky to have done so.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of AlterNet.