Political Dreaming: If Only the Democrats Were Better

Unless we buy the adage that it is always darkest before the dawn, there was no silver lining in Tuesday's electoral debacle. We liberals, progressives, independents and whatever else we call ourselves, are sitting pretty far outside the political power dynamic in this country, with very few tools handy to fight the power.

On Tuesday we found out that despite our most fervent hopes, many Americans like George W. Bush quite a lot. Even if they disagree with many of his positions, they will follow him because he is extremely clear and consistent in his message and he has ample opportunity to convey it (shades of Ronald Reagan).

By traveling around the country a la Bill Clinton, exhorting his troops, Bush Jr. carried the Senate over to his side, built a better cushion in the House and paved the way for all sorts of imminent nightmares: a deluge of judges in the image of Antonin Scalia; a permanent tax cut that will mean much less of a safety net for the needy, while increasing the military and the war budget; the continued Ashcroft assault on rights and liberties and on and on...but we know this. What we don't know is what we can do about it.

In our early hand-wringing stage, all we've been able to do is offer a steady chorus of attacks on the Democratic party and its candidates for their lack of message. For example, as Harold Meyerson wrote in The American Prospect: "They had no message. They were an opposition party that drew no lines of opposition. They had nothing to say. And on Tuesday, their base responded by staying home in droves."

Virtually all progressive pundits have aimed their slings and arrows at the Democrats, almost as if they all they had to do is move to the left, come out against the war and voila -- they would have overcome the powerful Republican juggernaut.

I'm pissed at the Democrats too. It's clear that many Democratic candidates failed to effectively differentiate themselves from the Republicans; the base remained unignited. But the "blame the Democrats' bad message" analysis is just not sufficient. We have to look broader and deeper if we are to reverse the conservatives' success. There are some fundamental truths about this election that can't be ignored -- including, but not limited to Bush's pronounced popularity.

The current analysis underestimates the subtext of fear, terrorism and war. The Republicans played the instrument of fear like a Stradivarius. (What good timing to have the front-page story on election day be the blowing away of semi-obscure Yemini al-Qaeda terrorist, Qaed Harethi, by a magical unmanned missile shooting plane.) It ignores the tremendous power of the President to control the discourse, especially in times of war (even a contrived war). It underestimates the difficulty in establishing the alternative narrative on economics, not a favorite theme of the corporate media who are fond of calling it "class warfare."

As Stephen Zunes writes, "It is difficult to shift public attention to domestic issues in times of international tension ... The Democratic leadership should have recognized that calls for prescription drug benefits for seniors while the nation is concerned about... a possibly devastating war simply did not catch the imagination of the voting public."

What's a Party For?

Let's face it: There was only one Paul Wellstone and he is gone. No other Senator is interested in being like Paul. Lest we have any illusions, the Democratic Party exists primarily as a money machine to get and keep Democrats elected. The candidates spend most of their time collecting money from people who don't really want them to be socialists. Until there is a powerful grassroots movement that could compensate for the huge amounts of money needed to win elections, the Democratic Party will be run by people like Terry "$17 Million Global Crossing" McAullife.

The Republican political apparatus is a powerful machine, with unlimited cash and no compunction. Maybe Wellstone would have won in Minnesota, but maybe not, given Bush's last minute push in the state, which knocked Mondale on his butt. Clearly there weren't any Wellstone coattails.

It's time to recognize that Dubya is Clintonesque and Reaganesque -- a force to be reckoned with. He has that chameleon capacity that reassures voters and a simple style that works wonders.

The Republicans may be the minority party, but for the present, they have a majority of those people who vote in this country. We need to face the fact that there's enormous work ahead if we want to see success in the electoral arena for the Democratic party.

Staying Elected

The American political system is not designed for social change. The winner-take-all format enables simplistic black and white arguments, fake positions and phony grassroots groups ... and the millions spent on dreaded attack ads. And many Democrats play this game as well as Republicans. They want to control the electorate and protect their interests too, which is how the despised Gov. Gray Davis spent well over $50 million so he could eke out a win in California against an even weaker opponent.

Davis the Democrat, it should be noted, worked hard to defeat Prop 52, Election Day Voter Registration in California, lest minorities and young people actually be encouraged to go to the polls the way they do in six other states, including Minnesota. With Democrats like Davis, we don't even need Republicans. The only reason Davis is still governor is that he spent $12 million in attack ads against the popular moderate Richard Riordan in the Republican primary, to knock him out so that the inept neophyte Bill Simon could get the nomination from the conservative Republican primary voters. Had Riordan been in the race, he would have won in a landslide.

Polls show that liberal views have the majority of public support on many issues,. On some environmental issues, up to 75 percent of the public agrees with positions on clean air and water, parks, etc., contrary to Bush's positions. But most Republicans acknowledge the popularity of enviro issues by making the right sounds at the right time. Sure they vote badly most of the time, but always manage to vote right enough to make commercials that take those issues away from the Democrats in the befuddled electorate.

Now What?

So what's a progressive to do? Unlike the right wing, progressives mostly eschew electoral politics. I know dozens of leaders of nonprofit organizations who are charismatic and electable -- but they wouldn't dream of running for office; what a dreadful thought. Occasionally progressives enter national politics and some of us work on their campaigns, but they are mostly in states where there are a lot of other progressives: think Barbara Lee of Berkeley; Bernie Sanders in Vermont; Jerry Nadler on the Westside of Manhattan; Jan Shakowsky in Chicago; and John Conyers of Detroit.

If we want Democratic candidates to run on our issues, then we have to give them a reason to, or ways to hold them accountable -- with money and troops and ongoing involvement. This is not unprecedented. In 1972, reformers, anti-war activists and idealistic young people took over the Democratic party and got George McGovern nominated for President.

Progressives have grappled with electoral ambivalence for decades. There have been various third-party efforts; the most recent being Ralph Nader's much maligned Green Party effort in 2000. But third-party strategies are severely hampered by the winner-take-all system that labels them as spoilers.

For a while in the '90s, the New Party generated a lot of excitement using the fusion model as a strategy for progressive forces to operate as advocates within the Democratic party -- as the Working Family Party currently does in New York state. But the Supreme Court dealt a fatal blow to that strategy, allowing states to continue to outlaw fusion (in which third parties can endorse candidates running as Democrats and use third-party voter strength to hold them accountable).

The model of a "party within a party" in which progressives commit to working inside the Democratic Party, recruiting candidates, running in primaries, sticking to it for the long haul and not bolting when a less than desirable candidate gets nominated, is probably the best way to go in the future. Progressive Majority, a PAC in D.C., is gaining some attention as one important part of the party-within-a-party model, as it tries to establish itself as a source of early money for progressive Congressional candidates.

The bottom line is that the most powerful forces on America's left --trade unions, religious groups, and national organizations, as well as the myriad grassroots and advocacy groups at the local level -- are going to have to find ways to not just nicely network, but to invest in serious collaborations.

The millions of unaffiliated liberals, progressives and minorities need some hope that a framework can be built with ideas and communication capacity that offers a real possibility for reform within the Democratic Party. Much of that needs to happen outside the cloistered political confines of Washington D.C. or they will continue to stay home on Election Day.

As communication activist Michael Shellenberger says: "It's not that the Democrats want to lose. It's that the Democratic leadership and their consultants are myopic in this DC culture and have come to believe that the 'tactical' approach is the right one. And too often progressive NGOs are too deferential to the Democratic leadership. Progressive NGOs -- have to step up and stop the Democratic leadership and their consultants before they lose again."

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.org.

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