You know that we progressives had a rough election when one of our bright spots was in the Oklahoma referendum to ban cockfighting—which, by gollies, we won with 56% of the tally. O, Progress!
If you're not using the party, let us borrow it
Don’t despair, though, for the future is not as horrifyingly bleak as many think. In fact, buried in the blitz of bad Election Night news about the Republican sweep and the subsequent demise of the Democratic Party is a nugget of good news—at least in the sense that there’s something down in there that progressives can build on. This something can be summed up in one word: Turnout.
First, let’s take a squint at Bush’s “sweep.” We know it was a sweep because the media establishment has told us so. Breathlessly and practically in unison, puff-headed pundits have pontificated about the brilliance of W’s 15-state barnstorming trip aboard Air Force One in the last days of the campaign, and about how Bush now not only has majorities in the Senate and the House but—most glorious of all—HE HAS A MANDATE.
Really? Let’s do the numbers. His big sweep actually hands him a mighty short broom. The GOP added only five House seats and two Senate seats on November 5, leaving them with razor-thin majorities in both houses. Yes, say the Bushites, but a majority is a majority and “The People” have spoken, so stand back, you wimpy losers, because, like it or not, here we come with our mandate to do the people’s will!
Before King George II dons the crown and the ermine robe, however, he might want to examine how many Americans truly back him. He could ask Curtis Gans, whose Committee for the Study of the American Electorate does superb, in-depth, incisive, independent (and therefore, largely unreported) analyses of election results.
CSAE tells us that the great majority of “The People”—121 million out of 200 million Americans of voting age (61%)—were somewhere between so discouraged and so disgusted by the execrable content and vituperative conduct of the overall 2002 campaign that they chose not to vote at all. In races for Congress, which is the arena where Bush lays claim to his mandate, the turnout numbers are more pathetic, with only 35% of eligible voters having the stomach to make a choice.
Now, here comes the part Bush really despises: Of this participating 35% of the electorate, MOST voted for the congressional candidates of either the Democratic Party (16%) or other parties (2%)—not the party of George W.
Thus, the good news about W and the Republicans is that, while they won a plurality of the one-third of the electorate that actually voted, they are hardly the all-conquering political Godzilla that they and the fawning media would have us believe they are.
Nor are increasing numbers of Americans swarming to the banner of the Bushpublicans, as conventional media wisdom insists. Indeed, because they are financially and ideologically fused to Big Money and narrow, right-wing constituencies, they already are getting all of the votes they’re likely to get.
The 17% slice of eligible voters that Republican congressional candidates won this year, for example, is exactly the same percentage they won back in 1982 during the Reagan infatuation, and it’s nearly three points less than they got in 1994, when Newt Gingrich surged to power.
Now, just as Newt did in his famous four-year flame-out, the Bushites are poised to push a corporatist and extremist agenda that is anti-working families, anti-poor people, anti-women, anti-environment, anti-liberty, and pretty damned much anti-everyone who doesn’t fit comfortably inside their 17% core group.
Also, they’ve just elected “Toxic Tom” DeLay to be their majority leader and their loudest voice in the House. This guy is not only a rabid right-winger and notorious corporate bagman, he’s a delusional, ego-bloated nutball—Newt without the charm. This blowhard declared that the Lord God Almighty is behind the GOP win and is using Tom himself as a godly instrument to promote “a biblical worldview” in American politics.
Of course, Karl Rove and the other PR meisters of the White House will do all they can to put layers of rouge and powder over the ugliness of their program, but the ugly goes bone-deep, so it will shine through for the people to see. This is not a group determined to erect the welcoming Big Tent of political and economic inclusiveness.
Is the party over?
The question is not who they are or what they’re going to do—that’s pretty obvious. The question is who we are, what are progressives going to do?
For the sake of argument, let’s set aside third-party options for the moment and focus on the possibilities of the once-proud Democratic Party. What are we to make of its 2002 election debacle? Here again, there’s hope in the horror, based on that key factor of turnout.
There are two ways to proceed from the wreck of 2002. One is to keep sliding down the slippery slope that the Democratic Leadership Council has had the party on since the mid-1980s. The DLC was created at the urging of a group of mostly conservative Southern Democrats who argued that the party needed to jettison its New Deal baggage and embrace corporate globalization as the wave of the future.
