Friday, March 11, 2005

The Democratic Party: Phoenix Rising or Has This Bird Flown?

I just recieved the January/February issue of Mother Jones. The cover article by Todd Gitlin argues that the spirit seen in the effort to defeat President Bush in 2004 suggests that the Democratic Party (or the "left" in general) has what it takes to rise up and become relevant again in the American political landscape. He uses the political cohesion of these forces in the Democratic effort in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

I have some issues with Gitlin's assessment. First, the fact of the matter remains that the Democrats lost and the Republicans won (if not by much). If there is any groundswell that should be seen here is that the United States (despite what Michael Moore might have you believe) at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a "conservative" country. People, having witnessed 9/11, war (right or wrong) in the Middle East, economic decline and general uncertainty want to maintain (conserve) that which makes them comfortable about their country. Not a retrograde jingoism, but the comfort of the imagined community of past "American decades."

Could these voters be swayed by the right message from Democrats or the "left?" Sure they could, but the party must do some soul searching and intense introspection. Did this coalition that Gitlin puts his hopes in have anything else in common apart from a rapacious need to defeat George W. Bush?

It seems, and Dr. Gitlin should have noticed this, that this was the problem that the Democrats faced in the 1960's, culminating in the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972. The radical elements of the party just could not see eye-to-eye on much with the conservative, blue-collar ethnic base of the party in the North or the traditional "Southern Democrats." Think also of the "Reagan Democrats," such a factor in the 1984 election. Upper class social democrats and radical leftist students will never get steel workers and farmers to adopt their ideas about life and politics. It was painfully certain, moreover, that John Kerry was not the man to do this sort of coalition building.

This argument, second and finally, shows not the strength but the weakness of the Democratic party and the left in general. They have not been able to present a united front and control the tenor of the nation since the 1960's, Presidents Carter and Clinton nonwithstanding (although it seems like both of these presidents were the "rebound" administrations after the horror of Watergate and the GOP dominated 1980's).

They are fragmented and need to get their act together if they want to make a difference. They cannot afford to be a "one-issue" party; if that did not win it for them in 2004, it will never work. There needs to be good political debate and ultimately uniting of common interests if a party is to be powerful in America. What will unite the Democrats? Hillary Clinton? A "second-term" scandal in the Bush administration? "It's the economy again, stupid?" Gains in the 2006 off-year congressional elections?

Don't look at me, Democrats. Only you can help you.

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