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Democrats' Recovery Begins by Looking in the Mirror

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette

November 4, 2004

[See Nicholas Johnson's companion column, in the November 6 Des Moines Register, evaluating the campaign as a citizens' civics class and the candidates as its professors, "Election As a Civics Class," and  the commentary of others on related themes.]

Leading Democrats, bright, well informed, and shaped on the anvil of political experience, have created today’s Democratic Party. I am a lifelong Democrat, but I feel marginalized within my party by this crowd.

It is a party more than willing to compromise its positions in order to collect the corporate and other financial contributions it believes necessary to wage politics against Republicans.

It is a party that was commendably willing to lose its “solid south” to the Republicans over the principle of civil rights. But, having done so, a party satisfied to rely on its support in New England, three west coast states, and a share of those in the upper Midwest – islands of blue in the sea of a red nation.

It is a party willing to turn its back, if necessary, on its old base of the rural and urban poor, working poor, working class and lower middle class – lest it be charged with waging “class warfare” – in its appeal to the “middle class,” suburbanites and elites.

“Plan your work and work your plan,” is the Willie Loman salesman’s adage. The signs that 2000 and 2004 would turn out as they did have been clear for 30 years. The Republicans had a plan and they’ve worked it, with patience, genius, luck – and now the reward of total control of the American government.

They identified the moneyed folks to support the effort. They used that money to create right wing think tanks and infiltrate the academic community. They captured talk radio and turned it not only ideological, but partisan Republican. Love it or hate it, they had their ideology down, their talking points simple and pat, their “Contract on America.” They succeeded in snarling the word “liberal” as if it only had four letters.

As Thomas Frank explains in What’s the Matter with Kansas, they have successfully run a shell-and-pea game with the old Democratic base. They offer them promises regarding abortion, God, guns and gays – promises never kept. In exchange, they have been able to, as Frank puts it, persuade farmers to vote themselves off the land, union members to vote against union wages, workers to vote their jobs overseas, and parents to vote to load their children with enough national debt to insure they will never get a college education or health care.

Meanwhile, the gap between their income and that of America’s richest, which President Bush referred to as “my base,” continues to grow. Corporate profits and CEOs’ pay accelerates.

You may disagree with the Republicans’ programs, you may even find them despicable. But you have to admire their pure political genius in continually winning at this con game.

Today’s dominant Democrats, by contrast, having abandoned their past, now lack a vision, an ideology, a program – or even a political strategy. Where are their think tanks? Where is their equivalent of the right-wing Republican talk show hosts? Are they even willing to fight for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine?

President Kennedy once published a book entitled Profiles in Courage. Today’s leading Democrats seem much more willing and able to show us their profiles than their courage.

They had an opportunity to do a little introspection after the results in 2000. What could they have done better? They chose, instead, to look for a scapegoat, and found it in Ralph Nader.

Vice President Gore would have easily won had he held the support of Democrats. There were many multiples more Democrats who voted for Bush than there were Democrats who voted for Nader. And more than half of those who voted for Nader were either Republicans or indicated that, but for Nader, they would not have voted at all.

Never mind that, said the party’s apologists, “It’s all Nader’s fault.”

This year the Democrats don’t have Nader, or anyone else, to scapegoat.

Perhaps now we will, at long last, take a look in the mirror, finally devise our own 30-year strategy, and begin the long, hard walk down the dusty road to recovery.

Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Related Commentary

Given the intensity of feeling and interest going into the 2004 presidential campaign, the amount of commentary coming out of it should not be surprising.

There are undoubtedly thousands of columns commenting on what it means. Count the letters to the editor, blog entries, and emails between friends, and it may well go into the millions.

This column of mine, above, was written about 5:00 a.m. the morning of Wednesday, November 3, 2004. So I didn't have the opportunity to survey the evaluations of others that later came to my attention. I have neither time nor inclination to try to do that now. So the references that I may add here from time to time are not represented to be "the best," or the plurality, opinions that I've found. They're just what I've happened to come across that seemed worth reproducing and linking to from here.

Because Arianna Huffington emails me her columns, her November 4 reactions to the election, headlined "Anatomy of a Crushing Political Defeat," came to my attention. It is always both reassuring, as well as a little surprising, to find that someone else (whom one assumes knows more than you do) has independently thought something through and come to conclusions paralleling your own -- as is the case with her column. That discovery prompted me to look back at my efforts last May to "reverse engineer" the Kerry campaign's strategy in something I called  "What's Kerry Thinking?" in which, it turns out, I was predicting much of what happened.

Given the reference in my column to Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas, there's also a link here to his November 5 New York Times op ed, "Why They Won," which not surprisingly deals with many of the themes from the book  in an effort to explain the November 2 election.

The Des Moines Register's gifted columnist, Rekha Basu, in her "So, Where Do We Go From Here?" column of November 5, gets into other issues and reactions as well (including the "cultural divide"), but sees the needs (and failures) of the Democratic Party in terms similar to Huffington and myself.

We may all be nuts, but at least we do seem to be thinking along similar lines.

I may add other links here over time if anything comes to my attention that seems worth it. On the other hand, I may just get on with my life.

-- N.J., Iowa City, November 5, 2004.