This bunch looks at the 16% of the vote that the party just won, versus Bush’s 17%, and thinks, well, if Democrats would get even more “moderate” and bag more television money from the corporate interests, then it could possibly siphon off a percent or two of the Republican vote and eke out a plurality.
The other way ahead is for the party to lift its eyes from the statistical charts tracking the whims of suburban swing voters, look beyond the ZIP codes of wealthy donors, and stride with outstretched arms toward that wealth of popular support available among the vast majority of Americans who are presently shut out of the process and have no political home.
In other words (WARNING: Wild and Crazy Idea Coming Up), why not go fishing in the deep pool where two-thirds of the fish are, rather than in the shallow puddle of the Republican Party?
In his voter analysis this year, Gans reports that the embarrassing failure of the Democrats to win in the midst of national corporate scandals and spreading economic distress is a direct result of the party’s failure over the past several elections to put forward ideas, programs, and messages that would rally these people, not into a feeble plurality, but into a governing majority.
“Their lack of idealism has cost them the young, whose allegiance they had enjoyed from the 1930s through the early 1970s. Their lack of evident and continuing commitment to the concerns of those at the bottom of the income scale has led to the withdrawal of the poor from the political process. Minorities now feel taken for granted,” and, says Gans, the worst is that the main strength of the Democratic Party, the very reason for its existence—“the belief in the ability of popular government to act in the interest of the general welfare”—is “almost totally absent from their advocacy.”
The Wellstone exception
Paul Wellstone, my longtime personal friend and a beacon of progressive light for all of us, used to delight in declaring, with an impish twinkle: “I’m in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” The party as a whole has to get back there if it’s to have a future that includes being a majority with the power to govern as actual Democrats.
Meanwhile, Washington’s political class is clueless, wasting its time and ours in a meaningless cat fight over whether the party should now move to the left or to the right.
The Wellstones (both Paul and Sheila, his wonderfully spirited wife who was also an organizer and solid progressive activist) understood the rather straightforward political math of reaching out to the discarded voters.
Of course, Paul was dismissively labeled a “liberal” by the simpleton political class, but back in Minnesota he was able to shed that ill-fitting suit by constantly focusing on issues and values that are grounded in the real-life experience of ordinary people. These people mostly don’t call themselves liberal, conservative or anything. They’re mavericks, anti-establishment independents, none-of-the-abovers, and mad-as-hellers.
I was with Paul and some 1,200 of his romping, stomping supporters at a Rolling Thunder/Fair Trade rally in Duluth about three weeks before he and Sheila were killed. Duluth, hard up against Lake Superior, is in a region populated by iron-ore workers, dairy farmers, strong families, hunters, and churchgoers. Democratic Party pollsters and consultants tend to write off this region, but Paul never did, and such non-conformity is one reason he was six points up in the polls and was going to win his re-election fight.
This region is economically depressed—thanks in big part to the trade, farm, and other elitist economic policies pushed by both Republicans and Democrats in faraway Washington.
Paul fought tenaciously for these hard-hit folks, battling the monopolistic dairy corporations and unequivocally taking on the corporate globaloneyists who’re squeezing the lifeblood out of the people and their communities. He knew these good people, knew their needs and aspirations, because he’d spent hours around their kitchen tables, in the union halls, at farm meetings, and in their cafes.
They didn’t know him as a liberal—all they knew was that Paul was on their side. Because he’d stood with them, they had a real reason to stand with him, a reason to vote on the basis of something besides abortion and gun control . . . or to vote at all.
But Wellstone’s way of high-touch politicking on grassroots issues and principles, rather than basing his campaigns on targeted polls and money, is the exception, much disfavored by the DLC geniuses who run the party.
Their strategic advice to dozens of Democratic congressional candidates this year was to run as all-out backers of Bush’s Iraq Attack and to portray themselves as don’t-rock-the-boat “Bush Democrats” on everything from tax breaks for the rich to Homeland Security.
Democrat Mary Landrieu, for example, running for re-election to the Senate from Louisiana, boasted in her campaign ads that she voted with the Republican president 74% of the time. This in a state where nearly half of the population today lives on less than $15,000 in annual household income.
