Hurricane Katrina

Missing the Katrina Moment

The Democratic leadership seems somehow unable to grasp the huge gap in outrage between them and their base.
I recently received a letter from Nancy Pelosi, my close personal friend. Well, at least the letter was addressed "Dear Friend." If I sent the Democrats $25 or more, I would be the lucky recipient of something not available in any store, anywhere--the "Democrats Fighting Donkey Lapel Pin! Exclusively Yours!"

The letter said that the "conventional wisdom here in Washington says that it's better just to go along and get along." But the Democrats were not going to do that, Pelosi insisted. "I am going to work hard and fight alongside Senator Reid and all the Democrats in Congress to make sure we are asking the tough questions" of John Roberts and other judicial nominees. Hmm, I guess that explains Reid's instantaneous puckering up to Harriet Miers and the Democratic split on the Roberts vote.

The letter assured me that the Democrats will "ensure your rights are safeguarded." Which Democrats? The increasingly Republican-lite Hillary Clinton, who, whatever her celebrity status, cannot win the presidency and has sold out on everything from the invasion of Iraq to abortion rights? John Kerry? Joe Biden? As compelling as the donkey pin offer was, I resisted temptation. The letter is now making its own contribution to Ann Arbor's recycling program. When we have to turn to The West Wing to hear a sophisticated dismissal of intelligent design by a fictional presidential candidate, or fantasize about Geena Davis being president, we know just how bereft we are.

There have been the intermittent reports and think pieces about how the Democrats need an agenda, their own "Contract with America," since people don't seem to know what they stand for. Indeed, in my letter from Pelosi, the "demands" that were listed were all about rolling back the excesses of the Bush administration--saying no to privatizing Social Security, stopping cuts to veterans programs and the like.

But where is the bold, pro-active agenda? To create one, they would do well to get out of Washington, fast, away from the consultants and politicos, and talk to everyday people. They would get an earful, and it would be ferocious. The Democratic leadership seems somehow unable to grasp the huge gap in outrage between them and their base. Go anywhere, talk to people who are Democrats or, poor souls, progressives, and the sheer fury of everyday people, if it could be harnessed, would solve this winter's upcoming energy crisis. People are not only enraged; they are also deeply worried.

Hurricane Katrina not only changed things for the Republicans--it changed things for Democrats too. Katrina exposed the nation's continuing failures to combat poverty and racism; it exhumed, from the '70s, awareness of the country's energy dependency and profligacy; it showed that we can move people in and out of a Big Ten football game more efficiently than out of the path of a storm; it showed that you actually need a functioning federal government; and it revealed our contempt for the elderly and the sick. (Indeed, we desperately need an 80-year-old rapper to proclaim "George Bush hates old people.")

So, while it was fun to pop champagne corks when Tom DeLay was indicted, and when the networks, in mid-October, revealed the White House's careful rehearsals with soldiers in Iraq for a supposedly "spontaneous" exchange with the president, the Democrats must see the implications of Katrina for them.

On the Sunday talk shows, various representatives of the party are urging, and taking, the oft-cited advice from Napoleon, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." When is the last time we remember the Republicans doing this? It is this silence--that comes across as sheer cowardice--that is enraging people and could make a turn to a third party much more attractive to many more people. Pelosi and the lugubrious Reid are reportedly meeting with mayors and governors to develop a strategy for 2006. But where are the meetings with actual people? Where is Howard Dean's barnstorming of the country, with town meetings everywhere, to get a reality check on the passion of the people?

In fact, it is that very passion that seems to scare the Democratic leaders. The Republicans have, in addition to demonizing "liberals," succeeded in marginalizing the party's own base in the eyes of its timid and compromised leaders as too fervent, too far to the left. This is no mean achievement given how much farther out of the mainstream the religious right is. How else can you explain the utter absence of Democratic leaders at the enormous antiwar march in late September?

Hurricane Katrina has created the moment for a true paradigm shift in American politics, because many Americans have actually become scared about what it means to have an eviscerated, dysfunctional federal government. That's what Democrats would hear if they listened to their base, instead of shunning it as their own advisors have convinced them to do. If they miss the Katrina moment, it will go down as one of the biggest political blunders of the early 21st century.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and author of "The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined Women."