America’s Democrats won’t unseat the Republicans by adopting their languages and policies. Their job is to oppose
Michael Lind’s analysis of the 2004 presidential election (Prospect, January) was intelligent and well informed, but it may have assumed, or imposed, a rationality on the part of voters that doesn’t actually exist.
I should declare at the outset that my thoughts are predicated on a belief that George W Bush’s presidency is a catastrophic failure. His first four years were distinguished by staggering fiscal profligacy, an unjustified war inadequately prepared and ineptly managed, official mendacity on an epic scale, a net loss of jobs (the first such during any presidential term in the last 70 years), a bumptious fuck-you diplomacy directed at allies and adversaries alike, and divisive and gratuitously provocative domestic initiatives.
These failures were public knowledge before the election. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the media may have been inclined to treat the Bush presidency with deference, but by the early months of 2004 that situation had begun to change. There were at least hints the Iraq war was going badly, the ostensible reasons for its being fought had been revealed as false, the barbaric treatment of political prisoners had been exposed, the regressive nature of administration taxation policy was well known, the immensity of federal deficits was a matter of wonderment and dismay. In addition, by late spring, the country was awash in books adumbrating these failures, many of them written by conservatives disenchanted with the man they had supported and in some cases worked for. As the election season proceeded, a large number of well-known Republicans refused to endorse Bush’s re-election, and stated their reasons in signed editorials appearing in big American newspapers.
So how could he possibly win? One answer arguably subsuming all others is that America has historically been a very conservative country. The notion of the Democrats as the party of government results from a historical accident: In the mid-20th century, because of the great depression, followed almost immediately by the second world war, Democrats controlled the presidency for 20 years. Leaving aside this exceptional Roosevelt-Truman period, however, Democrats have retained the presidency for more than two consecutive terms only twice. Even during the 1920s, when the corruption of the Harding administration was followed by the vacuity of the Coolidge administration, Democratic nominees remained unelectable. Only with economic calamity were the cards reshuffled.
This reshuffling proved temporary. It is likely that the country would have reverted to conservatism regardless, but the Democrats’ embrace of the civil rights movement cost them whatever advantage they still retained. Lyndon Johnson predicted that by signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act he was passing political control to the Republicans for a generation at least.
Republicans won the very next election, and seven out of the next ten. In 1968 Richard Nixon formed an alliance with southerners who abandoned the Democratic party—completing a shift that had been coming for over a decade—and the US has been Republican ever since. The situation has, if anything, become more pronounced in the last decade, despite Bill Clinton’s two terms. According to recent polling conducted by Stan Greenberg, almost 60 per cent of southerners now identify themselves as Republican, as do 63 per cent of white men under the age of 50 nationwide, 56 per cent of white men over the age of 65, and 72 per cent of those who consider themselves evangelical Christians. The bar for Democrats is therefore set almost impossibly high, and a Democratic victory must be regarded as a fluke. It isn’t enough for the party to field a demonstrably superior candidate or even to present policy choices more in line with American thinking and economic self-interest (all of which in fact occurred in 2004). For a plurality of American voters, casting a Republican ballot has become habitual, a default position, an automatic choice. It is a form of brand loyalty and self-definition, as irrational and as difficult to eradicate as the choice of cigarette or beer. As Michael Lind suggests, the widely trumpeted role of the religious right, and the role of ideologues generally, are easy to exaggerate. Most voters don’t vote ideologically; a distressing number don’t even vote knowledgably.
What tack should Democrats take? Predictably, many professional politicians advocate aping the Republicans (the obverse of what many ambitious Republicans were accused of doing during the Roosevelt-Truman years and beyond; it’s generally forgotten that Richard Nixon, for example, styled himself a liberal right through the 1960 presidential campaign). Already, some Democrats have started invoking God and injecting the word “values” into every speech, as if simply repeating the mantra can alter the political dynamic.
There have also been attempts to pull the party to the right on such social issues as gay marriage and gun ownership (no serious Democrat ever endorsed gay marriage or advocated outlawing hunting weapons, but a majority of US voters believe otherwise) and abortion. Just before Christmas, Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator, was quoted as saying Republicans had “been successful at painting the view of the pro-choice movement as abortion on demand—and nothing can be farther from the truth.” The only problem with this pronouncement is that it is wrong: “abortion on demand” is a sly way of characterising the pro-choice position as facile and irresponsible, but it isn’t inaccurate. If you support a woman’s right to choose abortion, then by any definition what you support is abortion on demand.
Professional politicians depend on victory for their careers, so it isn’t surprising when they panic at the prospect of defeat and abandon core principles; some politicians can even be intimidated by a mere slogan. But for ordinary citizens, this looks like pusillanimous and pointless pandering. Democrats aren’t going to win elections by becoming Republican-lite, or dissimulating a set of beliefs they don’t actually hold. A political party isn’t a business enterprise formed exclusively to achieve success in the marketplace. Naive as it may sound, a political party is supposed to represent a set of principles. Even granted the real-world necessity for finesse and tactical deftness, some principles must be considered sacrosanct or the party has no purpose. It has to stand for something.
The Democrats, the oldest organised political party in the world, have traditionally stood for enlightened liberal governance, social as well as economic. To abandon that stance now would be a shameful abdication. To maintain it, even as a minority party, would guarantee that, should the party eventually win an election, it will be prepared to govern.
This could happen sooner than conventional wisdom allows. The current Republican hegemony can’t last forever. As Lind points out, Bush’s margin of victory wasn’t large (it was, in fact, the narrowest re-election of any sitting president ever). Polling suggests a general disenchantment with his governance. And pigeons sometimes do come home to roost. For the time being, though, Democrats remain the opposition party. To play that role, they should bear in mind how democracy functions. The opposition isn’t there to apologise for its existence and get out of the way. The purpose of the opposition is to oppose.