As We See Them
The Democrats are in serious trouble and need a radical change to be effective in the first quarter of the 21st Century. They need to purge themselves of ethnic politics, feminism, a good deal of environmental assumptions. They need to develop a new thesis that strikes to the heart of a culture filled with middle-class property holders.
They have really been in trouble since President Clinton became one of the better Republican presidents in recent memory. Clinton sounded the death-knell to the Democrats by ending the welfare state, siding with business over labor on NAFTA, balancing the budget, and declaring that, "the era of big government is over." A huge institution, like a national political party, can not change overnight. It's habits of thinking are rubbed into the grain until its very identity is based on those habits.
They're in trouble for the foreseeable future because the baby-boomers are getting old and conservative. And we know as the old become conservative they turn out the vote. The elderly baby-boomers will be a formidable block in the coming decades and will easily thwart whatever the old liberal, Democrats come up with. Secondly, the young people don't want to be saddled with the ideas of the Vietnam era. It's 30 years past. When I was young and someone tried to argue passionately about ideas of another generation, they lost credibility. The young want to actively participate in something that they can shape. That's why the Internet is so important to them. They are the active agents and much of their legacy will emerge out of that. But the Democrats are still back in the Vietnam era, despite Clinton. The infrastructure of the Democratic Party is still back in those times. The academics never left it. So, the Democratic Party is being punished for staying pat and not moving forward, not changing, letting go, admitting wrong, taking up new vitality as is expected in most institutions.
Another possible trend is this. As the Hispanics gain more control in the Democratic Party, the African-Americans may switch their allegiance to the Republicans. Due to their history, the Republicans would have to artfully court the African-American vote and offer something substantial to them. That's a trend to look for in the next decade or so.
Modern, classic liberalism emerged from the New Deal of the early 30's. It received a jolt of adrenaline in the 60's with JFK and LBJ. It was continued through Nixon and through Carter. Reagan was a transformative figure because he convinced the majority of people that "govt. was the problem." He convinced people that the welfare state was an evil. And the welfare state became the liberals Vietnam. It was something that could be argued for, supported by ideas and idealism, but the argument blinded its supporters to the facts. This happened to the Republicans during Vietnam. Clinton was not a transformative figure. Clinton really merged into this antithetic flow that arose as a reaction to the 60's. The 80's and 90's picked up many of the seeds of the previous era but dumped out a great deal and created the need for a new thesis.
The Democrats are in trouble because that thesis hasn't been created yet! The first decade of the new century will search for that thesis without question. Every political party, no matter how pragmatic it appears, depends on a variety of ideological roots to make its arguments and formulate its policy. The Democrats are firmly rooted in an old left that requires politics to be divided between warring classes. This has been taught from grade school on up. It connects with the New Deal period, the era of depression, where the poor outnumbered the wealthy and the middle-class was sliding quickly downward. It connects with the New Left period of the 60's when race and gender were politicized in an attempt to capture large new constituencies. It has petered out in the last ten years and has no more life left to it. The root is wrung out. The root is dangling like a lit fuse. The root has burrowed down into a grave.
The Democrats always relied on the intellectuals for the above reasons. But the intellectuals made a fatal mistake in the adrenaline of the 60's. They felt confident that the 60's was the beginning of something that would not end for a long time and would result in the triumph of the intellectuals over, especially, the priest/minister class. They threw out the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of power and it resulted in one of the more bankrupt periods of intellectual life in the United States. They became, as a class, sorry lessons rather than powerful leaders who were going to transform the culture in their image.
The Democratic party can repair itself if and when the intelligent class humbles itself and pursues truth once again. It will have to purge itself of every vestige of Marxism. It will have to embrace the dynamics of American and western culture. It will have to look for a long time for those seeds of development that need nourishment as the Republicans decay in the first quarter of this century. More hopefully, it will begin to develop a core philosophy based on the strength of the American experience and not on its shadows.
What has to be renewed are the attributes that form the core of what it means to be a free, liberal democratic citizen in a nation that started as an anti-empire, anti-state, anti-authority enterprise and now finds itself the big stick in the world. This is the central question entering the 21st century and it simply does no good to define those qualities through gender, race, religious faith, class and the rest of it. What qualities does the person have to be inside of and living out to uphold the promises of a free, liberal democratic culture? That has to be at the core of the political questions of the day.
It is an open-ended question. It begins with self-reflection and the ability to see all other traditions of freedom and liberalism in the last several thousand years. It admits that freedom is often a leap in the dark; it is open-ended. It is dangerous to the steady state theory of human culture whether of left or right.
November 6, 2002