Not surprisingly, Democrats stayed home in droves, and Landrieu was forced into a runoff by a practically unknown, novice Republican candidate. As a prominent black state senator said, explaining the poor turnout for Landrieu: “One Republican Party is enough. Two Republican parties is almost unconstitutional.
Time for regime change
There’s an old Texas saying: When you find that you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the very first thing to do is quit digging. The DLCers have dug the party into a bottomless hole requiring ever more money to run campaigns that produce ever-declining turnouts—a sure formula for continuing Democratic failures.
To become relevant and vibrant again, the party has to return to its populist roots, literally and figuratively moving out to the countryside. This is, after all, where the people reside, where the strength of sheer numbers offers an enormous advantage, and where bold ideas can find the fertile soil needed to flourish.
The party should sever its servile ties to Washington’s avaricious K Street lobbyists (who only consider Democrats their back-up party, not their first choice) and, instead, throw in wholeheartedly with the exciting grassroots groups all across America that are battling all manner of corporate greed. Recruit fresh candidates from this activist base, build an integrated political organization block by block, create a two-way communications network using everything from the Internet to speakers’ bureaus, train and place thousands of young organizers, develop a massive small-donor funding base, and commit to a long-term, patient strategy of winning from the ground up.
For openers, national Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe has got to go, and pronto. Not only did he preside over an election disaster, but this sultan of soft money is the embodiment of the party’s current Faustian deal with the corporate-money powers: Give us campaign funds and we’ll give you our souls. The party needs a populist face to present to the public, not the face of a moneyman.
And, as he departs, McAuliffe should take his blockheaded plans for a luxurious party headquarters with him. Scrap this $32-million mausoleum, move the Democrats’ entire operation out of Washington to an abandoned factory building somewhere in the center of the country, and divert the HQ-building fund into building the grassroots base.
The key to the party’s future, however, is message. It’s impossible to rally the disaffected majority to the Democratic flag when that flag limply says, “We also support tax breaks for the rich, just like Bush does.” But neither will you get a stampede to the polls by waving a flag that says, “We oppose Bush’s tax cut for the rich.” Call me simpleminded, but I think what the disaffected are wanting to see is a flag that proposes some real tax reform for (prepare to be stunned): the disaffected.
For example, for most folks, the greatest burden is not the federal income tax, but the payroll tax. This regressive tax takes 6.2% right off the top of everyone’s paycheck . . . up to an income of $85,000 a year. If you make $85,000 or less (as 80% of Americans do), every bit of your income is hit by this payroll tax. But if, say, you’re Bill Gates pulling down millions of dollars a year in pay, you still are taxed only on your first $85,000—letting you skate tax-free on the millions you make above this ceiling.
So here’s a real Democratic (and democratic) tax reform that’d perk up the ears of the disaffected: Give everyone making less than $85,000 a year at least a 25% cut in their payroll taxes. Then remove the ceiling and apply the tax to all earned income, including Gates’ income.
With this reform, Social Security continues to be funded, working stiffs get a major break on their main tax, and the idea of tax fairness is reinforced. Lo and behold, the Democratic Party would demonstrate that it has a reason to exist, and ordinary people could begin to believe that government (or at least a major party) can be on their side for a change.
With a bit of vision and clear, bold proposals that side with ordinary folks, the numbers are out there for a sea change in American politics, for a progressive realignment like we’ve not had since the volatile early days of the Depression.
Yes, the GOP took this year’s election, with 40 million people voting for government by the Bushites. But 41 million voted for another way, and 121 millions didn’t vote at all. In these numbers is our progressive future, a huge, governing majority yearning for a politics that is based on them, that enlists them.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln was bedeviled by General George McClellan. In a confrontation that could have ended the war, Gen. McClellan had the Southern forces outnumbered, outgunned and outmaneuvered. But, alas, he would not attack. Lincoln ordered, threatened, cajoled, begged . . . but, nothing. Finally, after the Southerners had slipped away, Lincoln sent a letter removing the general from command, saying: “My dear McClellan: If you don’t want to use the Army I should like to borrow it for a while.”
It’s time to relieve all the Democratic insiders who don’t have what it takes to enlist America’s progressive majority.