Alan Brinkley: What the Democrats Have to Do Now

Roundup: Historians' Take

Alan Brinkley, in the American Prospect (12-6-04):

The most sobering fact about the 2004 election is that Democrats did not profit from the significant rise in voter turnout. It has long been an article of faith among Democrats that increasing the turnout would help their candidate. But that was not the case this year. Bush drew 9 million more voters than he received in 2000, an 18-percent increase, far overshadowing Kerry’s 8-percent increase over Gore. That same increase in Republican turnout contributed to the party’s larger-than-expected gains in Congress. Even among first-time voters, expected to be a major source of Democratic strength, Kerry won only a modest majority. It’s hard to imagine voter turnout growing much above the 59 percent we saw this year. Mobilizing the base did not produce victory. So for Democrats, the only real option now is to expand their base, in part by converting Republican voters into Democratic ones.

This is precisely the reverse of the task the right faced in 1964, in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s overwhelming defeat and the rout of Republicans in Congress. For the Democrats to rebuild as the Republicans once did will require the same things that helped launch the rise of the right 40 years ago: commitment, imagination, hard work, and confidence in the importance of their task. Progressive forces have much less ground to make up than conservatives did when they began. But they cannot expect to make up that ground simply by waiting for the Republicans to fail, or for demographic trends to change the electorate in their favor, or for a charismatic candidate to emerge. They should, rather, try to emulate, at least in some ways, the great success of the right in turning itself from a frail “remnant” (as some conservatives liked to call themselves in the 1950s) into a mighty force that now dominates American politics.

The rise of the right began not so much with ideas or candidates or popular support as with infrastructure. Within months of the 1964 election, work was already under way. Richard Viguerie began constructing a vast mailing list of conservative donors from a list of 12,000 Goldwater contributors and expanded from there to more than 4 million contributors and 15 million names by the mid-1970s. Conservative campaigns had for many years been less well-funded and less well-organized than those of their rivals. In most recent elections, they have been better funded and better organized.

The right has constructed an intellectual infrastructure as well. It has created think tanks -- The Heritage Foundation; the Hoover Institution; the Cato, Hudson, Manhattan, and American Enterprise institutes; and many others -- that over time became well-endowed with money, strategies, and tactics for the war of ideas. The Federalist Society has spent years grooming aspiring lawyers to become judges. Conservatives have created their own media -- not just the small political magazines that both the left and the right have had for years but talk radio and FOX News and the large networks of evangelical cable and radio stations. The right has produced a stable of conservative journalists and pundits, who increasingly dominate political talk shows. This infrastructure operates with remarkable coordination and discipline. Those who have attended Grover Norquist’s weekly breakfasts, which fill a large hotel ballroom in Washington, have been struck by how effective the meetings are in shaping a message that many very different groups then consistently deliver.

That infrastructure has now spread into Congress. Beginning in 1993, congressional Republicans became united in their effort to ensure the failure of the Clinton presidency. There was not a single Republican vote for Bill Clinton’s tax increase that year. The filibuster, a tactic party leaders had seldom used in the past, became a routine tool of derailing any legislation Republicans did not like. The impeachment drive in 1998–99 was almost wholly partisan. Virtually no Democrats supported it. Republicans have abandoned bipartisanship as either a goal or a value. This exceptional party unity has essentially removed the Senate and the House as the checks and balances the Constitution envisioned -- except to the degree that the Democratic minority can at times derail conservative efforts. Years of Republican judicial appointments have made a large proportion of the federal judiciary reliable partners of the right as well.

And conservatives have been astoundingly effective in recent years in the mechanics of turning out their voters. They have mobilized churches and community centers and retirement homes and other institutions through which friends and neighbors bring other friends and neighbors to the polls -- as opposed to, say, anonymous college students calling Democratic voters and offering them a ride. Democrats bring voters to the polls by the carful, Republicans by the busload.

Progressives used to have an infrastructure, too: urban machines, labor unions, networks of intellectuals and university professors who provided a reliable source of ideas. But urban machines have disappeared, labor unions have declined, and the number of professors and intellectuals available for political duty has dwindled.

Liberals need to build a new infrastructure. They have already made a start. This magazine, founded 15 years ago to bring the world of ideas into progressive public discourse in much the same way that The Public Interest had done for the right, is one example of that effort. There are new progressive think tanks (John Podesta’s Center for American Progress, for example) and older progressive foundations that have become more energized (such as The Century Foundation, whose board, I should disclose, I chair). Political organizations committed to Democratic and progressive goals have become significant forces in campaigns and elsewhere: MoveOn.org, which helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to increase turnout on election day; NARAL Pro-Choice America, which has helped make women’s choice a winning issue in much of the country; the American Constitution Society, formed to offer an alternative to the Federalist Society; and others. Democrats, largely thanks to Howard Dean, learned to use the Internet earlier and more effectively than the Republicans. And Air America has begun to offer a challenge to right-wing radio.

But progressives still have a long way to go to catch up in the number, size, and resources of their institutions. Building such institutions is an essential part of the task of revival. Without them, the Democrats will remain at a significant disadvantage.

The greatest success of the modern right has been transforming conservatism into a populist phenomenon, drawing heavily from the lower middle class, the working class, and, perhaps above all, the once-Democratic South. The greatest dilemma Democrats face is how to win a significant number of those voters back. To do so, Democrats need to turn much of their attention away from culture and back toward class.

That was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s triumphant strategy in the 1930s, much aided, of course, by the Great Depression. In the 1920s, the Democratic Party had torn itself apart debating cultural issues that divided its diverse constituencies. Battles over prohibition, immigration, the Ku Klux Klan, and other explosive questions paralyzed the party (producing the famous deadlock at the 1924 Democratic convention, in which it took 103 ballots to produce a candidate with no hope of winning). But even before the Depression began, Roosevelt was thinking about how to escape these divisive issues and turn the party to questions that would cross regional and cultural boundaries. Roosevelt won two landslide victories -- with huge Democratic majorities in Congress -- by talking not about culture but about class. The New Deal coalition was united by shared economic interests, shared suspicion of corporate power, and shared commitment to aggressive government efforts to improve the lives of ordinary people. At times, Roosevelt used a language of class conflict in a manner almost without precedent in the history of the presidency. “We have earned the hatred of entrenched greed,” he said in his 1936 State of the Union address. “They seek the restoration of their selfish power. … Give them their way and they will take the course of every autocracy of the past -- power for themselves, enslavement for the public.”

No one should wish for today’s Democratic Party to adopt such language or to portray itself as the adversary of the corporate world. Nor should anyone wish for a government that ignores racial justice, as the New Deal did. That would be both bad politics and bad policy, as it was to some degree even for Roosevelt. But Democrats today need to have a clear economic message to reach those who were known in the 1930s as “the common man.” Bill Clinton was most successful when he was identifying with the plight of lower-middle-class and working-class people caught in a painful economic transition. John Kerry, perhaps less credibly, tried to use those issues as well, as did Al Gore in 2000. That both men failed to win does not discredit the value of the effort; if anything, it suggests that the efforts have not been strenuous enough.

It will not be easy to wean working-class Republicans from the cultural resentments that have displaced their economic resentments -- nor, for that matter, to wean some Democrats themselves from their preoccupation with culture wars and identity politics. Both parties have been complicit in ignoring and obscuring the terrible impact on the social fabric of the growing inequality of the last 30 years. Both have paid too little attention to the erosion of the many protections that once provided a level of security for working people. The right has done so by choice, the left by inadvertence. But the past notwithstanding, there is an opportunity for Democrats and progressives to revive such issues as health care, the minimum wage, corporate malfeasance, workers’ rights and workers’ safety, and other areas of economic security more emphatically and successfully than they have done in recent years.....

[Mr. Brinkley goes on to discuss the importance of the Democrats figuring out a way to connect to voters who want strong, patriotic leaders.]

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Michael Green - 12/18/2004

This article should be required reading for all Democrats. We can and must embrace progressivism and progressive causes. But we also have to know how to persuade others to embrace them--or to understand that they actually have been embracing them all along. Republicans understand and practice the politics of fear and exclusion, but make it sound as though they actually are being protective and inclusive. We can and must do better.